By Jim Rosenthal
The “Renaissance Man” is defined as someone who is knowledgeable, educated and proficient in a wide array of fields. The best example is Leonardo da Vinci. The best example in Chicago for the first half of the 20th Century was Ralph Fletcher Seymour.
Seymour was a man of many talents. He was an accomplished publisher of fine books, the creator of many book plates, and an excellent etcher. He was widely travelled in Europe and the Southwestern US. He was an active member of many organizations including “the Cliff Dwellers,” the Caxton Club, the Chicago Society of Etchers, the Lake Zurich Golf Club and many more. His list of friends included Clarence Darrow (attorney), Frank Lloyd Wright (architect), Daniel Burnham (architect), Bertha Jaques (etcher), Robert Frost (poet), Ezra Pound (poet), Elbert Hubbard (author), Lorado Taft (sculptor) and Jane Addams (Founder of Hull House). In fact there were few in the art, business or social world in Chicago in the early 1900’s who did not know and appreciate the talents and friendship of Ralph Fletcher Seymour.
He was born on March 18,1876 in Milan, Indiana and spent most of his childhood in Indiana. As Seymour describes in his autobiography – Some Went this Way – he was an undistinguished student in high school. In fact, his mathematics teacher made a special point of telling him that he was “no good in grammar or in Latin, and you certainly are dumb in mathematics.” But he was right when he added: “I think someday you will be a good artist.”
(Note: The biographical references I have seen on Seymour show his place of birth as Milan, Illinois. This is a small town in Western Illinois. In his autobiography he describes growing up in a small town in Indiana. His grandfather moved there in 1836. His parents lived there for all of their lives. It is not logical that his mother was in Milan, Illinois – 200 miles from Northern Indiana to give birth to Ralph. On the other hand Milan, Indiana is a small town close to where he grew up. So I am going with Milan, Indiana as his birthplace. Incidentally, the story of the Milan High School basketball team is the basis for the movie “Hoosiers.”)
Seymour went on to study at the Cincinnati Art Academy under Frank Duvenek, Lewis Meakin and Vincent Nowattny. He moved to Chicago in the Autumn of 1898. His first job was at an engraving house drawing and lettering newspapers and advertisements. He worked in a “bull pen” with twenty other workers. Since the country was still recovering from a depression, his pay was zero. After two months, he received his first weekly pay – $2.00.
Fortunately, this engraving house was an “incubator” for young artists. One of his co-workers was Joseph Leyendecker. Joseph and his brother Frank proved themselves to be outstanding artists. Their work on advertisements and book illustrations was immediately noticed and was soon in high demand. Other contemporaries of Seymour in Chicago during this time were Jules Guerin, Harrison Fisher, Maxfield Parrish and Childe Hassam.
Soon Seymour was moving on to bigger things. While at the Art Academy in Cincinnati, he developed a fondness for fine books. In his spare time in Chicago, he hand lettered a version of Shakespeare’s “Three Merry Old Tales.” He used his savings to print a full first edition with the anticipation of easy sales. Obviously, books do not sell themselves and sales were not good. Good fortune struck when a friend of Seymour’s gave a copy of his book to Frank W. Gunsaulus. Gunsaulus was President of a college, friend of many mighty men in business, and a great book lover. The retail book trade in Chicago gave him the nickname of “The Saint.”
“The Saint” loved “Three Merry Old Tales” and offered to send his card with Seymour’s promotional material on the book. Book sales rolled in. The full edition was soon sold out. Ralph Fletcher Seymour was in the book publishing business – a field that he stayed in for over 60 years.
By the time Seymour had published his third book it was obvious to him and to his employer that he needed to find another place to run his burgeoning publishing business. After to talking to friends, he concluded that the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue was the place he needed to be. The building was filled with artists of all kinds – from musicians to architects to painters to sculptures – you name it. On a visit to the building he struck up a conversation with Charles Francis Browne, a noted landscape artist and publisher of a Chicago art magazine. As it turned out, Browne was leaving for his summer home and he offered the free use of his space. Obviously, the price was right and Seymour moved in.
The offices were actually sublet from the Lorado Taft – one of the leading sculptures in the country during the early 1900’s. It did not take long for Seymour to convince Taft that he would be a good tenant, neighbor, and friend. Seymour’s publishing house had a permanent home and it was a perfect fit for his personality. He was in the center of the art, business and cultural world of Chicago and he thrived.
The 10th floor of the Fine Arts Building was an active place. Of course, Lorado Taft was his neighbor. Just down the hall were the offices of Frank Lloyd Wright. Besides being a world renowned architect, Wright was also a collector of Japanese prints. Seymour and Wright became friends and Seymour went on to publish a book on Wright’s prints.
Seymour had many interests and was involved in many civic, cultural and fraternal organizations. His autobiography is filled with stories of the Cliff Dwellers, the Caxton Club, Ravinia, his nude models (somewhat risque, but never over the line), the publishing industry and his many friends of all walks of life. He was entertaining, talented, interesting and interested. Most importantly, he was a protagonist in and teller of great stories. But all of this is beyond the scope of this blog post. He was also an accomplished etcher and printmaker and that is the story we would like to tell here.
According to Seymour’s autobiography, he began his etching career by being included as an original member of the Chicago Society of Etchers. This group was started in 1910 at an evening meeting at the home of Bertha Jaques. In attendance were Ms. Jaques, Ralph Pearson, Otto Schneider and Earl Reed. Their goal was to create an organization for the promotion of etching and etchers. They achieved their objective. The Chicago Society of Etchers became one of the most important artistic societies of the early 20th Century and was successful for over 40 years. The definitive book on the CSE is Bertha E. Jaques and the Chicago Society of Etchers by Joby Patterson. In this book and in the Seymour autobiography, he is listed as one of the “charter” members. (A letter from Seymour to Jaques that I found in the James Swann Archives at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art raises some questions about this timing, but we will address that later.)
In addition to running his publishing business, Ralph Fletcher Seymour was a teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught classes in lettering and graphic design. At that time the Art Institute sponsored one teacher per year to study in France. He was chosen for this honor in 1912. His account of his many European adventures take up about 40 pages in his 300 page autobiography. Obviously, the experience had a big impact on his life.
(Author’s note: I was fortunate to have a similar experience in 1968-1969 when I attended the Netherlands School of International Business at Nijenrode outside of Amsterdam. It is amazing how one year can change your thinking and broaden your horizons.)
One of Seymour’s goals for his Parisian adventure was to learn how to be an etcher. Luckily two of his Chicago friends – Otto Schneider and William Auerbach-Levy – were in Paris and willingly agreed to be his teachers. Even though he was an accomplished artist, he literally had to (excuse the pun) start from scratch. His year was well spent learning everything from how to ground a plate . . . to how to design and needle the work . . . to how to use acid to etch the results. He also learned how to choose the right printer for his etchings. When he returned to Chicago he had many of his etchings printed by Henry Rosenthal (my Grandfather) and his son Charles Rosenthal (my father).
Seymour soon became a very accomplished and enthusiastic etcher. By 1915 he was ready to apply to the Society on the basis of his etchings. Here is his letter to Bertha Jaques from the James Swann Archives at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art:
“The Chicago Society of Etchers – to Mrs. Bertha E. Jaques, Secretary
“Dear Madam – It has taken me over a year to find time to write this letter of application for membership in the Chicago Society of Etchers, although I have more interest in belonging to so important an organization as it has proved to be than in almost any other affiliation.
With this letter I send, in your care, 5 proofs of plates which I have etched, and printed, also. I wish to be made a member, if the low quality of the work, which is, nevertheless, the best that I can offer, will permit you to accept me.
After your decision will you kindly return the examples to me, and inform me of the Society’s action as to my application, and greatly oblige.
Very truly yours, R. F. Seymour (February 4, 1915)”
His application was accepted. As mentioned above, Seymour loved being involved in organizations, clubs, groups and any other activity where he could interact with people. He was a talented etcher and he knew everybody. It did not take long for Bertha Jaques to include him on the Jury that decided who would be able to participate in the annual show of the Chicago Society of Etchers. In the early days these shows were held at the Art Institute of Chicago. They attracted top etchers from all over the world. Being included was a big plus for an artist’s etching career. Prints were also sold at the show and this was a major income generator for the participants.
By 1917 Seymour was made one of the judges for the show. He served in this capacity at least until 1927.
The Chicago Society of Etchers had two types of members – artist and Associate. The Associate Members paid $5 a year. This money covered the expenses of the organization. Each year Associate Members received a Presentation Print created by one of the artist members. The Presentation Prints were selected by the CSE Jury of Selection. For more information on this program and a full listing of all Presentation Print winners see:www.inpraiseofprints.com/chicago-society-of-etchers-presentation-prints-1912-1956/
An etching by Seymour was selected as the 1935 Presentation Print. It is entitled “A Paris Wine Shop” and was printed by Morris Henry Hobbs.
Seymour’s social satire was in high gear when he created this etching. His use of light emphasizes the contrast between the two figures. The young and attractive waitress bathed in sunlight visiting with the older and somewhat homely patron in the shadows. Surely the patron was certain in his own mind that he became wittier and more intelligent with each glass of wine. It is doubtful the waitress was impressed – except maybe with the gratuity.
(When Seymour returned from Paris, he started teaching etching at the Art Institute. One of his pupils was Morris Henry Hobbs.)
Seymour was a prolific etcher. In fact, he created etchings much like many artists do sketches. Charles Rosenthal in his autobiography describes delivering printed etchings to Seymour in the Fine Arts Building. As he was accepting the prints, he was talking with a visitor and etching a 5″ by 7″ grounded plate. To the astonishment of Charles, he finished all three in a span of about 15 minutes. Consequently, just about any scene that he encountered in his daily life could be the subject of an etching.
For example, one of his friends enjoyed feeding the pigeons on the window sill of his office. After a visit, Seymour decided to memorialize the act and the view. The result was one of his most famous etchings – “Daily Bread.”
A visit to Lincoln Park in Winter produced this etching:
In the 1930’s there was a major confrontation between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Supreme Court. The Court was part of many news stories and also a subject of one of Seymour’s etchings.
Although Seymour worked in the city of Chicago for his entire career, he decided to live in the “country.” He was one of the first non-farmers to buy land in an unincorporated area by the name of Ravinia. (now Highland Park) Of course, today Ravinia is the home of a Summer music festival. Seymour’s house was just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. He and his family loved to take walks. Undoubtedly, the scene below of “Lake Michigan Surf” was the view of the Lake near where he lived.
A visit to the neighboring town of Glencoe, Illinois served as impetus for this etching:
Like many Chicagoans of his era, Seymour was fascinated by the American Indians of the the Southwest. As mentioned above, one of his “Clubs” and a source or much of his entertainment was the “Cliff Dwellers.” Despite the fact that almost none of the members had ever been “West” or had ever seen an American Indian, the name sounded rather exotic and since the meeting rooms were well above street level, the name stuck.
Seymour’s account of the first real visit of Pueblo Indians to the Cliff Dwellers meeting rooms is a great story. Suffice it to say that the 20 plus Pueblo Indians in attendance had great appetites and they could dance. Cliff Dweller members wound up standing on tables to give them room!
Seymour made numerous visits to New Mexico and to the Mayan and Inca ruins further South. This etching captures some of the beauty of Northern New Mexico.
Seymour continued publishing books and producing etchings well into his 80’s. He also continued to enjoy his “clubs” and the company of his many friends. On January 1, 1966 after celebrating at a New Year’s Eve party, he decided he would like to walk home. On the way, he was struck by a car and killed instantly. He was 89.