Arts & Culture

Houghton joins with libraries nationwide to celebrate artists’ retreat

5 min read

HCL Communications It’s been said great art often grows out of tragedy — in the case of Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in upstate New York founded in 1900, tragedy spurred the creation of hundreds of great works of art.

A new exhibition, “Reflections on Yaddo,” curated by Heather Cole, assistant curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, opened Oct. 22 in the Amy Lowell Room of Houghton Library and explores the experiences of a small group of artists who stayed at Yaddo.

The exhibition is one of more than a dozen Yaddo-related exhibits planned for this year in conjunction with a major New York Public Library (NYPL) exhibit devoted to Yaddo. The NYPL is home to the Yaddo Archive.

The exhibition at Houghton will focus on a small group of artists, including poets Robert Lowell, who stayed at Yaddo in the fall and winter of 1948 and 1949, and Elizabeth Bishop, a Yaddo visitor in the summer of 1949 and winter of 1950. The exhibit also features James Laughlin, a writer and editor of the New Directions Publishing Co., which published up-and-coming young authors in the 1930s and 1940s, and short story master John Cheever, whose first stay at Yaddo in 1934 would be one of many.

Initially, the summer home of financier and philanthropist Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina, Yaddo was less an artists’ retreat and more an informal salon, where the Trasks would invite artist and writer friends to say for extended periods.

The couple moved to the Saratoga Springs mansion in 1881, following the death of their oldest son. Over the next decade, tragedy continued to stalk the family, in the form of the death of the couple’s remaining three children, in 1888 and 1889, and the destruction of the mansion in 1891.

Following the fire, the couple decided not only to rebuild the mansion but to dedicate their fortune to the artistic community.

During its informal salon days, many Trask family visitors had composed poems, plays, and music while staying at Yaddo. In an even earlier incarnation, when the site housed a tavern, it’s believed, curator Cole said, that Edgar Allan Poe composed part of “The Raven” there. In an 1894 letter to poet and critic George Woodberry, Spencer Trask claims Poe began composing the famous poem on the grounds, and recounts a local legend that the poet terrified the tenant’s grandson by repeatedly reciting “nevermore.”

“They reasoned there was something in the air or the water that fostered creativity,” Cole said, of the Trasks’ idea to transform Yaddo into an artists’ retreat.

Though the couple formed the corporation of Yaddo in 1900, artistic work there remained largely informal — artists were invited to the mansion by the family and stayed for differing lengths of time.

Spencer Trask died in 1909. With the help of longtime family friend George Foster Peabody, whom she married in the last year of her life, Katrina kept Yaddo running until her death in 1922.

Under Peabody’s leadership, Yaddo would be transformed.

He appointed Elizabeth Ames the foundation’s first executive director, and the pair oversaw a two-year renovation process that transformed the mansion from a home into studios and living spaces for artists.

When it welcomed its first guests in 1926, decisions about which artists would stay at Yaddo were formalized. In contrast to the earlier visits by Trask family friends, artists had to be recommended by someone who already had a connection with the foundation.

Since that first group of artists set foot on the 400-acre property, the mansion has hosted more than 3,500 writers, painters, composers, and other artists, ranging from Aaron Copeland to Saul Bellow. Visitors over the years have won hundreds of awards, including more than 60 Pulitzer Prizes and more than 50 National Book Awards.

Though many Yaddo artists would later achieve high acclaim, the foundation’s aim, Cole said, was to cast a spotlight on up-and-coming young artists who were struggling to get a toehold in the art world.

“They were really trying to get newer writers, people at the beginning of their career,” she said. “People like Truman Capote, who wrote his first novel there.”

Writers and artists accepted at Yaddo would be assigned a living space and studio, where they could work much of the day.

“They provided everything an artist or writer needed,” Cole said. Artists typically would enjoy a communal breakfast, and then head to work in their respective studios. “The idea was [that] someone should be able to come here to this sacred, secluded space and work uninterrupted.”

For struggling writer John Cheever, Yaddo was both an artistic retreat and a way to put food on the table.

A destitute Cheever wrote to Ames in the 1920s, begging for a job at Yaddo. Cheever eventually became the mansion’s handyman through most of the Depression, and wrote in his spare time. After making his name as a fiction writer, he returned to Yaddo regularly.

A 1961 quote from Cheever’s journal, included in the Houghton exhibition, perhaps best sums up the spirit both of the mansion — and of those who stayed there.

“I don’t even think Elizabeth [Ames] guessed that we would slide down the banisters, put hats on the statuary, and romp naked in the atrium pool,” he wrote. “The conflict between this sedate mansion and the conduct of working artists was never, to my knowledge, allowed to become grave.”