Photographs with a View of Her Own

For those of us with an interest in Boston’s Gilded Age, the Women’s Suffrage Movement or 19th century female photographers, the name Clover Adams rings a bell. Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams—Gilded Age socialite and portrait photographer, is currently the subject of a small but delightful exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885—traces the privileged life of “a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin.” Clover began experimenting with photography in the summer of 1883 while her husband Henry Adams—prominent historian, Harvard professor and novelist—was writing Esther, a novel loosely based on the making of Trinity Church in the City of Boston. Adams modeled the heroine of the novel after his wife Clover, whom he characterized in it as a “second rate amateur” painter.

“I’ve gone in for photography and find it very absorbing” wrote Clover on September 7 1883. “My wife does nothing except take photographs…” wrote Henry to Elizabeth Sherman Cameron on July 26 1883. Artistically dismissed by Henry, Clover continued to make compelling photographs that allowed for an intimate look at America’s Gilded Age. 

Clover’s photographs are marked by quotes or any information she recorded of the individual or place she photographed—often providing a glimpse into the personalities of highly respected figures. When photographed, Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi refused to have his photo taken until “he had rumpled [his hair] all up,” wrote Clover alongside his photograph on February 23 1884.

(Left) Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883 (Right)Umbrella tree at Smith's Point, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams. Both Photographs courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Clover’s ability to communicate the personality of her sitters is evident in the arrangement of her albums.  She paired a photograph of Henry Adams in his study room alongside a photograph of a lonely tree perched on a mountain top. One can arrive at numerous conclusions, but we can all assume that this arrangement speaks to the lonely life that Henry led.

Organized by the seasons of the year, the exhibition highlights Clover’s three albums and displays them in the context of letters, loose photographs and ephemera—including her personal sketchbook with a watercolor by John La Farge.

Having lived in the immediate surroundings of Trinity Church before moving to Washington, DC, Henry Adams became close friends with Phillips Brooks, Trinity’s then charismatic preacher; America’s premier architect Henry Hobson Richardson and artist John La Farge. Clover photographed Trinity Church and the people behind one of America’s greatest architectural treasures. These photographs, many of them iconic—also form part of this exhibition.

The photographs of Clover Adams are as heartbreaking as the life she led. On the morning of Sunday December 6, 1885 she wrote “if I had a single point of character, I would stand on that and grow back to life.” That same Sunday morning, Clover committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, the chemical she used to develop her own photographs. She was 42.

Henry Adams never spoke of her or mentions her in his masterpiece “The Education of Henry Adams,” but he honored Clover’s memory with the bronze seated statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens–placed over her grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.  

 A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885 is accompanied by a biography of the same title by exhibition curator Natalie Dystra. The exhibition is on view until June 02, 2012.

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3 Comments

  1. This is a great review, I want to go see the exhibit! Do you know how long it is up?

    Reply
    • The exhibit will be up until June 02, 2012. You should check it out if you can. It’s great.

      Reply
  2. Like many people, I read “The Education of Henry Adams” at one time, but without knowing that his wife was a photographer or that their lives had been touched by this tragedy. Thank you for this sensitive review of the exhibition and for the photos you chose to illustrate it and reveal something of her personality.

    ~lucy

    Reply

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