Cecilia Beaux, Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (Edith Minturn), 1898
When telling the story of Edith Minturn Stokes and her equally elegant husband I. N. Phelps Stokes, it’s hard to know where to start. They were honestly a real-life Edith Wharton couple, born heirs of New York’s 400, growing up in gilded-age extravagance, wanting for nothing, yet instilled with Progressive values that would be the beacon of their lives to the end of their days together.
Love, Fiercely tells the story of entwined childhoods, marriage and missions and reads like a drawing room romance, full, in equal measures of grace, pleasure, art, passion and intelligence. As a couple, Edith and Newton are both the colloquial archetype of the 1% of an earlier age, and yet singularly representative of the best that age had to offer.
Edie Minturn, or Fiercely, as her brother called her, was a beauty of her age. At 24, she posed for Daniel Chester French and was the model for The Republic at The World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Throughout her life she was painted by the best of the day, Fernand Paillet, Cecilia Beaux (pictured above), but most famously, in a portrait with her husband, by John Singer Sargent, a wedding gift, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Edie had brains as well as beauty. She was a life-long advocate of education, especially for young children and was a founding member and president of the New York Kindergarden Association.
Newton was himself a bit of a renaissance man. A builder and engineer from childhood, he graduated from Harvard and studied in Paris to become an architect. He designed elegant buildings and homes for himself, his family and friends, but his true calling lay in devising a livable habitat for the lesser privileged of New York City. He was active in housing reform, co-authored the Tenement House Law of 1901 and was the designer of the University Settlement House. In his later years, Newton researched, wrote and published the exhaustive The Iconography of Manhattan Island, comprising six-volumes, published between 1915 and 1928.
Zimmerman uses a deft touch and vividly brings the stunning couple to life. It would be easy to simply paint them as wealthy patrons of art and society, but they were so much more. Zimmerman’s exhaustive research frames the lives and work of this thoroughly modern couple and fills the canvas with details and minutiae as crisp and fresh as the folds of Edie’s white skirt in the Sargent portrait.