Pull up a chair -- I have a story for you. A story of love and life, of regret and money, of loss and pain. It begins in New York and continues to this day in the form of a mysterious painting that is currently on exhibition in Indianapolis.
For me, it was a day like any other day in our fine city. I was readying myself up to attend a tandem art opening with one leg at The Indiana State Museum and another at the Berkshire, Paul and Reese galleries of Herron School of Art's Eskenazi Hall. At the show, I met with Richard Emery Nickolson, local artist and Professor Emeritus at Herron School of Art, Indiana University.
Richard was a professor to me as well as many of the artists featured in The Indiana State Museum's show 431 Gallery: Art and Impact. These artists became the art scene of Indianapolis in the 80s and 90s by opening the eponymous 431 Gallery on Mass Ave. The gallery became an important part of the history of Indianapolis and a cornerstone of the rehabilitation of Mass Ave as we know it now. Ed Sanders was among those artists, and he is the subject of the second part of the exhibit at Herron.
The Ed Sanders/Life and Art show is a posthumous solo exhibit of the works of Ed Sanders, which was lovingly put together by his friends and family. I felt overwhelmed walking among many of the people who had been key players in the honored scene. Large paintings hung like titans taking over the entire room. Gray tones and thick muddy painterly faces reflected off the eyes of those present.
Then I saw a painting of a woman sitting quietly in a white dress. As I looked, Richard told me he and his wife, Anne McKenzie Nickolson, had lent the painting to the exhibit. Her name is Catherine Sloper and she was painted with oil on wood panel in 1998, more than 100 years after this story began.
It was the year 1877 and British actress Fanny Kemble had befriended American writer Henry James. She told him the story of a "dull, plain, common-place girl, ... who had a handsome private fortune (£4000 a year [about half a million dollars a year adjusted for inflation])." She was to be married to Kemble's brother, a handsome man who was "very luxurious and selfish, and without a penny to his name." Per Kemble's advice, her brother ultimately decided not to marry the wealthy woman. She told the author that all her brother was after was the poor girl's money and that her life would be filled with unhappiness. James went on to turn the story into the novel Washington Square, which was later adapted into a play by husband and wife writing team, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, 67 years after the novel's publication. Soon after that, the play was turned into the award-winning Hollywood golden-age film, The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, which I promptly went home to watch. A more recent version of The Heiress also exists, Washington Square (1997), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh.
The 1949 film cemented the ill-fated relationship in culture by turning this story of an unfortunate girl into Catherine Sloper; spineless spinster turned cold-hearted "neat embroiderer," and the gold-digging chap into the dreamy Morris Townsend -- a man whose lies I also wanted to believe.
After being scorned by all of the men in her life, Sloper learns how to walk away from the man she cherished. The viewer is left feeling for Catherine and wondering if it's worth paying to keep the one you once loved (and ultimately abandoned you) rather than being alone.
Ed Sander's painting is inspired by one of the last scenes in the film, where Catherine Sloper goes up the stairs wearing a beautiful gown purchased in Paris, while Morris desperately pleads behind the bolted door for forgiveness. In the painting, Sloper appears to be older and wider, seemingly parallel to the way Morris is described in James' novel towards the end: fat and balding -- although still handsome. In Hollywood fashion, the film version of Morris has grown a mustache, but his hair and handsome physique remain unchanged.
Sanders gives us a stark vision of the last page of this story. We are able to see Catherine Sloper still holding off on sharing her fortune with the penniless Morris out of spite for him, and in spite of her lingering love.
After Sanders passed away, His work remained stored in the Murphy building until the place was sold in 2010. There was a massive giveaway of Sanders' work to his friends, colleagues, teachers, and other patrons. Richard described the giveaway as "very black Friday-esque." His Friends Carla Knopp and Brian Fick, both former Herron students, founders of the 431 Gallery, and great friends of Sanders, were the first people Richard saw entering the building. They pointed him right to a larger painting that they had placed face to the wall in a corner, especially for him to save.
So when you go to see the show, and you see Catherine Sloper sitting there, you will now know who she is and why she is there. From New York to Indiana; from the words of Fanny Kemble, to the brush strokes of Ed Sanders, to the reflection in your eyes -- Catherine Sloper lives, and so does Ed Sanders.