Sarah de St. Prix Wyman Whitman. Lowell, Massachusetts 1842-1904 Boston, Massachusetts. Stained Glass, Fanny Mason House. Glass and lead, 61 x 40.6cm. Bequest of Sally Fairchild, 1949.
Sarah Wyman Whitman was a painter, designer of publishers' book covers, designer and fabricator of stained glass, interior decorator, writer, champion of education, as well as a respected and influential member of Boston's turn-of-the-century cultural community. She married Henry Whitman in 1866. Trained and influenced in painting by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) in Boston and Thomas Couture (1815-1879) in Paris, Whitman was almost certainly educated and influenced in the art of stained glass making by her contemporary John LaFarge (1835-1910). She was one of only a few women working in this medium, successfully competing with men for commissions.
Whitman’s stained glass work was produced – with the help of assistants – in her Lily Glass Works studio on Boylston Street, near Park Square. She spent long hours there most days, not only designing and supervising, but often entertaining other artists and friends. Stunning examples of her much-admired windows can be seen in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall, the Berwick (Maine) Academy, Boston’s Trinity Church Parish House, and in the Whitman Room in Radcliffe College’s Schlesinger Library.
Sarah Whitman is probably best remembered for her designs for publishers’ book covers, mainly those she made for the Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin. The April 1894 issue of Publisher’s Weekly cited Whitman as “the pioneer of designing for modern cloth covers.” She created most of the bindings for the novels of her close friend Sarah Orne Jewett, as well as some of the books by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Celia Thaxter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier.
The Athenæum’s stained glass panel closely resembles some of her now-famous book covers. It had decorated the music room of Whitman’s friend and neighbor Fanny Mason’s 211 Commonwealth Avenue home and came to the Athenæum from Mason’s estate. Unlike Whitman’s more thematic and ornate windows, this smaller panel is remarkable in its simplicity. Made from a single sheet of white, opalescent glass, the panel is divided into four windowpane sections. Streaks of blue or green, depending on the light source, dart throughout the milky white glass, whose surface has a subtle, pebbly texture. The simple but dramatic flower medallion at the center of the panel approximates the iconic florets of Whitman’s book covers. The flower is composed of rough-cut nuggets set in a thick glass oval, which appears to be black, but is actually a rich, dark green. The now-fading inscription across the top of the panel was painted onto the glass. It reads:
RIFATTO SI COME PIANTI NOVELLE
RINNOVELLATE DI NOVELLA FRONDA
PVRO E DISPOSTO A SALIRE ALLE STELLE
a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio.
As the sole example of stained-glass in the Athenæum's collection, this piece suggests the diversity of the institution's collections, and speaks to the Athenæum's dedication to those artists who helped shape the cultural community of Boston.
Patricia Boulos from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 360-362. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.
Philosopher George Santayana described Mr. Whitman as an “invisible husband.” Quoted inErica E. Hirshler, in The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, James F. O’Gorman, ed. (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 153.
 An unwavering supporter of equal education across gender and race, Whitman was “an energetic campaigner” for Radcliffe College (Betty S. Smith, in Inside SPNEA [Spring/Summer 1999]: 50.
The Boston Athenæum owns a number of books with Whitman-designed bindings.
Fanny Mason, friend and contemporary of Whitman and a member of her cultural circle, was a patron of music in Boston. She entertained such musicians such as Ignaze Paderewski, Arthur Rubenstein, and Pablo Casals, who performed in her music room (Mary Lee Cox, “A Walking Tour in Boston’s Back Bay,” 1999, http://cox-marylee.tripod.com/backbaywalk.htm)
 Opalescent glass is rarely of one color. Swirls and dramatic lines of color make the glass appear to have movement when lighted from behind.
“Textures not only give glass a tactile quality, but modify the transmission of light in its own unique fashion so that the light rays, on striking the uneven surface of the glass, are refracted through it at different angles. The result can greatly enhance the overall effect of the glass, giving it a dazzling aliveness” (http://www.stainedglass.org/sourcebook).
“…I returned /Regenerate, in manner of new trees /That are renewed with a new foliage, / Pure and disposed to mount unto the stars” (Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XXXIV).