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As She Sketched It: Artworks by and for Madame Modjeska

Portrait of Madam Helena Modjeska, 1883
Wyatt Eaton (Canadian, 1849-1896)
Charcoal on paper; 21 x 25 5/8 in.
Gift of Marylka Modjeska Pattison

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Those who let Google Doodles break their concentration long enough to investigate what they commemorate will know that this past Tuesday, October 12th was Madame Helena Modjeska’s 181st birthday. As it happens, the famous Polish stage actress ended up settling in the self-named Modjeska Canyon here in Orange County and through several donations by her descendants in the early and mid 20th century the Bowers Museum came to hold what is perhaps the world’s most comprehensive collection of objects, documents, and photographs from her life. Ranging from locks of her hair to the Polish visa she acquired to come to the United States, some of the pieces that most stand out are the sketches and drawings either made by or for Madame Modjeska. This post looks at four groups of these sketches in the Bowers collections.

Wyatt Eaton

The portrait of Modjeska used in the banner for this post is a charcoal on paper drawing by Wyatt Eaton (Canadian, 1849-1896). Eaton was a notable Canadian artist who is best known for his oil paintings, many of which are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada. He was also a talented sketch artist working in charcoal, as can be seen from this work. It appears that this drawing was likely originally made for Century magazine. Eaton did a whole series of charcoal drawings that were turned into engravings by Timothy Cole and printed in the magazine. Closer analysis of this work has revealed this to be the original sketch on which these are based. How it is that this drawing came into Modjeska’s possession is unknown, but it may have originally been a gift from the artist.

Sketch made for Modjeska's Macbeth Costume, c. 1885
Jaques & Marcus, New York
Watercolor on paper; 6 3/16 x 8 3/16 in.
Presented to Museum by Myrtle Blakeslee in memory of Felix Modjeska, grandson of Madame Helena Modjeska

Jaques & Marcus

A good portion of the Bowers’ Modjeska Collection is made up of props and costumes. Any time a piece is designed for stage, that process begins with either or both a rough sketch and a more detailed concept like this one here. The creators of this sketch are attributed only as "Jaques and Marcus." It is very likely that they are George B. Jaques and William E. Marcus, a pair of luxury jewelers who operated out of New York in the late 19th century. The pair published a rather famous edition on rarer precious stones which they gave something of a bardic flair to by titling, Something About Neglected Gemstones. To further that Shakespearean connection, the piece itself was intended to be worn by Modjeska in her role of Lady Macbeth, but was deemed “inappropriate,” perhaps for being overly ostentatious or anachronistic.

Sketch of Armed Women, 1899
Wladyslaw Theodor Benda (Polish-born American, 1873-1948)
Watercolor on paper; 3 1/4 x 5 3/8 in.
Presented to Museum by Myrtle Blakeslee in memory of Felix Modjeska, grandson of Madame Helena Modjeska

W. Benda

Modjeska was fiercely proud of her family. Though her only child, Ralph Modjeski, went into the modest profession of civic engineering and can only be credited with the design of the Manhattan Bridge among about 24 others, her nephew, Wladyslaw Theodor Benda, became a famous illustrator in Poland and the United States. Though he was the graphic artist behind countless magazines, short stories, and even Polish war propaganda during World War I, she most treasured the work he did in creating sketches for plays that she would be in. This watercolor sketch of a group of armed women, seems to be done in a similar style to another unsigned painting of the Polish hero Kosciuszko, who raised a peasant army to fend off the Russian army. Another independent expert though believed this work and others to have been made for a Modjeska production where the crowds lost their heads for her portrayal of Marie Antoinette.

Sketch book of Madame Modjeska, c. late 19th century
Paper, board, pencil and ink; 6 1/2 × 8 3/4 in.
Presented to Museum by Myrtle Blakeslee in memory of Felix Modjeska, grandson of Madame Helena Modjeska

Modjeska Herself

Last but not least are the sketches of Modjeska herself. Though she was always a thespian first and foremost, she dabbled in pencil sketches throughout her life and even created a 147-page storybook entirely of her own invention for her younger relatives. The Bowers Museum has in its collections a shorter collection of sketches made during her time living in Modjeska Canyon which tackle a seemingly random array of subjects, from nature scenes to unfinished men in unfinished coats to Modjeska herself in costume. The sketches in this post show a woman in a corset standing before a mirror and a group of flowers surrounded by butterflies. English-language notes written on these drawings by Modjeska’s daughter-in-law provide more information about what these represent. The first is "The queen of tragedy” just a few precious moments before walking on stage in character. The other is a bouquet of flowers given to Modjeska by her daughter-in-law. All the world was her stage, but her own reflections were on the things and loved ones dearest to her.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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Comments 1

Guest - Dennis Brent on Thursday, 14 October 2021 18:24

Do corseted skeet shooters shout, “Pull!”?


Do corseted skeet shooters shout, “Pull!”? db
Wednesday, 17 April 2024

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