The Two Mrs. Fenollosas

I came across a dress so beautiful the other day that I started thinking about its owner/wearer, Elizabeth Goodhue Millett Fenollosa, wife of the famous “Orientalist” and cultural ambassador Ernest Fenollosa, who happened to grow up in the house right next door to mine here in Salem. Actually “Lizzie” Fenollosa, who was also Salem-born and -raised, was Fenollosa’s first wife, who accompanied him to Japan, where he was eventually appointed Director of the Imperial Museum in Tokyo in 1888. Here is the Worth dress, which the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art believe might have been worn for her presentation at the Imperial Court coincidentally with her husband’s appointment.

Fenollosa Dress

Women’s Evening Dress: Bodice and Skirt. Designed by Charles Frederick Worth, English (active Paris), 1825 – 1895. Worn by Mrs. Ernest Fenollosa, c. 1886-1887, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Owen Biddle, 1978.

I had never seen this stunning dress before but I was not surprised to see it in the collection of the Philadelphia museum, as the Fenollosas’ daughter Brenda was married into the prominent Biddle family of that city in 1913. Her son Owen Biddle and his wife donated the gown (along with another) to the museum, and she herself donated a lovely Meiji scroll from her father’s collection (and in his memory) in 1941. I was surprised to see another Fenollosa-related item in the museum’s collection, however: a photograph of her father’s second wife, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, by the photographer Eva Watson-Schütze, dated 1905. Obviously this item was not donated by the Biddle family, for the Fenollosa divorce was scandalous its day. I have no idea what Brenda’s feelings were, but her mother named Mary as a co-respondent in the 1895 proceedings.

Fenellosa Mary

Portrait of a Woman in Japanese Dress (Wife of Ernest Fenollosa), Eva Watson-Schütze, 1905. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1905. Gift of Harvey S. Shipley Miller and J. Randall Plummer, 2004.

Ernest and Lizzie Fenollosa were childhood sweethearts in Salem; they were married right after his graduation from Harvard and then set off together for Japan, where he took up a position at the Imperial University at Tokyo and became fully immersed in traditional Japanese culture, eventually rising to his post at the Imperial Museum. He converted to Buddhism, but they did not appear to lead an ascetic lifestyle, if their house, their many western visitors (and her dress!) are any indication. During their time in Japan, Fenollosa also acquired a huge collection of traditional Japanese art, which he sold to Boston physician and philanthropist Charles Goddard Weld with the condition that it eventually be donated to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it now constitutes the Fenollosa-Weld Collection. The Fenollosas returned to Massachusetts in 1890, where he was appointed curator of the Department of Oriental Art at the MFA and organized several high-profile exhibitions. After he took up with Mary McNeil Scott, a twice-married southern secretary at the Museum, both his marriage and his curatorial career were over–although he continued in his scholarly activities. Lizzie and Brenda remained in the Boston area, but Ernest and Mary took off after their marriage: to New York, back to Japan (she had spent time there too, which explains much of their instant connection), to Mobile, Alabama (her hometown), and to London, where he died of a heart attack in 1908.

Fenollosa CollageElizabeth Goodhue Millett Fenollosa, Ernest Fenellosa, Mary McNeil Scott Fenollosa.

The two Mrs. Fenollosas were very different women bound together by one man, as well as their experiences in Japan, I suppose. Elizabeth Fenollosa seems to have been a private woman, although by all accounts she was a gracious hostess and certain details about her divorce did leak out to the papers…..Mary Fenollosa was much more public, writing popular novels under the pseudonym Sidney McCall, poems under her own name, and serving as an advocate for her husband’s work after his death. Truth Dexter, her first and most popular novel, tells the story of a southern wife (the title character) whose marriage is endangered by a brazen Boston socialite! That was too much for Lizzie, who told the New York Times that her intellectual ex-husband must have collaborated on the book as it contained too many little-known details of their lives together. I think that book, plus the fact that she’s a Salem girl, puts me on Team Lizzie, but both women certainly lived colorful lives that took them far from their places of origin.

Fenollosa House Buffum Street

Fenollosa House Japan Harvard Houghton

From Salem to Tokyo: Elizabeth Fenollosa’s childhood home on Buffum Street in Salem, and the Tokyo home she shared with Ernest, Fenollosa Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.


7 responses to “The Two Mrs. Fenollosas

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