Korzybska, Mira Edgerly - portrait of three sisters or a triptych?

It is hard to comprehend the large size of this miniature portrait without visual clues. It is very large for a miniature on ivory, with the maximum sight dimensions being 215 mm x 120 mm (8.5 inches by 5 inches). The image here does not do justice to its brightness and clarity.

It is signed at the lower right "EDGERLY.K.34". This stands for the American artist Mira Edgerly Korzybska (18 Jan 1879-13 Jul 1954).

Born in Illinois, Mira Edgerly spent her childhood in MI, where her father was an inventor and a director of the Michigan Central Railroad. Largely a self-taught artist, she began working with portrait photograph Arnold Genthe, reportedly studied with Frank Brangwyn in Paris, and was urged to pursue her love of painting on ivory by the artist John Singer Sargent.

At a time when most miniature portraits were the size of one's palm, Mira Edgerly specialised in using large ivory pieces. Through the world's largest ivory cutting house in London she obtained sheets of ivory cut into pieces 6 by 12 inches or more. She carefully selected ivory with translucent qualities, giving special brilliance and luminosity to colours. Sargent, on seeing her paintings, said, "Here at last is a portrait on ivory, not a miniature."

Edgerly became a sought after portraitist among the upper echelons of American and European society as well as the entertainment and literary worlds. Her work took her to and from New York, London, Paris, California Washington, Latin America, and Chicago. Many of Edgerly's portraits are catalogued at Columbia University, including those of Elsie de Wolfe, Doris Duke, and Aileen Vanderbilt. However, very few are available to view.

There is a reference to her (as Myra Edgerly) in "The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas" (1933). "Mildred Aldrich once brought a very extraordinary person Myra Edgerly. I remembered very well that when I was quite young and went to a fancy-dress ball, a Mardi Gras ball in San Francisco, I saw a very tall and very beautiful and very brilliant woman there. This was Myra Edgerly young. Genthe, the well known photographer did endless photographs of her, mostly with a cat. She had come to London as a miniaturist and she had had one of those phenomenal successes that Americans do have in Europe. She had miniatured everybody, and the royal family, and she had maintained her earnest gay careless outspoken San Francisco way through it all. She now came to Paris to study a little. She met Mildred Aldrich and became very devoted to her. Indeed it was Myra who in nineteen thirteen, when Mildred's earning capacity was rapidly dwindling secured an annuity for her and made it possible for Mildred to retire to the Hilltop on the Marne."

And "Myra Edgerly was very earnestly anxious that Gertrude Stein's work should be more widely known. When Mildred told her about all those unpublished manuscripts Myra said something must be done. And of course something was done. She knew John Lane slightly and she said Gertrude Stein and I must go to London. But first Myra must write letters and then I must write letters to everybody for Gertrude Stein. She told me the formula I must employ. I remember it began, Miss Gertrude Stein as you may or may not know, is, and then you went on and said everything you had to say. Under Myra's strenuous impulsion we went to London in the winter of nineteen twelve, thirteen, for a few weeks. We did have an awfully good time. Myra took us with her to stay with Colonel and Mrs. Rogers at Riverhill in Surrey. This was in the vicinity of Knole and of Ightham Mote, beautiful houses and beautiful parks. This was my first experience of country-house visiting in England since, as a small child, I had only been in the nursery. I enjoyed every minute of it. The comfort, the open fires, the tall maids who were like annunciation angels, the beautiful gardens, the children, the ease of it all. And the quantity of objects and of beautiful things. What is that, I would ask Mrs. Rogers, ah that I know nothing about, it was here when I came. It gave me a feeling that there had been so many lovely brides in that house who had found all these things there when they came."

Mira married Frderick Burt in 1914 in New York before they headed to Europe MIRA EDGERLY WEDS.; She Becomes the Bride of Frederick Burr at ... The wedding notice comments that she had painted a miniature of Princess Patricia, a grand daughter of Queen Victoria, while in Ottawa. However the marriage does not seem to have lasted very long, whether due to the death of Burt or divorce is not clear. Mira returned to America by herself in August 1914 on SS Carpania.

In his 1944 book "As Much as I Dare", Burgess Johnson made the following comment; "In the early days of the first World War, two or three young women who had been students of mine were working for the Red Cross and the Food Administration in Washington and shared an apartment. Mira Edgerly was then painting portraits at the national capital and I wrote them that they should meet her. They invited her to tea where she proved to be the center of interest. Late in the afternoon a young Polish officer arrived, an engineer assigned by his government to inspect munitions purchased by Poland in America. According to the accounts of my young friends he settled down by the Edgerly's side for the balance of the afternoon and the two were there when everyone but the hostesses had gone. Two months later Mira Edgerly and Count Alfred Korzybski were married."

Johnson's memory seems to be a little out however, as the marriage to Alfred was in 1919, which was after WWI, not in the early days of WWI. Count Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), was a well-known Polish-American linguist, author, and pioneer in semantics, and for some years Mira successfully juggled her art with helping her husband in his endeavours.

The couple lived in various places throughout the USA, and when Korzybski was appointed head of the Institute of General Semantics, they divided their time between Chicago and Lakeville, CT. Both are buried in the cemetery in Lime Rock CT, the town next to Lakeville. For more about their meeting see Edgerly, Mira

A large quantity of her papers are held at Columbia University see Mira Edgerly Korzybska Papers ca.1850-1960. and it is hoped that the papers may be able to reveal the names of these three sisters, or perhaps a triptych of one girl, as to date the sitters have not been identified. Columbia University was twice approached to see if they could please check the work books they hold that record all Mira Edgerly's work, to see if there was a record of a similar miniature, but unfortunately they never replied. 1242

There is also more about Mira in a Polish website at  Mira Edgerly Korzybska | daisypless


Mary Samouelian said...

I came across your post while doing some background research on Mira Edgerly. I wanted to let you and your subscribers know that Duke University has the triptych of Doris Duke (painted by Edgerly in 1916) in the Doris Duke Collection and anyone interested in seeing it may do so!

Thank you for posting this history of Mira Edgerly - it was quite helpful!

Mary Samouelian
Doris Duke Collection Archivist
Duke University

Don Shelton said...

Thank you Mary. It is good to know it was helpful. I had previously wondered if this portrait was a triptych and to know Mira did paint Doris Duke as a triptych seems to make that a more likely alternative for this miniature.