The Color of Silver: William Spratling, His Life and Art

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TAYLOR D. LITTLETON. The Color of Silver. William Spratling, His Life and Art. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. 322 pages. $34.95.

Dr. Littleton's deeply researched and elegantly written biography of Alabama's William Spratling is a needed addition to the state's and the nation's intellectual, architectural, and artistic history. By the end of the 1930s Spratling's designs in silver, wood, tin, and other native Mexican materials became what Professor Littleton describes as "the foremost influence on an entire generation of Mexican and American silversmiths." He resurrected in Taxco, Mexico, a moribund art form that, together with his entrepreneurial genius, have "been no less pervasive in their esthetic influence than in their permanent effect on the economic life of Mexico" (p. 2). Spratling was, as well, a leading collector in Mexico of pre-Columbian art, a teacher, artist, astute critic, essayist, architect, intellectual, world traveler, and a free spirit who numbered among his personal friends such leading artists of the Mexican renaissance as Diego Rivera, Miguel Covarrubias, and David Siqueiros. Before that, in the 1920s he left Alabama Polytechnic Institute (present day Auburn University, but then, as now, always known as Auburn) to teach at Tulane University, write books and essays, and become a leading participant in the bohemian life of the Vieux Carre in New Orleans. He developed friendships with artists and writers such as Sherwood Anderson and Hart Crane. He and the young William Faulkner were roommates for a time, and in 1926 they collaborated on a book entitled Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles: A Gallery of Contemporary New Orleans.

Ironically, Spratling, so Southern and, later, so simpatico with Mexican culture, was born in Sonyea, New York, where his father, a medical doctor, was superintendent of a state institution for treatment of epilepsy. There were a number of physicians among William's uncles and cousins. Besides William, his parents had two girls older than he and a son two years his junior. Spratling's mother died in 1910, and his father suffered a debilitating illness that forced him to move to the home of his own father in Alabama. Soon, the Spratling children became wards of their paternal grandfather, and the children were raised on the family plantation, Roamer's Roost, near Gold Hill and Auburn. Seeking better health, William's father moved to Florida, where he died in a hunting accident in 1915. Their grandfather's property was willed to them, and for a while the children lived with other relatives. William resided for a short time in New York City, where he attended the Art Students League. Family health problems caused his return to East Alabama. His youth was one of dislocations, but, as with many other Southerners, the family ties were strong, and they influenced him for the rest of his life.

The author pieces together the early periods of Spratling's life from various sources, but especially from the artist's autobiography, File on Spratling, published in 1967. Yet, Dr. Littleton is so knowledgeable of his subject's life that he is able to expand the autobiography and point out (gently) where Spratling is deliberately vague or fails to clarify salient parts of his life. In any event, Spratling's student days at Auburn, where he developed as a draftsman, sculptor, architect, and teacher are sensitively handled, as are the other parts of his life. As a young man and later, the sophisticated Spratling had a talent for forming permanent friendships with artistic people and with wealthy people who appreciated creativity and were willing to underwrite it. The young man absorbed the Creole, Anglo-Saxon, and West Indian cultures in New Orleans. Nathaniel C. Curtis of Tulane was his mentor, and he was close friends with two archaeologists. Between 1922 and 1928, when he resigned his teaching position, Spratling worked parttime with an architectural firm. …