James J. Shannon: Munsey's Magainze 1906 (Frontpage (Thumbnail Index)   (more on James Jebusa Shannon)
Christian Brinton
“A Painter of Fair Women” 
Munsey’s Magazine
Vol. XXXV, Number II (May 1906)
pp. 133-143
James J. Shannon, an American Painter Whose Remarkable Portraits of Feminine Beauty Have Revived the Traditions of the Golden Age of English Art 


It is in portraiture, in the definite transcription of feature and of form, that the artist is presumably more faithful to fact than to the allurements of fancy. Yet the great portrait-painters have from the outset been supreme fantasists. The subdued mystery of Leonardo’s Gioconda, the luminous gloom that shrouds the heads of Rembrandt’s burghers, the incomparable tonal unity of Velasquez’ Philip, and the silver sheen that plays about the brow of Vandyke’s Charles, are the sheer magic of creative genius. From the days when the Greeks colored their marbles and studded them with jewels to the hour Sargent painted Mrs. Hammersley reclining among brocade cushions, the artist has striven to lift personality beyond the realm of mere reality.  


The part that man has been called upon to play in portraiture is a distinctly obvious one. In pleistic days he knelt before a shrine; in martial times he pranced upon a charger; and in the hour of peace he mused by the window or paused on a sunlit doorway. As occasion demanded, he wore robes of state or the white ruff of a simple townsman. His role has always remained literal and documentary.  


With woman, matters have been different; and it is because of her evasiveness, her psychic and emotional flexibility, that she embodies and reflects the subtler essence of portraiture. Whatever man has wished her to be she has become; whatever mantle he has cast about her shoulders she has worn. In the age of allegory she was radiantly allegorical, in the days of romance she was obediently romantic, while to-day she is as restless and fastidious as man’s own exacting vision. By a curious contradiction this sensitive, fluid being typifies the enduring element in the life and in art - the element of ideality.  


With all her complexity, it can hardly be held that the modern woman is as complex and diverse as the painter portrays her. It is rather that he sees her in this guise or that, and paints her not as she is, but as he would have her. The modish dexterity of Sargent, the impalpable emphasis of Whistler, and the vaporous delicacy of Alexander are the specific qualities each artist brings to the delineation of character and personality; and it is these qualities which, after all, constitute the final impression.  
There is, of course, a broad identity of treatment in contemporary portraiture; yet, whether she gently emerges from the fogs of London, the opal haze of Paris, or stands in our shimmering American sunlight, the woman of to-day bears the impress of her interpreter. About her cling not the facts of life, but the finer tissues of felling and aspiration. She impersonates an ideal, a creed, or — to the irreverent and unsentimental — a convention. 
The Golden Age of English Art
English art, during its richest period — that of the later eighteenth century — was preeminently dedicated to portraiture. The first president of the Royal Academy, the worthy Sir Joshua Reynolds, was almost exclusively a painter of portraits, and though Gainsborough’s landscapes were justly approved, his fame, as well as that of Romney, Hoppner, and others, rests upon a spirited version of the gracious women and gallant men of their day and generation.  


It was chiefly, indeed, the arch allure of English womanhood and the wild-rose bloom of the English girl that these men most loved to transfer upon canvas. No school of painting, and no period of artistic activity, has left behind a more engaging record of feminine beauty. While Vandyke, of course, brought with him from the continent a certain needed poise and worldly stateliness, it was from the winding lanes and green hedgerows of rural England that was wafted the true morning glory of British art. From Plympton, in Devon, where Reynolds was born; from Gainsborough’s smiling Suffolk, and the Lancashire, long neglected but never forgotten, of Romney, there came to painting a new beauty, a fresh fragrance. No matter whether they passed most of their time immortalizing great folk, living in houses in Leicester or Cavendish Square, and mixing with the world of fashion., neither these men nor their colleagues, Lawrence and Raeburn, quite lost that touch of wholesome Saxon charm which radiates alike from “The Parson’s Daughter,” Nelly O’Brien, or “Perdita” Robinson seated before her screen of springtime foliage.   


While this ideal of beauty, this creed, or, if you will, this convention, was never wholly lost, it languished sadly during succeeding years. Now it degenerated into a mere milkmaid buxomness, and again it became mystic and listless as with the pre-Raphaelites. It was fully a century before the true spirit of this art, with its innate distinction and its frank worship of fair, fresh countenances, again came into vogue. Odd as it may seem, it was not an Englishman, but a young painter from over seas, who in large measure revived the pictorial felicity of former days.  


The facts of Mr. Shannon’s life and career are too well known to call for extended enumeration. Of Irish descent, and born in Auburn, New York, he passed his boyhood mainly in Canada. On showing marked promise as a painter, the lad was early sent to London, where he studied at the South Kensington Schools under Mr., now Sir, Edward Poynter. So rapid was his progress that at the close of his first season’s work he received the silver medal, and a year later captured the gold medal in the national competition. 
Shannon’s Cult of Beauty 


From the outset he devoted himself wholly to portraiture, his initial order being a commission to paint Miss Horatia Stopford, one of Queen Victoria’s maids of honor. He was but eighteen at the time, and since that day fortune has continuously smiled upon him. Among the first women of title to discover Mr. Shannon was the Marchioness of Granby, whose own artistic accomplishments are noted, and of whom he has painted several exquisite portraits. Following the success of his first full length of Lady Granby, commissions poured in upon the young artist. Within a few short years the unknown youth from across the water had been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and had taken a house in Holland Park Road next door to the famous home of Sir Frederick Leighton. 
Only an industrious specialist or an indefatigable exponent of the eyes and nose school of criticism would feel posed to trace from canvas to canvas the development of Mr. Shannon’s career as a painter. A mere enumeration of his portraits would fill defenseless souls with dismay. It is sufficient to say that he has been represented season after season at Burlington House, the New Gallery, the Grosvenor Gallery, and the Grafton Gallery in London, and in carious British and continental exhibitions. At the Chicago, Buffalo, and St. Louis expositions, and at the Carnegie Institute, he has carried off leading prizes; for although few men are more productive, fewer still maintain so consistent an average of merit.
To the casual seeker after felicity of statement or vigor of analysis, this vast succession of canvases drops naturally into three groups — portraits wherein beauty predominates; portraits wherein characterization is the chief motive; and compositions revealing a less formal play of esthetic fancy. While he has achieved manifest success in the other fields, it should not be difficult to divine that most of Mr. Shannon’s art has been dedicated to the cult of beauty, the first group hence being the most important. 


It is little short of astonishing that the lad whose early attempts were as cautious as those of his first master, the estimable Wright of St. Catherine’s, should, within a few years, have perfected a manner so free and flowing in its expression and imbued with such suavity and distinction. The sagacious amateur generally decides that Mr. Shannon continues the Carolus-Duran tradition. In point of fact, he never studied in Paris, and what he really does is to unite to the gracious heritage of Anglo-Saxon art a personality and handling wholly his own. Form that first sweeping portrait of Lady Granby to the delicate, ethereal version of his sister finished but a few weeks since, Mr. Shannon has moved steadily toward a more definite realization of his pictorial aim. Year by year the vision has grown clearer and ampler until, through increasing fertility in color, composition, and arrangement, his art has taken on its individual accent. Whatever there is of beauty in the sitter springs spontaneously to the eye of the painter and flows freely from the swift, broad stroke of his brush. 
Shannon’s Work in America
For several months during the past two winters Mr. Shannon has been living in New York, Boston, and other American cities. Although he had previously exhibited but rarely there, and while he was actually known only to those who saw the yearly exhibitions in London, his success on this side has been a repetition of the triumphs achieved in his adopted home. Just as in London, beauty, wealth, and fashion have flocked to his studio, and have in turn been painted dexterously and sincerely by the genial, modest man whose one preoccupation is his art. 


The types he encounters here are of course other than those with which he has so long been familiar, for while our relates, our captains of industry, and our women of the beau monde bear a general family resemblance to their cousins across the sea, in essence they express qualities that are different. There is little doubt, however, that Mr. Shannon is recording that difference, for he is by instinct keenly sensitive. In addition to the natural zest which comes with new conditions and new surroundings, our clear atmosphere and vigorous climate have also proved a distinct stimulus to him. Moreover, he frankly likes Americans, being himself but a slight remove from one.
There is no better way to appreciate the spirit of Mr. Shannon’s art than to spend an afternoon in his New York studio overlooking Bryant Park. Dimly from below rises the ceaseless throb of traffic, while in the air and on the green-tipped trees rests the caress of early spring. About the room, which is simple, restrained, and full of quiet tonality, are grouped numerous portraits in various stages of completion. Here stands a bishop, imposing and full of dignity both academic and ecclesiastical; over there is seated the wife of a distinguished lawyer, delicate and coral-like in tint, and crowned by a wreath fo white hair. There are in all a half dozen or more, ranging from Mrs. Rockefeller in cream satin to Master Pyne with his favorite collie by his side. 


Across the room are the Sears children and their mother, while in the opposite corner a psychic blonde in an expansive picture confronted by a lustrous brunette with centuries of breeding behind her, and a vague, engaging smile flitting about her sensitive mouth. Dresses in tweeds, quite jovial and wholesome, and painting away with subconscious ease and fluency, is the artist who, month by month, is transferring to canvas the flower of American culture and civilization. 


For a painter who has achieved such a large measure of success, Mr. Shannon is refreshingly modest of speech and manner. Having been something of an athlete in his youth — a youth not so far distant, for he has merely turned forty — he moves alertly to and from his sitter with his ample, iridescent palette and big, effective brushes. Mr. Shannon’s ideas on art and life are those of a normal being who professes few fads and no erratic theories whatsoever. A brilliant, rapid workman, he is nevertheless conscientious to the point of caprice, having frequently refrained from exhibiting portraits that might have seemed to him in the minutest degree unsatisfactory. 


While he enjoys painting men, he has an instinctive predilection for feminine beauty, and it is unquestionably Mr. Shannon’s gallery of fair women which constitutes his chief claim to recognition. Despite such a distinguished procession of sitters it is, however, his wife and his daughter, Miss Kitty Shannon, whom he most loves to put upon canvas, either as definite portraits or in some delightfully fanciful or decorative vein. 


A Plea for Anglo-Saxon Art 


There is something eminently just and appropriate in the fact that Mr. Shannon should be here among us painting our men and women, our youths and misses. The art which he represents with such singular felicity and distinction is Anglo-Saxon art at its very best. It is, moreover, our own esthetic heritage, a heritage of which for various reasons we have been long defrauded. During several decades it has been the foreigner, not the Englishman nor the American, who has had the field of local portraiture substantially in his own hands. Most of these men have been utterly out of sympathy with out race spirit and social ideals, and many have not hesitated to display an open contempt for those whose portraits they have condescended to paint at exalted prices. With the coming of Mr. Shannon a reaction has fortunately set in against certain of these cynical exploiters, whose only title to consideration has been a wholly misleading and usually misplaced technical virtuosity.
Though the art of Mr. Shannon is broad, eclectic, and in no degree insular, there is little question that its specific charm and allure descend direct from those eighteenth-century masters who painted the belles, beaux, and sober statesmen of Georgian days. It is clearly to that superb row of “Windsor Beauties” in Hampton Court, to Holland House, the Wallace Collection, the National Gallery, and various great private collections that this particular — shall we say convention, creed, or ideal? — of beauty can be traced. There will of course always be an uncertainty as to just how much the later men owed Vandyke, the aristocratic, nonchalant painter of the Stuarts; but it seems that this Saxon love of fair faces, artless elegance, and the added grace of outdoor setting is not an accident, nor foreign, but rather an inherent possession. 


The best things alike in English art and English verse appear to spring from this same appealing source. The tender magic of Miranda, the romantic languor of divine Sacharissa, the seductive revelations of lovely Julia, and the comely wiles of Highland Mary, each reflects something of that radiance which lies at the heart of natural things, that frank happiness which is the chief light of beauty. While it need not be inferred that British poets or painters hold in any degree a monopoly of these engaging qualities, they have surely crystallized them into visions typical of purely English loveliness. That is should be the mission of the artist to increase and to extend this heritage there is small doubt. And yet no one knows better than he how difficult it is to add to this dream of fair women — a dream born not alone of fact but of the mingled fancy and illusive yearning of generations. 


[Editor’s Note: This article was accompanied by the following illustrations: 


p. 133 - Mrs. Herbert M. Sears and Her Daughters [This portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906.] 
p. 134 - Lady Revelstoke (formerly Lady Ulrica Duncombe), a famous English beauty, daughter of the Earl of Feversham 

p. 135 - Lady Marjorie Manners, daughter of the Marquis of Granby, and granddaughter of the Duke of Rutland, considered to be one of the artist’s masterpieces 

p. 136 - Lady Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, painted in the artist’s garden in London 

p. 137 - Mrs. Robert J. Gammell, painted recently in Providence, Rhode Island 

p. 138 - Princess Margaret of Connaught, recently married to Prince Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, painted in London shortly before the princess’ marriage 

p. 139 - “On the Stairs” 

p. 140 - Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, painted recently in New York 

Another illustration in my collection illustrates Shannon’s portrait of “H.R.H. Princess Patricia of Connaught, Daughter of the Duke of Connaught and Niece of King Edward VII,” and sister of Princess Margaret. I purchased this illustration separately from the article, so I am unsure whether this illustration ran with the article or at another date.] 



Special thanks to Matt Davies, of Kansas City, a friend of the JSS Gallery, for much help with this article.  


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2004 all rights reserved
Created 1/5/2004
Updated 1/5/2004