Docent Newsletter


Whether we discuss the Ashcan school or women in art, one painting demands attention: Woman with Ermine Collar (83.13) by Kathleen McEnery (Cunningham).

Kathleen McEnery (1885-1971) was known to many Rochesterians—even some docents! She was a friend of Charlotte Whitney Allen, Hildegarde Watson, Helen Ellwanger, Clayla Ward, Fritz Trautman—to name only a few. She was a member of the MAG art committee from 1945 to 1971, and was named an honorary life member of the MAG Board in 1927. She was said to be elegant and slightly arrogant and a great conversationalist—and she hosted formal luncheons at which she personally tossed salad at the table.

McEnery was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She studied at New York's Pratt Institute, then became a student of Robert Henri, first at the New York School of Art and later (the summers of 1906 and 1908) with his class in Spain. When Henri indicated that she had taken enough formal classes, she went to Paris, living in a pension with an older cousin as chaperone. Woman with Ermine Collar was painted there.

After a productive period of work in Paris, she returned to New York City and rented a studio with other artists on the upper West Side. In 1913 artist friend Leon Kroll submitted two of her works to the Armory Show; both were accepted. They were rather daring for a woman of that era: Going to the Bath was a study of two female nudes, and The Dream, a half-length female nude. Both are now owned by the National Museum of American Art.

In 1914 McEnery married Francis E. Cunningham, whom she had met through his cousin, Rufus Dryer, an artist who was also a Henri student. Cunningham was part of the Cunningham Carriage Factory in Rochester (the source of our Aurora weathervane), which made carriages, then automobiles and armored cars and farm machinery.

McEnery continued to paint regularly in Rochester, even after the births of her daughter and two sons, in a studio she had built onto her home. Eventually her interest in painting gave way to her family needs and social responsibilities. She was among the founders of the Harley School and had been interested in the Women's Suffrage movement. Her last exhibit was held at the Feragil Art Gallery, New York City, in the early 1930s. She died in 1971 at the age of 85. A memorial exhibition of 30 paintings was organized by the Gallery in her honor in 1972.

Today the largest body of her work is owned by her family, particularly her daughter Joan Cunningham Williams and her son Peter Cunningham. MAG owns six of her works. Two remain in the Cunningham house, now part of the Museum and Science Center; a portrait of former RPO concert master Eugene Goosens hangs in the Eastman School of Music; and a portrait of Charlotte Whitney Allen is in the MAG library. There are probably more of her paintings in Rochester, but they are not on record in our files. Woman with Ermine Collar can be used in many tours: women in art, Rochester art (along with the Charlotte Whitney Allen collection of Calders and the Watson collection of sculptures) and the Ashcan school.

McEnery's painting has a modern look to it: the figure is at the front of the canvas, looking
directly at the viewer; the background is dark, like that in many of Henri's portraits. Who is the woman? So far she is a mystery. Does she look like a lady, dressed to go to tea? Or is she a Paris prostitute with worn shoes and shabby dress? Look closely and decide.

Source: Curatorial files

Joan K. Yanni
May 1991