Sunday, November 07, 2010

I Marry an Artist

Self Portrait

As noted in the last post ,
Samuel Byer (1882-1966)
illustrated "Transplanted People",
a memoir written by his wife, Etta, in 1955,
recounting her life
as a Russian-Jewish immigrant
in the early decades of the 20th C.

Portrait of Etta

Here's how it begins:


My father’s mother, Gitl, was a beautiful Woman, and, for those years, very cultured. She could read. She was considered a wise person. But luck was against her. She had been married and widowed three times. The three husbands, although intellectually strong, were physically weak, and died at an early age.

Grandmother was left a widow with two children. The daughter, Hilda, was like her mother, beautiful and healthy. The son, Israel Joseph, was like his father, thin, round-shouldered, weak in body, but spiritually and mentally strong. He was a fine scholar.

Etta arrives in Chicago at the age of 19,
starts working in a cigar factory (just like Carmen!)
and soon meets her first husband:

He told me that he was very much in love with me. When we were home he cried bitterly for fear of losing me. He said that he could not live or get along without me. He told that we should get married in Court the following Saturday. I was about nineteen, and told him that we must wait, but he refused to take no for an answer.

The young couple would eventually
own a tobacco/news shop
(one of them near the L station in Oak Park,
have three children,
and live in Albany Park.

But she was only 38
when her husband died.

That first summer of my widowhood, with no business to take care of, I attended the house and the children, but I was very lonely. Both boys used their bicycles often, and I worried that they might get hurt. I often thought of my sister Feigel, who was also a widow. My family in Lida cried over our bad luck, and they all were very grateful that we had bought the building for them.

One summer day when I was out walking with my little girl, we met Meyer’s old friend, Sam, who had lived in the same house with him and dreamed of becoming an artist some day. I told him that I had lost my husband and sold my business.

“Can you imagine me doing nothing?” I asked him. He told me that his wife had died and that he was lonely, too. He still had his small sign shop, and made a living working there. Saturdays and Sundays he painted, but he had not advanced very much.

The following Sunday morning Samuel came to visit. After I had given the children their lunch. I put my little girl in her buggy, and we went for a walk. Sam told me, in plain and simple language, that he wanted to marry me, that he thought I would inspire him in his painting, and that he had liked me the first time he met me.

Sam and I were about the same age. He was good- looking, the kindest man I knew, and he had lived very happily with his first wife. I told him to find a single girl.
“Why do you want a woman with three children?” I asked. “You don’t realize the noise they can make and what a responsibility you would be taking on.

Sam answered, “George Washington married Martha and she had children. I am also an orphan, no mother, no wife. . Adopt me like a son, and you will have four children."

I Marry an Artist

One day Sam met Meyer (Etta's brother) on the streetcar. You know I am interested in your sister,” Sam told him. “We are planning to get married some day.”
“Don’t do that, Meyer warned him. “She is a mean and nervous woman; when she gets angry, she breaks dishes over your head.”

I am not afraid, said Sam. I’ll never give you an opportunity to break dishes over my head. How could you? I’ll wash them myself”

I said, “If I marry you, you will work in the shop during the day for a living and study art at night so you will advance” I promised that be would have the freedom to go sketching and to paint at the studios to which he belonged, and I would be happy to see him realize his dream.

The following year we were married.

A Letter to Mother

Sam took me to the Academy of Fine Arts, where he was a member; also to Hull House, where he studied painting under the fine teacher, Miss Benedict. He introduced me to all the artists he knew. They told me that he was talented and a fine colorist but he never completed his canvases. But now he really started to work with enthusiasm, and began to exhibit small subjects. Whenever I came to the opening of an exhibition with him, I told him how happy I was to see even a small thing painted by him, and I hoped that in time it would get better.

He studied for nine years. Sometimes he painted in the house until morning. We visited many exhibitions, and both enjoyed the world of art.
‘‘I want to create different madonnas, not heavenly but earthly ones. Jewish madonnas. In heaven, they will rate only as a footstool to their husbands, the scholars, but on earth they deserve the same rights as the men. His first successful Jewish madonna was “A Letter to Mother.” All the artists admired that painting… I was the model for that painting. Sam painted simple characters, women doing all kinds of work Pictures were accepted for the Art Institute and other prominent exhibits. He became well known in the world of art, his work appeared in magazines, newspapers, and he was mentioned in many editions of “Who’s who in American Jewry”. But Sam remained a peaceful, honest person and easy to get along with.

Mr. Sam Byer was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1886. He came to Chicago when he was twenty years old, and studied at Hull House Art School under Enella Benedict for many years. Mr. Byer was also a student at the Chicago Art Institute and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1930, he was awarded the Worcester prize in an exhibit with a group of the Chicago Etching Society. His paintings have been represented in many exhibits, including the Chicago shows at the Chicago Art Institute. Many of his works are Hebraic in theme, attributed to his early childhood education in Hebrew school. Such titles as “The End of the Sabbath,”“A Lesson in Talmud,” and “Capores,” bring to mind those cherished stories of Biblical days. His portrait of “La Jeuf” (The Jewess) was posed by the operatic star, Rosa Raisa.

Although Mr. Byer has painted in several media, he seems to derive more satisfaction from oil painting. His greatest achievements have been in his portraits and illustrated Biblical stories. Perhaps the most outstanding characteristics of his work are his ability in the handling of color, and his feeling for line and form. One cannot help find sincerity and emotional appeal in his paintings.

Michael Gamboney , Head, Hull House Art School


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