This summer, I spent most of my time reading documents that were meant to be private. As an intern at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, helping to curate an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, my job was to comb through the Archives’ vast collection of artists’ diaries and seek out interesting passages to put on display.
I made many small, exciting discoveries: a postcard sent by John Lennon to Andy Warhol, a worn notebook kept by a newspaper correspondent during the Civil War, a delicate handful of wildflowers pressed between the pages of a young girl’s diary. But sometimes the most intriguing finds are not the physical objects themselves, rather the information their owners recorded within their pages, never expecting that their writings would become public.
I found one such passage in the diary of the little-known American Impressionist, Alson Skinner Clark. His notebooks during his twenties were fairly unremarkable — until Oct. 1, 1898, when halfway down the page, Clark’s handwriting condensed into a small, almost furtive scrawl. Even after the meaning of the words became clear, their significance remained a much larger mystery.
“In the afternoon I dressed in girls clothes [sic], corsets under clothes etc. Put in earrings and Mela did my hair. She made me a nice waist with lace sleeves. Wanted to wear Mrs. O’s earrings but didn’t. Roved over to the Jacksons with George. It was wonderful … I was in entirely girls clothes [sic] for four hours and felt very much like a girl.”
I spent the rest of the week reading through Clark’s diaries, enthralled. His writings in the years to follow continued in the same, far-more-traditional vein as before. Clark kept painting, married Atta Medora McMullin in 1902, and served in World War I as a naval aviation photographer. Inexplicably, it was during this period that I came across another unusual entry.
On March 24, 1918, Clark was stationed in Paris. Located near the bottom of a page was another beguiling passage, again written in a smaller, cramped script.
“Stayed in all day and went up to see Mme a la Petite in womens clothes [sic]. Looked very pretty, earrings, bracelets, etc … I enjoyed being some one else all day [sic], getting my lunch and later changing my dress and calling on a la Petite with Ford. She was quite surprised to see me … This has been a day I will long remember.”
Alson Skinner Clark’s diaries end soon after — the last year in which he kept a consistent record was 1919. As I carefully closed the pages of his final notebook, my mind was already buzzing with curiosity.
Assuming that Clark did indeed write these entries himself, the question arises: what would it signify if Clark chose to dress in female clothing during those two occasions? There may well be no easy answer. In any issue regarding the sexual orientation or gender identity of an individual, particularly one who is no longer living and therefore unable to speak for himself, we must be very careful about assigning absolute labels. Human sexuality is incredibly complex and is often impossible to completely define. Nonetheless these sorts of discoveries still have great value, as further study and careful consideration may lead scholars to gain a better understanding of Clark’s life, and possibly even offer insight into his art.
As the summer drew to a close, I found myself packing up Alson Skinner Clark’s journals and carefully returning them to their shelf, without having made any definite conclusions about his life. Yet somehow, I still felt a sense of peace.
In the end, we may never know the full story behind Alson Skinner Clark’s mysterious diary entries — and, as I have come to realize, that’s just fine. While archives can be an excellent resource for the study of American art and history, they do not hold all the answers to the questions that we may ask today. Sometimes, a postscript in a letter or a sentence in a diary can provide exactly the piece of evidence that a scholar was searching for — but at other times a browse through the collections can leave a researcher with more questions than answers. While it may seem counterintuitive, this mysterious nature is actually the true value of an archive.
Individuals’ lives are vast and multifaceted, and even the most detailed records can only capture a small slice of any person’s complex character and personality. In some ways, the understanding of this fact is the archives’ greatest gift. The history of our country is filled with thousands of gifted people and artists, whose work both reflected and forever changed the course of human experience, but whose lives — just like all of ours — could never be fully contained and documented within a series of archival boxes. Yet in preserving the fragments of their existence that remain, we are fortunate to gain an intimate view into their worlds, with all the complexity and idiosyncrasy that made them extraordinary.