Girl Scouts know that Daisy Low was an artist. Her most famous piece of work is probably the gorgeous iron gates she made for her home in Britain. They can be seen at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah. Also on display at the Birthplace are two sets of dinner plates, hand painted by Daisy before her marriage. She loved the fine arts, particularly theatre, painting, and sculpture. Art was her favorite subject in school and after graduation from finishing school, she returned to New York for advanced classes. Her three teachers were all exceptionally well-known in their time, and learning more about them helps to explain both how much talent Daisy actually had and why she later thought seriously about a career in sculpting.
In 1880 there were three artists named Mr. Weir: the father and two sons. My educated guess is that Daisy studied with the celebrated father. By the time she knew him, Robert W. Weir had studied in Rome, served as Professor of Perspective at the National Academy of Design, and become one of the Hudson School of landscape painters. Weir’s 1833 Greenwich Boat Club was one of his first really well-received paintings.
|Greenwich Boat Club, now at Princeton Art Museum|
But it’s the Embarkation of the Pilgrims for which we still remember him. It was commissioned for the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today. The subject is the Pilgrims getting ready to board the Speedwell as they left from Holland en route for America. Weir really wanted to paint the much more famous scene of the signing of the Mayflower Compact, but his friend Samuel F. B. Morse, already claimed that subject. Morse—the inventor of the Morse code—and Weir exchanged a couple of letters about this, as Weir attempted to get him to change his mind. Morse never did; but he never got the commission, either, and so the Rotunda is without a depiction of the Mayflower Compact signing.
Weir’s real career was Professor of Drawing at West Point. Drawing and painting were critical skills for military men, especially engineers, in the age before cameras. Weir mentored Cadet James McNeill Whistler who was, according to Prof. Weir, only an “indifferent soldier.” Whistler dropped out—or was kicked out—of the military academy and went off to concentrate solely on art. In 42 years at West Point, Weir also taught Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph E. Johnston, Philip H. Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman, the last of whom, Weir believed, “might have made a fair artist.”
Daisy studied at Weir’s studio among a jumble of armor, easels, casts of body parts, bookcases, paints, and brushes. Weir looked like Santa Claus. His head was wreathed in white all around: the snowy hair on top joined the short beard via long sideburns. His definition of art reflected his deep spirituality: “It is the chiseled, colored or written index of the mind; and for this reason, in its purity, in the integrity of its purpose, it is a strong incentive to good.” He thought Daisy painted very well from life models and had “a good eye for color.” She believed she’d never learned so much from anyone as she had from Robert Weir.
|Painted by a student of Lycett’s|
Daisy’s third teacher was the Baltimore artist Charles Volkmar. At age twenty he was publicly accused of sympathizing with the Confederates. So in 1861—the same year Lycett arrived in the U.S.—Volkmar left. At the Haviland China Company in France he studied an underglazing technique for “slip” pottery, which he was credited with introducing to the U.S. upon his return in 1879. Like Weir, Volkmar embraced romanticism. He painted pottery with buccolic scenes of hunters, shepherds, and cattle. Pupils like Daisy flocked to him.
|A vase by Volkmar now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art|
Since this kind of ceramic painting has all but disappeared as a respected and valued art form today, it’s difficult to assess Daisy’s work by simply looking at it. Was she a hack or an artist of real ability? The simple fact that such prominent painters took her on as a student suggests the latter was true. Wier, Volkmar, and Lycett encouraged her and formed her early artistic sensibilities. They took her seriously in a time when female artists were a rarity. Their faith in her talent helps us understand why Daisy re-embraced art at a later, sadder, period of her life.