Woman Reading a Book

Woman Reading a Book

This fine and rare example of portraiture by Philadelphia photographer Olive M. Potts shows an unidentified woman wearing Pince-nez eyeglasses while reading a book, and most likely dates to the very early years of the 20th Century. The photographer was one of the few Associate members of Alfred Stieglitz’s American Photo-Secession founded in 1902.

Biography: Olive M. Potts  1869-1947

1869: Born Olivia M. Potts on April 1 in New Jersey. The first of seven children,(many died young) her parents were Isabel Martha Allston Potts, (1846-1921) the daughter of Commodore Henry Collins Flagg III and Olivia Moss Sherman, and Benjamin Coates Potts, 1842-1908, a lawyer. A brother, (William) Sherman Potts 1876-1930, was a noted American artist.

1892-3: Olive’s social circle including the prominent du Pont family of Wilmington, Delaware. Several group photos online in the Pierre Samuel du Pont Longwood collection at the Hagley Museum and Library there show a young Olive posing with other Du Pont family members and friends during parties held at Saint Amour, one of the family estates. On the death of Pierre’s cousin Alfred du Pont in 1935, Olive was named a beneficiary of $600.00 a year in his will. (source of Hagley photos: I20091120_004, I20091120_001, I20091120_00)

1901: Potts is believed around this time to have become a member of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, although she is not listed as being an exhibitor in their important yearly salons from 1898-1901. An early mentor was Eva Watson-Schütze, (1867–1935) a founding member of the American Photo-Secession. In The Delineator for November, author Juan C. Abel mentions the photographer in his article “Women Photographers and Their Work”:

In Philadelphia is also found Miss Olive Potts, a pupil of and successor to Miss Watson, who has retired from the professional ranks consequent on her  marriage. Miss Potts is naturally a follower of the new school, though not of the extremist order.  (p. 750)

1902: Potts authors the article: “The Philadelphia Photographic Salon” in the January issue of Brush and Pencil: An Illustrated Magazine of the Arts of Today. (p. 227)

Media, PA Directory lists Olive M. Potts as a photographer based in Philadelphia, with a home address of 516 S. Orange St. in Media. (Delaware County- the county seat and 14 miles from the city.)

1903: Philadelphia City Directory: Potts listed as a photographer with the address of 10 S. 18th St. in the city. (source: LangdonRoad.com)

1904: Philadelphia Business Directory: Potts again listed as a photographer at the same address. (same source)

1906: In April, Olive is listed as an exhibitor along with 31 other leading American women photographers in a show sponsored by the Camera Club of Hartford. (CT) Source: May issue of The American Amateur Photographer. (p. 248) One day after this show opened, The Hartford (CT) Courant commented: “Olive M. Potts of Philadelphia has an interesting portrait of Julius Falk, violinist, and a number of portrait studies.” Source: April 7: Photographs All Made By Women”, p. 14.

 Miss Olive M. Potts is a resident of The Warwick, a historic hotel in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia, located at 1906 Sansom St. Source: Boyd’s Blue Book: A Directory from Selected Streets of Philadelphia and Surroundings. (p. 125)

1907:  In the July issue of The House Beautiful, author James William Pattison mentions Olive for his article “Photographing Children”:

Miss Olivia M. Potts, of Philadelphia, tells me that she really loves to photograph children, and does many more of them than of grown-ups, working both at their homes and at the studio. Most of the amateur photographers seek the naturalness and familiarity of the home; because the public gallery is so momentous a place and so distracting to little folks. Mrs. Schulte, (sic-Schütze-editor)  whom all Chicagoans know so well, was Miss Potts’ inspiration and instructor, and she speaks of her with great affection and admiration. Miss Potts is a member of the Photo Secession, and the London Salon has done honor to her photographs, which is not surprising. She has a way of handling children that is unique first eliminating the mothers, grandmothers and nurses who come with the infant to make it “smile for Miss Potts.” She does not allow the children to imagine that she is photographing them, but that it is the pet toy which is the victim, and thus the innocent young things are captured in the act of arranging these beloved companions –just what is desired. Also, she keeps a tank of goldfish.   (pp. 46-47)

1912: She is most likely retired from photography by this date. From Abel’s Photographic Weekly for the issue of June 22: “One hears little of late of Olive M. Potts. She is a true pictorialist, and there is nobody in town who could be mentioned in the same breath unless it were Laura Reeves. The latter did beautiful work on strictly decorative lines for wallpaper, etc., but recently she has branched out into portraiture with quite creditable performances. Her studio is in the Fuller building.”  (p. 1005)

1913: Marriage to physician Ralph William Seiss (1861-1926) in Philadelphia. He divorced his first wife Virginia Taylor Seiss (1860-1934) in January.

1919: Dr. and Mrs. Ralph W. Seiss have leased Oak Knoll, on Thorn Mountain, in the White Mountains, for the summer.  Source: June 1: Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger.

1920: Living at 255 S. 17th St. in Philadelphia with husband R.W. Seiss.

1940: Now widowed, she is living in Stonington, CT, near New London. Source: 1940 U.S. Census.

1947: Olive M. Seiss death notice:  Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1968  dd mm 1947 city, Delaware, Pennsylvania, USA. Source: Ancestry.com

Collections: Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Untitled (Woman in Old-Fashioned Hat)” &  Untitled (Man with Bow Tie)

Print Notes, Recto: Signed monogram by the author in red ink at lower left corner of print: OMP. 

Related Blog Entries

Can We?

Woman Reading a Book

Image Dimensions11.6 x 8.6 cm corner-glued to primary mount

Support Dimensions12.1 x 9.2 | 29.5 x 21.4 cm gray/olive colored art papers