(By Bob Mueller, Chairman, Curators Committee)
The Curators Committee, aside from researching, documenting and preserving the Club’s art collection, also oversees the Club’s historic photographic archives. In the process of digitizing some of these photos, an image was found of a large group of Club members labeled on the back in pencil “Visit of the Club to Commodore Blackton’s movie studios, Brooklyn in about 1916 or 17.” What follows is a bit of long forgotten Salmagundi history.
Today we take movies for granted, with their special effects, 3-D animation and the ability to transport us to amazing alternate realities. But one reality remains the same, visual artists of myriad disciplines have always been essential to the cinematic process. It’s hard for us to imagine that only a century ago, Hollywood was a fledging industry and movies were not only exclusively in B&W, but silent as well. Among the pioneers of the early film industry was Commodore J. Stuart Blackton, an artist and illustrator who was elected an artist member of Salmagundi in 1914. Blackton was known to have put on moving picture entertainments at the Club on a number occasions, all of which were well received. His life and innovative technical achievements are a fascinating story and warrant further study.
As early as 1910, according to Blackton’s unpublished autobiography, “Silence is Golden,” he “discussed with members of Salmagundi the idea of “motion pictures in color,” and he also gave them screenings of Vitagraph films. One screening, according to Blackton, triggered such an enthusiastic response that the art club members visited the American Vitagraph studios in Flatbush… in order to witness for themselves the technology that manufactured what one witness called the ‘living Corot.'” (1)
The reference relates to a particular film shown at the Club where Blackton superimposed a film of Isadora Duncan dancers on Corot’s painting Spring. Blackton describes the scene as:
“A group of dancing nymphs, tiny figures in gossamer draperies [flit] like moths in cool shade. The painting was photographed on panchromatic negative. A second negative was taken of a group of Isadora Duncan dancers, softly lighted against a black background, the living dancers in the same relative position as the figures in the paintings. These two negatives were printed together on one positive film, toned sepia and tinted a delicate green, the two groups of dancers blending one into the other. At first the effect on the screen was a Corot painting, then the living figures began to move in a graceful dance which increased in tempo, then slowed down until the living forms again became stationary.
The result was startlingly beautiful. A classic masterpiece familiar to all came to life and received itself again into a painting” (2)
Present at the screening was the poet Edwin Markham, who hailed the film as “sublimely poetic” and enthusiastically summarized his experience in words that Blackton called the “most perfect definition of Art ever uttered”: “Art is nature idealized.” (3)
It is likely that, rather than “Spring” or more appropriately, “Printemps,” the painting Blackton used for this film would have been Corot’s “Une matinée. La danse des nymphs” of 1850 in the collection of the Musee d’Orsay.
The Club’s Executive Committee minutes [3/19/1915] reflect that “Commodore J. Stuart Blackton, President of the Vitagraph Co. had invited the Members of the Club to lunch at the Studios and witness the making of moving pictures on Tuesday March 30.” It was later reported in the May 8, 1915 issue of “Brooklyn Life” that Commodore Blackton “gave a buffet luncheon on the grounds of his Vitagraph Encampment recently, when he entertained about one hundred members of the Salmagundi Club, which has many Brooklyn members. After the luncheon film were taken of the members in any way they cared to act and a few nights after … these same films were exhibited to the great amusement of the club.”
The minutes from the General Meeting of April 2, 1915 confirm this: “Immediately after the meeting Mr. J. Stuart Blackton took command, and for two hours entertained the members with moving pictures of remarkable interest and beauty. Among them, and perhaps not the least appreciated by the members was the picture made of the Salmagundians on their recent visit to the Vitagraph Studios.
The intermission was filled with enjoyable music by Mssrs. Weismann [Francis A Weismann, Tenor] and Miller [Duncan Miller, pianist]
Some Salmagundians Identified