Posts Tagged ‘Ellis Island Detention Rooms’

What one painter saw on a visit to Ellis Island

June 5, 2017

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.