essay: Mary Hackney Wicker

by Rena Church, Aurora Public Art Commission Gallery

Mary Hackney Wicker was born in 1868 to a prominent family in Aurora, Illinois. Her parents, Benjamin and Lydia (Wightman) Hackney, were early settlers of Aurora. Benjamin Hackney (1820-1871), a native New Yorker, was the son of a revolutionary War veteran. He moved to Aurora in 1844, and pursued farming for a few years before turning his attention to the emerging railroad industry. Hackney was involved in the development of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, which linked Aurora to Chicago. He served as president of the C, B & Q, and it was during this time that one of his crews uncovered several mastodon bones that were later put on public display. It has been noted that upon viewing the bones, Hackney ordered the crew to stop work and contacted archeologists, who assisted in completing the dig. Hackney placed the bones on display and they are currently part of the collection of the Aurora Historical society. In addition, Benjamin Hackney served in the state legislature, founded the Free Methodist Church, and secured the charter for Jennings Seminary, a coeducational high school.
Mary Hackney, or Mae, as she was called, attended East Aurora High School, pursuing art, music and literature with a group of friends who were later described as “Aurora’s Intelligentsia.” As her interest in painting grew she studied with two local artists, Howard Bagg and Wells M. Sawyer, who later established an international reputation as a landscape painter. Sawyer remained a lifelong friend to Mae, as did his daughter Helen, who was to become her traveling companion.
After high school, Mae moved to Chicago where she studied at the Art Institute. In Chicago she met Charles Gustavus Wicker Jr. Like Mae, Charlie Wicker came from a prominent family. His father, Charles Gustavus Wicker Sr., was a land developer whose enlightened views about city planning foreshadowed those of Chicago architects such as William Le Baron Jenney, Edward H. Bennett and Daniel Burnham. C. G. Wicker was one of the first leaders to fight for the preservation of Chicago’s lakefront for public recreation. This would later become an important component in Bennett and Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago (1909). As a developer, Wicker’s progressive vision is evident in his master plan for the large plot of land that he owned on Chicago’s west side—a neighborhood still known as Wicker Park.
He carefully staked out the lots himself, intermingling large and small parcels so that mansions and worker houses would be built side by side. This guaranteed that factory owners, managers and workers would coexist—an early example of mixed income development. A strong advocate for a public park system in Chicago, Wicker donated the land for the green space in the heart of the neighborhood, and Wicker Park is thought to be the first privately donated park land in Chicago.
In 1893 Mae Hackney and Charles Gustavus Wicker Jr. were married. In writing about her grandparents, Nancy Deborah Wicker has stated: “Charles Gustavus Wicker, Jr., born in Chicago, was raised in his parents environment of community work and concerns. In 1893 he married my grandmother, Mary Hackney, born in Aurora. They shared a love of people, books, art, music, nature and animals.”
The Wickers spent their honeymoon in Mexico, where they visited Guadalajara, Vera Cruz and Orizaba. Their close, loving relationship is evident in a letter that Mae sent to her sister in law Caroline: “Carrie he is quite as good as he can be—and we are very happy. I know he must be so, for I can’t get him to leave me. I just had to make him go up the mountain, and he says he don’t enjoy anything unless I am with him.” During this joyful time Mae created many sketches and studies, which would later provide the inspiration for a series of paintings.
During the early years of their marriage, the Wickers lived on a farm in Indiana. After the birth of their son, Walter, Mae devoted herself to caring for him and attending to her household. Although tending a small child left her little time to paint, it is likely that she gradually began to work again as Walter approached school age.
In 1906, with the support of her husband and of her brother, Mary Hackney Wicker traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, a private art school that was popular with Americans. She was accompanied by 7-year-old Walter, who she enrolled in a private school in Passy. She then enrolled herself in one of the Julian’s studios for women, which charged twice the fee of the studios for male students and offered half the instruction. Wicker thrived at the Julian. She continued to develop her skills in the academic tradition of painting while becoming familiar with the impressionist style that had first been exhibited in France in the 1870s.
Wicker studied in France until 1907. Her husband Charlie joined her in August of ’06 and the couple, often accompanied by their son, toured Holland, North Africa and Spain. Wicker recorded these travels with her camera, sketchbook and paint. These studies provided the information as well as the inspiration for some of her finest paintings.
In 1909 Charlie Wicker was killed in a sailing accident, while saving the lives of four companions. Writing about her grandmother’s life during this time, granddaughter Nancy Wicker has this to say:“She may not have been able to paint very much during those years as she was a deeply grieving, widowed mother of a young son. Unfortunately I know very little of her life then and can only imagine how very lonely and difficult that time must have been for her.” 
At some point Wicker began to paint regularly again but refused to exhibit until the 1920s, when she finally began to believe that her work was worthy of display. Beginning in 1922 she exhibited in many venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Professional members of the Arts Club, Chicago; the Annual Exhibition of the Allied Artists of America, New York City; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; the Art gallery of the Women’s Worlds Fair of 1928, Chicago; and the Annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, a traveling exhibit. In addition, in 1929 her work was favorably reviewed by the Paris based periodical Revue du Vrai et du Beau.
Of the later years Nancy Wicker writes: “When I knew her during the 30s, she was beautiful, reserved, elegant, and intensely and utterly involved in her work.”
Mary Hackney Wicker was a fine painter and a strong, determined and independent woman. She spent years honing her skills as an impressionist, and showed her work in many prestigious venues. Although the Modernist movement eventually overshadowed the more traditional styles of painting, there is no question that Wicker was an accomplished artist.
Mary Hackney Wicker died in 1942. The paintings that she had created over a lifetime of serious training and study were bequeathed to her granddaughter, Nancy Wicker. Ms. Wicker has offered to bequeath this collection of more than 100 works of art to the City of Aurora provided that they can be placed on permanent display. The Aurora Public Art Commission is currently exploring a variety of options for housing the collection. The possibility that this collection might become permanently available to contemporary and future audiences means that more than 60 years after her death, Mary Hackney Wicker might have the chance to influence new generations of artists.