Painted Lady

Metro Spirit | July 3, 2007
t the height of the Roaring ’20s, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were golden children as popular as Brangelina and as brilliant as the stars. The literary luminary and the mother of the “modern” woman lived opulently from party to party. Their exploits were more infamous than those of the characters that F. Scott Fitzgerald created in novels like “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender is the Night.” But from charmed childhood to untimely end, Zelda Fitzgerald’s life mirrored the intense rise and fall of the Jazz Age, the era her own husband is credited with naming. “She was kind of the archetypal flapper. It’s almost the kind of feeling that you have where you think about the novel ‘The Great Gatsby,’ where you have this veneer of gaiety and then this underlying that’s pretty tragic,” said Jay Williams, curator of the Morris Museum of Art.

Zelda’s was a life pockmarked by alcoholism, mental illness and unfulfilled ambitions. She went from international celebrity to dedicated ballet student to mental patient in a few short years, but engrossed herself in painting as therapy and discovered a visual talent that few knew this inherently creative woman possessed. “In Greek tragedy, when someone dies there is a point to it. The human spirit is uplifted by someone’s sort of sacrifice. Even though she died in a tragic way, so much good has come out of it,” Williams said.

Out of her illness and untimely end came a wealth of visual art that captures a mix of modern art, fantasy and children’s tales. On Aug. 26, the Morris Museum will open “Zelda by Herself,” a traveling exhibition of some of Zelda’s paintings that will run until Oct. 15, along with a number of supplemental community education programs. Zelda’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, will speak at the opening reception. An artist in her own right, she graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, illustrated children’s books for years and most recently has been working on an animated film. Lanahan is also the author of “Scottie the Daughter of: The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith” and “Zelda, an Illustrated Life: The Private World of Zelda Fitzgerald.”

“The paintings that are touring were always hanging around my house when I was growing up, so until they started touring during the last two or three years they really weren’t seen by the public. People didn’t know this about Zelda,” Lanahan said. Zelda was fairly well known as a writer, but didn’t begin painting in earnest until she was into her 30s. After being hospitalized with the first of her mental breakdowns, she took up art.

Zelda herself explained, “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”

Born Zelda Sayre, she was the pampered and precocious youngest daughter of one of Alabama’s most prominent families. Her daddy was an Alabama Supreme Court justice, after all. By all accounts, she was a spirited and sometimes reckless young woman. When she married the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, he was already held in thrall by the demon alcohol.

“I’m sure he wasn’t the guy that her parents assumed she would marry,” Williams said. “And then they became kind of the poster children of the Jazz Age.”

They married after the publication of Fitzgerald’s first novel and he found great recognition and success, but they spent as much as he brought in, and more. Even when measured against the financial optimism and relaxed social and sexual attitudes of the post-World War I years, they lived decadently. But, as they say, the Fitzgeralds wrote the book that defined the age.

Both of them worked as writers. He authored a number of novels and magazine articles, and she was published by the New York Tribune, Scribner’s, Metropolitan and The New Yorker. She wrote at least one book, “Save Me the Waltz.” She began and completed it at the same time and on the same subject as “Tender is the Night,” a book F. Scott struggled with for nearly seven years. By many accounts, F. Scott both encouraged Zelda and resented her.

“I think everybody knows the kind of lifestyle that they led was not that different than what was depicted in his novels, like ‘The Great Gatsby.’ It wasn’t until Zelda began to have mental health problems — that put a tremendous strain on their relationship,” Williams said.

Those mental health problems were diagnosed at the time as “schizophrenia,” a term that was used very differently then than it is today. But no one can deny her existence was stressful.

“I imagine that trying to be an artist, the wife of a famous artist, be a celebrity — those things may not have been very easy,” said Morris Museum Curator of Education David Tucker.

Because of her standing as the first lady of modern womanhood, Lanahan said that Zelda’s life has become the stuff of legend.

“She’s become something of an icon for feminists, for women who struggle to have their own identity in a marriage, who struggle to make a name in the arts,” Lanahan said. “Some of what she was struggling against was her own times, and some of it was struggling with an alcoholic and quite destitute writer and some of it was struggling against her own illness.”

Whether due to her unique experiences in American society or her innate creativity, and despite the fact that she has historically been seen as a supporting character on the stage of F. Scott’s life, the art that Zelda produced is all her own. Lanahan said everyone inspired her, from the Cubists to the Expressionists. “She was aware of those people and aware of Georgia O’Keefe, but you can see influences that would help you date when she was working,” she said. “I think it’s not derivative of anybody else, really,” Williams said. “It has a style that’s very specific to her. You look at it and you think it’s definitely modernist in its feeling in her ability to inject elements of abstraction and color, and she was working with a lot of the elements that modern artists did.”

Zelda devoted herself to painting during the last decade or so of her life, and had at least one showing in New York. Eventually, when her psychological problems resurfaced, she was recommitted to an institution. Williams said that while it is difficult to look at her artwork without those issues cropping up, the work stands on its own. “Who knows? If she had been encouraged at an earlier age, she might have become a really major American artist in her own right. Her work is significant even so.” That the two were charismatic and gorgeous only adds further tragedy to the story. A musical about their lives is appropriately titled “Beautiful & Damned,” because as with the characters in Fitzgerald’s novels, the misery of the latter part of their lives is unavoidable. He was ravaged by years of alcohol abuse and she was committed to yet another asylum, where she died in a fire that also took the lives of eight other patients. She was just 47.

“Zelda by Herself” will run Aug. 26 - Oct. 15 at the Morris Museum of Art, located at One 10th St. Lectures and art classes are scheduled during the exhibition’s run. Check with the museum for a listing. Call 706-724-7501 or visit
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