At the beginning of a 1964 Oral History interview for the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Art, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones indicates that she was never very good at remembering dates. At first, this seems like a very innocent statement, but as one reads further into the interview, it becomes apparent that the elderly Ms. Sparhawk-Jones may be suffering the effects of her age, and has likely forgotten many parts of her younger life. Though it is unfortunate, it is not an uncommon phase in the aging process. What is uncommon, however, is that the art world, whose memory should have been longer, was so short when it came to an artist of Sparhawk-Jones' caliber.
Casual research of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones is a nightmare. The references for her date of birth range from 1874 to 1885. Her death, anywhere from 1951 (13 years prior to the Smithsonian interview), to 1968. By all claims, the precocious Sparhawk-Jones entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts aged 15, yet the accepted dates of her enrollment at the Academy place her at 16 or, more likely, 17, upon entrance. A single, more prominent piece of hers lists creation dates anywhere from 1910 to 1930, making it extremely difficult to track her artistic growth during her career. The National Museum of Women in the Arts cannot even provide her place of birth, nor where she studied or resided. It almost seems that the facts of the artist's life were intentionally obfuscated.
How could this be? How could an artist, whose work realized prices equivalent to $50,000 today, and who received accolades proclaiming her to be a better artist than even her teacher, the famous William Merritt Chase, nearly disappear so completely?
Sadly, it may just be that Sparhawk-Jones refused to hide herself away after recovering from a nervous breakdown, so the world hid the record of her instead. In a time when all forms of mental illness were considered insanity, Elizabeth found herself suffering from a debilitating depression, which, even after temporarily conquering it, left her stigmatized by a world still in its infancy in the understanding of mental health. For polite society, if troubled people were not locked away in an asylum, it was probably best just to ignore them lest their taint spread. Was this the fate Elizabeth suffered?
After a meteoric rise in the arts, it seems that Elizabeth just disappeared. She took a sabbatical from painting to recuperate from her depression, and upon her return, while under influence from PAFA friends Morton Schamberg and Charles Sheeler, changed her painting focus to the Modernist movements coming out of France. Though she participated in several important Modern Art shows in America, she never really attained the same standing in the Modern Art world that she had enjoyed as the teen-aged Impressionist figural painter.
Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones may be forgotten, but she is not gone, or at least this is the feeling of author Barbara Lehman Smith. In a serendipitous event, three boxes containing long-lost papers belonging to Sparhawk-Jones were spared from the incinerator, and mistakingly delivered to Smith's public relations office at the hospital where she worked. Smith's previous office on the grounds of the hospital was in the old Trimbush House, once owned by Elizabeth's sister, Margaret Turnbull, and when Trimbush was scheduled for demolition, the three boxes were removed from the attic, and inadvertently mixed in with Smith's belongings. Feeling the unseen hand of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones urging her to tell the tale, Smith began on a ten-year journey researching and writing about this elusive artist.
To learn more about Barbara Lehman Smith's book, Elizabeth Sparhawk Jones: The Artist Who Lived Twice, visit Smith's website and join the mailing list to be notified of the book's future publication.