Agnes E. Meyer was a free thinker, who often made her own way in the world. A rarity for a woman in the early 1900s. A partial list of her accomplishments includes: journalist, social activist, novelist, translator, and art patron. And, sparked a portrait duel in the art world.
In 1887, Agnes Ernst was born into a middle class, German American family. Her father, a lawyer, had been living above his means. When Agnes was a teen, he pushed her to become a Secretary and earn extra income for his debts. Instead Agnes began attending Barnard College without her father’s blessing. She paid her way with scholarships, and part time jobs. After graduation, Ernst became one of the first female reporters for The New York Sun.
How Agnes Meyer Became a Muse
Wherever she went, Agnes would fall in with creatives. During her time at Barnard, and in the year that followed, she would search out avant-garde art galleries around New York City. This brought her into contact with Alfred Stieglitz, and his circle of friends. It was here she met two of her closest friends, Katharine Rhoades, and Marion H. Beckett. Together they were known as “The Three Graces.” The three would often travel together. They were new women, no longer confined by societal norms that were loosening around them. In 1908, all three were in Paris studying. Agnes was taking classes at The Sorbonne.
Agnes Meyer was a multifaceted individual, with an appetite to devour everything the world brought her way. Her nickname, “The Sun Girl.” is often cited as a reference to her sunny disposition. While that may be true, the moniker probably stemmed from her job at The Sun. In her youth the terms social butterfly, gossip, and flirt were often used to describe her. Those personality traits contrast with the driven woman who would become an ardent crusader for social justice during WWII.
Dueling Portraits of Agnes E. Meyer
When Charles Despiau cast a neoclassic bust of Agnes a competition between artists began.
When Constantin Brâncuși learned that Charles Despiau recently cast and show the portrait of his friend he became upset and maybe a little envious. Thus the competition of who could create the best portrait of their dear friend Agnes E. Meyer began. The question still remains, could Constantin Brâncuși succeed in capturing Agnes with his sleek, and modern designs? Did the artists who came before him do her image justice?
Constantin Brâncuși was so determined he notably said,
“I’ll show you what a portrait of you is really like.”
Constantin Brâncuși with his totem-like black marble sculpture that is both graceful, and solid. He initially named this piece, “La Reine pas Dedaigeneuse” (The Not-Disdainful Queen). The Meyer children called it by a different name, “Agnes’s knee.”
Did the photographer Edward Steichen create the best portrait? His art deco, goddess image of Agnes. In it she stands in front of an eclipsed sun, a reference to her current depression after the birth of her second child.
In a sketch by Marius de Zayas she is a curving whirlwind that takes up the page, and is filled with algebraic equations.
Francis Picabia once portrayed her as a spark plug.
I think it is Agnes E. Meyer who gives us the best portrait of herself from her own poem Mental Reactions. Deciphering her poetry still feels like solving the riddle of the sphinx.
Excerpt of, “Mental Reactions”
“Ah, why cannot all the loves of all the world be mine?
without the sacrifice of any of those things I think of when I say
Sacrafice? Coward, cheat.
Yes, we women, cowards, cheats, all of us who, when our
kingdom is offered, stop to calculate the price.”