The last time I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, being classy, I literally stopped in my tracks when I saw this painting:
It's called Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes and it was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1897 during the couple's honeymoon. I'm not sure what stuck me about this painting. Maybe it was the wife's confident pose, or the way her husband stood behind her in the shadows. At that time, they were just two people in a painting to me, I had no idea who they actually were.
A few months later, I was shelving new books and saw that same painting staring back at me on the cover of Jean Zimmerman's latest book Love, Fiercely: a Gilded Age Romance.
Zimmerman was looking for the painting because of her interest in the husband, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. An architect by trade, Stokes received notoriety due to his massive text on the history of early Manhattan called The Iconography of Manhattan Island, which was six volumes and 3,254 pages. It has to be the most comprehensive collection of maps and information about early New York and checkit out, NYPL HAS A COPY. Zimmerman wanted to see the man behind the books and was instead drawn in by his wife, Edith. I assume this happened to Isaac a lot during their marriage.
Edith was one of the "It girls" at the turn of the century in New York. Born to a prominent family in Staten Island, Edith was known for her beauty, high sprits and grace. She was fiercly independent (she didn't marry until the "old" age of 28) and literally became the face of a generation when Daniel Chester French sculpted her for Chicago's Columbian Exposition.
Together, Isaac and Edith had one of the era's most progressive and loving marriages. They worked together to help New York's poorest and were an inspiration to those around them. And to people like me, who at first thought that they were just an interesting couple hanging in the Met.