Adelaide Johnson

9-26-1859 to 11-10-1955

 

Adelaide Johnson was the sculptor of the monument to the woman's movement that stands in United States Capitol. Somewhat eccentric in the fashion of her time, intrigued by spiritualism and the occult, Johnson often attracted dramatic publicity. But her portrait busts of suffragists and feminists gave women a physical and artistic embodiment of their own historical significance during a time when such public recognition was scarce.

Johnson was born in Plymouth, Illinois; her father, Christopher William Johnson, was a farmer from Indiana. Her mother, Margaret Huff (Hendrickson) Johnson came from Kentucky. It was the third marriage for each; Adelaide, originally named Sarah Adeline, was the first child of their union. She had several older siblings from the previous marriages, as well as a younger brother and sister.

Johnson was educated in country schools and in her teens studied art at the St. Louis School of Design, boarding with and older half brother. In 1877 she was awarded first and second prizes at a state exposition in competition with professional wood carvers. A year later, manifesting a dramatic flair exhibited throughout her life, she changed her name to Adelaide. While studying in Chicago and supporting herself by decorating and wood carving, she fell down an elevator shaft in the Central Music Hall, breaking her hip. She used the $15,000 obtained from a casualty suit to finance her study of sculpture in Europe.

in 1883, Johnson studied painting in Dresden, then, in 1884, moved on to Rome, becoming a pupil of Giulio Monteverde. She studied with him for eleven years and maintained a studio in Rome for the next twenty-five; at various times in her career Johnson had studios in Carrara, London, New York, Chicago, and Washington.

Johnson developed a feminist perspective early. Perceiving feminism as the greatest revolutionary force in history and "the mightiest thing in the evolution of humanity," she saw it as her mission to record and immortalize the history of the movement. She began this life work by exhibiting busts of suffragists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, and of the pioneer physician Caroline B. Winslow, at the Woman's Pavilion of the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

On Jan. 29, 1896, Johnson married Alexander Frederick Jenkins, an English businessman She falsified her age on the marriage certificate, listing it as twenty-four, one-year younger than her husband, though she was actually thirty-six. Married in her Washington studio, with busts of Anthony and Stanton serving as "bridesmaids," the couple was united by a woman minister and became Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. The groom, like Johnson, was a vegetarian and a spiritualist; he took her name as "the tribute love pays to genius." Their marriage, however, was characterized by long separations in which Johnson felt that her husband had lost the spiritual consciousness they had shared. In 1908 she obtained a divorce, retaining much bitterness about their relationship.

Three Ladies in a bathtubJohnson had a lifelong dream of creating a gallery and Museum to house the history of the woman's movement. Lacking public support and funding, she eventually regarded her home studio in Washington, D.C., as the locus of this Museum. She also hoped that the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) would underwrite the costs of a woman's monument for the United States Capitol. In 1904 differences with Susan B. Anthony, who opposed the placement of a monument in the Capitol, preferring the Library of Congress, caused a disruption in their friendship and in Johnson's relationship with NAWSA. She turned then to New York suffragist Alva Belmont of the National Woman's party, and later secured a commission for the national monument. Her seven-ton sculpture of white Carrara marble, "The Woman Movement," containing portrait busts of Mott, Stanton, and Anthony, was presented to the nation on behalf of American women by the National Woman's party, which had financed and lobbied for it, on Anthony's birthday, Feb. 15, 1921. The reception for Johnson on that day was the first ever given for a woman in the Capitol building. In 1936, Johnson's sculpture of Anthony used as the model for the three cent postage stamp commemorating the sixteenth anniversary of woman suffrage.

Johnson was a supporter of numerous women's organizations. A founder and lifelong member of the National And International Councils of Women, she was also a charter member of the Lyceum club, founded in London in 1904, and its American organizer. She held a "veteran's certificate" from NAWSA. Throughout her life Johnson spoke on the topic of the woman's rights movement, though her perspective was inspirational rather than political. Speaking on Anthony's birthday in 1934, she referred to "the awakening of woman" as "the central and supreme fact in the world of today."

After the 1930s, Johnson's career declined. Financial problems, which had always beset her, became worse, and she relied for support on family and friends. Unable, and often unwilling, to sell her sculpture because she considered the prices offered an affront, she faced eviction and sale of her home to pay taxes. In 1939, frustrated and convinced that her dream of a studio-Museum would never be realized, she mutilated many of her sculptures and called in the press to witness the destruction. There she denied indignantly that she intended to arouse sympathy, she benefited from public generosity and from the intervention of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York who prevented her eviction. Efforts to pass a bill through Congress granting her $25,000 were unsuccessful, however.

Financial distress and ebbing strength caused her to move in with friends on Capitol Hill about 1947. Attempting to raise money to repurchase her home, she appeared on several television quiz programs and won prize money, but to no avail. Seeing that advanced age could convey special privilege, she reversed her earlier falsificaton, made herself twleve years older than she was, and celebrated every birthday from "100" to "108" with friends and newspaper publicity. Johnson died in Washington in 1955, at the age of 96, of a stroke. Her Capitol sculpture remains the only national monument to the woman's movement.

 

The above article is ©1980 by Radcliffe College
"Notable American Women"
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