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Photo courtesy Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries
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A very early photo of Adèle at age 10. This would have been just before her move to Richmond. Photo courtesy Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries
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Adèle Clark and her companion Nora Houston together at an art exhibit circa 1936. Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
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Adèle’s sketches of a foot drawn from a plaster cast and her rendering of a sculpture at the Valentine Museum. Images courtesy Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries
In 1890, when Adèle Clark was around 8, she watched with great excitement as Miss Bedinger, an artist and one of Adèle's teachers, painted the shimmering moonlight and marching waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Working by the light of a lantern mounted on a pole behind her canvas, Miss Bedinger applied skills she'd learned in Europe. Young Adèle was astonished.
Miss Bedinger must have seemed glamorous. She came from Arkansas, and had studied in far-away Europe and taught at the Pass Christian Institute, which, despite its imposing name, was a one-room schoolhouse on the southern coast of Mississippi.
Those lights in the darkness, that inspiring process of one woman's creation, lingered in Adèle's memory. She recalled the scene vividly seven decades later in a 1963 interview with historian Richard K. Doud.
That image helped set her on a lifetime of supporting the arts and the rights of women that eventually transformed Richmond. Without Adèle Clark, it is unlikely that the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts would exist, at least as we know it. The Virginia Commission for the Arts was her idea – in 1916. Her campaign 75 years ago to build a place to make and view creative work ultimately produced the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). And she was a political and social activist, fighting for women's suffrage and equal rights with men. She lived long enough to criticize a proposed Equal Rights Amendment in 1976. At 93, still not one to hold her tongue, she told an audience that the ERA was refighting a battle won a half-century earlier.
For many who knew her in her century-long life, she'd always been a somewhat odd yet patrician guardian of the arts and a champion of women's causes. But once, she was a little girl standing on a moonlit beach fascinated by a woman's painting.
Though few people have heard of her, Adèle Clark was one of the most important shapers of arts and culture in Richmond and Virginia through half the 20th century. A considerable collection of documents, ephemera and art is scattered among archives, libraries and museums, yet there's no encompassing study, no biography to date.
She was born Sept. 27, 1882, in Montgomery, Ala. Adèle's father, Robert, a native of Belfast, Ireland, worked for the railroads; her Jewish mother, Estelle Goodman, taught music. She wanted Adèle to learn the piano, but that was not to be among the daughter's skills. As a 1935 Richmond Times-Dispatch profile noted, "After a time that must have been somewhat painful for everybody concerned, the music lessons ceased and it was recognized that Adèle's hands, with their long artistic fingers, were intended for the brush and pencil and not for piano keys." She became, she told the newspaper, "the renegade of the family."
Robert Clark's work moved the family, including three daughters, around the South. Adèle spent her early years in New Orleans and the character of that place remained with her.
Edgar MacDonald, a biographer of James Branch Cabell and the VCU Libraries Cabell Scholar-in-Residence, recalls a story told of the Clarks in New Orleans. While Estelle made dinner, Robert tended to baby Adèle. He enjoyed a nip before eating and kept a bottle behind some books in the living room. Robert took his libation flavored with aromatic bitters. "He gave Adèle a taste, and she developed a liking for it," MacDonald says. "One evening when Papa Clark was not at home and Mother and Adèle were in the living room, Adèle began to cry for ‘wikky.' Estelle replied, ‘Darling, we don't have any whiskey,' whereupon Adèle pointed to the bookcase and Robert was exposed."
Estelle Clark sought to instill etiquette in her daughter. Once, Miss Bedinger, the Pass Christian art teacher, told Adèle that she'd made "a very creditable drawing." Adèle's mother asked her if she had said "thank you." Adèle hadn't, and Estelle told her daughter that she should show her appreciation for the compliment. "I don't think she meant it as a compliment," Adèle retorted. "I think she meant it was a nice drawing."
Estelle persisted: "Say thank you." Dutifully, the next time Miss Bedinger praised Adèle's drawings, she responded, "Thank you," to which Miss Bedinger said, "I wasn't paying you a compliment." Adèle told her mother that she'd been right the first time, and Estelle replied, "Well, Miss Bedinger was teaching you art, but she was not teaching you good manners."
Decades later, in 1976, Adèle told that story among others to photographer Willie Anne Wright, then beginning her own acclaimed career. "She was blind by then," Willie Anne recalls. "And her cousin, Willoughby Ions, met me at the door and Miss Clark pushed her out of the way!"
Willie Anne doesn't recall now why she'd gone to interview Adèle, perhaps because of the prompting of her teacher, Theresa Pollak, whom Adèle and her lifelong friend, Nora Houston, had instructed.
Adèle told Willie Anne that when she was 12 years old, she'd been frightened by a horse on East Franklin Street near Linden Row. Then, horses pulled carriages and wagons through Richmond's messy streets, and one had gotten loose. Adele didn't explain why she was out alone at that age. She ran toward a nearby house – perhaps the Kent-Valentine mansion – and into its back garden. In the doorway of a small building stood a woman wearing a paint-splattered smock and holding a palette. Adèle went inside and marveled at the easel, paintings and the clutter of a working studio. The woman was Lilly M. Logan, who taught art to generations of Richmond girls, and the meeting pushed Adèle along the path that began on a beach near the Gulf of Mexico.
When Adele Met Nora Adèle Clark. That accent over the "e" was her art mark. It stamped her difference in Richmond, where she spent all but the first decade of her 100 years. That raised eyebrow of punctuation linked her to the heritage of New Orleans, her mother's hometown.
French influence abounds in her life. Adèle sought for decades to resurrect an institute for arts and sciences that a Revolutionary War-era Frenchman had wanted to inaugurate on Shockoe Hill. When she and companion Nora Houston (pronounced — HOW‑ston — the niece of Maj. James Dooley of Maymont) started arts education classes, they called their program "The Atelier."
The Clark family moved to Richmond in 1894, and Adèle enrolled in the Virginia Randolph Ellett School (later St. Catherine's), which at the time met at Linden Row. Her art instruction, however, relied on Lilly Logan. It was at her studio that Adèle and Nora met. As Adèle later said, Nora became her "very intimate friend" until Nora's death in 1942.
"When they were teenagers, they joined the Richmond Art Club at Fourth and Franklin," says Colleen Yoder, museum curator for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond who is preparing a monograph about Nora's life and career. "And not long after that, the club relocated to Grace and Belvidere."
The club's president from its 1895 formation was Nora's uncle, rail magnate Dooley.
The Art Club was the center of the city's cultural life and it connected Richmond, and Adèle Clark, to a wider world. Its instructors included William L. Sheppard, a painter of Civil War scenes, and sculptor Edward V. Valentine, a genuine Richmond arts notable, whose studio was visited by celebrities such as Oscar Wilde and actor Edwin Booth.
Another teacher, Harriotte Lee "Hallie" Montague, was a Virginian who'd lived in Wyoming and studied in Munich. Montague was connected with the New York City school of William Merritt Chase, an American Impressionist. His school evolved into the New York School of Art and later the Parsons New School of Design.
Ladies of the Club
Adèle enrolled in Art Club classes beginning in 1901 at age 19. Students went to the Valentine Museum and drew from casts of classical sculpture. Probably through Montague's connection, the Richmond Art Club became one of the schools to which the Chase School in New York City offered competitive scholarships. Nora received one in 1905 and then went to Paris. There, she enrolled in the progressive and avant-garde Académie Colarossi.
The next year, Montague urged Adèle to submit work to the scholarship competition. According to Adèle, her teacher said she'd probably not get selected. Instead, "to everyone's surprise" she received a full scholarship to the Chase school, Adèle said.
With thrift and some assistance from her uncle, Edward Samuel Goodman, Adèle survived in New York City for a school year. Robert Henri, the influential teacher and practioner of "Ash Can School" realism, taught the Chase portrait classes. Henri told his students, "Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is an art spirit, there will be precious works to fill museums."
In 1916, the directors of the Richmond Art Club were persuaded to change their methods following a presentation by a New York City nonprofit organization called the Grand Central Art Gallery. While founded and run by artists, it was dedicated to business principles.
Yoder says, "That meant creating fashionable art for mass appeal. This didn't appeal to Adèle and Nora." They left the Art Club, taking their students with them. The Richmond Art Club folded a year later.
On their own, Adèle and Nora opened their Atelier at Second and Franklin streets. In 1919, they established the Virginia League of Fine Arts and Handicrafts. They ultimately brought together a mixture of bohemians and wealthy philanthropists.
The Virginia League in 1931 officially folded into the Richmond Academy of Arts. The women got prominent men to head the organizations. They included diplomat Alexander W. Weddell (who with wife Virginia created the Virginia House in Windsor Farms), interior designer J. Frank Jones and retailer Webster S. Rhoads Jr., of the Miller & Rhoads department stores. The academy was based out of a few rooms at the city-owned Taylor Row, 1110-12 Capitol St., a Federal-style series of houses similar to Linden Row.
By then, every month some 3,000 men, women and children visited the academy. The academy's director, Richmonder and University of Virginia graduate Thomas C. Parker, said the gallery's visitors came from all over the state, and outside of it.
Taylor Row was demolished in 1938 to make room for the Virginia State Library. By then, however, a different institution of arts had arisen.
Beaux Arts Ball James Dooley died in 1922, leaving a considerable bequest to Nora and her mother, Josephine. The inheritance allowed Nora to make multiple European trips and spend summers with her family in Sweet Springs, W. Va. She could also participate in social-reform activities and make art without worrying about supporting herself. In 1928 she and Adèle purchased a home and studio at 3614 Chamberlayne Ave, which was later christened "The Brattery." They taught, held meetings and worked. As a 1936 newspaper profile described Adèle, "She does not live in the Ivory Tower. She is active, vital, because she regards her own work, and art in general, as a functional thing and not as an esoteric craft."
Though given the title of secretary for the Richmond Academy, she did much more than keep minutes of meetings. With a board of community pillars and creatives, the Richmond Academy seemed on the verge of establishing an arts center. The idea in 1931 for a citywide "Tournament of Arts and Crafts" culminating in a huge costume ball was credited in official documents to Richmond writer and social reformer Arthur Alden Guild. But the idea has all the hallmarks of an Adèle and Nora production: a rite of spring flowing throughout April and May punctuated by receptions and a climactic all-night party at The Jefferson Hotel.
Adèle came to the first Beaux Arts Ball as Sappho, the ancient Greek poet. Nora came as the late-18th-century French artist Mme. Vigée Le Brun. Theresa Pollak went as a gypsy queen.
At that time, the VMFA existed mostly in name only. In 1919, Judge John Barton Payne had given the state a large collection of oil paintings, which, for lack of a better place, were hung in the Battle Abbey on the Boulevard, an imposing tomblike structure built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. (Some of Payne's paintings are on present display in the VMFA's American galleries, as well as a pair of traveling exhibits celebrating the gallery's anniversary.) By 1930, however, Gov. John Pollard sought a way to publicly exhibit the state's art collection.
Parker, director of the Richmond Academy who was favored by artists — he was one himself — was thought by most working artists and Academy supporters to be the natural choice as curator of the VMFA. A March 1935 newspaper writer wrote that Virginia artists regarded the academy director and founding trustee "as a veritable Moses who led them out of the bondage of isolation into a Land of Promise."
The biblical description proved only somewhat apt, for Parker would never reach this promised land. Pollard supported as VMFA curator Thomas C. Colt, a culture maven and former academy trustee.
Pollard's choice caused a rupture among the academy directors, some of whom publicly resigned and waged a campaign against Colt. The pages of the city's newspapers were rife with the directors' displeasure. The argument turned not on a preferred aesthetic but on money: The state had access to a bequest of $200,000 from Payne and other patrons and $77,500 in federal assistance from the Works Program Administration, President Roosevelt's New Deal agency. The combined amount today would be approximately $1.2 million. Amid the Great Depression, this was a significant sum of money.
The academy, meanwhile, as Adèle dryly noted in her 1963 interview, was having "a great deal of financial troubles."
She noted that after creating the environment that made the museum possible, "The Academy of Art was swallowed up into the Virginia Museum of Art but contributed very heavily both by personnel and activities in getting subscriptions to the museum."
Colt played diplomat and smoothed over bruised feelings. The VMFA opened on Jan. 16, 1936, with Colt as its director. The VMFA, 75 years old this year, has in its collection one work each by Adèle and Nora, though neither are presently displayed.
"Always Made My Own Living" Adèle committed herself to making not only art but also a difference. She once said, "I've always tried to combine my interest in art with my interest in government. I think we ought to have more of the creative and imaginative in politics."
Her service which spanned more than a half century, began a lifetime of dedication to furthering the cause of civil rights for women and children. She also established and helped direct the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
As a member of the Virginia Equal Suffrage League (ESL) she helped organize annual pilgrimages of women to the General Assembly, headed suffrage rallies and took on numerous speaking engagements.
Once in the early 1910s, Adèle and Nora set up their easels at Sixth and Broad streets. When curious people approached, the artists distributed suffragist leaflets. One man shouted that women should be being supported by their husbands and ask for no extra rights. Adèle didn't hesitate to snap back, "I've always made my own living and I've worked both as an office woman and as an artist."
The man suddenly hollered out, "If the lady will attend to her domestical duties, I'll support her."
When Nora gave a pro-suffrage speech in Monroe Park, rocks were thrown at her. After Nora's 1942 death, Adèle found one of the stones in Nora's jewelry box.
Adèle in 1979 told the Times-Dispatch, "It is regrettable that it took so long to win the vote. … It was only a tool, and took so long to get."
The ESL transformed into the Virginia League of Women Voters (VLWV) and both artists participated in it. It was an active reform movement, altering child labor laws and regulating maternity houses. Adèle advocated for children's art instruction and occupational therapy for the institutionalized. In 1926 she was social director of women students at the College of William & Mary. When she was asked to urge the students to stop smoking, Adèle led by example and temporarily quit her pack-a-day habit. One of her most important posts came during 1936-1942, when she led the Virginia Arts Project of the WPA. Under her guidance, small galleries were seeded throughout the state, the first at Big Stone Gap.
Libraries and post offices received murals and other large paintings also went into Civil War battlefield visitor's centers and museums.
Guided by Her Own Lights
"I think it would be difficult to exaggerate the amount of good that came out of the government's work during those depression days, especially in the field of culture and art, " she said of her WPA years. "On the art project we discovered artists that we wouldn't have known about." She added, "It was a brand new thing for the government to have attempted to come to the rescue of people by employing them instead of just giving them relief funds."
Adèle, nominally Jewish, converted to Nora's Catholic faith and remained active in the church the rest of her days. Adèle continued to teach in hospitals, church classrooms and schools.
By 1971, as a Times-Dispatch article said, her age no longer allowed her to zoom "all over town under her own steam." Accolades and awards came from the Federated Arts Council of Richmond and the National Conference on Christians and Jews. A British television crew interviewed her about the U.S. suffrage struggle.
Some years later, an increasingly fragile but no less proud Adèle moved to the retirement community of Westminster-Canterbury. She died there at age 100 on June 5, 1983.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.