Watering Hole – September 1, 2010

A hoax of a hoax. Hucksters did not magically appear when Rupert Murdoch started buying newspapers. They’ve been around a long time. Here’s a hoax with a twist, from the early 20th Century.

The French painter Paul Chabas completed “September Morn” in early 1912. The painting shows a young woman demurely bathing nude by the edge of Lake Annecy in Haute-Savoie, France. When Chabas showed it that year at the Paris Salon, it won a gold medal of honor. Critics praised it. But when copies of the painting made their way to America, it provoked a bitter controversy there about nudity, art, and public morality. Thanks to this controversy, September Morn became one of the most famous and popular paintings of the twentieth century. It sold millions of copies and was reproduced on a wide variety of merchandise including umbrellas, suspenders, postcards, candy boxes, cane heads, and watch fobs. The painting is often cited as an example of “success by scandal.”

But in an ironic twist to the September Morn story, the publicist Harry Reichenbach later claimed to have started the controversy by complaining to moral censors about the indecency of the painting. He didn’t actually feel the painting was indecent. He was cynically manipulating the self-righteous moralists in order to sell copies of the painting. It was an early example of a marketer staging a phony protest for the sake of publicity.

Except that it wasn’t.

According to Reichenbach, he was working for a New York City art dealer in 1913. The dealer had acquired 2000 copies of September Morn and needed to sell them, so he asked Reichenbach to help. Reichenbach hit upon the idea of generating controversy by calling the painting to the attention of Anthony Comstock, a self-proclaimed moral censor and secretary of an organization called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.

But the controversy started in Chicago, not in New York and when Anthony Comstock did spot the painting in New York a couple of months later, and demand that it be removed, he never followed through.

Philippe Ortiz, manager of the store, kept “September Morn” in the window for five more days, constantly expecting Comstock to return and charge him with indecency. However, Comstock never returned. Finally, Ortiz removed the picture simply because it had already been up there a week longer than he had originally planned to display it, and the crowds outside the window, gathered to get a peek at the controversial painting, were preventing his regular customers from entering the store. Ortiz wrote an angry letter about his experience with Comstock to the New York Times:

The whole story is here.

This is our Open Thread for Wednesday, September 1.