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HistorySister Mary Stanisia lived in two worlds. In the convent, she obeyed strict communal guidelines and took a vow of poverty. As an artist, she competed in a secular world and produced portraits of well-known politicians and religious leaders alongside her religious murals.
Sister Mary Stanisia was born Monica Kurkowski in Chicago to Francis and Katherine Kurkowski, immigrants from German-partitioned Poland. As a young girl she observed her father, a woodcarver, work with tools to create objects of usefulness and beauty. The family changed its name to "Kurk" at some point. They lived in the Polish parish of St. Stanislaus, and Monica Kurk attended the Catholic parish elementary school and the Academy of Our Lady. At an early age she was sent to Europe to study with Polish-born religious artist Count Thaddeus von Zukotynski and was introduced to the art of mural painting depicting religious and mythological subjects.
Kurk's religious devotion became clear to her when she was a young girl. "It was while coming from the Communion Table when a small girl," she later recalled, "that I silently dedicated my life to God's service." (Kendall, "Lives of Great People"). When she returned from Europe in 1893, she decided to enter a religious convent and, "leaving a comfortable home, affectionate parents, brothers and sisters" (Kendall, "Lives of Great People"), she began the process of preparing for a religious life, serving as a novice from 1896 to 1899 at the motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and entering the order permanently in March 1899 at St. Mary's, Michigan City, Indiana
With the religious name of Sister Mary Stanisia, she continued to paint throughout this period of religious preparation. "My desire was," she later reflected, "to spread devotion to Him through my art; to praise, honor and serve Him and to add happiness to all His people" (Kendall, "Lives of Great People"). Disappointed friends had predicted that Stanisia would withdraw from the artistic development she had nourished in Europe, but she navigated her spiritual path contemporaneously with an intense devotion to the art of painting. Her earliest known painting, The Sacred Heart of Jesus (1899), already revealed her abilities.
Sister Mary Stanisia continued to develop spiritually and as an artist when she was sent to teach in academies run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She taught art in the high school and gave private lessons while in residence at Our Lady of Lourdes, Marinette, Wisconsin, from the fall of 1899 to the fall of 1905, when she began to teach art in St. Mary's Academy, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Two years later she arrived in Chicago and began to teach at the Academy of Our Lady, Longwood. Here she set up her own art studio and began a productive period of individual growth as an artist and great activity as a teacher of art. She founded the fine arts program there, becoming its first director in February 1907. She was given a large studio on the second floor, which boasted a ceiling high enough to permit the completion of murals before they were shipped to permanent locations.
Intent on learning more, she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 1916 to 1919, which gave her one of the finest, though more conservative, educations in art in the country. There she studied portrait painting with Leopold Seyffert, mural painting with John Norton, landscape painting with Frank Peyraud, sculpture with Albin Polasek, and a subject in which she excelled, academic figure painting with Wellington Reynolds. She exhibited in all of the student annual shows, and a full-length portrait, Her Great Grandmother's Wedding Gown, was illustrated in the 1917-18 SAIC catalog. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (B.F.A.) and received an honorable mention for especially commendable work in life and portrait painting. Mary Stanisia continued to study painting. From 1915 to 1922 she was the pupil of acclaimed portraitist Robert Clarkson in Chicago. She spent a summer studying painting with Charles W. Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In 1922, she received a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from DePaul University, Chicago.
Zukotynski's training seems to have afforded Stanisia skills to model in the manner of proto-Renaissance artists -- in the manner of an icon -- but with a concern for sculptural form and for the feeling of true flesh. In her 1899 painting, she utilized a technique much closer to that of Italian primitives than the prevailing American taste for nineteenth-century academic painting, or for that matter, European modernism. By the time she left SAIC and her studies with Clarkson and Hawthorne, her style had changed dramatically. Two Friends (c. 1921), a nonreligious subject, documents this shift well. Stanisia's palette and technique are livelier; the brushstrokes breathe. This intimate, psychological study of two figures seated in an interior recalls comparable works by Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, or Mary Cassatt. Although shown at rest, the figures tremble with a freshness and an emotional intensity new to her work. This quality, along with an objective yet probing attitude about portraiture, would later serve her finest portraits and religious subjects well, largely due to her studies with Hawthorne, Seyffert, and Reynolds.
In 1921, Stanisia was commissioned to paint the central panel for an altar piece at St. Hyacinth Church, Chicago, possibly her earliest surviving large-scale work. The work followed a composition by Zukotynski, which also hangs in St. Hyacinth Church, offering a rare opportunity to compare the master with the student.
By 1924, Sister Mary Stanisia received commissions from individuals and congregations, including a six-and-a-half foot by twelve-foot mural for St. Paul's Cathedral, Minnesota. Her greatest success occurred in 1926 when she exhibited four canvases at the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago. Aimed toward the revitalization and promotion of Catholic eucharistic art, the exhibition provided a specific and appreciative audience, and Stanisia quickly attracted commissions.
Sister Mary Stanisia continued to live and work at the Academy of Our Lady, Longwood, but after 1926, preoccupied with commissions, she rarely taught classes in conjunction with the school. She enjoyed the freedom of conducting private classes in her studio and frequently counseled pupils individually. For a time, Stanisia was so busy with her projects that often she was found sleeping in her studio. Eventually she slept there regularly, an activity that scandalized the rest of the faculty.
Between 1926 and 1930, she completed an estimated fifty murals, portraits, and devotional subjects, including a highly acclaimed Stations of the Cross cycle (c. 1926) for St. Margaret of Scotland Church on Chicago's South Side. At this time, Sister Stanisia attracted critical and somewhat sensational attention from Chicago art critics. Many writers, charmed by the apparent novelty of a nun artist, demonstrated a lack of knowledge of the breadth of learning among men and women religious in the modern world. Pro-modernist critic C. J. Bulliet marveled at "a painter of unusually fine talent developing in the sheltered circles of nun" ("Artists of Chicago, No. 56"). Many failed to realize that for centuries women religious had been scholars who, unburdened by the expectations of traditional female roles, were able to concentrate on intense study of many subjects. Conservative critic Eleanor Jewett claimed that "terrifyingly little [religious art is being] done in the church today ("Nun Portrays Exquisite Face"). Only a few years later the journal Liturgical Arts dispelled this notion. Yet even Catholic publications such as Novena Notes, which reported that Stanisia's paintings had saved suicidal souls and even converted the occasional atheist, saw her as a novelty.
In 1929, Sister Mary Stanisia founded the Department of Art at Mt. Mary College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the institutions of higher learning run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She continued to direct the art program at Longwood as well as the one in Milwaukee. In 1930, she founded the Art Guild of Chicago, whose gallery was housed at Longwood. Among the many purposes of the guild was the promotion of unknown artists and the furthering of their education. The guild also established a permanent gallery and held annual exhibitions of work by its members. It showed the work of artists whose limited means excluded them from exhibition opportunities.
Stanisia's own work flourished in the 1930s. In 1930-31, her work was included in the University of Chicago Renaissance Society's Exhibition and Festival of Religious Art. She won a silver medal at the Warsaw, Poland World's Fair (1932) for a painting. Her portraits of Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly and Illinois Governor Henry Horner were unveiled during the Century of Progress Exposition in 1934. The following year, a one-woman show at the Davis Store, Evanston, Illinois, was a triumph; there Stanisia's secular subjects hung adjacent to her more popular religious paintings. In keeping with her vow of poverty, any prize money or commission received for her artworks was given back to her religious community.
Stanisia's lifelong preference for human models, selected after much contemplation, joined her to a tradition of painters of religious subjects such as Rembrandt van Rijn or Michelangelo da Caravaggio, who selected ordinary persons to represent Old and New Testament figures. Unlike those artists, however, Stanisia does not seem to have depicted herself as a participant in or observer of the events she was painting. Writers frequently commented on Stanisia's use of models from her own parish and from the South Side of Chicago. One such known model was Mrs. Veronica Juillard from 100th and Sangamon, who modeled as St. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus in the sixth Station. A notable example was her search for the ideal model to represent St. Martin de Porres, who was being considered for canonization by the Church in 1937. Stanisia interviewed approximately twelve African American men from the South Side of Chicago before choosing a man who "was known for his piety" (Lane) and fit her conception of a saintly being. She used a Longwood student as the model for the young Christ after a year-long search. Five hundred girls were interviewed before one "with all the qualities and attributes of the true Madonna type" (Long, "Nun's Painting Is Known as a Mystic Valentine") was chosen for the celebrated canvas Ecce Ancilla Domini. The ideal model for St. Therese was chosen for her "almost incredible resemblance" (Long, "Painting of St. Therese by Nun Called the Story of a 'Rose'") to the saint; like the others, it submitted to the transformation of anonymity and beautification.
Sister Mary Stanisia painted portraits of Cardinal Mundelein, Pope Pius XI, and Cardinal Stritch, as well as famous Illinois politicians. She did Mundelein's portrait twice and became a friend. Pope Pius XI's portrait was done from photographs. She also painted sports hero Knute Rockne, who posed for her.
Although primarily a painter of religious subjects, Stanisia said few things about the genre and its relevance to her calling. In the 1940s, however, Stanisia began a series of American "Madonnas," portraying an ideal of Catholic motherhood. These were probably a response to Pope Pius XI's encyclicals on social responsibility and marriage. This was as close as she came to intertwining religious and social issues with her art in an explicit manner.
In response to many of her most involved religious compositions, writers were frequently proud to herald Stanisia as a genius nun and a specifically American artist. One writer for the New World, a Catholic newspaper published in Chicago, described her Stations of the Cross cycle at St. Margaret of Scotland Church as "[painted] with more drama and divine love than ever before in the history of Catholic art. . . [They are] the only original painted Stations of the Cross in this city" (Long, "Stations of the Cross"). Other depictions of the life cycle of Christ were judged "for the most part, copies of the European ecclesiastical painters" (Long, "Stations of the Cross"). Stanisia's work is not explicitly based on the religious work of the Old Masters. An Americanization of figure types and themes, comparable to a kind of glamorous Hollywood actor image, began to emerge quite early in her work and remained throughout her career. Examples are her Madonnas and a Flight into Egypt. Whether she was conscious of it or not, Stanisia seems to have been part of a growing consciousness in the United States of a purely American Catholic art, one that began to define its own set of parameters and iconography. One indication of the interest in art and specifically religious painting among women religious was the number of nuns who signed the Art Institute's ledger book for permission to take their easels into the galleries and copy paintings.
In 1928, Stanisia was commissioned to paint an image for publishing companies wishing to distribute thousands of copies throughout the world. The genre of her image, Sacred Heart of Jesus, is comparable to the American Protestant artist Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (1940), although the latter's image is estimated to have been reproduced five hundred million times between 1940 and 1984.
Stanisia lived the last years of her life at the Notre Dame Infirmary in Elm Grove, Wisconsin. She died at age eighty-eight, having lived nearly all of her life in Chicago. She is buried at the School Sisters of Notre Dame Cemetery, Elm Grove, Wisconsin.
Stanisia turned down a French artist's invitation to Paris to accept religious and portrait commissions saying, "I am a Religious, having dedicated my life to the service of our Divine Lord and here in this peaceful convent [in Chicago] I shall remain until He calls me to my heavenly home" (Kendall, "Writer Finds Tranquility in Gifted Nun's Studio"). In this seemingly constrained environment, Sister Mary Stanisia remained unbound by the social limitations and traditional expectations of the roles of women in community, family, and work.
Sources. The Leon T. Walkowicz Collection, Loyola University Chicago Archives, has materials related to the career and life of Sister Stanisia. Additional Stanisia materials are at the Archives of the Provincial House, Chicago Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Berwyn, Illinois, including an undated clipping, Veva Elton Kendall, "Lives of Great People: Sister Mary Stanisia," reprinted from Catholic Women Magazine. Archives at the Polish Museum of America, Chicago, and the Academy of Our Lady, Chicago, also have items on Stanisia. See also the Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago. Stanisia's panel at St. Hyacinth Church, Chicago, now hangs in the sacristy of the church. Her Stations of the Cross are in St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Chicago. Several art critics wrote useful articles, including Clarence J. Bulliet, "Artists of Chicago, No. 56 -- Sister Mary Stanisia," Chicago Daily News, March 14, 1936; Veva Elton Kendall, "Writer Finds Tranquility in a Gifted Nun's Studio," New World, June 7, 1940; R. A. Lennon, "Nun Commissioned to Paint Cardinal," Chicago Evening Post, December 16, 1924; F. E. Blankenship, "Cathedral to Get Nun's Art," Chicago Daily Journal, July 11, 1928; Eleanor Jewett, "Nun Portrays Exquisite Face of Christ Child," CT, August 19, 1928; Margaret Weilert, "Convent Artist Does Mural for Cathedral," Chicago Evening Post, July 17, 1928; Clem Lane, "Catholics Seek Sainthood for Peruvian Negro," Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1937. A series of seven articles by Hersur Long in the New World, beginning with "Stations of the Cross," January 13, 1928, offer important discussion of the reception and planning of specific paintings by Stanisia. Long's articles include "Nun's Painting is Known as a Mystic Valentine," February 24, 1928, and "Painting of St. Therese by Nun Called the Story of a 'Rose,'" March 9, 1928. For a history of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, see Dymphna Flynn, Mother Caroline and the School Sisters of Notre Dame in North America (1928). John Dillenberger's A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church (1986) is a valuable study on the changing relationship between art and the church.
Biography of Sister Mary Stanisia from Women
Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, pgs. 833-836.