The Mother of Us All

Robert Indiana’s 49 cut paper costume and scene designs and 30 ink sketches for The Mother of Us All — Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s 1947 opera inspired by Susan B. Anthony — are among the treasures of the McNay Art Museum’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. Acquired by art collector and Santa Fe Opera supporter Robert L. B. Tobin, as well as a gift of the artist, these vibrant images establish Indiana among artists in the theatre from Pablo Picasso to David Hockney.

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Indiana, who shared Stein’s fascination with language and Thomson’s appreciation of American vernacular forms, designed The Mother of Us All on two occasions, at the Walker Art Center in 1967 and at the Santa Fe Opera in 1976.

In the 1967 production, on the Guthrie Theater’s permanent architectural stage, Indiana concentrated on costuming Stein’s unorthodox cast of historical and fictional characters. Daniel Webster was a formidable debating partner for Anthony, while Lillian B. Russell brought glamour to the suffrage movement.  The bloomer-wearing Jenny Reefer refused to marry and Civil War veteran Jo the Loiterer was ineligible to vote.

In the more elaborate 1976 production, Indiana designed additional scenery, including floats for a Bicentennial procession during Thomson’s lively overture as well as such settings as Anthony’s Victorian parlor and a historical monument in Washington, D.C. Costumes (three of which are preserved in the Tobin Collection) were executed in felt, translating the saturated colors, shadow less surfaces, and hard edges characteristic of the artist’s work.

From the red, white, and blue of parade floats to the stencil lettering of VOTE sashes, Indiana’s imprint was unmistakable, bringing The Mother of Us All into the Pop art era. In the hands of the artist of LOVE and The American Dream, Stein and Thomson’s opera became newly relevant amidst the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s.  Raising issues of gender roles, political rights, and civil discourse, The Mother of Us All is just as pertinent today.

By Jody Blake, Curator

Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, McNay Art Museum