Many novels begin with the premise that stories of ordinary lives will be worth a reader’s time. But biographies and some memoirs tend to be about people who have stepped beyond what’s familiar into some kind of celebrity. What I loved about My Dear Girl: The Art of Florence Hosmer by Helen Marie Casey was its assumption that it can be well worth retracing the footprints, or in this case, paintings and letters, of someone who’s been generally forgotten. I also liked the author’s inclusion of her own musings about the nature of art, history, and fame.
Florence Hosmer lived from 1880 to 1978, and left about 500 paintings, primarily portraits. She managed to earn a living, finding support from relatives and a sustaining network of friends, which is reflected in the title: the author read many saved letters, which often began with that warm salutation. Florence Hosmer’s own letters have mostly been lost, thrown away, or perhaps saved in unknown places. The location of many of her paintings is also a mystery.
Helen Marie Casey examines and beautifully describes paintings that have been saved, and lovely examples are photographed in the book. She looks through Florence Hosmer’s house, which was willed to the town of Sudbury, rifling through letters, photographs, and drawers. She finds, “After a while, even beloved objects have a way of metamorphosing into simple artifacts.” I like the personal tone as she quotes some letters, than speculates about possible responses, with bigger questions about the topics of art, story, and lastingness set off in italicized paragraphs. After spending time in her house, she reports, “I have come under her spell, as have so many others, and I hold the knowledge of her persistence, her empathy, and her lively sense of humor as an important part of what she has bequeathed.”
This slim book chronicles a choice to commit oneself to creating beauty, and we learn about how Florence worked, took classes, exhibited, submitted work to juried shows, sold many portraits, and wrote letters requesting payments, which she didn’t always receive. The author explores what it means to be an artist, and to lack much acclaim, suggesting that, “Even one brilliant work of art has the power to take hold of us and ensure that the creator will last as long as the work endures.”