Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
(Montgomery, Alabama, 1900 - 1948, Asheville, North Carolina)
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born in Montgomery at the dawn of the twentieth century. A Southern belle who became the essence of modernity, she was spontaneous, ambitious, independent, sexually adventurous, and irreverent. Her husband, the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, used her life and personality as the inspiration for the heroines of his greatest novels, particularly "The Great Gatsby" (1925) and "Tender Is the Night" (1934). When their relationship began, she celebrated their shared flamboyance: “Both of us are very splashy, vivid pictures, those kind with the details left out,” she wrote him, “but I know our colors will blend, and I think we’ll look very well hanging beside each other in the gallery of life.” (1) He called her “the first American flapper,” and for the public the extravagant escapades of Scott and Zelda still epitomize the Jazz Age.
Zelda Fitzgerald eventually tired of her role as muse, but her attempts at artistic expression were overshadowed, and at times preempted, by her husband’s. She proved herself a capable writer, publishing a novel, "Save Me the Waltz" (1932) and selling short stories to periodicals; however, her stories routinely appeared under Scott’s byline. At the age of twenty-seven, Zelda devoted herself to the study of ballet, her obsessive pursuit of perfection as a dancer auguring the mental illness that plagued her for the remainder of her life. (2)
The therapeutic value of Fitzgerald’s painting is often cited, and while her art may eventually have been colored by her state of mind, she had specific goals for her creative output. Among her earliest works are paper-doll cutouts that she made for her daughter, Scottie, and later for her first grandchild. On a practical level, Fitzgerald saw these paintings as educationally valuable for children, and she considered publishing and marketing them. (3) Her style was an eclectic, somewhat superficial combination of the Cubist and Expressionist idioms she encountered in Paris during the 1920s. In 1924 her friends Gerald and Sara Murphy—an American expatriate couple who were artists in their own right—introduced her to the Modernist circle that included Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Jean Cocteau (1889–1963), and Fernand Léger (1881–1955). The Murphys had studied with Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962), a Russian artist who produced designs for Sergei Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballet Russe, and Fitzgerald’s later study of dance with a member of Diaghilev’s troupe brought her into closer contact with avant-garde stage design. She apparently had her first formal art lessons on the island of Capri in the winter of 1925. (4)
Circumstances never allowed Fitzgerald to build a career as a professional artist, but her powerful personality, fueled perhaps by her illness, compelled her lifelong struggle to express herself. A friend of the Fitzgeralds’, Cary Ross, organized one of the few public exhibitions of the artist’s paintings that took place during her lifetime. From 29 March to 30 April 1934, Ross displayed thirteen paintings and fifteen drawings in his studio on East Eighty-sixth Street in New York, with a small collateral exhibition in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. At Fitzgerald’s request, the installation was titled “Parfois la Folie est la Sagesse” (Sometimes Madness is Wisdom). (5)
(1) Zelda Fitzgerald, quoted in Carolyn Shafer, “To Spread a Human Aspiration: The Art of Zelda Fitzgerald,” MA thesis, University of South Carolina, 1994, pp. 15–16. To date, Shafer’s thesis is the most thoroughly documented assessment of Fitzgerald’s art.
(2) Fitzgerald’s illness was chronic, and after 1930 she was periodically confined to mental hospitals, first in Europe and later in the United States. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, although today her symptoms are seen as consistent with bipolar disorder. In a letter of 4 May 1934 to one of Zelda’s psychiatrists, Scott Fitzgerald noted that Zelda’s brother had also been diagnosed as mentally ill. See Peter D. Kramer, “How Crazy Was Zelda?” New York Times Magazine, 1 December 1996, pp. 106–10.
(3) There is ample evidence that Fitzgerald saw her artistic production as at least a semiprofessional endeavor. She wrote to Max Perkins, an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, in March 1941 inquiring about a possible publisher for the paper dolls. She noted, “The dolls are charming: there isn’t any reason why children shouldn’t learn while having a good time.” The letter is in the Princeton Libraries Special Collections, C0101, Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Author Files I, box 53, folder Fitzgerald, Zelda; for a transcription, see Schafer, p. 56. A newspaper article from the Montgomery Advertiser, 17 August 1941, describes an installation of Fitzgerald’s paper dolls in the Children’s Room, with a quotation that undoubtedly reflects the artist’s assessment of the works’ usefulness as teaching tools: “They are in no way ordinary paper dolls, but paintings after modern French painters, which Mrs. Fitzgerald believes is the best way to introduce children to the trends in contemporary painting.” Around this same time, she is documented as having painted bowls and trays, which she sold for “pin money.” Schafer, p. 54.
(4) Ibid., pp. 20–28.
(5) Surviving documentation suggests that Fitzgerald painted consistently from the early 1920s onward, but many of these works are now lost. Most of the paintings shown by Cary Ross are today unlocated. The artist’s family destroyed an unknown number of paintings after her death. The majority of surviving works by Fitzgerald are held by her descendants. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts owns thirty watercolors and oil paintings by Fitzgerald, most given by her daughter, Frances Fitzgerald (Scottie) Smith.
American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, cat. no. 79. p. 190.
Image credit: Anonymous, Zelda Fitzgerald, 1919, originally scanned from Zelda by Nancy Milford, (c) PD-US-expired