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Who were Miss Furr and Miss Skeene? (Essay).

ETHEL MARS and Maud Hunt Squire were artists in their own right, but today our interest in them derives largely from the fact that they figured prominently in two of Gertrude Stein's "word portraits," in which she referred to Mars and Squire as "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene." Stein was clearly on to the intimate nature of the relationship between the two "misses," and her portraits are filled with sly references and double entendres of the kind that one would expect in a still-Victorian society.

On the other hand, this was Paris ca. 1910, scene of the salon that Gertrude Stein established and that people are still talking about--and wringing gossip from--to this day. Surely anyone who frequented Stein's salon could count on being memorialized in some fashion, either in a word portrait by their host, in an actual portrait by one of the artists in attendance, or through a mention in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire were there, young women in their thirties who were already accomplished illustrators and woodblock artists--a somewhat fleeting moment for two women whose careers would truly blossom in Provincetown some years later.

Mars was born in 1876 and Squire in 1873, and they met at some point in the 1890's at the Cincinnati Art Academy. After graduation, they moved to New York City where they were hired as book illustrators. In their early years in Paris they had, according to Janet Altic Flint in Provincetown Painters: A Woodcut Tradition (1983), frequented a "wholesome" club for American girls where "teas, dinners, exhibitions, lectures, and concerts" were the norm. But both women quickly shed the club's gray primness in favor of flaming orange hair, powder, and rouge, as well as copious amounts of what sounds like kohl, around their eyes. Apparently, according to an eyewitness and friend, artist Anne Goldthwaite, they led "exemplary lives" despite the legends they hoped to create around themselves. They traveled frequently back and forth between Paris and New York before World War I. Some sources say they briefly drove ambulances in France at the beginning of the War, while other sources say they did not drive around with suc h noble intent, but were automobile enthusiasts.

Gertrude Stein wrote over twenty word portraits of artists, musicians, writers, and art collectors. "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene"--referring to Ethel Mars and Maud Squire, respectively--was written between 1909 and 1911, but wasn't published until 1922 in Geography and Plays. The piece reached the general public as a reprint in the July 1923 issue of Vanity Fair, where it was subtitled "Ladies who were gay together and how one left the other behind." It was also reprinted in Carl Van Vechten's Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein (1946). In a work of relatively few words, Stein managed to use the words "gay" and "gayer," along with (to a lesser extent) "cultivated" and "cultivating," in almost every sentence.

Stein described Helen Furr thus: "She went to a place where some were cultivating something, voice and other things needed cultivating. She met Georgine Skeene there who was cultivating her voice which some thought was quite a pleasant one." And later in the portrait, "They were regularly gay. They were gay every day. They ended every day in the same way, at the same time, and they had been every day regularly gay." Catherine Ryan, in Tres Complementaires: The art and lives of Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire (2000), observes that Stein's portrait of the women is fairly true-to-life, especially in the case of Ethel Mars. Ryan reveals that Stein had based her work on conversations with the pair in which she had listened carefully to their stories about their lives and families in the Midwest in the late 1800's. In the words of Gertrude Stein: "[Helen Furr] went to see them where she had always been living and where she did not find it gay. She had a pleasant home there, Mrs. Furr was a pleasant enough woman, M r. Furr was a pleasant enough man, Helen told them and they were not worrying, that she did not find it gay living where she had always been living."

Linda Wagner-Martin states unequivocally in Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and her Family (1995) that Stein's portrait of the two women "featured the sly repetition of the word gay, used with sexual intent for one of the first times in linguistic history." Critic Edmund Wilson had come to the same conclusion in 1951 when, as quoted by James Mellow in Charmed Circle (1974), he said "it seemed obvious that [Stein's] queer little portraits and her mischievously baffling prose poems did often deal with subjects of this sort" (i.e., relationships between women). Wilson also referred to Mars and Squire as "that touching pair of left-handed gloves."

In Charmed Circle, Mellow refers to Mars and Squire merely as "minor painters who frequented [Stein's salon], two midwesterners with cultural ambitions ... [who] dabbled in watercolors." They were, in truth, successful artists who made their living from art, constantly exhibiting their woodcuts, watercolors, and engravings in galleries and major exhibitions in Paris and the U.S. Leona Rust Egan recounts in Provincetown as a Stage (1994) that they "quickly adapted to Bohemian life" in prewar Paris and "colored their hair in flaming colors and wore heavy make-up that resembled the cafe habitues depicted in Toulouse-Lautrec posters." According to Catherine Ryan, Squire sometimes bleached her hair white on one side and dyed it black on the other, and wore "artistic" jewelry. And Squire was known as the "steady, practical one"! Mars's style sounds like what we'd have described in the 1960's as "earth mother" with jangly bracelets, bright colors, floaty summer dresses in the winter, and hats.

While Tres Complementaires includes a number of personal photographs of both Mars and Squire, they are only thumbnail-sized, so it's impossible to get a good sense of how they really looked. But the few larger photographs show attractive women in unique, "arty" clothes. Mars, apparently, "had many affairs," but the details about them are not known. And in Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), she writes, "Miss Mars and I talked of a project then entirely new, how to make up your face."

By 1915, Mars and Squire were living in Provincetown, and Squire's nickname was Skeene. They were working in color woodblock prints and, possibly due to their reputation, helped the Provincetown Printers receive more attention and press than they would have otherwise. By 1925, when they had resettled in Vence in the south of France, they were active in an artists' colony where they concentrated on drawing and painting. They bought land and built a villa, leaving only during World War II for Grenoble. In the 1930's they wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in which they described Vence, Nice, and the seashore. These spots they found to be "gay & sophisticated. You see Miss Furr still likes gay things & being & wanting everybody & everything else to be gay. Signed Miss Furr & Miss Skeene." All this time, Mars continued her work, though Squire had virtually stopped working after the early 1930's. Squire died in 1954 and Mars five years later. After having shared their lives together for over fif ty years, they now share a simple grave in Vence.

A note on sources: Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Provincetown Art Association & Museum both recently held major exhibitions of works of Blanche Lazzell, a West Virginia-born, Provincetown-based popularizer of the white line woodcut, a style that had begun in Japan in the 19th century and that Lazzell helped bring to the United States in the early years of the 20th century. As Roberta Smith wrote in her New York Times review of the MFA exhibit (March 3, 2002): "Lazell became part of what seems to have been an all-girl network of American artists that included Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire ... many of whom were part of the circle around Gertrude Stein. ... [W]hile some of these women were lesbian, Lazzell's preferences are unclear. She called herself a spinster and, although unusually social, always seems to have lived alone."

In my research I found a gallery catalog, Tres Complementaires: The Art and Lives of Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire (Mary Ryan Gallery, Inc., and Susan Sheehan Gallery), which includes a lavish collection of reproductions. It is the first comprehensive publication on the artists' lives and art. I am indebted to Catherine Ryan's essay in that catalog.
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Author:Stone, Martha E.
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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