What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island

Based on her biographical information and many paintings of carefree beach scenes and small children, Impressionist Martha Walter appears to have been an artist with a charmed life who stuck to safe subjects.

[“Just Off the Ship”]

Born in Philadelphia in 1875, she honed her natural talents at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with sometime-Brooklynite William Merritt Chase. She traveled and painted in Europe and North Africa, set up studios in Gloucester, Massachusetts and then outside of Philly, and lived to be 100 years old.

[“Listening to the Call of Names to Be Released”]

But in 1922, her work took a more somber turn. That year, she spent time visiting Ellis Island and composed at least two dozen paintings based on the women and children she saw in the detention areas—the rooms on Ellis Island reserved for immigrants who were at risk for one reason or another of being sent back to their native countries.

[“Babies’ Health Station Number 4”]

The paintings present, “the sad spectacle of heterogeneous crowds made up of Irish, Russians, Chinese, Dalmatians, women and children, miserable pariahs who have abandoned their native land in the hope of finding another and more charitable fatherland,” states the program for an exhibit of these canvases from 1923.

[“Inpouring of the Unqualified”]

The harsh words of the program collide with the sympathetic portrayals of these unfortunate women and children, herded into crowded rooms, feeding their children at a milk station, and waiting, mostly waiting, for word as to what will happen to them.

[“Italian, Jewish, and Yugoslav Mothers and Children, Waiting”

“This is a different colorful parterre of flower, poor and rude, anxious or frightened, some of them old and faded, others exhibiting the colors of healthy country youths” states the program.

[“The Telegram, Detention Room”]

“All of them are holding little children of a peculiarly strange type, with big eyes wide apart, clad in rags of vivid colors. All these crowds more in their strange and savage harmony between the yellow and brown pillars of this large hall, which reminds one of a hospital.”

What happened to the women and children we’ll never know. But assuming they made it to New York City, they would be among the last great wave of European immigrants to arrive in the U.S. before strict quotas were put in place in 1924.

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7 Responses to “What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island”

  1. Zoe Says:

    I love these paintings. I love her portrayal of the tiny babies.

    This makes me think about how difficult it must have been to bring/look after babies during the ship journey & after arrival at Ellis Island. No disposable diapers/no adequate clothes & linens washing scenario. I never thought of that before seeing these/reading Ephemeral’s post.

    My grandfather came here in the early 1900’s (just prior to 1910). I found out he left from Beirut. (I knew he was/we are from Marjeyoun Lebanon which is in the south — not Beirut). I guess that means he came straight here (?) — although I read that some left from Marseilles. There must have been enough people leaving Syria & ‘The White Mountain’ (Lebanon) to have ships to New York from Beirut.

    His older brothers left before him in the early 1890s — so presumably went through Ellis Island also. He came to Ellis Island alone at age 13 & was hired from there as a water boy for the railroad (boys & men of colour like my grandfather who were hired to carry/serve water to passengers). That’s how he made it to Ohio where his older brother was a chocolatier & he became a chocolatier in his shop also. (It had a soda fountain also but only sweets were sold).

    Later during the so called ‘pansy craze’ of the 30s — think ‘Cabaret’ — they ran a nightclub there that had “Gay Boy Reviews”. A Gay LGBT advocate/activist & writer & radio/podcast host had a poster of my family’s club on his website — advertising this phrase in quotes. He had more history on this brief entertainment phase in the US & certain cities in Europe to show/tell me. It was really fascinating.

    I knew about my family’s nightclub & helping to found a Maronite Church (at the same time!) but not beautiful male cross-dressing singers very openly called “Gay Boys” & their mostly straight audiences of mostly couples. So from Ellis Island hire as a ‘water boy’ on the railroad to a 1930s nightclub w/ posters advertising “Gay Boy Reviews”! There is one ‘what became of’ story from someone who *may* have been a subject in one of these paintings.

  2. Tom B Says:

    Thanks for these pics. My grandmother came to Ellis Island in 1922 from Italy. Her husband already immigrated 3 years earlier. Their first child, my dad was born here in 1924. The courage, strength and fortitude these women had was amazing.

  3. What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island | Ephemeral New York | First Night Design Says:

    […] Source: What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island | Ephemeral New York […]

  4. janetweightreed10 Says:

    I really enjoyed this…even though I am not familiar with Martha Walter….However, I am very familiar with Ellis Island because from 1967 til 1972 I commuted on the Staten Island Ferry to lower Manhattan, and of course passed Ellis Island every day. I would think about all the people that went through it…and were treated so badly….If someone had any form of illness they had a cross child on their clothes and were sent back to where they came from. I do like these paintings that Martha Walter has done…
    Hope you are OK and that the eyes continue to heal….Keep smiling …janet 🙂 xxx

  5. davidprosser Says:

    A more realistic impression of how it was on Ellis Island than is sometimes depicted. You never think about the ones who are refused.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  6. emma cownie Says:

    Beautiful paintings of a heartbreaking place.

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