Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Controversial painting causes no outrage in Pendleton

In October 1913 a downtown Pendleton store displayed a painting in one of its front windows that was embroiled in a nationwide controversy. The painting, entitled “September Morn,” showed a young woman demurely bathing nude by the edge of Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie, France.

The East Oregonian’s coverage was brief, but pointed. “Chicago, with her puritan instincts, may judge that September Morn is not a proper sight for her morally sensitive populace and the United States navy may take an equally stern attitude toward the much criticized picture, but Pendleton is no prude. With true western breadth of mind she refuses to pattern her ideas of propriety after the fashion of some of the straight-laced eastern cities. All of which is preliminary to saying that pictures of the ‘gude little, nude little maid,’ shivering as she stands in a pool of water, are on exhibition today in a local store window and so far no disciple of Anthony Comstock has appeared — even to suggest that the pictures should be relegated to the back rooms or at least draped.”

“Matinée de Septembre” (September Morn) was painted by French artist Paul Émile Chabas over three summers ending in 1912. The painting was first exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1912, where it won a medal but didn’t cause a stir. In 1913 it was displayed in the window of Fred Jackson’s art gallery in Chicago, and when the painting was brought to the attention of Mayor Carter Harrison Jr., he charged Jackson with indecency, citing a violation of the municipal code that banned the exhibit of “any lewd picture or other thing whatever of an immoral or scandalous nature.”

The resulting court case was heard on March 20, 1913. Even with testimony from a local pastor and a schoolteacher, who worried about the painting’s effect on children, the jury acquitted Jackson after deliberating only thirty minutes. Chicago’s city council responded with an ordinance the next month banning “nude pictures in any window, except at art or educational exhibitions.”

Two months after the Jackson trial a self-appointed vice crusader, Anthony Comstock, tried to strongarm a New York City art dealer into removing the painting from the front window of his gallery. Store manager Philippe Ortiz stubbornly kept “September Morn” displayed until crowds wanting a peek began preventing his regular customers from entering the gallery. Comstock never followed up his threat with legal action, and Ortiz later claimed in the New York Times that Comstock had used the controversy to gain notoriety for himself.

Thanks to the controversy, the painting became one of the most famous images of the 20th century. Though it was originally lauded by the art world, critics would eventually label the painting as kitsch (a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons). It is still a popular image, however, and reproductions continue to be sold on postcards and other collectible merchandise. The original painting hangs in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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