Morgan, Maud (1903–1999)

views updated

Morgan, Maud (1903–1999)

American artist . Name variations: Maud Cabot. Born Maud Cabot in New York, New York, on March 1, 1903; died in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 14, 1999; daughter of Francis Higginson Cabot and Maud (Bonner) Cabot; married Patrick Morgan (an artist), around 1930 (separated around 1957, divorced 1980); children: one daughter; one son.

An icon of the Boston art world for over 50 years, Maud Morgan began painting around 1927 and launched her career in New York during the 1930s, exhibiting alongside abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. In 1939, having married, she moved to Andover, Massachusetts, leaving behind the renowned art circles that might have enhanced her fame. She taught for many years in Andover while raising a family and continuing to paint. Following a separation from her husband in 1957, Morgan briefly took up residence in Boston, then settled in Cambridge, although she continued to travel extensively. At age 92, she published her autobiography, Maud's Journey: A Life from Art, which gave rise to two small exhibitions of her work: "Maud in the '90s," at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and "Maud Morgan: Celebrating a Life in Art," at the Boston Public Library. Morgan's extraordinary life, which included travel in remote Africa, friendships with Ernest Hemingway and John Cage, and a divorce at age 77, was as colorful as her paintings.

Maud Morgan was born in 1903 into the New York branch of the aristocratic Cabot family, and had a privileged but unhappy childhood at the hands of domineering parents. Her mother Maud Bonner Cabot , a big-game hunter, stalked moose and caribou in French Canada, where the family had a summer estate. In her autobiography, Morgan writes that her mother insisted that she too kill a moose before she made her debut. "It will give you something to talk about," said her mother. ("I did kill a moose," Morgan confided to interviewer John Koch, "and vowed never to do it again.") Morgan's early adult life also included trips to Russia, India (where she met Gandhi), and Paris, where she attended the Sorbonne and befriended Hemingway, who apparently surprised her with his cordiality. In Paris, she also met the love of her life, Whitney Cromwell, who was homosexual. After he died of pneumonia in 1930, Morgan married his roommate, artist Patrick Morgan, though she later admitted that she did not love him. It was Patrick who had first encouraged Morgan "to pick up a brush," although he may not have suspected at the time that she would soon be included in a number of prestigious exhibitions. Following her first important show, Morgan was extolled by the critics and sold works to the Whitney, the Metropolitan, and the Museum of Modern Art.

The Morgans lived in New York for much of the 1930s, during which time Maud was a student of Hans Hoffmann. After moving to Massachusetts, the couple raised two children, a daughter and a son, and taught at Abbot Academy and Phillips Academy. (Among their more prominent students were Frank Stella and Carl Andre.) Morgan also continued to pursue her own art career, exhibiting for years at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover. In addition to her work, she raised Shih Tzu dogs and helped run a folk-art group based near her family's home in Canada. Morgan's busy life, however, did not compensate for a miserable marriage, although it took her 27 years to summon up the courage to leave Patrick, and another 20 or so years to finalize a divorce. She later claimed that the day she obtained her final divorce decree was the day she recognized who she was.

Morgan's work, which ranges from abstract to representational, includes paintings in oil, watercolor, and gouache, as well as drawings, prints, and collages. "You don't find much beige in Morgan's paintings," writes Christine Temin of The Boston Globe. "She's a fan of fierce color; even in the charming 1990 oilstick drawing 'The Sweater Is Finished,' she can't resist dressing her feet in vivid lime-green." Temin also points out that Morgan's paintings frequently reflected her unhappy relationship with her husband. "Like Frida Kahlo , whose art was often a record of her tormented marriage to Diego Rivera, Morgan's painting sometimes reflected a despairing soul," she writes. "While ostensibly abstract, her canvases often presented feelings and images as specific as the broken heart of her painting 'Denkmal,' a 1948 memorial to Cromwell."

Also reflective of Morgan's inner life is her series of self-portraits, which she said were her way of reaching "the real core of things." She portrayed herself in poses ranging from silly to heroic. In her 1993 self-portrait My Rain Hat, Morgan gazes out from under a voluminous white hat, while in Facing the Storm, she looks into a pale streaked background suggesting wind. "Like the figurehead of a ship, she stares into the storm as if it were the future," writes Temin. The artist's 1992 self-portrait, The Rope, is more ambiguous. An actual rope is attached to the top of the narrow canvas on which Morgan appears dressed in red, her face ashen, "as if decomposing," describes Temin. "Her eyes are cast down, so you can't read her expression, and her hand reaches up toward the rope, which is an enigma: It could equally suggest survival or suicide."

Maud Morgan continually renewed her artistic outlook by collaborating with other artists. She teamed with Bernard Toale on handmade paper pieces, with Clara Wainwright on a tapestry, and with Michael Silver on works combining photography and printmaking. "We operated like a friendly game of chess," said Silver, "with each other reacting to the other with moves and countermoves. The only difference was that we both won!" In their 1995 work, Reflections, they combined layers of transparencies and cyanotype printing, creating a rich blue background on which they superimposed a series of images. "Faces, staircases, a pear imprisoned by the vertical bars of a slicer—these are some of the recognizable objects that float through the serene atmospheres Morgan and Silver have created," writes Temin. "In these collaborative works, Morgan continues a career-long dialogue between representational and abstract."

At age 93, when she was interviewed by Koch for the Boston Globe Magazine, Morgan had given up painting due to a lack of energy and the inability to lift her right arm enough to make a free brush stroke. At the time, however, she had newly discovered collage and was energized by it. "You suddenly put a piece of paper on another piece of paper—and then I just say out loud: 'That's plain beautiful!' I get very excited." At the end of the interview, Koch asked if she thought about death. "A bit," she replied. "My children are getting a little worried—they think we haven't done enough planning. So we all went and got little pieces of ground at Mount Auburn Cemetery. … We had a hysterical day." Morgan lived for three more years, succumbing to complications of pneumonia on March 14, 1999, at age 96.


Koch, John. "The Interview," in Boston Globe Magazine. August 18, 1996.

McCabe, Bruce. "An Artist in her 90s for the '90s," in Boston Globe. May 6, 1995.

"Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. March 16, 1999.

Temin, Christine. "The Masterstrokes of Maud Morgan," in Boston Globe. June 28, 1995.

——. "Maud Morgan's Muddled Portrait," in Boston Globe. July 11, 1995.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Morgan, Maud (1903–1999)

Updated About content Print Article