It’s hard to believe I only discovered the artist Virginia Snedeker in 2006, when I wrote about her exhibit at Morven. Since then, I’ve come to know her brother, Dick Snedeker, very well. Ms. Snedeker’s work can be seen at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers through April 26 A Parallel Presence: National Association of Women Artists, 1889-2009, along with the work of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Theresa Bernstein, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Blanche Lazzell, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, June Wayne, Pat Adams, Faith Ringgold, Idelle Weber, and Martha Walker), but she’s someone we want to stick around. Here’s what I wrote in 2006:
Some of the greatest discoveries can be made under your own roof.
The germ of the idea for Morven Museum’s first exhibit of fine art came from one of its docents, Richard Snedeker. A West Windsor resident for 50 years and retired aeronautical engineer, Mr. Snedeker is a descendant of Richard Stockton, who first purchased the land for Morven from William Penn in 1701.
Mr. Snedeker mentioned in passing to Morven Executive Director Martha Wolf and Curator of Exhibitions Anne Gossen that his sister, Virginia Snedeker (1909-2000), had been an artist of note and had left behind a collection of more than 500 paintings and drawings. This turned out to be much, much more than the oft-told tale of an old aunt who dies with an attic full of watercolors. Ms. Snedeker had exhibited in more than 50 shows in New York City, been a contracted artist for The New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and was well-reviewed in The New York Times, The New York Post and The Brooklyn Eagle, among others.
Yet Ms. Snedeker and her American Scene style of painting had become all but forgotten. It represented the perfect opportunity for Ms. Gossen to rediscover an important artist, and it was especially fitting that Ms. Snedeker was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Annis Boudinot Stockton, the poet who named Morven after a mythical Gaelic kingdom. Morven later served as the governor’s residence and has recently undergone a $5 million renovation to become a museum with a charge to showcase the state’s cultural history.
Virginia grew up in the affluent Park Slope and Clinton Hill sections of Brooklyn, the daughter of a Princeton-educated lawyer and a professional illustrator.
“As a child, I remember that someone was always drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, developing film or building something,” recalls Mr. Snedeker in the yet-to-be-published exhibition catalog thoroughly researched and written by Ms. Gossen. “Our parents’ attitude was that we should be able to do or make just about anything, and do it to very high standards.” Mr. Snedeker, who was born 17 years after his sister, worked as a graphic artist for Princeton University Press for six years following his graduation from Princeton.
Ms. Snedeker’s art education was steeped in the classical tradition at the National Academy of Design, where fellow students included sculptor Louise Nevelson and cartoonist William Steig. Following a grand tour of Europe, she enrolled in the Art Students League, where the focus was more on the avant-garde. “She had a broad education at both ends of the spectrum,” says Ms. Gossen.
Abstractionists and Ashcan School realists, who painted the grittier side of life, set up easels side-by-side at the Art Students League. Ms. Snedeker fell under the influence of Kenneth Hayes Miller, a key figure in the American Scene movement who also taught Edward Hopper. Beginning in the 1920s, the American Scene movement grew as a reaction to French Modernism.
“(American Scene proponents) thought the new European styles such as Cubism, Fauvism and Dadaism showed a spiritual collapse and, after World War I, developed an isolationist view that the nation should become more inward looking,” says Ms. Gossen. American Scene painters depicted recognizable scenes in a realistic, rather than abstract or allegorical, way.
Under the American Scene umbrella were the Urban Realists, to which spoke Ms. Snedeker adhered. Urban Realists’ subject matter was similar to the Ashcan painters, “but they were less subversive and more attentive to traditional painting techniques,” writes Ms. Gossen. They focused on positive scenes of American life, rather than the discontented, unemployed or political reactionaries.
Ms. Gossen distinguishes between Social Realism, which is critical (think Ben Shahn), and Urban Realism, which was not critical.
Adapting a Bohemian lifestyle, Ms. Snedeker moved to Greenwich Village, and from her studio window she painted street scenes that include children at play, shop fronts, an organ grinder and a monkey. She painted several self-portraits with the “tools of the trade” – easel, paintbrushes, smock – with skyscapes through open windows. Painting from rooftops offered another vista of city life.
“She was among the first women to do that,” says Ms. Gossen. “It was not allowed for women before. They had to paint babies and mothers or scenes in the park to retain their respectability.”
Her paintings improved on her teacher’s in that she gave her subjects an interior life, says Ms. Gossen, whereas in Mr. Miller’s paintings, mannequins were given just as much life as humans.
Ms. Snedeker began submitting artwork to The New Yorker, then 15 years old. Spot art – the small, uncomplicated drawings of cosmopolitan life that are sometimes whimsical and are surrounded by text – was an entry-level, though highly competitive, opportunity for many of the magazine’s artists. “Spot art was not supposed to illustrate the stories, but was a way to rest your eye,” says Ms. Gossen.
The New Yorker was especially fond of American Scene artwork, and so Ms. Snedeker’s spot art fit right in. Between 1939 and 1941, The New Yorker published three of Ms. Snedeker’s covers and gave her a contract.
These covers show Ms. Snedeker’s concerns with the politics of the time. She submitted 20 more covers after that, but the magazine never published another. Her spot art became part of the spot art bank and was republished [jap: in 1987?: ]until 1987. When Tina Brown became editor, she eliminated the spot bank, says Ms. Gossen.
Not to be confused with cartoons, Ms. Snedeker’s spot art was often humorous, such as a gentleman offering tea to a cello.
In 1941, the Section of Fine Arts of the Treasury Department (similar to the Works Project Administration) invited Ms. Snedeker to paint a post office mural. The murals were to promote the New Deal message that “Americans would conquer the Depression through hard work and an unwavering belief in democracy,” writes Ms. Gossen. “The unofficial style of New Deal art was the American Scene.”
Ms. Snedeker’s mural still occupies the post office wall in Audubon, Iowa, a town named for bird artist and naturalist John Audubon.
In 1942, she married William Lindsay Taylor, another American Scene artist and student of Mr. Miller. But he was called off to serve in World War II, and Ms. Snedeker, despite her wide recognition as a successful artist, was forced to take a factory job to make ends meet. She worked as an aircraft assembler for the Navy’s F4-U corsairs.
When Mr. Taylor returned home, the couple had two children and moved to Ridgefield, then a sort of artists’ colony with the likes of Man Ray and William Carlos Williams as residents. But neither Ms. Snedecker nor Mr. Taylor would ever pursue art seriously again.
On the back of a painting of her daughter, Jean, Ms. Snedeker wrote that she had to work in short, interrupted sessions and was dissatisfied with the result. When her children grew a little older, Ms. Snedeker took another factory job and worked until retirement, dabbling in crafts.
Her New Yorker covers were reproduced in the magazine’s 2005 anniversary edition and in a compilation, The Art of the New Yorker: 1925-1995.