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Dave Shampine
Dave Shampine
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Times Gone By

The vanishing artist Flower Memorial Library painter took his sweet time — and then was gone

First published: October 06, 2013 at 4:30 am
Last modified: October 03, 2013 at 10:32 am
AMANDA MORRISON N WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
A detail from Charles Frederick Naegele’s portrait of Emma Flower Taylor’s children.

Editor’s note: Former Times staff writer Dave Shampine is continuing to file occasional Times Gone By columns. This is his first since his retirement March 1.

A nationally prominent artist was in Watertown, and it sure looked like he was making himself at home — at least that’s the impression Emma Flower Taylor must have had.

A wealthy philanthropist, Mrs. Taylor had hired Charles Frederick Naegele, a 55-year-old New York City artist, in 1912 to paint murals and portraits in the new library honoring her late father, New York Gov. Roswell P. Flower.

Four years later, the talented gentleman was purchasing property at Sackets Harbor and talking as if he’d like to stay.

“I am very fond of Watertown and its people,” he told a Watertown Daily Times reporter in March 1916. “If I could induce my family to think likewise, I would take up my residence there.”

But that summer, he left Jefferson County, never to return, leaving unfinished the work he had started for the library. And Mrs. Taylor would not live to see the completion of her grand design for the building she gave to the people of Watertown. Three months following her April 1934 death, the library trustees hired a “copyist” to finish the job started by Mr. Naegele nearly 20 years before.

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The cornerstone for a library on Watertown’s Washington Street was laid on July 11, 1903, four years and two months after Gov. Flower’s death. The building commemorating him was dedicated on Nov. 10, 1904.

Mrs. Taylor wanted the building to be a source of community pride, and a number of artists were lined up to work on various sections of the building. A bust of the governor was created by Augustus St. Gaudens, while James C. Kindlund painted signs of the zodiac; a dome was beautifully designed by Frederick Lamb; and there were works by George Breck, H. Peabody Flagg and Ella Condie Lamb.

There was still work to be done in fall 1912, when Mrs. Taylor commissioned Mr. Naegele to do murals and portraits featuring local history and prominent people of the area. She was already familiar with the artist because in 1895 and ’96 he had painted a portrait of Gov. Flower.

Charles Naegele was born May 8, 1857, in Knoxville, Tenn. When he was 3, his parents, Charles and Christina Naegele, moved to Memphis. There, at age 12, after he had shown skills in sketching, he was indentured as an apprentice carver. To earn extra money, he found side work painting signs.

With the death of his father in 1873, 16-year-old Charles Naegele became the family supporter. As he carried that responsibility over the next seven years, his sharpening skills attracted attention.

Col. Charles Myles Collier, a marine artist in Memphis, ordered a sign depicting a landscape viewed through a window. Charles was puzzled by the request, so he contacted Col. Collier for an explanation. The colonel soon became impressed with the young man’s skills, took him on as a student, and in 1880 sent him to New York City for additional training under artists William Sartain and William Merritt Chase.

Two years later, a New York City directory listed him as an artist.

An early portrait of a young girl served as a springboard for Mr. Naegele’s career. Civil War Gen. Daniel E. Sickles saw the work and hired Mr. Naegele to do his portrait. That was followed by more clients. He would go on to create likenesses of Henry D. McDaniel, a Confederate officer who became governor of Georgia, William D. Jelks, governor of Alabama, and Nellie Taylor Ross, director of the U.S. Mint.

Additionally, having become a member of the Salmagundi Club in New York, which owned the New Parks Commission of New York City, he was awarded a contract in 1888 to create a medal for the 1892 commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Colulmbus’s discovery of America. He drew the design and made the original model with wax.

Mr. Naegele was coming into prominence. A display of his works opened in 1892 for a 13-year run at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and he received a gold medal for his painting “Divinity of Motherhood” (1900) in Boston.

One of his best-known paintings, “Mother Love” (1909), was hung in the National Gallery.

Indeed, Mrs. Taylor had brought to Watertown an artist who, having studied great portraits in European galleries, offered great promise for Flower Memorial Library.

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The Watertown Herald took notice of Mr. Naegele in November 1912, telling readers that he “is at work in the Flower Memorial Library painting the friezes and frescoes on the walls. The decorative work will take some time.”

It was not until 10 months later, in August 1913, however, that Mrs. Taylor provided a written detail to the library board of trustees, outlining Mr. Naegele’s proposal for his work.

There would be, of course, the life-size portrait of Gov. Flower, to be placed in the main reading room. Mr. Naegele was also doing other portraits, a number of paintings depicting local historic events, murals and friezes.

Mrs. Taylor introduced the artist to prominent citizens of Watertown on Jan. 21, 1913, when she hosted a Charles Dickens-themed costume party at her Clinton Street mansion. Mr. Naegele’s wife, Lizette — they were in their 29th year of marriage — accompanied him.

Later in the year, on Sept. 16, the artist’s son was in Watertown to display his talents — not on a canvas, but on a keyboard. Charles F. Naegele Jr. was at 16 already an accomplished pianist, and he gave a recital of mostly Chopin works at Watertown High School.

By the end of autumn, Mr. Naegele had completed part of his job, decorating the room of the LeRay de Chaumont chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the northeast corner of the library.

After that, his absence drew some concern. The Times reported on June 10, 1914, that the artist had not returned to Watertown since completing the DAR room. But the news story quoted sources who said he was working on pieces for the Flower project in his studio on Fifth Avenue in New York.

An absence of newspaper stories suggests he did not return to Watertown until early March 1916, when he prepared some of his work for shipping to Flower Memorial Library.

“No library anywhere in this country can give such a fine historical record of its county as will the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library when the panels and portraits are complete,” he said in an interview while still in New York, reported in the Times on March 2, 1916.

“The most important event of 1812 to Watertown was the battle of Sackets Harbor,” he continued. “In the Jefferson County Historical Room will be shown portraits of people connected, directly or indirectly, with that event. If the British had not been defeated at Sackets Harbor, Watertown might today be a Canadian city.”

He described his design and named some of the people to be depicted: President James Madison, New York Gov. Daniel D. Tompkins, Gen. Henry Dearborn, Gen. Zebulon Pike, Commodore Melancthon Taylor Woolsey and Kate Vaughan. He promised a scene of the old volunteer fire brigade on lower Washington Street, including a background consisting of Washington Hall, old Jefferson County Bank, the Masonic Temple, the Presbyterian Church tower, the Paddock building and the “Marble block.”

Also anticipated was a view of Black River surroundings, such as the old Union flour mill, Beebe Island, an old tannery and a Court Street covered bridge.

“I try to make them as pleasing as possible, and have them historically correct,” he said, “but they are not, of course, handled in the manner that I would paint a picture for purely artistic purposes. The panels will be more valuable 100 years from now than they are today, and they will be more appreciated.”

He asserted, “No other place can show so many historical things as Watertown.”

Mr. Naegele’s commitment to Watertown appeared renewed in July 1916, when he announced that he had purchased a house in Sackets Harbor, as well as an old three-story gray stone mill on the bank of the harbor that he planned to make into a studio.

A month later, Mrs. Taylor presented to the library board Mr. Naegele’s details for completing his project. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

■       ■       ■

“SEEK TRACE OF CHARLES NAEGELE,” a Watertown Daily Times headline read on June 14, 1923.

“All trace has been lost” of the artist, the news story opened. Watertown people had not heard from him since late in 1916.

Mr. Naegele had “dropped out of sight completely.” Letters mailed to his New York studio and to the Salmagundi Club went unanswered, even though Mrs. Taylor had $500 waiting for him, the pay due for his completed works. He had not even sent her a bill, the Times reported.

Left unfinished were 19 paintings he had promised.

Flower Library remained in want of the city historical scenes that the artist had spoken of so proudly seven years earlier.

The mystery was solved five months later. He was living in Cobb County, Georgia. He had been there a few years, it turned out.

His wife was living in Brooklyn.

So, with his whereabouts revealed, Mr. Naegele offered to return to his Watertown commitment, but with a hitch.

“The figure that he placed upon his services ran well into the thousands, and was not accepted,” the Times reported on Nov. 9, 1923.

He was apparently not heard from again in Watertown until 1931, when he wrote, asking for a list of his completed works in Flower Memorial Library.

He died Jan. 27, 1944, at his studio, Artcrest, near Marietta, Ga. His wife, son and a daughter, Evelyn, survived.

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Eighteen years had passed since Charles Naegele last set foot in Watertown before steps were taken to complete what he had left undone. But these were only small steps.

Two Watertown men, Harold E. Sargent, 49-year-old commercial artist and owner of Sargent Signs, and Francis J. Twiss, who at 44 was an expert decorator at C. Van DeWalker & Co., painters and decorators, were retained in March 1934 by the library trustees under one of the Great Depression recovery programs, the Civil Works Administration, which was concluding at the end of that month.

The scope of their work involved cleaning and redecorating the rotunda and painting conventional designs over doors and windows.

With the completion of that work, the library board of trustees made an announcement on July 30, 1934. They had found an artist who was willing to finish Mr. Naegele’s project.

Clifford Camp Holden, 44, “was recommended to our trustees as one of the cleverest copyists that ever worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” library trustee Karl George said in a letter to Harold B. Johnson, publisher of the Times. Mr. Holden “had just finished an elaborate mural painting for a D.A.R. chapter … and he was especially recommended for a copy of the Ferris frieze in the Philadelphia Independence Hall.”

Another library trustee, Mary Starbuck Goodale, went to New York to check on the artist “and was assured that he would be a ‘find’ for our job,” Mr. George told Mr. Johnson.

“I was much surprised to learn,” Mr. George added, “that he came from Jefferson County.”

His great-grandfather, Timothy Holden, settled in the town of Hounsfield in 1810 and remained there 52 years, until his death in 1862.

Clifford Holden had family living in Sandy Creek, and was dividing his time between his studio in New York City and Sandy Creek.

He counted among his recent accomplishments portraits of three Eastman family members for Eastman Kodak Co. and another of LeRay de Chaumont, an enlargement of an older portrait.

“His portraits, I believe, are lifelike and most surprising copies of the little portraits he had to work with, and I think that our trustees to a man were satisfied with his work,” Mr. George wrote.

The task accepted by the artist included 14 portraits for the historical room; three panels for the Old Watertown room; the Battle of Sackets Harbor; the death of Zebulon Pike, and the wounding of Gen. Brown at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

In his agreement with the trustees, he was entitled to work in vacation periods between important commissions in New York City.

Mr. Holden recruited the assistance of a teenage nephew who had lived in Watertown all his life.

“I also made $5 paid to me by my uncle for helping him hang the portraits and to glue murals on the walls of the Old Watertown Room,” Harold W. Kinnie wrote in August 1981 in a letter to the Times.

Library records do not show how much was paid to Mr. Holden for his services, although a notation in June 1935 lists one of his paychecks being $600. He completed his work about midsummer 1936.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Holden was not a museum employee in the traditional sense.

“Artists sometimes identified in various published sources as ‘copyists’ at the Museum … worked independently either for their own training or for hire for outside individuals,” an archivist said recently.

Mr. Holden’s name was mentioned in a 1931 letter from a museum staff member in which he was recommended as a copyist to the Herald-Tribune newspaper, the archivist said.

Little family information is found for Mr. Holden. Census records in 1910 show him among the three children of Walter and Venice Holden of Sandy Creek. The 1940 census lists him as an artist and a married resident of New York City, but his obituary in Burlington County, New Jersey, where he lived in Wrightstown, made no mention of a wife or children. He died at age 88 on Sept. 14, 1978.

The only survivors identified were two nephews in Jefferson County, Mr. Kinnie and Walter Holden of Sackets Harbor, and a niece, Marie Marria of Boise, Idaho. They have since died.

Mr. Holden is buried in Lakeside Cemetery, Sackets Harbor.

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Francis J. Twiss, a native of Kingston, Ontario, was 72 when he died in May 1962. In addition to the Flower project, he completed paintings in city schools and the old City Hall on Court Street.

Harold E. Sargent, born in Adams Center, studied art at Syracuse University. He operated his sign painting business about 40 years in Watertown, retiring in 1968. He died at age 75 in January 1971.

Pianist Charles F. Naegele Jr. also performed in November 1935 at St. Lawrence University, Canton, and was back in Watertown in November 1937 at South Junior High School after completing a tour in Europe. He was forced to give up performing in 1938 because of arthritis in his hands. He died at 66 in 1962.

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Want to learn more about Mrs. Taylor’s Dickens costume party? Check out the next issue of the Jefferson County Historical Society’s Bulletin, available in a few weeks.

Source material for this story included The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1904, and Ancestry.com. We gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Times librarian Lisa Carr; Flower Memorial Library reference librarian Yvonne Reff; Margaret Lowden at the Burlington County Library in New Jersey, and James Moske, managing archivist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

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