In 1904, Albert Sterner was commissioned to provide illustrations for The Marriage of William Ashe, a novel by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (Mary Augusta Ward [1851-1920]) which was published by Harper & Brothers, New York, in 1905. In the novel, the title character is an upper-class statesman who falls in love with and marries the beautiful and impetuous Kitty Bristol, who comes from an undistinguished background. Jealousies, flirtations, broken engagements, and ruined political ambitions characterize the melodramatic plot, which ends in Kitty’s illness and death.
One of Sterner’s most successful illustrations for the novel was the frontispiece, “Lady Kitty Bristol,” which depicts the protagonist seated in an armchair, holding a fan, and wearing a low-cut, “off-the-shoulder” dress. The drawing from which this frontispiece was printed is signed and dated 1904. The “Lady Kitty Bristol” illustration found great favor among critics. In a 1906 New York Times review of another novel, The Vine of Sibmah, the reviewer regretted that the illustrator for that work had “made strapping, hard-featured women of the two beautiful maidens of the story.” He continued: “But for the memory of Mr. Sterner’s ethereally exquisite Lady Kitty Ashe…we should cry “hands off!” whenever an illustrator approaches a heroine.” (1) Indeed, Sterner apparently had difficulty himself finding a suitable model for his Lady Kitty. The novel’s publishers wrote to the editors of The Critic in 1906, saying:
“The Marriage of William Ashe” serves to call to mind some of the obstacles that may confront an artist. When Mr. Sterner undertook the commission to illustrate Mrs. Ward’s novel, he was living in Münich, where he found great difficulty in securing good English models…. Rows upon rows of stout and rosy German maidens were passed in review before the artist in the vain hope of discovering a suitable original for the sprightly “Lady Kitty”; but at last Mr. Sterner was forced to betake himself to London to find the slender girl with the oval face and dark eyes now familiar to us as “Lady Kitty.” For a time Mr. Sterner occupied Mrs. Ward’s beautiful country house, in daily consultation with the author, discussing, altering, and amending; but his endeavor is more than justified by the result, for his illustrations for the novel really illustrate a quality in pictorial work that is, unfortunately, very rare. (2)
The Dumbarton Oaks drawing of Lady Kitty is not the drawing that was used for the novel’s frontispiece, although it is closely related and depicts the same model wearing the same dress. The two depictions differ in the type of chair, the orientation of the sitter’s pose, and the turn of the head. The frontispiece version depicts Lady Kitty in a seemingly more demure pose, whereas the Dumbarton Oaks version gives her a greater allure and immediacy. Because the Dumbarton Oaks drawing is dated 1904, it is likely that it was made as a possible illustration for the novel. Sterner exhibited his drawings for The Marriage of William Ashe at the Klackner Gallery in New York City between February 19 and March 3, 1906, but it is not known whether the Dumbarton Oaks drawing was included in that sale exhibition.
Mildred Bliss was invoiced for the Lady Kitty drawing in September 1907 by Frederick Keppel & Co., New York, a firm that specialized in etchings and engravings and also represented Sterner’s art. It was through this gallery that she commissioned Albert Sterner to make her portrait (HC.D.1908.03.[Cr]), which was still unfinished when she accepted it in April 1908. Her friend, Fitzroy Carrington (1869-1954), who worked at Frederick Keppel & Co., wrote her in August 1907, intimating that the portrait was soon to begin: “Incidentally your name was mentioned the other day by Miss Lucy Perrin, who had seen 'Lady Kitty' in your home & admiring it (as we all do) had spoken of it to Mr. Sterner; who, lunching with me a week or so later was delighted to know of its happy, sympathetic environments. Miss Perrin must have 'fired a train,' making the artist ambitious for a portrait drawing. I so trust that it may come to pass: I know you would inspire him – you do all who know you – to do his best; and Sterner’s 'really truly' best is a sympathetic portrait drawing, to my thinking, the best America has to show." (3)
(1) New York Times (July 7, 1906), BR434.
(2) “On the top of all this comes the publishers’ side of the story in the form of a printed note from Messrs. Harper,” The Critic, An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life vol. 48, no. 6 (June, 1906), 498.
(3) Fitzroy Carrington, Mallowfield, Mamaroneck, New York, to Mildred Barnes, August 29, 1907. Harvard University Archives, HUG (FP) 76.8, box 11.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., American Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Selections from the House Collection, October 26, 2010-February 13, 2011, no. 16.
Purchased from Frederick Keppel & Co, New York, N.Y., by Mildred Barnes, September 3, 1907.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until January 17, 1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.