Francis Watts Lee and his family hold a special place in the history of American photography. F. Holland Day completed a series of remarkable photographs of Lee’s daughter Peggy, and the striking portrait of the child and her mother titled Blessed Art Thou among Women is one of Gertrude Käsebier’s most iconic compositions. In Artful Lives, Patricia J. Fanning uses these and other significant images as guideposts to explore the Lee family and the art and culture of their age.
A social reform advocate, Francis Watts Lee was an artistic photographer and a talented printer, part of the circle of avant-garde artists and intellectuals who formed Boston’s bohemia. He married twice, first Agnes Rand, an award-winning poet and children’s book author, and later, after their divorce, Marion Lewis Chamberlain, a librarian and MIT-trained architect. Francis and Agnes’s eldest daughter, Peggy, who was so integral to the work of pioneer Pictorialists, died at age seven of juvenile diabetes. Her sister, Alice, who lost her hearing in infancy, became a wood carver and sculptor.
Utilizing previously unknown family archives and institutional sources, Fanning traces the Lee family’s story in the context of major artistic, political, social, and religious trends, including the Arts and Crafts movement, Christian Socialism, and Aestheticism, while also showing how their experiences reflected the national culture’s evolving conceptions of family, gender, childhood, medicine, deaf education, and mourning. This richly drawn and gracefully written account of one family informs our understanding of this vibrant era, in Boston and well beyond.