essay: Theodosia Breed

by Donald Breed Jr. and Sylvia Breed Vaterlaus
submitted 2009 


From her early childhood to late into her life, Theodosia Warner Park Breed always found time to draw and paint.


She continued to paint portraits and landscapes even while her primary focus – her day job, you might say – was being a wife and mother. As her children, we know about that part of her life; she cooked for us, read to us, put drops in our ears and taught us that the consequences of telling the truth were less onerous than trying to get away with a lie.


Her talents were not always displayed on canvas. She would whimsically paint a series of stuffed animals on a toy chest build for us. She painted scenery for the amateur playhouse, and one memorable exercise was a painting of the actor portraying Elwood P. Dowd – it was not a finished portrait but a great likeness – for the play Harvey, and the also painted a portrait of the six-foot rabbit.


She was born May 1, 1986, in Detroit, the second of four children of the sociologist Robert Ezra Park and Clara Cahill Park. Robert Park was an early authority on race relations, and his interests often took him away for long periods, to Europe or Africa. When her husband was traveling, Clara Park supported the family by writing a newspaper column, and who late in life demonstrated artistic talent in pastels. When Theodosia was very young, she and her brother Edward and sister Margaret (Greta) were taken by their parents to Heidelberg, Germany, where Robert Park was studying. The youngest child, Robert Hiram (Biedy) was born in Germany, and the three older children were sent home temporarily because it was believed their mother would not survive the birth.


After Robert Park got his doctorate in Heidelberg, the family settled in Wollaston, Mass., a southern suburb of Boston. Park was teaching at Harvard, but also traveling abroad. Most of Theodosia’s childhood was spent while they lived in this house that is a long walk from the shore and has a distant view of the lights of Boston. Very early, she was nicknamed Ecy because her brother Edward (the only sibling to have no family diminutive) couldn’t pronounce Theodosia.


She always drew and sketched even as a child, and made humorous sketches of her family, probably not always flattering. Although she displayed this talent, it was never taken very seriously by her parents – which may be why later Theodosia would “squander” her talent painting on a piece of furniture.


One of the reasons, it seems, that Ecy was not really encouraged or taken seriously by her family is that the other siblings tended to be of scholarly bent. In fact at that time in history, anyone, male or female, who considered painting as a career was thought of as frivolous, not serious. Ecy was light-hearted, loved to dance and wear pretty clothes, was rather flirtatious, and was quite pretty also.


She had a number of talents. She was good at math, at languages, at fashion design; she probably could have turned her hand at a number of other career choices. But she never really changed her conviction that she wanted to be an artist. After attending Quincy Mansion School (Wollaston is a section of Quincy), she spent two years at the C. Howard Walker School of Design. The family then moved to Chicago, where Robert Park was on the faculty of the University of Chicago. Theodosia attended the Chicago Art Institute, where she graduated and then spent a year at the Art Students League in New York.


When she was in art school, we believe the artists she admired were of the Sargeant school, although I believe she once said she studied with Paul Henri at the Art Students’ League in New York. She spoke of the atmosphere there as snobbish and competitive, not like the Chicago Art Institute, which was jolly and friendly. There she painted all morning for three hours, then danced all during her lunch hour, and then painted all afternoon — pretty strenuous.


Despite an interest in fashion apparel, she never seemed to be much influenced by the changes in trends or fads in art. She always wanted to paint what she saw, to create an accurate portrait, to catch the mood or atmosphere of a landscape. Modern art trends passed by her without changing her style.


During her Chicago days, she spent the winter of 1917 driving to California with her younger brother, Biedy, who was threatened with tuberculosis. They went in a Model T, in primitive conditions, changing and repairing tires frequently, making something like 20 miles a day and camping at night. Theodosia took her paints along, and always hoped during that trip to be able to stop and find a place to paint. She wrote an account of the trip that has been reprinted by the family.


Much later, when she was painting portraits, she would regale her subjects with stories about how two Eastern-bred innocents drove a used Model T into the developing west. Sometimes we children would be called upon to read aloud to her subjects while they were sitting for portraits.


In Chicago, she met our father, Donald L. Breed, an only child who grew up in Freeport, Illinois, 120 miles north and west of Chicago, where his father owned a newspaper. Breed had taught a year of high school in Freeport, then went to Harvard Law School, where he also took George Pierce Baker’s playwriting course (with fellow student Eugene O’Neil). Although he earned an LLB, he never took the bar examination or practiced law. Instead, he entered the foreign service.


Thus, after their marriage in Wollaston on Sept. 6, 1920, Ecy and our father Donald Breed started married life abroad. Their first position was Prague, and then they were transferred to Berlin, where they remained until our father left the foreign service in 1924. While they were abroad, Theodosia painted numerous portraits of the people living in Czechoslovakia and Germany. 


Donald returned to the newspaper in Freeport, starting out by reading proof (which he continued to do the rest of his career) and ending as editor and publisher, writing four editorials a day.


During the 1920s, our parents built a Tudor-style house outside Freeport (now part of the city) on a 2½-acre lot. As part of the design, a sizable space above the garage was devoted to Theodosia’s studio. The garage/studio was separated from the main house by a driveway but with a bridge over the driveway linking studio and house. This studio provided her a place to store her paints and canvases, and since it had a north light, also a place for people to come to have portraits painted.


Our family spent summers in northern Michigan, on Little Traverse Bay off Lake Michigan. There she continued to paint landscapes, mostly, but also some portraits on commission or for pleasure.


In the 1960s, Theodosia persuaded Donald to put his newspaper routine aside for about six months while they took a slow cruise around the world. During this trip, she painted small landscapes of the ports they visited.


I showed no artistic talent, but my sister Sylvia did. She is also an artist, but in watercolors rather than our mother’s medium. At one point, Clara Park, Theodosia Breed and Sylvia Breed (not yet Vaterlaus) had a three-man show at the Cordon Club in Chicago.


Sylvia said recently, “One thing I remember is that while painting our mother would often entertain her sitters with accounts of her western trip in the Model T. She felt that their faces would be more animated if they had some form of entertainment. I was sometimes drafted to read aloud to the subjects. She did quite a number of portrait commissions after moving to Freeport. She usually, in my memory, had a portrait in progress.” 


Theodosia’s children no longer live in Freeport, but we do spend summers in Michigan. Both of our houses there have many of our mother’s works, and our regular residences also have many of her landscapes and portraits. She had a particular gift for painting portraits of beautiful women, and of course most of those portraits went to the subjects and presumably are with their families. But at least one of those portraits, now in our summer cottage gallery, shows a glamorous flapper.


Of course, many more of her works are elsewhere in households and institutions. For instance, a portrait Ecy painted of her father hangs at the University of Chicago. And a portrait of Monsignor Conley, who was principal of a Catholic high school, still hangs in the cafeteria of Aquin Junior-Senior High School in Freeport. Our mother said that our Irish setter, Stretch, lay next to Msgr. Conley as she painted, and we always expect to see the dog’s head in the painting.