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The Peacock Feather

One of Clarence White’s many evocative photographs of Cleveland artist and philanthropist Julia McCune Flory
August 10, 2016
The Peacock Feather

Barbara Tannenbaum Curator of Photography

The Peacock Feather 1902. Clarence H. White (American, 1871-–1925). Platinum print with crayon and gouache; 20.3 x 14.9 cm. Gift of John Flory, Elizabeth Flory Kelly, and Phoebe Flory 1980.147


The Peacock Feather is a reminder of a small Ohio city’s stature as an internationally noted hub of Pictorialist photography at the turn of the 20th century. In Newark, 130 miles southwest of Cleveland, lived Clarence H. White (1871–1925). A bookkeeper for a wholesale grocer, White took up photography as a hobby in 1893. In less than a decade, his idyllic views of domestic life made him a recognized leader of the Pictorialist movement—the first concerted international effort to position photography as a fine art. 

In 1980 the Cleveland Museum of Art received a generous gift of 51 photographs by Newark artists; 46 were White’s work. Many of these prints are in the current exhibition Shadows and Dreams: Pictorialist Photography in America. The donors of these gems—John Flory, Elizabeth Flory Kelly, and Phoebe Flory—were the children of Julia Hall McCune Flory (1882–1971), who spent her adult life in Cleveland but was raised in Newark. 

As a young teenager, Julia’s best friend was White’s sister-in-law. The photographer, who was supporting a wife and two sons on his bookkeeper’s salary, barely had money to pay for photographic plates, chemicals, and paper, let alone modeling fees. He pressed family and friends into posing for him, and Julia became one of his favorite models. White’s carefully staged, costumed scenes required a lengthy time commitment and, due to the demands of his regular job, had to be shot very early in the morning or in the evening. He compensated Julia with photographs—“payments” that became a lasting public legacy once donated to the museum.


Julia McCune Flory and Phoebe Flory
Julia McCune Flory and Phoebe Flory 1915. Clarence H. White. Platinum print; 24.1 x 18.8 cm. Gift of John Flory, Elizabeth Flory Kelly, and Phoebe Flory 1980.162


Julia appears in 32 of the 51 photographs. In The Peacock Feather, taken when she was 20, she sits in a graceful (and likely uncomfortable) serpentine pose that, along with her elaborately lace-trimmed dress, speaks of elegance and artfulness, beauty as a composed but valued construct. In her left hand is a peacock feather, a symbol of ideal beauty associated at the time with the idea of “art for art’s sake.”

In 1906, White moved to New York City, where he founded the first school dedicated to fine art photography. Julia attended Denison University in central Ohio and art classes in New York, then married Walter Flory of Newark and moved with him to Cleveland, where he co-founded the law firm Thompson, Hine, and Flory. Together the couple, who became community leaders, helped establish the Cleveland Play House in 1915. That same year, Walter invited White to Cleveland to photograph the family as a Christmas present for his wife.

In addition to raising three children, Julia was an illustrator and author and designed and produced sets for the Play House. To learn more about the extraordinary woman who posed for The Peacock Feather, visit Various and Sundry Activities: The Creative Work of Julia McCune Flory for the Cleveland Play House and Beyond, an exhibition about her art on view in Special Collections at Case Western Reserve University’s Kelvin Smith Library through March 25, 2016. 


Cleveland Art, November/December 2015