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My Search for the Mysterious Model

Deborah van den Herik

When I joined the Barber Institute of Fine Arts as Research Intern in September 2015, one of the first things the Director asked me to do was to gather information on a new acquisition – George Bellows’s Nude, Miss Bentham, 1906 – which had recently been acquired from a private collection. The painting had not been exhibited in public since the George Bellows Memorial Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1925, following the artist’s early death in the January of that year.1 It had, therefore, been out of the academic spotlight for some time. The limited references to the painting made my research task difficult at times, but discovering new leads was exciting and motivating.

My first question when looking at the painting was: who was this intriguing young woman? That the identity of his sitter was important to Bellows can be assumed by his deliberate noting of her name – ‘Miss Bentham’ – in the title, as written by him in his record book. Thus, we know her surname was Bentham and she was unmarried. What else can we say about this person from looking at the painting? She is female, white, probably in her late teens or early twenties. Rather than tackling the issue of the sitter through conventional art historical research (the secondary literature on Bellows offered no clues, nor did the sitter, as far as we know, appear in any other paintings or documentation relating to the artist), I decided to take a different approach, and make use of online census records and the digital resources which have developed in response to the great interest in family history and genealogy.

Filtering all the thousands of Benthams in the United States of America in genealogical search engines (such as findmypast.com, ancestry.com and mocavo.com) with these characteristics (gender, race, estimated birth year and marital status) resulted in one possible match. The 1910 census of the State of New York (completed 19 April 1910) registered a 25-year-old single woman named Harriet Bentham in Manhattan Ward 19 (fig 1). This sounds a simple exercise, but required patience, persistence and, frankly, luck. Applying the same strategy to Bentham’s other early named nude sitter, Miss Leslie Hall, did not lead to any plausible identification.2

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Fig 1. United States Census, 1910, to see the full database with images visit FamilySearch.

The Miss Bentham recorded in the census lived at 363 West 22nd Street. This is a 45-minute walk from Studio 616 at 1947 Broadway, where Bellows, according to his first biographer Charles Morgan, painted Nude, Miss Bentham in the early autumn of 1906.3 Morgan described how Bellows wandered through the huge network of the city’s streets in search of a subject. It was Bellows’s mentor and teacher at the New York School of Art, Robert Henri, who encouraged this approach. Henri claimed that painting ‘is the study of our lives, our environment’ and that ‘the American who is useful as an artist is one who studies his own life and records his experiences; in this way he gives evidence.’4 Following Henri’s advice, Bellows would walk the busy thoroughfares and slum alleys with an eye receptive to what have been called the ‘transforming factors’ of early 20th-century America, such as urbanisation, modernisation and immigration. 5

Harriet Bentham was one of the many European immigrants who made their way to New York in the early 20th century. The 1910 US census shows that she left the land of her birth, England, and arrived in the United States in 1903 at the age of 18. There is no record of her parents living in New York, suggesting that she crossed the Atlantic on her own, a dangerous journey to undertake, considering that one in seven passengers did not survive the voyage.6

Unfortunately, I found no record of a Harriet Bentham travelling from England (such as a passenger list) or arriving in the United States (registration at Ellis Island). She possibly travelled under a false name, which would make it almost impossible to place her on a specific ship.7 The only two documents in which I found mention of ‘Harriet Bentham’ were the UK 1901 census and the US 1910 census.8 In the former, she is registered as the daughter of ‘Jas’ and ‘Sus’ Bentham (i.e. James and Susan).

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Fig 2. George Washington Bacon, Map of Durham, England in New Ordinance Atlas of the British Isles, 1884, Map 15. Image courtesy of the British Library.

One factor which makes it difficult to find more information about Harriet is her status as an illegitimate child. Her father, James Bentham (1846-1931), was still married to his second wife when he had his third child, Harriet, named after his mother, with Susan Ann Archer (1859-?). Thus, there is no official birth certificate, but the UK 1901 census does record that Harriet was born ‘about’ 1885 in Ludworth, County Durham. A marriage certificate of 1895, some two years after his second wife died, records James’s marriage to Harriet’s mother Susan, in Burnley, Lancashire. At the time of the 1901 census, the family was living in St Nicholas, Durham (fig 2). Harriet’s father and her two older brothers were registered as underground coal-hewers (i.e. coal miners). It was a working-class family with the men employed in the predominant industry of the area.9 Harriet, 16 years old at that time, is not recorded as being in employment. The only further facts I found about this Bentham family is that James died in 1931 in Chester-Le-Street, County Durham, at the age of 85, having had a total of 17 children with 3 wives.

Presumably it is the same Harriet Bentham who then appears in Manhattan in 1910, where she found residence in the house (fig 3) of the widow Jenny Thompson as a lodger, together with 5 other people of around the same age and an older servant. Significantly, Harriet was the only one recorded as a ‘lodger’; the others were described as boarders. For boarders, all or some of the domestic services (e.g. laundry, cleaning, cooking, shopping) would have been provided. A lodger would have undertaken these tasks themselves, and this difference is suggestive of a more limited income. The 1910 census notes that Harriet Bentham was out of work.10 Remarkably, the number of weeks Harriet was out of work during 1909 was noted as nil.

The existing information on Harriet Bentham sketches an image of a brave young woman travelling across the Atlantic by herself, and having difficulty managing in the big and crowded city of New York (fig 4). This could have led to ‘desperate’ measures, such as working as a nude model.11 These fragments of Harriet’s story raise more questions than answers: why did she emigrate to America? What kind of work was she doing in 1909? Did she get married and so change her name, or was she dead before the next census of 1920? Or, less plausibly, did she return to England?

George Bellows would certainly have considered this Miss Harriet Bentham, if it is indeed she, as an interesting subject: a working class immigrant, the embodiment of a very prominent contemporary social, political and economic phenomenon. Given this possible identity, the painting could be read as an expression of female empowerment and precarious independence. Bellows was aware of the changing status of women, and perhaps wanted to reflect on that in his art. In May 1912, Bellows and his wife Emma participated in a march along Fifth Avenue for women’s rights and two years later they joined a protest by unemployed workers. From these actions and given his commitment, as an Ashcan artist, to the ‘real’, we can infer that Bellows would have certainly sympathised with Miss Harriet Bentham, his mysterious model.

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Fig 4. Map of distance from Harriet Bentham’s residence to Bellows’s studio: 363 W 22nd St to 1947 Broadway, Rand McNally. From the New York Public Library.