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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Art Outlives Scandal In New Harmony

A series of sketches in the Owen Family Papers bearing the pseudonym “Clorion” have lately been attributed to Richard Owen's wife Martha.

Photo: archive photo

In 1827, Thomas and Martha Chase moved from their home in New Orleans to New Harmony, Indiana. Like many other educated, progressive people, they were drawn by the distinguished scientists and social theorists who now made their homes in the small settlement in the southwest corner of Indiana. The Chases settled in their new home and set about making themselves part of the community. Thomas was described as an “elegant” artist who was a “useful addition” to the town’s society; Martha was lauded as an accomplished artist and musician. Within a year, both husband and wife were teaching in the local school and were active in the Thespian Society.

In autumn of 1828, however, rumors began to circulate that there was trouble in the Chase home. Thomas put his wife out of their home; just a few weeks later, Thomas saw his wife walking down the street with Richard Owen (one of three sons of Robert Owen who had continued to live in New Harmony after their father’s departure) and knocked the young Owen to the ground. Martha continued to keep company with Richard Owen until her divorce was issued in March 1832. She and Richard married but only remained together until late 1834, when Martha died of an unknown illness.

Martha Chase’s divorce was unusual for the time—only six couples divorced in all of Posey County in 1832. Fortunately, once re-married, Martha seems to have enjoyed the protection of her new husband’s status within the community. Even so, until recently, what little was known of her life was dominated by her failed first marriage and her initially scandalous relationship with Richard Owen.

Finally, however, Martha Chase’s artistic abilities may outshine her personal story.

A series of sketches in the Owen Family Papers—several skillfully rendered anatomical studies as well as sketches from nature—bear the pseudonym “Clorion” and are dated variously throughout the year 1832. Scholars who have studied the Owen family and New Harmony have attributed the works to various town residents, but a recent analysis of the handwriting on Clorion’s sketches strongly suggests that they were the work of Martha Chase. This talented woman, who has been unable to speak for herself in the history of New Harmony, may finally speak to posterity through her art.

Source: Linda Warrum, “The Chase for Clorion,” Indiana Magazine of History, June 2013.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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