"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Mildred and William Dean Howells

This 1898 low-relief of William Dean Howells and his daughter Mildred  by Augustus Saint Gaudens hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
“Let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are”, wrote William Dean Howells in 1887, in celebrating the work of his close friend Mark Twain. A tireless writer who shared Twain's concern for social justice, Howells led an often-controversial campaign for realism in literature. In such novels as The Rise of Silas Lapham, which chronicled the progress of a self-made man among Boston's old social elite, he revealed his interest in “common American lives.” As the editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly and later Harper's, Howells was not only the most widely read author in America, but he was also influential in promoting the careers of many emerging literary talents. Augustus Saint-Gaudens's likeness depicts Howells reading to his daughter Mildred. -- NPG

Mildred and William Dean Howells
New York M.D.C.C.C.XC.VIII (1898)

 From Augustus Saint Gaudens

Mildred Howells (1872 - 1966) gave this work to the National Gallery of Art in 1949. It was transferred to The National Portrait Gallery in 1965.

When Mildred was 12, her father collected some of her drawings and published them as A Little Girl Among the Old Masters. One entry is this image of The Annunciation of the Death of the Madonna:

William Dean Howells writes:
The Venetian influence is apparent in the Annunciation of the Death of the Madonna and in The Death of the Madonna.  In the former it is the angel Gabriel who is giving the Madonna the branch of olive which is to be carried before her at her funeral; and the Madonna is shown with a broken heart, and the handkerchief in her hand with which she has been drying her tears. The little girl says she is “not certain whether they had handkerchiefs in those days;” but she knows they had napkins, and so she has ventured to give the Madonna a handkerchief.
The book never mentions Mildred by name, she is referred to only as “the little girl.”

The Art institute of Chicago has this 1894/96 portrait of Mildred Howells by James McNeil Whistler.

The drawing below showing Mildred in her New York Studio appeared in an article describing her as “Clever with Brush and Pen.”

In October of 1902 Mildred became engaged to botanical explorer David G. Fairchild then an entomologist at the Smithsonian. She broke off this engagement in January 1903, but the newspaper announcements provide us this image of “A Novelist's Clever Daughter” at 30.

The Wildwood Beach Journal noted that “She is not pretty, but has an interesting face and charming manners”

In 1904 Mildred published this illustrated poem in St. Nicholas Magazine.

And in 1914, she published this poem in The North American Review.


If this be all, and when we die, we die,
Then life is but a wanton, monstrous lie;
And of the hapless creatures that draw breath,
We, who seem flower and crown, rank far below
The least of living things that does not know
The dread of loss, the certainty of death.

If pain and sorrow are without a scheme,
Dealt out by chance, then like an evil dream
Of some dark fiend, this smiling, gracious earth;
If we that hunger, never shall be filled,
The sooner that our empty hearts are stilled,
The better for them, and their aching dearth.

Yet close, I feel, there wraps us all around,
Some mighty force, some mystery profound,
And, through my doubts and ignorance, I trust
The power that bound with laws the moon and tide,
And hung the stars in heavenly spaces wide,
Must, by their witness, be both wise and just.

                                                Mildred Howells.

Flying Squirrel, illustration by Mildred Howells in The Literary Primer by Mary E. Burt and Mildred Howells, 1901.


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