July 2015 as seen through an art historical gaze: Margo the Land Mermaid

July 01, 2015 2 Comments

Margo By The Water, Portrait of a Young Woman circa 2015 - watercolor on paper, artist unknown

A painting that has long been called the iconic image of a time in American history and culture known as "Summering Out East"

What we see here is somewhat of a mystery, art historically speaking. Margo, a mythical "land mermaid" known only by a small faction of elite Hamptons Natives, has been referenced often throughout history and various artistic mediums but few solid details are known about her origins or family lines. While the details of her lineage are blurred by the veil of time, the significance of her image as a Siren of Summer and an icon of Elitism has only grown with the passing centuries.

Shown here, in what would have been understood as a traditional environment, she is depicted as shy, and coquettish, her reticence recalls Bottecelli's Birth of Venus in it's conscious naiveté paired with a direct eye contact with the viewer. Margo's role in society was to be admired, a beautiful, presumably wealthy Hamptonite, she would have been familiar with often being looked at directly by the peasant class while she feigned disinterest. However, here the artist turns this scenario on it's head, showing her looking back, engaging, acknowledging that she is seen.

She is perched almost birdlike on the end of a diving board - an instrument that wealthy landowners often installed above their large man-made bodies of water (pools) which they then used for launching off of into said water, only after consuming a great deal of gin - a botanical, fragrant liquor often paired with lime juice and tonic water. 

A lot can be interpreted by Margo's positioning above the water - she is aloof, detached, elevated above the water source. Raised up as though above the fray. Her toe, grazing the surface can be seen as a tentative connection - a small olive branch of kindness - much like the tepid smile someone of her stature in society might have offered the foreign gardner who was undoubtedly hired to care for the opulent display of hydrangea bushes depicted in the background. 

Much has also been said about the color choices the artist used. The stark white of the sky captures the clean white haze that almanac records show existed in the weather patterns forming over the furthest points of New York's Long Island and Eastern townships.

The density, the energy, the overgrown exuberance of the flora in the background as exhibited by the painter's hasty use of excessive prussian blue mixed with cadmium yellow are surely a nod to the riotous and lush growth of all plant life between East Hampton and Montauk.

These towns were known for an abundance of expertly maintained Hedges - or walls made of bush, designed specifically by the upper class to keep peasants from peddling past on rusted beach bikes to leer at the unapologetic displays of Real Estate Porn sprawling across the lawns of Long Island.

Hedges were a fundamental part of Hamptons society in this time - a symbol for the stark devision between the Haves and the Have Nots. The people who summered consistently from Memorial Day to Labor Day "out east" and the weekend warriors who could only afford to enjoy life "out east" two out of every seven summer days, crammed like refugees into rented Share Houses - a form of primitive brothel, often housing up to 45 people in three or four bedrooms. 

Margo would certainly have not been of the class of people subjected to Share Houses. She would have been of the class who referred to their Out East destinations as Second Homes, or perhaps, in some rare cases, Third Homes. 

The inclusion of the black and white striped umbrella is a symbol of added wealth and power. Black and white stripes used in this context almost always denoted a connection to famed Interior Decorator, Miles Redd, or one of his lesser contemporaries. The Upper Class were slavishly devoted to his vision for their lifestyle and utterly captivated by his Slim Aarons-esque approach to use of black and white banner striping and Martinique Prints on almost everything. 

The artist's choice to include this umbrella is surely not accidental, it is a clear message to the viewer in that time period that this was an image of Margo, that this was an image of a Summer Home. Not a Share House. 

Many essays have been written purely on the topic of Margo's dress in the image. Her scalloped maillot is believed to have been designed by one of the premier swim designers of the era, Marysia Swim. A designer remembered for charging dearly for approximately 11 inches of unstructured microfiber preferred by the Upper Class and Bloggers alike. Bloggers - or rich white women who documented their #bliss - were a phenomenon of the time period. To own such a suit was again a symbol of Elitism, awareness of Cultural Hierarchy and possibly, even of Blogging. Although no records are found of Margo operating a blog, it is said that her likeness was replicated and seen often throughout blog records of the time period. 

While art historians maintain that the legend of Margo is purely that - a legend - many will continue to search for her origins and be captivated by her significance in the rich tapestry of recalled life of the North Eastern Elite. 

We salute this image as a touchstone with a romanticized era, as a symbol of American life, as a beacon of summer. 

Posted in 2015 Calendar, hamptons, july, margo



2 Responses

July 07, 2015

Ahhh so fantastic I can’t stand it. You’re the perfect blend of Bushnell, Wolfe and maybe a little McInerney. It’s too much. It’s perfection. Write a book!


July 06, 2015

This is so interesting! I really enjoyed reading this.


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