We have two of our writers giving some thoughts on the portrait of Katherine Duer Mackay that has been restored and displayed at the Lilley Museum on the UNR Campus. Well, one writer, a professional in the art world and one writer who thinks that he may be Mark Twain. I have no doubt you will be able to see who is who.
Katherine Duer Mackay as Phèdre, by John White Alexander
Recently unveiled at the Lilley Museum is the newly restored portrait of John Mackay’s daughter-in-law, Katherine Duer Mackay. Painted in 1905 by one of the most famous society portrait artists of the late 19th and early 20th Century, John Alexander White (1856-1915), it depicts Mrs. Mackay as the tragic heroine, Phèdre, from Jean Racine’s play of the name. Mrs. Mackay came from a prominent New York family and was a prominent figure in the Suffragist movement as well as a noted philanthropist.
Society women of the period were given few opportunities to be other than a decorative asset to their husbands so her choice as posing as Phèdre might have inferred her education and intellectual pursuits Painted in his fluid, sinuous style, White abstracts the background to emphasize the sitter, contrasting her dark braided hair with her flowing white dress. The painting, over 9 feet tall, including the Stanford White frame, was a showpiece that hung in the Mackay mansion in Long Island. Sadly, her marriage ended in divorce, and she moved to Paris, surrendering her American citizenship.
Alexander’s talent was evident early in his life. He studied abroad with many famous artists both in Munich and Paris. His career included working as an illustrator, teaching at Princeton and muralist for the Library of Congress but most notably for painting innumerable stunning portraits of society women as well as noted intellectuals Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.
The tabernacle style frame, designed by Stanford White, was primarily created by him for the portrait. Stanford White enjoyed designing frames for his many artist friends. Schooled in the Beaux Arts style his frames often reference architectural elements of the Renaissance. Unlike John Alexander White who was honored by numerous art prizes and died with accolades from both in the press and art world, Stanford White dies in ignominy. He was the most celebrated architect of his day but was shot to death by New York scion Harry K. Thaw. Thaw was furious over Stanford White’s attention to his wife, the beauty, Elizabeth Nesbitt. White had a notorious reputation with women that caused his downfall.
The Lilley is privileged to exhibit this painting that combines two of the most famous artisans of the 19th / 20th century. The history with the Mackay family enhances its stature in the holdings of UNR. Officially part of the collections of the Keck Museum it is wonderfully displayed in the gallery of the Lilley.
He Died With His Boots On
A Westerner’s Take on the Untimely Demise of Stanford White, Architect
Famous Beaux-Arts architect Stanford White was murdered in 1906 by Evelyn Nesbit’s husband Harry Thaw at a performance on the roof of Madison Square Garden, a building White designed. He also designed the Mackay School of Mines Building in Reno. He also designed the Arc de Triomphe in New York’s Washington Square. (Take that, Napoleon Bonaparte.) White was shot in the back. Thaw was heard to say at the time, “He ruined my wife.” White first met the famous beauty when he was 47, and she was 16. He brought her to his Manhattan apartment and served her lunch from the world-renowned steakhouse Delmonico’s.
Steak is good. We like steak here. We westerners know the West wasn’t won with salad.
He then took her to his bedroom whose walls were covered with mirrors (that’s kinky) where he drugged and seduced her, or so she said. Nesbit claimed when she awoke all her clothes were pulled off her. He said, she said, who knows? But out west, we know there are three sides to every story, his, hers, and the truth. Finding the first two are easy, the third not so. Also, out west, we like to say you can’t fix stupid, not even with duct tape. What did she think this notorious Lothario was going to do in his apartment, show her his stamp collection?
Shot it the back? Out west we like it when people are shot in the front when a man can look the shooter in the eye and vice-versa, but that’s a small nicety. Anyway, White had it coming. He did her dirt. Probably if he were to come back to life today as a westerner and were asked why he did it, he might say, “As the man said who kicked the cactus, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
White designed the ornate Beaux-Arts frame for the portrait of Katherine Duer Mackay, daughter-in-law of our own John Mackay, unveiled at the University of Nevada Reno’s Lilley Museum of Art. Both the portrait and frame are beautiful and historic. They harken back to the days when Beaux-Arts was in fashion, a fashion that remains in architecture all around us to this day. That fashion is now on view at the Lilley Museum.
After publishing this I found out that the architect, Stanford White, worked closely with Nikola Tesla designing and building the mysterious Wardenclyffe Tower. This is indeed an interesting twist in many ways.