The Boy, the Painting & the Heirloom

The boy sat on a low iron stool, the youngest in the family portrait taken in 1909.  Clifford Landon McCracken had six sisters, and two brothers living at the time of the photograph. His oldest sister was thirty. He was four years old: a little tow-headed tyke wearing a big collared two piece “wash suit” with dark knee hose. The studio lights caught the wrinkles as his stockings gapped at his knees and ankles. His brother, John Clayton McCracken, who was three years older, had graduated to a Russian hassock shirt and knee britches.

That same year, his father, my great-grandfather, John Robert McCracken, sold the farm where Clifford had been born a mile from Kingsley, IA. The family moved to Sioux City, Iowa.

The following year, in the summer of 1910, Clifford died of infantile paralysis, three days after he first showed symptoms.

But the family story has it that he had been photographed wearing a similar romper and a matching hat about six months after the family portrait had been taken. A painting was supposedly done from this snapshot. But was that part true?

Studio portraits were commonplace by 1909, and often very clear images have been saved. I know from personal experience as a studio photographer that it is hard to keep a child still to take a good portrait, let alone get them to smile too.

Would my great-grandfather have had a camera in his possession by 1909? Eastman Kodak was selling Brownie cameras in that timeframe. Although he wasn’t a wealthy man, he might have thought so at the time. He made a big profit on his farm sale of nearly twenty-six thousand dollars. I believe he thought he and his wife could live on that the rest of their lives, as it appears he did not take another job, although he was only fifty-five when he quit farming. He probably didn’t plan on living until he was nearly ninety. But if they took any snapshots, they didn’t survive to be passed along to their heirs.

The painting, I was told, was given to Clifford’s parents on the occasion of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. That was clearly incorrect. Their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was a year before Clifford was born. It may have been given to them on their thirty-fifth anniversary in 1914. But the date the artist recorded on the corner of the portrait was 1910, shortly after his death. So it seems logical that they received it in 1911 on their thirty-second wedding anniversary, if the anniversary part is even true. I am assuming that my grandfather, Clinton Claude McCracken spearheaded the commissioning of the portrait. He was a take-charge kind of guy, the oldest surviving son, twenty-two, single, and still living at home in early 1911. His older sisters had generally married and moved out.

The interesting part about the painting is the artist. Elizabeth Honor Dolan was a well-known artist in Nebraska. She spent her childhood in southeastern Nebraska and attended the University of Nebraska in the 1890s.  She studied for a year in Des Moines and in October of 1912 she enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute. In 1914 she became a member of the Art Students League in New York City. She lived in New York for eight years supporting herself with her paintings, including those of children, and designing stained glass windows for Louis Tiffany.

In 1924 she received a $500 scholarship to study art at Fontainebleau outside Paris, France. She learned fresco painting from Francis Garguit and was one of three students in a class of twenty-five to receive a diploma in fresco painting.

When she returned to Nebraska, she received a commission as a “decorator” earning $100 a week to paint frescos on the new Morrill Hall walls. She painted the east and west walls of Elephant Hall, seventeen feet high and seventy feet long, in addition to the north and south walls, first and second floor wall cases and the backgrounds in the Hall of Nebraska Wildlife. It took fifteen months. She painted directly on the plaster walls, giving the work a three-dimensional effect. She has been called a genius for her fresco work.

Her oil on canvas work, Spirit of the Prairie was painted on site at the state capital in Lincoln, Nebraska. She donated the painting, and only accepted a fee to cover expenses. I remember a large painting she had done that was displayed at Miller & Paine department store when I worked there in my youth. It is now located in the southeast quadrant of the state capital in the Supreme Court ladies’ lounge.

She also was commissioned to do paintings for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the New York City YWCA, the Lincoln YWCA, the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the University’s Student Union, Lincoln’s Unitarian Church, the University Club, the Lincoln Public Library, and Lincoln’s Masonic Temple. My grandfather would have been active in the Lincoln Masonic Temple in 1934 when she was asked to do nine large paintings. Coincidence?

The older brother, my grandfather C.C. McCracken in 1892

The heirloom ended up in my hands when my mother died in 2003. It had long been known in my family as “Baby Cliff.” But what were we going to do with him? We left him in the house when my sister sold off some of the furnishings and household items that were not wanted by any of us three children. She reported that buyers offered her money for the frame, which is an ornate gold leaf. But no one recognized the value of the artist’s work, and certainly no one else cared about a little boy lost at a young age. Somewhere along the way, the canvas had been damaged. I believe my mother inquired once about repairing it, but the estimate was more than she wanted to spend.

I began to wonder where he had been since his parents died in the mid-1940s. Baby Cliff’s painting probably remained in their home as long as his sisters Elizabeth McCracken or Sylvia McCracken lived there. Sylvia died in 1968. But perhaps he journeyed to Lincoln to reside with my grandfather before he died in 1956. Sometime in the 1960s he had made his way into my grandmother’s possession, and I would guess he became my mother’s ward when my grandmother moved out of her large house in 1969.Like many family heirlooms, it seems wrong to part with him, other than giving it to another family member. I guess he will hang in my guest bedroom, waiting for someone to offer a handsome price for an original Elizabeth Dolan. – Claudia Severin July 2020

Resources for information I used on Elizabeth Dolan:

Published by severin2721

Author and self-publisher.

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