Mansfield’s contributions to the Arts & Sciences of America have taken many different forms through the years, and one of the most historically significant, yet least recognized, gifts to expand the nation’s cultural depth was accomplished by a painter and illustrator named Charles Weldon.
Born in Mansfield of a pioneer family, and raised on Fourth Street sketching horses tied at the curb, Weldon went on to sketch the American scenes making history for top news and literary magazines of the 19th century.
One of his drawings is still noteworthy today more than five generations after he first imagined it.
But his biggest contribution to American culture evolved naturally from the intersection of his keenly artistic curiosity, and the fortunate circumstances of his employment. It was so fortunate, in fact, that the art world called it destiny.
He lived at a time unique in history when his particular personal passion happened to expand the soul of our nation with nothing but beauty.
Every Journey Starts Somewhere
Weldon felt right at home in Mansfield from the very beginning because his family was so integral to the town. The biggest hotel on Main Street was named the Weldon House in his childhood, and his father’s business block was only a couple hundred yards down the street from his home. And if that wasn’t enough Mansfield in his bones, his grandfather was one of the men who helped build the Blockhouse in 1812.
He grew up at the corner of Fourth street and, um, Weldon Avenue. He was buried in the Weldon plot of Mansfield cemetery.
Yet, for all of his identification with the town, he spent most of his life somewhere else.
It was obvious early on that he had a talent for capturing images on a sketch pad, and apparently it was something of a destiny, so the first legs of his life’s journey took him to art schools in Cleveland and Chicago, and then Fine Arts masters in London and Paris.
The U.S. reading public first started seeing his illustrations in the 1870s on the covers of the New York Daily Graphic, before he was quickly snatched up by the leading pictorial publication of his time, Harper’s Weekly Magazine.
Weldon in Japan
Throughout the 1880s, Weldon’s reputation blossomed as one of the nation’s most respected visual interpreters in print. So, when Harper’s decided to send their most famous travel writer across the Pacific to observe the newly awakening Empire of Japan, naturally they asked their best illustrator to accompany him.
The writer, Lafcadio Hearn, told only one story of Weldon:
Their shipping across the Pacific had been a bleak and murky trip, but as they sailed into Yokohama harbor right at dawn the rain stopped, the fog thinned, and suddenly the land glowed like an ethereal dream world. As they stood on the deck in awe, slowly the distant clouds parted and Mt. Fuji was unveiled in solemn majesty with a beauty they could only described as sublime.
Hearn was overwhelmed and, choked up, he said to Weldon, “This is where I want to die.”
At that moment, Charles Weldon seemed to glimpse his destiny unfolding before him like a sacred flower, and he replied, “This is where I want to LIVE!
Weldon lived in Japan for six years, and during that time he visited the greatest artists of Japan and began collecting prints of their work and studying the printmaking techniques developed over centuries.
What he brought back with him was America’s first look at some of the most iconic Japanese art of the last four centuries.
Not only did he share the prints he gathered in his travels, but he was able to show the original woodblock plates used in the processes. In reading the reviews of gallery exhibits all over the nation showing off his collection to Americans, the one comment that stands out again and again is how Weldon’s accomplishment could never have been done even a decade before he was in Japan, or ever again in history.
His efforts served to temper American art for ever.
In Europe, the term for this fascination with Eastern design was called Japonisme. In America, the clearly definable watershed of how Japanese art affected the works of artists like Frank Lloyd Wright, and influenced U.S. advertising styles for decades, is drawn exactly to the date in the 1890s when Charles Weldon shared his collection of prints with the nation.
The most enduring cultural phenomena in Europe and the U.S. to grow out of Japonisme was Madame Butterfly. Not only did the Puccini opera resonate across the stages of the world since its creation in 1904, but the very name entered the global lexicon as the single most iconic reference to Japan.
The whole concept started with a short story written in 1898 by John Luther Long, published in The Century Magazine. By that time in New York, there was only one artist among dozens of popular illustrators whose association with Japan made him the perfect and only choice to imagine Cho-Cho San for the nation.
Of all the many hundreds of versions and new adaptations of Madame Butterfly in opera and graphic art in the dozen decades since she was given birth in literature, there will only ever be one first rendering of her, from the talent, experience, and affections of Charles Weldon.
Most of C.D. Weldon’s work is held today in public archives or private collections, but I was fortunate to have access to some of his original paintings by Jennette Chatlain, including the one below:
For more on Mansfield’s other globe trotter of the 1890s, check out Carp: Frank Carpenter and the World