Frances Simpson Stevens 1911 (1894-1976)

Frances Simpson Stevens

Frances Simpson Stevens 1911

Frances Simpson Stevens was the only American artist involved with the Italian Futurist movement, which flourished prior to World War I. She was born in Chicago, IL. Her mother could trace her ancestry back to 12th century England and from her Frances inherited a lifetime fascination with lineage. She was proud of her Dana education. Frances played forward on the hockey team, was in Le Cercle Francais, a French club, and was the historian for Class Day Exercises in 1911. Her two loves were sports and art.

After graduation, Frances became more interested in art and started classes in Madrid, Spain, with artist Robert Henri. Henri encouraged her to enter an oil she painted in Spain, Roof Tops in Madrid, in the Armory Show of 1913 in New York. It was priced at $200 and received no critical attention at the time, probably due to the scandal that erupted over Marcel Duchamps’s Nude Descending a Staircase. At the Armory Show, she met Mabel Dodge, a woman who attracted avant-garde artists, activists and intellectuals to her salon. She urged Frances to study in Italy and made arrangements for her to stay with Mina Loy, an expatriate English artist, in Florence. Frances was noticed by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, and both Frances and Mina tried painting modern life from a Futurist perspective. The themes of “dynamism, simultaneity, and machinery” were considered an essential part of Futurist art.

In the spring of 1914, Florence showed seven paintings and one drawing in the Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale in Rome. Her paintings were focused on the depiction of action. Frances, as the sole representative of the nordamericani [North Americans], was noticed and praised by Lacerba, a magazine that was very interested in the Futurist style.

When Frances returned to Florence, her personal life took precedence over her artistic one. In keeping with her aristocratic heritage, she became engaged to the heir of one of Florence’s noble families, the Marchese Salimbeni. When World War I broke out, Frances left for New York and ended her engagement to the Marchese.

Frances’s work was well known in the New York avant-garde art circles and she became part of the group of artists that exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery. In 1916, she gave her first one-person show at the Braun Gallery. In the introduction to the catalogue, Phillipe Ortiz apologized to the regular visitors to the gallery who were used to works of a more classical nature. He said that Miss Stevens’s works were “a sincere artistic manifestation” and were worthy of attention. Frances, in her forward to the catalogue, explained that this period of enormous technological change demanded a new pictorial idiom. Her picture, Battle of Gorizia, was a war picture that depicted trench warfare in one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. “The intensity of the conflict is suggested by a pattern of colliding brushstrokes, rendered ever more chaotic and haphazard as they approach the summit of the mountain, which seems to be erupting with the force of a volcano.” Frances liked to paint “machinery in motion, war and the bigger things in life rather than the human figure.” This exhibit was the height of her artistic achievement in New York.

Frances volunteered her services to the Red Cross to help in the war effort. It was through her work there that she met an attache to the Russian ambassador, Prince Dimitri Golitsyn. He came from a very distinguished family and his father was the last premier under the Czar. An officer in the Russian Imperial Navy, Prince Golitsyn was sent to the United States to command ships purchased there to fight the anti-Bolshevik forces in the Arctic Ocean. After returning to Vladivostok for a year, Prince Golitsyn and Frances were married in 1919. They went to Siberia and joined the anti-Bolshevik forces in an unsuccessful effort to remove the revolutionary government. During their exile, Frances lost all of her money as well as her American citizenship since women who married had to take on their husband’s citizenship.

Luckily, her mother had inherited a considerable amount of money from her late husband’s estate and had kept France’s artwork. In 1923, Frances exhibited her artwork but a reviewer found it “too difficult to form an opinion.” This was her last public show. In 1925 Frances regrouped, became an equestrian with a stable of 22 horses, and planned to take camera portraits of horses at the Bournemouth Race Track on the English Channel. She seems to have disappeared from public life until 1961 when she was admitted to Mendocino State Hospital in California. She became a ward of the state of California and lived in various residential care homes. She died on July 18, 1976, at the age of 82. The records listed no next of kin nor were any traces of her estate found. She was working on a memoir before she died but unfortunately it disappeared. Hopefully one day it will surface and more details of her fascinating life will be uncovered.

Bibliography

1911 Class Book. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall School, 1911.
Burke, Carolyn and Naomi Sawelson-Gorse. “In Search of Frances Simpson Stevens.” Art in America. v. 82, no.4. (April 1994): 106-8. 20 Jan., 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/.
Frances Stevens, photograph. Dana Hall Archives, Wellesley, MA.
Naumann, Francis M. “A Lost American Futurist.” Art in America. v. 82, no.4. (April 1994): 104-8. Infotrac. 20 Jan., 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/.
Originally published as Person of the Week, January 23, 2006

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