Reid’s “Spirit of Humanity” Moves Mark Twain to Tears

The Spirit of Humanity by Robert Reid 1906

The Spirit of Humanity by Robert Reid 1906

In the aftermath of the devastating San Francisco earthquake which took place on April 18, 1906, and the subsequent three-day fire, humanitarian organizations arose to raise funds to aid the victims who, in some cases, lost everything.

One such organization was the California Artists Relief Society. The Society solicited the talents of many concerned artists who struggled to capture the depths of emotion generated by the enormous loss of life and property. Robert Reid was one of those artists. Reid was a muralist and an impressionist painter whose works adorn such places as the Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, DC; the Unitarian Memorial Church in Fairhaven, Massachusetts; and the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City.

In the aftermath of the tragic earthquake and fire, to help raise money for its victims, Reid painted “The Spirit of Humanity.” The painting is full of emotion and angst, as beloved writer and critic Samuel Clemens-also known as Mark Twain, stated in a letter now in the possession of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

Twain wrote the letter to Reid describing his reaction to viewing “The Spirit of Humanity.”

“I keep thinking about that picture – I cannot get it out of my mind. I think – no, I know – that it is the most moving, the most eloquent, the most profoundly pathetic picture I have ever seen. It wrings the heart to look at it, it is so desolate, so grieved. It realizes San Francisco to us as words have not done & cannot do. I wonder how many women can look upon it & keep back their tears – or how many unhardened men, for that matter?”

Reid’s painting is of a seated woman caressing a child in one arm while comforting with her other arm a young woman who is prostrated over her lap grieving uncontrollably. This incredibly moving painting was able to fetch $250 for the Society when it was sold in May to New York art dealer William Clausen.

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