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Finding Fidelia - A Journey From the North Shore of Massachusetts to the Northwest Hills of Connecticut

Sometimes history repeats itself and sometimes it corrects itself but no matter what it does, for myself, it always teaches me something new and oftentimes allows me to meet some rather interesting people along the way which is exactly what this post of a slightly different distraction is about!

This story starts with a previous post on this blog that I wrote last April. If you consult the "Wander List" up there above this post then scroll down to the entries under Salem, Massachusetts (and yes, there are a lot!), you'll eventually come across one almost smack in the middle titled The Suzannah Flint House at the Hawthorne Hotel. For those not familiar with that post or with the Suzannah Flint House, to quote myself, it is
"... a historic Bed & Breakfast-style property located to the rear of the Hawthorne's parking lot. The Hawthorne acquired the historic 1807 property that once belonged to Salem Schoolmaster John Gray in 2003 and offer it as an alternative to the main hotel for guests that like a more intimate feel."
View of the House

Even though it is a totally lovely place to stay and is a very comfortable and charming house with loads of personality like all well-kept old New England houses are, I wondered why it was named the Suzannah Flint House at all as the Hawthorne Hotel, in conjunction with Historic Salem, Inc., had done some research on the home in 2005 and found out that the property that had belonged to Suzannah Flint in the same general vicinity had been demolished and was not the 1807 John Gray house at all. Robert Booth, the local historian who delved into the house's history, also did some checking into who Suzannah Flint was, and, though she was probably a lovely lady, could find nothing of any interest about her.

Fidelia in 1834 - Image Credit
Instead, what he found was much more exciting from a historical point of view as the dwelling given the name the Suzannah Flint House by the owner previous to the Hawthorne, was actually the girlhood home of a Salem native who went on to make quite a name for herself in the art world - Fidelia Bridges.  Miss Bridges and her family lived in the home during the 1840s though I am not quite positive of the exact dates.

Fidelia's father was born in North Andover, Massachusetts on May 11th, 1780 to Lieutenant James Bridges and his wife Elizabeth Gardner, both sides being old Salem maritime families. Originally wishing to study medicine, Henry Gardner Bridges left home at an early age to become a sailor when his stepfather opposed his wishes. When he was barely 15 years old, Henry set sail on the Hazard, a ship noted for its speed.

On May 12, 1824, Henry married Eliza Chadwick of Salem, 11 years his junior, and shortly afterward began their family with the birth of Eliza Chadwick on January 10, 1826 followed by a son, Henry Gardner, who was born on April 28, 1829. Sadly, young Henry died at the age of 3 on June 1, 1831. Two more daughters followed, Elizabeth Gardner born Febuary 21, 1831 and Fidelia born May 19, 1834 before another son, again named Henry Gardner, was born on December 27, 1835.

As his family was growing so was Henry Gardner Bridge's career as he became captain of his own ship - first with the brig Cambrian then the Janus in 1820 and finally the Navigator in 1839 which he sailed to Hong Kong as part of the China trade.  Captain Bridges was a member of the East India Marine Society which was established in Salem in 1799 and "composed of persons who have actually navigated the seas beyond the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, as masters or supercargoes of vessels belonging to Salem" and it has been said that he contributed largely to the more than 4,000 curios that were brought back to Salem that formed the nucleus of what is now the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operated museum in the country.

Captain Bridges' grave in Macau - Image Credit
Unfortunately, while in the Huangpu District, Guangzhou, in China (Whampou), where many cargo vessels traded with China, Captain Henry Gardner Bridges met his death on the evening of December 19th, 1849 (though the local papers of the time said it was the 21st) at the age of 61. Buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau which had been developed by the local committee of the British East India Company in 1821 so that the burial of Protestants would be legal in the Roman Catholic Portuguese Colony, a monument was erected on Captain Bridge's grave by his nephews James B. & William Endicott. A portrait of Captain Bridges, painted by Henry Cheever Pratt in 1834, is part of the Peabody Essex Museum collection.

News of Captain Bridges' death didn't reach Salem until three months after the fact but just three hours before the sad message reached his home, his wife Eliza Chadwick Bridges died - never knowing that her husband had preceded her in death.  Even though the family had been comfortably well off while their father was alive, once the news of Captain Bridges' death made it to Salem, the family house and furniture had to be sold to pay estate debts. At just 24, as the oldest of the children, the task of auctioning off the family's belongings and moving the children to another house fell to Eliza. As a teacher, Eliza did her best to support the orphaned family but it was difficult and as Fidelia's health was poor, she was sent to live with a neighboring family who took her to Virginia Springs to help her recover. It was at that time that Fidelia began taking drawing lessons and once her health improved she went to work caring for the family of William Augustus Brown, a Salem shipowner. In 1854 the Brown family moved from Salem to Brooklyn, New York and Fidelia accompanied them. Wishing to keep the family together, Eliza left her teaching position in Salem and also moved to Brooklyn with Elizabeth and Henry.

Upon moving to Brooklyn, Eliza and Elizabeth set up a school with the help of two brothers of the Whitney Family whose sister, Anne, became a lifelong friend of Fidelia's.  Anne went on to become a successful 19th century sculptor and it was she who encouraged Fidelia to pursue her artistic abilities. Fidelia developed a firsthand acquaintance with contemporary art while attending numerous exhibitions in both Brooklyn and New York as she and her sisters went to the see the first American exhibition of the paintings of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, an English painter well known for his paintings of animals, as well as trips to the New York Crystal Palace to see exhibitions there before the building was destroyed by fire on October 5, 1858.

In spite of her loving siblings and caring friends, there was a sadness and melancholy surrounding Fidelia which deepened upon the death of Eliza in 1855. Struggling with her family's financial situation as well as her frustration at having her time to paint severely limited by her duties as nanny to the four Brown children, Fidelia felt a deep sense of loneliness that remained with her for the rest of her life. With Fidelia's health remaining somewhat fragile, Elizabeth also moved into the Brown family home and became close friends with Anne as the three young ladies attended lectures, local philharmonic orchestra concerts, tea parties, and horseback riding - activities that were made possible because of their close friendship with the Brown and Whitney families.

Marsh Mallow - Image Credit
Knowing that if she stayed with the Browns the development of her artistic career would be in jeopardy as she continued to spend so much time and energy caring for the children, in the spring of 1860 Fidelia accepted an invitation to attend a series of lectures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to be given by painter William Trost Richards, an American landscape artist associated with both the Hudson River School and the American Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Partly financed by the Brown family, Bridges began studying at the Pennsylvania Academy in March of 1860 and soon established a warm friendship with Richards and his family. That summer she accompanied Richards, his wife, and two sons to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, perhaps as a mother's helper and also for outdoor landscape study. Only a year older than Fidelia, Richards became her mentor as he influenced her in the Pre-Raphaelite style of painting with the underlying theory that "each object in nature should be given its greatest precision of form and its greatest intensity of local color when it was depicted in art." Slavish attention was devoted to exact details of leaves, grass, and flowers, almost as if they were seen under a microscope.

Following her summer with the Richards, Fidelia earned her room and board as a mother's helper to the Taylor family in Germantown where she had plenty of time to spend outdoors perfecting her painting and sketching. It was at that time she wrote to the Browns to tell them that art was her destined work and shortly afterward she began exhibiting at The Pennsylvania Academy where a few patrons began to buy her work. Her paintings showed the close focus on landscape details that was characteristic of paintings by Richards and the newly formed group of artists known as the American Pre-Raphaelites. Fidelia never became a member of the short-lived American Pre-Raphaelite group but its tenets definitely had a profound effect on her subsequent work.

Swallows By the Sea - Image Credit

In the fall of 1863 Fidelia returned to Brooklyn to live with her sister and exhibited for the first time at both the National Academy of Design and the Brooklyn Art Association. Her work began to sell steadily and she was able to maintain a studio in Brooklyn. At the close of the Civil War there was a great exodus of American artists traveling to Europe so, encouraged by Richards who had spent the previous winter there, in 1867 Fidelia, Anne Whitney, and several friends set out for Europe to refine their craft. During the summer Fidelia painted in Switzerland then spent the winter in Rome with her old friend Anne Whitney who had gone there to study sculpture.

Fidelia returned to Brooklyn in the fall of 1869, again living with her sister Elizabeth who was still teaching, and spent her days in a rented studio on Broadway in Manhattan. The European trip seems to have had little effect on her style and there are almost no examples of her work while she was there. Instead her special field of art became the painting of birds and flowers in watercolor as she sought American locales; finding abundant subject matter in the salt marshes of Stratford, Connecticut she began spending her summers there in 1871. Her studies from nature which were done there, while complete in themselves, served as the basis for more elaborate compositions that were painted in watercolor as well as oil in her studio during the winter months.

Untitled - Image Credit
By 1873 she was becoming known as a specialist in painting birds and flowers in exquisite detail and that year she was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design before becoming the first female member to join the American Society of Painters in Water Color (now known as The American Watercolor Society) in 1875. Around that time she began to sell some of her paintings to the Prang Publishing Company which was run by Louis Prang, an American printer, lithographer and publisher sometimes known as the "father of the American Christmas card".  In 1876 she began to contribute illustrations to Scribner's, St. Nicholas, and other periodicals as well as collaborating on several books with bird themes.

In 1880 Fidelia spent a summer painting in the small town of Canaan in the northwest hills of Connecticut and it was during this time that her style underwent a gradual shift from close views of meadows or forests to more expansive landscapes or decorative arrangements of birds and plants that evidenced her interest in Japanese scroll painting. In 1881 she was selected as one of Prang's permanent designers of Christmas cards as well as an illustrator of calendars and books which included Familiar Birds and What Poets Sing of Them which was published in 1886. She held her position with Prang until 1899 which gave her a measure of financial security for the very first time in her life. Maintaining a studio on West 54th Street in Manhattan, Fidelia continued to live with her sister in Brooklyn until Elizabeth's death in 1882.

Thistle and Landscape - Image Credit
After spending a winter in England visiting friends and her brother Henry who had moved there, Fidelia decided that she would like to have a home of her own and rented a small white house built on the side of a hill with a millstream running at its foot and an extensive garden in Canaan, Connecticut which became her permanent home. In 1899 her old friends the Browns bought an old inn two houses down from Fidelia and moved there to be close to her. For the first few years she maintained a studio in New York and also visited friends and family both abroad and in the country. At the age of 65 she rode her bike around England, still feeling that sense of loneliness she had experienced since losing both of her parents at the age of 15 and wishing that she had someone to be with her. In Canaan she was a familiar site on her bicycle, sitting tall and straight as she wore black in winter and gray linen in the summer.

Despite her loneliness, Fidelia's life remained an active and social one which was enlivened by her many friendships. During her retirement years many of her old friends came to Canaan to visit her - Charles Lay, the son of Oliver Lay who was a close painter friend, along with his children; the Brown's children and grandchildren, the Richards family, and her old friend Anne Whitney who had become a successful sculptress and whom Fidelia kept up a steady lifelong correspondence with. She loved her garden and spent much time puttering in it as she painted less but did many sketches of the chicadees, robins, and other birds that frequented her yard. She also produced illuminated manuscripts and presented those to her close friends.

Today Fidelia Bridges' work is held in major public and private collections including: the Amon Carter Museum; Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University; Columbus Museum, Georgia; Denver Art Museum; Louise and Allan Sellars Collection of Art by American Women; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute; National Museum of American Art; National Museum of Women in the Arts; New Britain Museum of American Art; Peabody Essex Museum; University of Michigan Museum of Art; University of Wyoming Art Museum; and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

On May 14, 1923, Fidelia passed away at the age of 89 and was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery located in a scenic and quiet spot on Sand Road in Canaan. Following her death, a bird memorial to her was proposed by Jenny Eddy, one of Fidelia's friends, to be placed in a quiet section of the cemetery.

Over the years the sanctuary fell into disrepair as the iron marker with the name of the memorial area and bird design fell down and disappeared into the brush while the forest reclaimed the spot. Finally, in 1992, steps were taken by the Canaan Cemetery Association to move the location closer to the center entrance of the cemetery and to also establish a small woodland garden with a birdbath. The original iron marker was found beneath the leaves and reinstated to mark the perfect memorial to an artist and woman who, though perhaps not widely known during her lifetime, was well-loved by those who were fortunate enough to make her acquaintance.

Bird sanctuary in the Mountain View Cemetery in honor of Fidelia Bridges

On November 9th of last year, the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, Massachusetts officially changed the name of the Suzannah Flint Guest House to the Fidelia Bridges Guest House to honor the woman who lived there with her family in the years before she became a well-respected American artist and illustrator whose fame as a foremost artist from Salem is recounted along with the likes of Samuel McIntire, George Ropes and Frank Benson. It's a very fitting tribute to a woman who overcame the sadness and loneliness and poverty of her life by bringing the beauty of nature to others through her paintings and illustrations - some of which the Hawthorne Hotel has acquired.

Changing the name of the guest house corrected history while also giving me the chance to become acquainted with two people whom I never would have if I hadn't recently driven across the State of Connecticut to Canaan and the Mountain View Cemetery in search of Fidelia's final resting place.

As I slowly drove and then walked through the cemetery reading names on gravestones, I was beginning to despair of ever finding Fidelia's which I had hoped to take a picture of to go along with a post but, fortunately for me, just about the time I was beginning to think that I was never going to find the stone, an older gentleman showed up to do some maintenance work on the pump for the bird bath in Fidelia's memorial bird sanctuary.

The gentleman's name was Ian and he was 91 years old as I later found out. Even though he didn't know where Fidelia's gravestone was when I asked him, Ian said that he thought he knew someone who would.  Pulling out his iPhone (something that really made me smile!) he placed a call to Annetta Brigham - or Anne as he called her - who was able to guide me directly to the stone that I was seeking.  Good thing she did, too, as I never would have found it on my own due to the faded inscription.


Walking back over to talk to Ian who at this point was doing a great job of scrubbing a marble bench bright and clean, I told him where the grave was (he said to let him know so that he'd have the knowledge for future reference) and thanked him profusely as I told him that I was very glad he had called Anne as I never would have found the marker on my own due to the stone's condition.  With a big smile Ian said that he'd be sure to clean the stone up so that others who might come to look for Fidelia could read it and I've got no doubt that he probably has done just that!

Before we parted company after talking a bit more about the history of Canaan and the surrounding countryside, Ian did me one more big favor and gave me Anne's email address saying that if I had any questions about Miss Bridges that she'd be the one to ask as her family knew the artist quite well.  Much to my delight when I emailed her, Anne responded by telling me that she had written a paper in 1996 for her literary group, The Hawthorne Club (coincidental? I think not!), and that she'd be happy to mail a copy of it off to me if I'd like to forward her my address. Absolutely!  I received the paper yesterday and it was a delight to read as well as an invaluable source of reference for the writing of this blog post.  Without it, I don't believe I'd have found three-quarters of the information that is here.

In closing this post, one final thing that I left out above that I'd like to add here was something that was written towards the end of the paper Anne had written:
"Lawrence Eddy, my father, always placed wildflowers on her grave until he was no longer able to do so. From that time I have placed similar flowers on her grave on Memorial Day."
On the day that I was there - which just happened to be Memorial Day - there were no flowers on Fidelia's grave but I've got to think that's only because Anne is 94 years old herself and probably finds it difficult to get to the cemetery these days.  However, I think it's pretty darned cool that even though Anne wasn't able to go visit Fidelia on that particular Memorial Day, that I was  there and paid my respects to a woman I never met but whose former home I've had the pleasure of staying in twice as a guest of the Hawthorne Hotel and whose story I had gone to Canaan to find.  I rather get the feeling that she was waiting for me!

Coincidental? I think not!


Comments

  1. Oh, very well done! You know that I am NOT a history buff so usually when it comes to history I hear what Charlie Brown hears when his teacher is talking, but I thoroughly enjoyed this post! And I do think Fidelia and Anne would, too!

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  2. No, not a coincidence at all, my dear. You were meant to be there on that day and to be directed to her gravestone. Fidelia knew you were there, I can feel it.

    This post is fascinating. I know I've missed a zillion of your blog posts in recent months and for that I am sorry. I must go back and read.

    I almost cried when you said Fidelia had died. As if she'd be alive today! Very cool old-fashioned name, one I hadn't heard before.

    I was interested to read she was drawn to Stratford. She must have been painting in the Lordship section. Lots o' marshes.


    We should go to the New Britain Museum some time; Ralph and I were there once and were surprised at how nice it was. Also the Wadsworth should get on our itinerary some day when you are not busy (2013?).

    Actually I've been kinda busy myself. Oh well. C'est la vie. I'm planning to take a week off in July. Maybe we can find a day..

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  3. What a fabulous story! I devoured every word and now feel I know Fedelia just a bit. And some of her work is here in Columbus, GA? Wow! Great job, my friend. As always...

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  4. Beautiful work! The botanical pieces are just yummy. The Untitled piece is my favorite. Love the use of color/values.

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  5. Linda, you have found your calling - an art historian with that penchant for the artistry in detail - like a tapestry, one piece of cloth at a time. The detail in this post is extraordinary, as I was not familiar with the artist. Her life, tragedy and success is seen ih her art and no one else, A beautiful post!

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  6. Fidelia certainly sounds like an interesting character, and her paintings are lovely. But she looks tired and worn down in that picture. Note to self: destroy all less-than-flattering pictures of myself in case 150 years from now, someone tries to find out why I named my home the Dahmer House and digs up dirt on my life.

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  7. What a sweet, poignant story, I love her work. My grandmother did some china painting which reminds me a lot of Miss Fidelia's work. Have I ever mentioned that I hate modern "art?".
    You are so good at telling a story in a way that is very touching

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  8. I love this story about fedelia the blog is extremly well done .I have a piece of art done by her signed and dated .that started my interest on this very interesting women.She was extremly talented.my picture done1879.ocean beach and birds.love it...

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  9. Would you consider "pinning" some of your photos on our Pinterest Board for the SFH? :-)

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  10. What a lovely story. To know that she was sad but painted such lovely images give me hope that she found some comfort in painting. Thank you for this story -- it is very well woven. --Kathy Johnson

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  11. We recently discovered that a picture my mother had hanging in her bedroom as a child is an original watercolor of Fidelia's from 1898. We started to research Fidelia and came upon your story. The painting is of Hawthorne blossoms on a coast. Ironically, both my mother and grandmother LOVED their Hawthorne trees and blossoms. Thank you so much for staring this inspiring story.

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  12. Thank you for this! Why hasn't anyone made a film about the life of Fidelia Bridges? One that reveals her strength and creative success in the face of loss and loneliness and longing? One that digs deep, explores the contradictions? The individual woman in and out of communities, finding and fine-tuning her vision?

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