DescriptionThe Hon. Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection
SAMUEL JOHNSON WOOLF (American, 1880-1948)
The Snyder-Gray Murder Trial
Oil on canvas
22-1/4 x 30 inches (56.5 x 76.2 cm)
Signed upper left: S. J. Woolf
Purchased from Kenneth Lux, New York, September 2, 1986 (label verso).
As a collector Paul Buchanan sought to surround himself and his family with imagery that was an affirmation of the best in the human character, in which as a lawyer and a judge he held a steadfast belief despite seeing humanity's darker side almost daily from the bench. On a few occasions over the years, however, his love of the law, and fascination with the legal process - not to mention the humorous idiosyncrasies of lawyers - led him to collect images which portrayed his profession. This courtroom scene by the prolific portrait draftsman, painter, and newspaper illustrator Samuel Johnson Woolf is the single oil painting in the Buchanan collection which has a serious, and notorious, legal subject - the Snyder-Gray Murder Trial of 1927.
In his 1942 autobiography Here I Am (New York, Random House, pp. 158-160), Woolf relates how Edward Miner, Art Editor of the New York Daily News, asked if he would cover the trial of two lovers accused of staging a fake robbery as a cover for killing the woman's husband to collect insurance money. Even though Woolf had not had much experience as a court artist, he agreed to accept the job, which turned into a sensation which he described vividly in his book; "The trial lasted thirty days - thirty days filled with tense excitement. The defendants, who had murdered the wife's husband, had fought when their crime was discovered. Ruth Snyder had her own lawyer, and her lover Judd Gray, his, and each defendant tried to fix the blame on the other. There was no doubt of their guilt, and when Gray arose in the witness chair, swinging the [window] sash weight [which was the murder weapon], there was a dramatic note which swept the entire audience off its feet.
"I say audience advisedly, because the trial had come to be the most sensational performance in town, and everyone tried to gain admittance to the court room. Despite the crowds, Justice Scudder conducted the sessions with dignity, but all the dignity in the world could not dim the drama of a pretty woman and her lover turned against each other.
"Judd Gray won considerable sympathy. 'He was weak,' many said, 'and had been led astray by a designing woman.' My own sympathies went out to Mrs. Snyder. I was won over when a suitcase, which the two used when they went to a hotel, was unpacked. In it was a silver-framed photograph of Gray, which she always took out, so that the room they occupied would have a homey touch.
"I was to have gone up to Sing Sing to make a sketch of the execution, when suddenly plans were changed - I was sent up the day before to see what the death chamber looked like. The night that the prisoners were both put to death, I worked at the News office, making a drawing of the execution from imagination and what I had seen the previous day. About midnight, a pale-faced young man rushed in and handed a package to Miner. There were hurried whisperings, and a few minutes later a developed print was brought down, showing Ruth Snyder in the electric chair. Then I understood why I had not been sent. A photographer had gone in my place, and with a camera strapped to his ankle had snapped a picture which created a sensation."
That photograph became one of the most famous news photos in history. The murder trial itself soon became a book by James M. Cain entitled Double Indemnity after the type of insurance policy taken out on Albert Snyder. Billy Wilder made it into a film with Barbara Stanwyck as the murderous wife. In 1928, Clark Gable played the part of milquetoasty Judd Gray on Broadway in a play called Machinal, which was revived around the country in 1999.
It is not known for whom Samuel Johnson Woolf produced this painting of the trial, nor whether he simply produced it for himself as a memory of one his most riveting newspaper experiences. The lithe, attractive Ruth Snyder is given prominence in the composition at lower left, in her trademark cloche hat. On the witness stand behind appears her lover, Judd Gray, who is being shown a balled-up white cloth, perhaps a reference to the chloroformed fabric he and Ruth Snyder had employed the night of the murder.
Born in Manhattan to literary buffs, Samuel Johnson Woolf began his artistic career began during WWI, where, as an active soldier, at the front, he sketched dramatically real battle scenes, and, behind the lines, drew intimate pictures of both soldiers and statesman including General John C. Pershing. Back home, Woolf distinguished himself, as the finest and most successful portrait draftsman in America from the 1920s to his death in 1948. During this period, he drew from life nearly every major American figure in politics, business, the arts and letters, medicine, science and religion and also portrayed many of the leading British and European personalities of his time.
Woolf was employed at the New York Times before going to Time. From 1924-1935, Woolf produced two hundred charcoal portraits for Time, including those of Charles Lindbergh, Walter P. Chrysler, John L. Lewis (United Mine Workers President), and Pope Pius XI. Woolf executed a pencil portrait of President Calvin Coolidge, in 1923, and a lithographic portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II.
In 1906, Woolf painted a portrait of Mark Twain, then seventy years old. Upon completion, the portrait was exhibited at the Society of American Artists, but Twain didn't like it. The painting is now in the collection of the Mark Twain House, Hartford, Connecticut. It was essentially forgotten until Mrs. Stiles Burpee conducted a search for it, based on finding a color lithograph of the portrait in her attic. Well-known art collector Thomas B. Clarke had purchased it for the collection of the Brook Club.
Woolf exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, and New York Public Library, all in New York City; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC. His awards include the St. Louis Exposition, 1904; Hallgarten Prize, National Academy of Design, 1904; Appalachian Exposition, 1910; and the Paris Salon Medal, France, 1937.
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