LENOX — From an early age, Suzy Frelinghuysen had two artistic passions: painting and opera.
Frelinghuysen successfully pursued his passions and his career. She was the first woman to have a painting placed permanently in the A.E. Gallatin Museum of Living Art and in 1943 was included in Peggy Guggenheim’s “31 Women Exhibition” at the Art Of This Century Gallery in New York. She performed with the New York City Opera from 1947 to 1950, then in 1950 made her debut with the New Orleans Opera.
As a painter, she went by her maiden name, Suzy Frelinghuysen. As a dramatic soprano, she was known as Suzy Morris, her married name. But she was always “Suzy”, rarely, if ever, Estelle, her proper name. (Suzy was a nickname given to her by her brothers.)
An ongoing exhibition at the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, “Suzy Frelinghuysen – Painter & Opera Singer – Influences of Cubism & Music in Her Art”, explores her dueling careers through associations of her collages and operatic costumes steeped in music with paintings by the master Cubist works that she and her husband, George LK Morris, collected.
Estelle Condit Frelinghuysen, born in 1911, was the daughter of Frederick and Estelle B. (Kinney) Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, a member of a prominent political family in Newark, NJ. His grandfather, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, Secretary of State under President Chester A. Arthur, and his grandmother, Matilda Griswold Frelinghuysen, owned the Gilded Age mansion, located near downtown Lenox, known today as today as the Kemble Inn.
Suzy, like girls from other wealthy families, was a beginner and educated at Miss Fine’s School in Princeton, NJ Her four brothers – George, Frederick, Thomas and Theodore – all attended Princeton University. And although Suzy showed a great affinity for art and drawing, she did not receive formal training like her brothers.
“She was trained by her mother,” said Kinney Frelinghuysen, nephew and manager of the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, during a recent visit to the artists’ historic home and studio. “There is a figurative study of a kitchen worker that she did at an early age.”
Suzy received formal training as a singer, and in 1929, at the age of 18, moved to New York to pursue a career in opera. It was in New York that she met Morris, whose family divides their time between their home in the city and their summer home, Brookhurst, in Lenox.
“It was staged, by friends,” said Linda Frelinghuysen, FMH&S communications director and wife of Kinney.
“When she met George she was still studying voice lessons,” Kinney added. Margery Lewis [later Margery Cuyler] and Tyler Lewis had an opera box that someone had lent them for the night. Someone knew Suzy and invited her. Someone knew George and invited him.
“George hummed the tunes he knew. Suzy guessed every one of them. That was it. From there, they were together and good.”
The couple were married on January 30, 1935, in a small ceremony in the living room of Suzy’s aunt, Mrs. Campbell Clark. Suzy painted in the Realist style until meeting Morris, who had studied painting with the French Cubists Fernand Lêger and Amédée Ozenfant in 1929 and 1930. (He built his Lenox studio in 1931.) Morris, who greatly traveled through Europe in the 1930s, was friends with Picasso, Braque and Brancusi, and often purchased their work on behalf of the Museum of Modern Art in his role on the museum’s advisory board (and himself) .
“The first dated abstract works [of Suzy’s] we have two collages,” Kinney said, pointing out two pieces, one from 1935, the other from 1937.
“When George saw the top piece, he said, ‘Oh my God, she’s got it. He encouraged her to paint. And they were talking about art all the time, they lived with that stuff every day,” Kinney said.
Suzy’s love of opera remains central to the works of her formative years as an artist, from 1935 to 1945 pieces of sheet music are incorporated into the collages, as are the shapes of musical notes and implements. Often in these works, such as “La Nuit”, she incorporates parts of musical scores and text in such a way as to evoke a sense of sound. In “La Nuit”, a musical score flows through the mouth-shaped opening of an oval head, like sound would flow from a singer’s mouth.
Although Suzy enjoyed success as a painter, she continued to study voice and in 1947 she auditioned for the New York City Opera and began her career as a dramatic soprano, playing the role of Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 1947 and the following year was the main role in “Tosca”. She then played the role of Amneris in “Aida” and Giulietta in “The Tales of Hoffmann”. She made her debut with the New Orleans Opera Association as Amelia in “Un ballo in maschera” in 1950 and toured at opera houses in the United States and Europe. Her career was cut short by bronchitis in 1951, which forced her to retire. She returned to painting full-time, shortly thereafter composing what she would call her masterpiece, “Mural Composition, 1951”, a bold black and white abstract work featured as part of the exposure.
“She said John Arp and Ben Nicholson, who was a British abstractionist, they came to her studio and would be delighted. After looking at all that Cubist influence, she really comes across, does justice to the ideal of pure abstraction. ,” Kinney said.
The painting, “Mural Composition, 1951”, nicely ends the show, which begins with Suzy’s early paintings and ends with her masterpiece, between the paintings, as in life, are her opera dresses – a white dress and a yellow cape, as well as an orange suit, which she works in “Tosca”, and a white dress and a blue cape from “Aida”.
“We found the dresses just before the pandemic hit,” Linda said. “When we closed the New York apartment, we brought them up here. We were looking for something else and we found the trunk.”
The exhibit, which focuses on Suzy’s dual career, is very representative of her aunt, Kinney said, noting that she was very independent for a woman of her time.
“She was a real feminist,” he said. “I think people really appreciated his free spirit.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: “Suzy Frelinghuysen – Painter and Opera Singer – Influences of Cubism and Music in her Art”
Where: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, 92 Hawthorne Street, Lenox
When: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Thursday to Sunday, until October 10. Tours are self-guided, audio available.
Admission: $20, adults; $18, seniors; $10, university students with valid ID; free, 17 and under and members. $10 for patterns only.
Tickets and information: 413-637-0166, frelinghuysen.org
Directors’ Corner with Kinney Frelinghuysen
What: A quick overview of the paintings on display.
When: 11:15 a.m.
What: A fast interactive experience. Sketch pads provided.
When: 2 p.m.
What: Visit of the house with the famous architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson.
When: 2 p.m., Saturday, August 13
Admission: $15, members; $20 non-members. Places are limited to 25.
Tickets and information: 413-637-0166, frelinghuysen.org
What: Color workshop with Kinney Frelinghuysen.
Color helper paper provided. Material donation suggested.
When: TBD, August 25