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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Eleanor Parke Custis

Dates:  1897, 28 July - 1983, 23 July
Born:  US, DC, Washington
Died:  US, MA, East Gloucester

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Approved biography for Eleanor Parke Custis
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Custis was this country’s most prominent woman pictorialist during the 1930s and 1940s. She wrote an important book on composition and exhibited extensively. Her photographs generally retained the soft-focus effects of earlier pictorialists.
Eleanor Parke Custis was born in Washington, D.C., on July 28, 1897, an only child, and, according to her, a direct descendant of Martha Custis, wife of George Washington. She never married and lived most of her life in the nation’s capital.
Custis pursued painting for about the first twenty years of adulthood. In 1915, she began studying art, taking classes at the Corcoran School of Art and elsewhere. By the mid-1920s, she was making gouaches and watercolors in the Impressionist-inspired style she would use for the rest of her painting career. She frequently depicted harbor scenes in New England and street scenes in Europe and the Middle East. In 1925, she presented her first solo show at the Arts Club of Washington, D.C., where she exhibited regularly over the next ten years.
The reason for Custis’s shift from painting to photography is unknown, but she pursued her new avocation with zeal. In 1934, she exhibited five photographs, the next year sixty-seven, and the following year more than 180. Determined to be the world’s most prolific salon exhibitor, she achieved that goal by the end of the decade. In 1939-40 and the four subsequent seasons, Custis showed more photographs in international salons than anyone else in the world, an unprecedented record. Her peak season was 1949-50, when 257 of her prints were hung in more than ninety salons.
Unlike many American pictorialists working after World War I, Custis created images that were softly focused. She used a "Flou-Net" enlarging diffuser, invented by Belgian pictorialist Léonard Misonne, which produced dark halos along the edges of shadow areas. This romantic effect was particularly well suited to the many images she made in Europe and South America, where she continued to travel for subject matter.
The 1940s was an active and rewarding decade for Custis. She received fellowship status from the Photographic Society of America (FPSA), presented one-person exhibitions at both the Brooklyn Museum and Smithsonian Institution, and saw her book, Composition and Pictures published.
Composition and Pictures (1947) was among the last major publications on pictorial photography. In it, Custis dealt with both the principles of composition and their practical application. Central to the book was her examination of dynamic symmetry, a mathematical formula for picture making. "Good" and "bad" images were reproduced, along with a multitude of diagrams. Perhaps the books’ most revealing feature was its inclusion of both paintings and photographs by Custis, some of which were closely related.
In 1960, after the death of her father, with whom she lived in Washington, Custis relocated to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the site of some of her paintings and photographs. She died on July 23, 1983, in East Gloucester. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
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Eleanor Parke Custis
Miss Custis Will Judge Camera Show 
1941, 9 November
Family history 
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