Yesterday's Magazette

11 – Matinee de Septembre

Matinee de Septembre

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Stay for just a while…stay, and let me look at you…

September morn…

September morning still can make me feel this way…

––– Neil Diamond and Gilbert Becaud

Neil Diamond’s romantic ballad September Morn has nothing to do with the painting of the same name, but listeners might wonder: Who is the woman who inspired the singer’s reverie? The young woman in the painting Matinee de Septembre (September Morn) might be a mystery, too, but for the meddling of two men, neither of them the artist.

Paul Emile Chabas (1869-1937), a member of the Academie des beaux-arts, favored painting young women in the nude in natural settings. He completed Matinee de Septembre on a September morning in 1912 after working on it for three consecutive summers. The featured mademoiselle stands at the edge of a pond, slightly crouched, her curvaceous body in semi-profile. She seems to be splashing water on herself and shivering from the early morning chill. The shapely form belonged to a local peasant girl, but the head and face came from a drawing Chabas did of an American girl, Julie Philllips, while she and her mother dined in a Paris café. The artist considered her profile perfect for the painting.

Chabas exhibited the painting at the 1912 Paris Salon, where it won a medal of honor, but it lacked attention elsewhere. Rejected even as calendar art, Chabas shipped the painting to a Manhattan gallery where he hoped to find a buyer. He never imagined the chain of events that led to the painting’s celebrity. Harry Reichenbach, a public relations man known for setting up outrageous stunts to draw people into theaters showing B movies, claimed responsibility for the painting’s fame.

The story goes that Reichenbach worked in the art shop displaying the painting. The owner printed 2000 lithographs of the work, Americanized to September Morn, but even at only ten cents each, they did not sell. He offered Reichenbach a bonus for an advertising plan to jumpstart sales. Reichenbach quickly devised a scheme. He telephoned Anthony Comstock, self-appointed head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and told him about the “dirty painting” in the gallery’s window. Comstock didn’t bite, so Reichenbach persuaded others to call and complain about the shocking painting. Then he personally called on Comstock. “You must see the painting,” he fumed. “It’s an outrage. It’s undermining the morals of our city’s youth.”

Comstock agreed to accompany Reichenbach to the store, where they found a group of boys ogling the provocative scene in the window. When “the archangel of virtue,” heard the boys’ racy, adult comments, he stormed into the store, showed his badge, and demanded the painting be removed. “There’s too little morn and too much maiden,” Comstock supposedly yelled. He didn’t know Reichenbach paid the boys fifty cents each to hang out by the store. The owner, of course, refused to take the painting from the window.

Comstock filed a lawsuit, asking the court to suppress “the most pornographic painting of all time.” Meanwhile, during the months before the trial ended, the daring damsel became the darling of newspapers across the country. The stories kept tabs on the controversy between those who denounced the painting and those who supported it, both men and women. The fair maiden lacked the wholesomeness of the famed Gibson Girls drawings by Charles Dana Gibson, but young men were not afraid to take her home to Mother (well, some mothers). At the art shop, September Morn prints sold like hotdogs at a ballgame, and now going for a dollar each.

Eager entrepreneurs jumped on the bandwagon. They mass produced and sold replicas of September Morn on calendars, posters, postcards, cigar bands, cigarette boxes, pennants, suspenders, bottle openers, umbrella and cane heads, as dolls and statues, and men wore her figure tattooed on their muscular arms. Purity leagues protested, and the postal service banned postcard reproductions from delivery by mail. The painting became the object of gags and songs. Art critics labeled it “kitsch” because it lacked interesting artistic features: contrast, coordinated lines, a worthy subject; and leaned toward the melodramatic. They said its fame came only from the scandal surrounding it, not from anything artistic.

Paul Chabas reclaimed the painting and sold it to a Russian collector for the ruble equivalent of $10,000. Hidden by the owner during the Russian Revolution, the painting surfaced in 1935 in Paris in Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian’s private collection. Later, Philadelphian William Coxe Wright purchased the painting. In 1957, with its value estimated at $30,000, Wright tried to donate the work to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They refused the offer on the grounds it carried no significance in the realm of art. Wright donated it to Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Matinee de Septembre hangs as an example of 20th Century French works.

It is estimated that during the trial and for several years after, some seven million copies of September Morn sold around the world. Prints and other memorabilia still sell today. Paul Chabas created other works before and after the one that became a familiar icon, but who among us can name even one? Or, if asked, might know the artist’s name? Ask who popularized the unrelated song September Morn, and many can answer that question.


(Madonna’s the author of “Swinging Sisters” and “Masquerade: The Swindler Who Conned J. Edgar Hoover.” Website: http://www.madonnadrieschristensen.com)

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2 Comments »

  1. My grandfather,John Lincoln Shackford, an American merchant seaman brought home a framed sepia detail print at the time of the scandal. He & my grandmother hung it over their bed! My mother did the same when it was passed to her! I did the same when I inherited it in 1973! This print is of the same sepia detail as the postcards published at the time. We were always told that it was considered to be a bit naughty when it was first published in New York where it would have been purchased in about 1910.

    Comment by Valerie Marshall — May 13, 2009 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

  2. I have a print in a frame I got around 1970. Does this have any value? It hangs on the wall to this day great picture.

    Comment by tommie cannedy — May 26, 2010 @ 1:28 pm | Reply


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