John Colby Abbott

John Colby Abbott, Jr. (1863-1910) was a designer, writer, and public speaker from Boston.  He was a key creative force behind the Boston Art Students Association (BASA) and their legendary festivals that energized Boston’s art scene in the early 1890s.    He also gave popular lectures on 18th century French fashion that earned him invitations to New York, Paris, London, and the White House.

Abbott was born in Brookline, Massachusetts.  His father, John Colby Abbott, Sr., was president of an insurance company, and his mother, Elizabeth Lincoln Abbott, was a counselor and board-member at The New England Hospital for Women and Children.

Abbott was a member of the first class to graduate from the School of The Museum of Fine Arts, and a founding member the BASA, which began in 1879 as an alumni association for the school.  In the late 1880s, it began admitting non-alumni as members (Abbott’s Visionist friends Ralph Adams Cram and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue were among the first) and eventually changed its name to Copley Society.

The group was motivated in 1890 by the unexpected death of a beloved teacher and first headmaster of the school, Otto Grundmann, to raise money to build a studio building in Copley Square in his memory.  Grundmann Studios, designed by Cram, , contained two large galleries as well as live-work and work-only studios for rent.  Abbott moved in when it was completed in 1894.

BASA members were well-connected in Boston society and their fundraising events were collaborations with their wealthy patrons, who included Isabella Stewart Gardner.  Their yearly “Artists’ Festivals”,elaborate and immersive theme parties inspired by the students’ romantic visions of bygone worlds, were the subject of detailed articles, both before and after the events, not only in the local papers but in New York and other US cities.

Abbott had several different roles in the BASA in its early days, but came to be known as the driving force behind their theatrical productions and Artists Festivals.  For the 1896 “Arabian Nights” festival, a team or artists led by Goodhue transformed one of the Grundmann galleries into the court of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.  Abbott and Gardner teamed up to costume scores of volunteers who mingled with guests as characters from the world of the Arabian Nights stories.  They also held open studio hours in advance of the event for guests who needed help with their costumes, which were mandatory.  Abbott, after greeting the high-class attendees in character as the caliph’s son Noureddin, asked them to sit on the floor of the gallery to watch a short play he wrote introducing the court.  This was followed by music, dance, and magic acts until 12:15am.  According to The Bostonian magazine, “the festival, which had begun with a certain decorum, that might be called Boston reserve … finally eliminated itself, as it were, from the cocoon of moderation into a full-fledge butterfly of innocent, joyous abandon.”

The BASA events seem to have played a major role in bringing together the artists who would form Boston’s bohemia in the 1890s, and this is likely how Abbott got to know Cram and Goodhue.  In his autobiography, Cram remembered Abbott as a core member of the Visionists and the source of the costume Herbert Copeland used to officiate as “exarch and high priest of Isis”.

After graduating Abbott worked as an interior decorator and salesman for Shepard, Norwood, and Co., a department store on Winter Street in Boston.  In the 1880s and early 1890s, he was active in the Boston theater community as a costume designer, actor, and playwright.  His costume design credits included “Tabasco”, one of a series of very popular all-male burlesque operas produced by the First Corps of Cadets to raise funds to build an armory in the Back Bay.  He wrote at least two plays that were produced: “A Private Séance” was staged by a repertory company in Helena, Montana.  “The Hit”, in which Abbott played a theater owner, was staged in Boston by “The Strollers”, an amateur company affiliated with the BASA.

In 1895, Cram’s business partner Charles Wentworth wrote Cram a letter urging him to distance himself from his Visionist friends, especially Abbott, who he said was “rapidly getting a most questionable reputation”.  In another letter he compared Abbott to Oscar Wilde, who was arrested for “gross indecency” that year, which suggests Abbott’s “questionable reputation” had to do with being perceived as gay.

In 1903, Abbott married Meribah Philbrick Reed, a poet originally from New Hampshire, in a small ceremony at a friend’s home.  They moved to Chestnut St. on Beacon Hill, not far from the Crams.

In the 1890s and early 1900s Abbott gave lectures on cultural history subjects for the BASA and other organizations.  His most popular presentation, which he was invited to give at Gardner’s home and those of other society women, was titled “Foibles and Furbelows of the Past”, about the fashions at Versaille in the period leading up to the French revolution.  For these talks he used a life-sized cardboard doll he created called “Le Grand Pandore” to model outfits.  In 1909 he was invited to present this talk in New York, London, and Paris, and and the White House for an event organized by First Lady Edith Roosevelt.

In the 1900s Abbott served as editor of costume-related photos for the French history book Days of the Directoire by A.R. Allinson.   He also had a short story titled “Mamie” published in The Reader magazine.

Abbott died in 1910 at the age of 47.  Strangely, though they had mentioned him many times over the years, the Boston papers don’t seem to have published an obituary or any information about his death.  Meribah Abbott took over giving presentations with “Le Grande Pandore”, adapting the talk into a regular performance at Keith’s, a Boston vaudeville theater, in 1910.  In 1913 she moved to Kittery Point, Maine, where she lived until her death in 1923.


* Updated 08/17/2017 with info from the early files of the Boston Art Student Association / Copley Society, from the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Art.

Pelletier, Mabel C., “Festival of the Boston Art Students Association”, The Bostonian, v.1 1894-85, p.354

Oliver, John N., “The Copley Society of Boston”, New England Magazine, January 1905, vol. 31, no.5, p.605

Shand-Tucci, Douglass, Boston Bohemia 1881-1900: Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture, U. of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1995

The Boston Globe:

Ad for Shoe and Leather Insurance Co., 05/06/1875 p.5

“Barnet’s Peppery Opera”, 12/31/1893, p.29

“The Hit”, 02/28/1890, p.6

“Fun With The Caliph”, 04/05/1896, p.26

“Table Gossip”, 11/22/1903, p.43

“Famous Doll at Keiths”, 07/06/1910, p.9

“Table Gossip”, 11/13/1913, p.50


“Merry Widow Hats in 18th Century”, The New York Times, 01/05/1909, p.7

“Social Doings of the Week in Paris”, The American Register, London, 05/22/1909, p.3

“News from the Field”, The American Kitchen Magazine, April, 1899, Vol. XI, No.1., p.36

“The Soubrette”, The Daily Independent, Helena, MT, 03/10 1894 p. 6

Oliver, John N., “The Copley Society of Boston”, New England Magazine, January 1905, vol. 31, no.5, p.605

Society Page, The Washington Post, 02/07/1909, p.E6

“Kittery Point”, The Portsmouth Herald, 03/15/1923, p.2

Annual Report of New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1899

History of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1899

Clark’s Blue Book, Boston, 1905

Allinson, A.R., Days of the Directoire, John Lane, London, 1910

Abbott, John Colby, “Mamie”, The Reader, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904,  vol. 4 p.366

1893 JAC Sr. Death Record

1901 JAC Jr. Application for Passport

1910 JAC Jr. Death Record

1903 JAC Jr. & MPR Marriage Record

Jack Abbott in Arabian costume

John Colby Abbott in the costume he wore as Noureddin, the Arabian Prince, for the 1896 BASA festival.

Bliss Carman

Bliss Carman (1861-1929) was a Canadian-born poet who spent most of his life in New England.  He is best known for the Songs From Vagabondia series of poetry books co-authored with fellow Visionist Richard Hovey, and published by Copeland and Day.  He originally came to the Boston area to attend Harvard, returned briefly to New Brunswick, then came back to Boston because it was “one of the few places where my critical education and tastes could be of any use to me in earning money.”

Copeland and Day printed a limited edition pamphlet of Carman’s poem “St. Kavin” that was distributed only to Visionist members.  A hand-written note on one member’s copy calls Carman “the prince of Visionists”.



Above: Portrait of Bliss Carman by Pirie MacDonald.  A print at the Library of Congress.

Thomas Buford Meteyard

Thomas Buford Meteyard (1865-1928) was a visual artist based in Boston for much of his career, and a member of the Visionists.  He illustrated several books for Copeland and Day press, including their popular “Songs of Vagabondia” series of poetry books.  In an unusual tribute to the role of the illustrator, Meteyard’s portrait appears on the covers of the books along with those of the authors, Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey.

Meteyard later spent time in France, studying under Monet at Giverny, and helped to bring the Impressionist movement to America.  He and his mother owned a beach house in Scituate, MA, called “Testudo” (Latin for “tortoise”), which was a frequent retreat for their artists friends, including the Visioninsts and fellow impressionist painter Dawson Dawson-Watson.


Above: Thomas Buford Meteyard’s portraits of (left to right) himself, Bliss Carman, and Richard Hovey on the cover of Songs from Vagabondia.

Louise Imogen Guiney

Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920) was a poet and writer from Boston.  Her work included sonnets and other formal poetry, as well as essays and biographies.

Guiney came from an Irish American Catholic family and her father was a well-know Union officer in the Civil War.  In the 1890s she was part of several literary societies, allowing her to interact with established as well as up-and-coming writers, and introduced several of the friends who would form the Visionists.

At a time when most clubs and societies were single-gender, the Visionists were  an exception– Guiney took part in their mostly-male gatherings as did fellow writer Alice Brown.  The  journal The Knight Errant took it’s name from one of Guiney’s poems, included in the first issue.

Unlike her close friend F. Holland Day, who came from a wealthy family, Guiney had to find time for writing while working day jobs.  She ran the Auburndale post office in Newton, Massachusetts, and later became a cataloguer at the Boston Public Library.  In 1901 she moved to England, where she felt she could better focus on writing.

Guiney’s Catholic identity was very important to her at a time when discrimination against Irish Catholics was common in New England.  In his autobiography Ralph Adams Cram recalls that many residents of Newton refused to use the Auburndale post office after learning it was run by a “Papist”.  Her bohemian Boston friends flocked to Auburndale to buy stamps and insure she met her quota.

Guiney and her mother owned a beach house in Maine, nicknamed “Castle Guiney”.  Day bought the house from them as a way of helping Louise financially, and renovated it to the “Little Good Harbor” estate where he did much of his later work and hosted fellow photographers.


Above: Portrait by F. Holland Day, 1893, of Louise Imogen Guiney, dressed as St. Barbara (with halo added in pencil!)  St. Barbara is associated with soldiers and this persona may have been inspired by Guiney’s war hero father.  Print in the Library of Congress.


Above: Drawing of Louise Imogen Guiney by Thomas Meteyard, her author picture for a book published by Copeland and Day.


Above: Portrait of Louise Imogen Guiney from Loyola University Special Collections.

Ralph Adams Cram

Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) was an architect and writer based in Boston.  He is best known for his churches and public buildings, which include the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and key buildings on the campuses of West Point, Princeton U., Rice U., U. of Southern California, and others, and both bridges between Plymouth, MA and Cape Cod.  The Berkeley Building (aka The Old John Hancock) in Boston’s Back Bay was designed by his firm shortly after his death and pays tribute to the style he established. He also served as Head of the Architecture Department at MIT.

Cram grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Boston to pursue architecture, landing a job at a firm with the help of family friends.  He also worked briefly as an art critic for a local newspaper.  After winning a small amount of money in an architecture contest, he traveled to Europe with a close friend.  This trip had a major impact on him– it inspired his lifelong interest in pre-Renaissance art and architecture, and during his visit to Rome he was inspired to convert to Anglo-Catholicism (ie the Church of England, now better know in the US as Episcopalianism).

One of Cram’s heroes was pre-Raphaelite art critic John Ruskin, who advocated a neo-Gothic approach to architecture, applying medieval principles to modern applications.  Cram championed this style in the US, a reaction to the neo-Classical styles he felt had been overused and cheapened here.

In the 1890s Cram was a key figure in Boston’s bohemian scene and a member of the Visionists.  During this time he wrote two books he later described as “indiscretions,” both published by fellow Visionists Copeland and Day.  Black Spirits and White is a book of ghost stories inspired by his travels in Europe.  The Decadent is a dialogue between two Visionist-like characters, one who advocates Christian Socialism and another who argues that Western civilization is in a period of decline (”decadence”) and advocates inaction.

Cram founded an architecture firm in 1889 with partner Charles Francis Wentworth.  Visual artist and architect Bertram Goodhue moved to Boston to work for the firm as a draftsman and later became a partner.  He also became a member of the Visionists.  Both Cram and Goodhue had strong visions of their own, and Goodhue eventually moved on.  In 1913 the firm changed its name to Cram and Ferguson.

In 1916, Cram masterminded an elaborate pageant titled “The Masque of Power” to celebrate MIT’s move from Boston’s Back Back to its current home in Cambridge.  He recruited about 1700 participants in costume and a professional choreographer, and cast himself as Merlin.

Recommended further reading:

My Life in Architecture by Ralph Adams Cram (out of print but check your library)

The Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram and his Firm by Ethan Anthony


Above: Portrait of Ralph Adams Cram by F. Holland Day about 1890.  Print in the Library of Congress.


Above: Ralph Adams Cram on the cover of Time magazine, 1926.


Above: Ralph Adams Cram dressed as Merlin for “The Masque of Power” pageant celebrating MIT’s move to Cambridge, 1916.  From the MIT Museum.

If you are familiar with MIT you may be familiar with this image which hangs in the “Infinite Corridor” as part of a display commemorating the move.

F. Holland Day

Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) was an American photographer and publisher based in Boston who played a key role in establishing photography as a fine art, and served as a mentor to many other artists and photographers.

Day was born to a wealthy family in the part of Dedham, MA that is now Norwood.  As a child her was an avid reader and collector, and his hero was English Romantic poet John Keats.  (In fact, he helped to organize the fist public memorial to Keats in England.)  He attended the Chauncey School in Boston where he met lifelong friend Louise Imogen Guiney.  Day and Guiney were part of several literary clubs and artistic circles, including the Visionists.

With fellow Visionist Herbert Copeland, Day founded a small press, Copeland and Day.  Inspired by William Morris’ Kelmscott press, they championed quality materials and fine craftsmanship in bookmaking.  They were the American publishers of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and the risqué English journal The Yellow Book.

In time Day’s attention turned from publishing to his lifelong passion, photography.  He began taking pictures to document his visits to important literary sites, but came to see photography as artistic expression, drawing inspiration from visual artists.  His work included portraits of his many fascinating acquaintances, often in costumes from his collection.  He also shot many male nudes, working with professional art models.  Much of his inspiration came from classical mythology or religious themes.  For his “sacred subjects” series, he re-enacted the crucifixion on a hillside in Norwood, casting himself as Christ and his friends as saints and Roman soldiers.

Day’s bold vision attracted the attention of others working to establish photography as a fine art, including Alfred Stieglitz.  At the turn of the twentieth century, Day and Stieglitz were the two best know American photographers.  In 1900 and 1901, Day organized a show entitled “The New School of American Photography” in London and Paris which introduced Europeans to several leading American photographers.  Stieglitz discouraged associates in London from putting on the show, leading to a rift between him and Day.  After that, Day did not include his work in Stieglitz’s influential journals, which perhaps explains why he has not been remembered as well as Stieglitz.  A devastating fire at Day’s studio in 1904 destroyed most or all of his negatives and prints.  His work now exists in the form of prints in a fairly small number of institutions including the Met, the Library of Congress, The National Media Museum (UK), The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the George Eastman Museum.

Day’s Universalist upbringing and his experience as a self-taught artist may have instilled in him liberal social values and a strong sense of public service.  He was a friend, mentor, or teacher not only to emerging professional artists but to immigrant children in Boston’s South End and at a progressive school for students of color in Virginia.  In 1896 he received a letter from a friend who was a social worker in Boston, asking if he might have “any artist friend who would care to become interested in a little Assyrian boy, Kahlil G.” who had shown promise in art classes.  Day met with 13-year old Kahlil Gibran, let him help out in his studio, and lent him books from his collection.  Not long after, Gibran’s family sent him back to his native Lebanon (then a part of the Ottoman Empire) to continue his education.  When he returned to Boston in his twenties, Day hosted the first exhibition of Gibran’s visual art.  Through Day Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, who became his close friend and a key supporter of his work.  Best known for his 1923 book The Prophet, Gibran would become one of the best-selling poets of all time.

After the 1904 Day spent less of his time in Boston and more at Little Good Harbor, his beach house in Maine, originally purchased from Guiney.  There he focused on photography and hosted some of the many other influential photographers who were his friends or mentees.  These included Gertrude Kasebier, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Frederick Evans, Clarence White, Zaida Ben-Yusuf, fellow Visionist Francis Watts Lee, and Edward Steichen.  Steichen would become one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century and one of the first fashion photographers.

If you are in New England, a great way to learn more about Day is to visit his former home in Norwood, MA, now the headquarters of the Norwood Historical Society.  Check their website for tour information.

Recommended further reading: Through an Uncommon Lens: The Life and Photography of F. Holland Day by Patricia Fanning.


Above: “Solitude,” 1901, a portrait of F. Holland Day by friend and mentee Edward Steichen.  Platinum print at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.


Portrait of F. Holland Day with a male model, 1902 by friend and mentee Clarence White.  A platinum print at The Met.


Above: Portrait of F. Holland Day about 1898 by friend and fellow influential pictorialist Getrude Kasebier.  Platinum print at The Met.