A Painter's Tragedy and Triumph Revealed
With the recent surge of the American painter's popularity, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones: The Artist Who Lived Twice captivates readers by revealing little-known details about the journey of a woman (1885-1968) almost forgotten by the art world if not for an accidental discovery.
As a golden girl of the art world-christened by New York critics as its "find of the year" in 1908, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, still in her teens, sold her American impressionism-style paintings for the equivalent of about fifty thousand dollars today. From a prominent family, she won nearly every award including the highest honor of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, two years study in Europe. In her notebook, she scribbled a quote by Walt Whitman: He only wins who goes far enough...And then, she disappeared.
In a time when mental illness is associated with devil possession, Sparhawk-Jones leaves behind everything she's gained from her life-long devotion to painting. Reeling from two sudden deaths and a stolen fortune-along with being caught in a changing art world, she collapsed behind the doors of a hospital for the insane for the better part of three years. Attributing to her breakdown, she suffers the harsh blow of being forced to refuse the Academy's highest honor that awards a year's travel to study art in Europe. Her parents, a Presbyterian minister and his devout wife, refuse to entertain the idea that their daughter and her Jewish romantic interest, the yet-to-be discovered Morton Schamberg, would be abroad at the same time.
What may have killed others makes Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones only fight harder to regain what she'd lost. She loves only the most unattainable, like Edwin Arlington Robinson, the enigmatic Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who offers a strange reciprocation of her love; she believes in those sometimes hardest to love, like painter Marsden Hartley, who desired her friendship for perhaps less than virtuous reasons. With her famous wit and candor, she attracted admirers as much for her temperament as her fierce loyalty. Collectors and friends included film star Claude Rains, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, and master painter William Merritt Chase among many others.
Thirty years after her breakdown, American Artist magazine would call her "a phenomenon in the world of paint," painter Marsden Hartley would write she was "a thinking painter with a rare sense of the drama of poetic and romantic incident," and her works would belong to some of the country's most prestigious museums and collections, yet her story has nearly become forgotten.
Structured around her last interview given to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1964, The Artist Who Lived Twice tells of Sparhawk-Jones's tumultuous journey as one of the first women to carve out a place for herself in American art. The toll may have been higher than she ever imagined, but she held no regrets. She saw God when she painted, she believed, and what more could one ask?