The Knoedler Bust

Knoedler Interior

In November of 1887, Anthony Comstock raided the Fifth Avenue art gallery of Edmund L. Knoedler, arresting him and a clerk, George Pfieffer, and seizing 117 “obscene, licentious and immoral” photographs of paintings by artists “of the French school,” including William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Comstock had been chided in the press for attacking only small businesses and individuals with no influence, and this criticism may have prompted his raid on the city’s most prominent art dealer. Located across the way from the Waldorf Hotel, Knoedler & Co. was the gallery where the nation’s wealthy collectors came to buy art, especially artworks imported from France.

Referencing an earlier Comstock raid on the shop of Edmund F. Bonaventure, Amy Werbel in Lust on Trial writes, “Knoedler’s was an enormous step up… in terms of both geography and the price of its wares.”

At the time, Comstock, and the law, held that anything that might be sexually arousing to someone who might be inclined to find it arousing if the item should fall into their hands was legally obscene.

Paintings costing tens of thousands of dollars, hanging in museums and the homes of the wealthy, were beyond Comstock’s reach, but photographs of those paintings, which might cost as little as a dollar, were within reach of the common man and hence dangerous. Comstock said, “Let the nude be kept in its proper place and out of the reach of the rabble.”

To which he added, “The morals of the youth of this country are endangered by obscenity and indecency in the shape of photographs of lewd French art – a foreign foe… In the guise of art this foe to moral purity comes in its most insidious, fascinating and seductive form.”

To Comstock’s surprise, the reaction to his raid on Knoedler & Co. was not praise but outrage. Prominent artists, art critics and art collectors rose up, and the press echoed every voice raised against Comstock. And not just the New York press; the New Orleans Times-Picayune declared, “It is characteristic of Comstock to expect the whole machinery of the law to run or stop as he may direct.”

New York’s Evening Telegraph filled its front page with line drawings of the artworks Comstock had seized, with Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” almost as large as the masthead, and the newspaper sold like hotcakes.

Venus in Telegram

Comstock tried to persuade the District Attorney to indict the publishers of the Evening Telegraph, but failed.

To the first hearing, Comstock brought “three bushels, more or less” of confiscated photos. The New York Evening Telegram noted, “Mr. Comstock refused to show the objectionable photographs to anyone in the court but Justice Kilbreth, but he claims that they are of the same class that has brought other dealers in art to grief.”

In the end, the judge found only two photos of those Comstock presented to be objectionable. One was “Rolla” (1878) by Henri Gervex, a painting based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, about a young man who has spent his last money on an afternoon with a prostitute.

rolla-1878.jpg!Large

Idle and debauched, the youth gazes at the prostitute for a last time before ending his life with poison. In spite of the moral of the story, the painting was judged obscene. Judgment was withheld, but in March of 1888, at an unannounced session of the court, Knoedler copped a plea and was fined $50 for each of the two photos.

Much more can be said about Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus,” and young Evening Telegraph newsboy Johnny Flynn, but those are stories for another day.

***

“Rolla” is today in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

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One thought on “The Knoedler Bust

  1. Pingback: A Cruel Stab | Anthony Comstock, Postal Inspector

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