From today’s perspective, George Sauter’s The Bridal Morning is only one among innumerable paintings showing a female nude. It depicts a standing female from behind who is being assisted by two other women as she gets dressed for her wedding. But in 1909 the public response to the work was greatly divided. The painting, which received second prize at the Carnegie Institute in the 1909 exhibition, aroused a huge controversy ranging from praise to condemnation.
This controversy was not limited to Pittsburgh. Newspapers from the time confirm a lively debate being waged nationwide and even abroad. According to the reports, thousands traveled to see the painting. American Art News gave an account of more than 29,000 people who visited the galleries during the first two days—crowds must have poured in a steady stream. Up to 5,000 people at a time were estimated in the first days of the exhibition. Two weeks later, admissions had passed 50,000 and finally reached 105,000 until the closing at the end of June. The International—then called the Annual Exhibition—was declared the most successful exhibition in America and was dubbed the “Only American Salon” in the press.
It is reported that people were mostly attracted to get a glimpse of the bride, but ultimately spent many hours in and around the museum. A remarkable article in the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper on May 11 gives a humorous account of the renowned clergyman Charles Henry Parkhurst visiting the exhibition. This New York reformer was supposed to be shocked by the content of the picture, but he simply passed by. Questioned about his thoughts he answered: “Huh—her mother ought to take her home.” The press covered the controversy wryly, even recommending several extraordinary coverings for the bride.
Sauter himself responded with a letter to John W. Beatty, then Director of the Carnegie Institute, which was reprinted in Pittsburgh’s Bulletin on June 1:
From newspaper sent to me, I gather that there is a grave misunderstanding in the mind of the public in Pittsburg as to the meaning of the picture. By this time you will know much more about it than I do. [...] “The Bridal Morning” is a symbolic picture; it has nothing to do with an individual ceremony in this or any other country or of any particular period. It is universal and intended to embody an idea expressed through form and color. It represents the morning of joy, sorrow and anxiety in the life of a woman. The day when she enters into her real mission in life to become the mother of a race. [...] It is the morning of life ― springtime. The future of the bride is full of hope and promise ― suggested by the joyous coloring and sunlight.
Prior to Sauter’s painting, the news reports on the International were predominantly moderate reviews concerning the selection of paintings, and they typically covered the formalities of the opening ceremonies, visiting celebrities, and records of the speeches. The first time an individual work came into focus, Gaston La Touche’s The Bath in 1907, was also the result of its nude subject. But the agitation surrounding The Bridal Morning was exceptional during the first decades of the exhibition.
Art historian Albert Boime stated in his article “George Sauter and the Bridal Morning“ (The American Art Journal) that the attention given the painting in the United States was even comparable to Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, shown during the 1863 Salon des refusés in Paris. But Boime also noted that “the painting could hardly have been indicted as a subversive aesthetic experiment in 1909,” like the Manet. Boime investigated the unanticipated response to the picture and asserted that a “profound sadness and breathtaking stillness” pervades the work. Along with remarkable illumination, the painting also reveals a “highly original symbolic approach.” Boime situated the public’s irritation somewhere in between this unexpected combination of allegory and modernity. Though Sauter insists this is a sanctified wedding scene, for many viewers the melancholy tone of the image could convey tragedy.
George Sauter, who is widely unknown today, was born in Rettenbach, Germany, in 1866. He moved to London in 1889 where he married Lilian Galsworthy and was introduced to a circle of British artists including James McNeill Whistler, James Guthrie, and others. He participated in establishing the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, for which he served as Honorary Secretary during Whistler’s Presidency (1898–1903). Although Sauter never became a British citizen, he became known as a British painter. He painted portraits and landscapes, working largely in oil on canvas, and also produced lithographs. Having maintained his German citizenship, he was interned during WW I and later repatriated to Germany, where he died in 1937.
Nicola Schroeder is a German art historian currently living in Pittsburgh and working on the archive of the Carnegie International.