By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
In 1912, French painter Paul Chabas finished his “September Morn,” a painting of a nude young girl taking a dip in a lake. It won a medal at the Paris Salon, but in March, 1913, on exhibit in a Chicago art gallery window, a police officer, believing the work to be indecent, ordered gallery owner Fred Jackson to remove the painting. Jackson did, but soon put the painting back.
According to the Museum of Hoaxes website, a copy was shown to the mayor who agreed the painting was in violation of a municipal code banning exhibits of lewd pictures.
Jackson took the painting out of the window and replaced it with two statues of the Venus de Milo: one nude, the other dressed. The case went to court, Jackson was acquitted and celebrated by giving each juror a copy of the picture. After this, other shopkeepers displayed “September Morn” and other artistic nudes in their windows. The city council amended the municipal code to ban nude pictures in any window, but by now the painting had become nationally known due to the controversy.
Two months later, in New York City, Anthony Comstock, head vice-hunter for the self-created New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, saw a copy of the now notorious painting and demanded it be removed, saying, “There is too little morning and too much maid.” This only increased the painting’s wild popularity.
Naturally, Petaluma was not immune. H.S. Gutermute, owner of The Maze and The Central Music House, displayed it in his front windows, as did an art store.
Days later, members of the active local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union went to Police Chief Marcus “Mike” Flohr and complained. The Argus reported, “Modest, blushing Chief Mike Flohr waited on Gutermute and told him he was violating Section 5 of Ordinance 55.” So Gutermute turned the photos to the wall, and dressed the back of one in a shapeless, blue Mother Hubbard.
Gutermute reported to the Argus that on Saturday, Aug. 16, before the complaint, he sold 15 copies. The following Monday, 100 were sold and he placed this ad in the Argus and Courier.
“’September Morn,’ a masterpiece by Paul Chabas. Nothing immoral, nothing suggestive to a pure mind. Just a beautiful young girl hesitating at the water’s edge before taking a plunge. A picture fit to adorn any home. Some of our best people have bought them. Our first two shipments have sold out. We have wired for another hundred.”
Of those spoken to on Monday, the Argus continued, “public opinion rather sides with the picture.
“Said Miss R: How ridiculous! The picture is inspired and pretty.
“Miss D: The picture is a gem – the personification of innocence.
“Mrs. R: Those who kick about that picture are no art lovers.
“Mr. G: Why not put a shirtwaist on the Mecham fountain statue?
“Mrs. L: I think the objection is just.
“J F: They will stop the dogs’ breath from coming in short pants next.
“The Rounder (a local columnist): I have one over my desk. Come and see it.”
That night, Mr. G’s advice was taken. Tony Mego and City Attorney Gil Hall snuck out and dressed the nude bronze statue of Hebe that topped the Mecham fountain at the corner of Washington and Main (currently the north side of the Seed Bank) in a gaudy old calico kimono.
The Argus ran the following, in tribute.
Poor Hebe! (A spasm in four throes, executed for the Argus by “”Cen.”)
Oh. Hebe, Hebe! ‘tis appalling we know,
To cover you from head to toe.
Such colors so shocking were only meant
For a Midway fair or a circus tent.
Where, oh where, would the guilty one be
If Hercules could only see
His adored one fair in so shocking a gown,
Being disgraced in our chicken town.
I remembered your figure so plump and so neat,
The poise of your hand, divinely petite,
And mentally said as I rode through town:
“She now might as well be called Johnson or Brown.”
‘Tis a shame that such dregs you should have to sup.
Was it because you spilled from that cup?
Oh why, oh why, are you now so forlorn?
Is it all because of a “September Morn?”