Backyard Bunnies

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

Spring is officially here and with it, the reappearance of backyard bunnies, and that reminded me about two objects in our collection that were in the 2018 exhibition Birds and Beasts: The Scary, Magical, and Adorable Animals of the Albany Institute. The exhibition featured the Albany-born sisters Gertrude and Dorothy Lathrop. Gertrude (1896-1986) was a renowned sculptor of animals, and Dorothy (1891-1980) was an award-winning illustrator whose drawings were used in more than 38 books. The animal-loving sisters lived together with numerous dogs and a pet monkey and had a studio in their backyard on South Allen Street in Albany. They had outdoor cages to house assorted animals they rescued or needed to serve as models for their work.

The Institute is fortunate to own many drawings, prints, and sculptures by the Lathrops as well as books written and/or illustrated by Dorothy. Many of the drawings in our collection served as illustrations for children’s books about animals. The artists’ captured not only the personalities of the animals and their interactions with other four legged furry creatures, but also their movements, and habitats.

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Dall

As I selected pieces for the Birds and Beasts exhibition, I opened a drawer in storage to discover a charming plaster bas-relief of a young girl holding a bunny. I was drawn to this intimate portrait.

 

Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Dall by Gertrude Lathrop, plaster, 1931 AIHA Purchase, 1992.46

The sculpture was identified as a portrait of Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Dall by Gertrude Lathrop. In 1931, Gertrude was commissioned to sculpt this portrait while Anna (born 1927), affectionately called “Sistie” was visiting her grandparents Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Governor’s Mansion.

 

Sistie and her grandfather on the terrace in Hyde Park September 15, 1931 Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Every object in our collection has a file filled with information that we use when we write exhibition labels. The notes in the file didn’t mention the rabbit, because the girl was more important, yet, the bunny was carefully modeled.

 

Detail of bas-relief

I began to wonder if this was little Anna’s pet. A few searches on the internet revealed that the little girl’s mother also named Anna Eleanor Roosevelt Dall (1906-1975) wrote the book Scamper, the Bunny Who Went to the White House in 1934. When little Anna’s parents separated in 1933, she and her mother and brother Curtis (called “Buzzie”) moved into the White House. Could the bunny Anna is holding be Scamper? Endless searches online resulted in dead ends. Therefore, I sent an inquiry to my colleagues at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park. They couldn’t find any reference to a pet rabbit. However, they graciously offered to reach out to the subject of the portrait, who recalled that the rabbit was supplied for the occasion. She also said that she owned the marble version and that the family always loved the sculpture. Sadly, the name of the bunny in the sculpture remains a mystery.

 

Bouncing Betsy

A few years after Gertrude sculpted the portrait of young Anna, her sister Dorothy wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Bouncing Betsy. The story tells of a pet lamb named Betsy who is turned out into a field one day. Betsy finds the world terrifying until she discovers other baby animals. The Institute owns two of Dorothy’s original drawings for this book. One drawing shows Betsy touching a bunny with her nose while two other bunnies hop away and another two hide next to their mother.

 

Betsy with Rabbits by Dorothy Lathrop, lithographic pencil on illustration board, c.1936, gift of the Estate of Elinor Wright Fleming, 2005
Detail of drawing
Page from Bouncing Betsy that is opposite the drawing

The Lathrop sisters had two pet lambs that undoubtedly served as models for Betsy. When they became full grown, they were turned over to a farmer with strict orders “not to eat them.”

Many of Dorothy Lathrop’s children’s books about animals may be purchased on ebay or through vintage book dealers.

Published April 7, 2020