Clover Adams: portrait of an artist

Soon Henry was immersed not only in the Life of Gallatin but in a much larger scheme to record the early history of the United States, embracing both the Jefferson and Madison presidencies, a project that would take five years to complete and would result in the nine volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, a work that would offer unprecedented insight into the formative years of the American experiment as a Democracy and revolutionize the way history is approached and presented.

Ordinarily Henry would write through the day then He and Clover would ride horses in the afternoon. It seems incredible now but, though they lived within site of the White House—they lived on H St. facing Lafayette Square—they were able to ride horses all around Washington and even down into Virginia. In the evenings they entertained. ”A wide array of writers and artists, politicians and dignitaries, doctors and academics made their way to the Adamses’ salon for food and talk.” Presidents made their appearances along with statesmen and visiting dignitaries (Jerome Bonaparte, great nephew of Napoleon I and Aristarchi Bey, the Turkish minister), Cabinet members (Carl Schurz, Secretary of the Interior and John Hay, former secretary to Lincoln and future Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt), ex-Civil War leaders from both sides of the conflict (including General William Tecumseh Sherman, General Philip Sheridan, and James Lowndes, former Confederate Colonel), and, when he was in the country, Clover’s good friend Henry James.

In spite of these diversions, Clover found herself at a loss for what to do. She often assisted Henry in his research especially during a trip to Europe where the couple, taking advantage of their fluency in languages, visited archives in England, France, and Spain (they also both spoke German). But Henry’s increased absorption in his History and the two novels he wrote during this period meant that Daisy was back in the “shadow between eagerness and uneasy boredom.” One escape for her was through photography.

Photography in the United States…was by no means new at the time of the Civil War; the basic process was announced to the world in 1839. An entire generation of Americans had grown to adulthood without the vaguest recollection of a time when the photograph was not a household item.

Photography was more than a hobby for Clover; it became an outlet for her creativity. Photography elevated her from being a mere spectator of the vibrant intellectual and artistic worlds in first Boston and then Washington, into an active participant. . Henry Adams had noted her “intellectual grace.” “She was a superb writer, but her marriage had room for only one author.”

Photography was a wholly different activity, more active and more social. And it drew on Clover’s natural abilities: her keen eye, her acute powers of observation, and her attuned sense of an individual’s personality. Also, something surfaced in her photography that was not readily apparent in her witty, sometimes barbed letters…: a richness and subtlety of feeling.

Most of Clover’s photographs are portraits. She photographed neighbors, friends, family members, even her pets. There are some landscape portraits, too.

Clover’s technical skill increased and at the same time her confidence grew. One photograph taken of the Adamses’ neighbor, the eminent historian George Bancroft was much admired by John Hay, a close friend. Hay recommended the photo to George Gilder, editor of the Century magazine, “urging him to get a copy of it to put on the cover of the magazine.”

Mrs. Adams has made a remarkable photograph of George Bancroft in his study. He is now eighty-three, and one of these days will be gone.

Gilder agreed and sent a letter to Henry Adams asking if he would contribute an essay to accompany the photo. Henry refused and Clover missed an opportunity to have her work put forth before a much wider audience. Henry’s reason for refusing this simple request is uncertain. What is certain is that in refusing he was also sending a message to his wife that her work was not to be taken seriously. Beneath this was a combination of Henry’s strict aversion to publicity and his conventionality. He also had a curious ambivalence to women’s rights which expressed itself in a quasi-Teutonic mythology. His only public lecture presented in 1876 at Boston’s Lowell Institute was on “The Primitive Rights of Women.” These rights were based not so much on equality with men, but “by virtue of their fecundity and motherhood.”

Equality was based not on what was shared but on profound differences, and could be achieved only by affirming a woman’s essential nature and her role within a separate domestic sphere.