An Inventory of Her Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
Born Anne Gray Harvey, Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was the youngest of three daughters born to a well-off couple in Weston, Massachusetts. Sexton's father owned and ran a wool business and her mother, well educated and intelligent, maintained an active social schedule of parties and charity events. The sisters were not close, each vying for the attention of their busy parents and pursuing their own interests. Anne's behavior as a child, seemingly always in motion, making noise, and looking disheveled, excluded her from many of the family's social activities.
In junior high school Sexton lost her awkwardness and became the center of a gang of girlfriends. Her first attempt at poetry resulted from a breakup with long-time boyfriend Jack McCarthy. During her senior year in high school Sexton wrote more poetry, some of which was published in the school paper. When Sexton's mother essentially accused her of plagiarizing the poems, Sexton stopped writing poetry altogether for ten years.
After high school, in 1947, Sexton attended finishing school at the Garland School in Boston. While there, she became engaged and began planning a big wedding. However, in 1948, Sexton met and fell in love with Alfred Muller Sexton II, nicknamed Kayo. In August of the same year, afraid that she was pregnant, Sexton and Kayo, on the advice of her mother, eloped to North Carolina. Returning from their honeymoon, the young couple spent the next few years moving back and forth between their parents' homes. Kayo dropped his pre-med studies after a few months and found work with a wool firm. In 1951, Kayo was shipped overseas with the naval reserves, and in the fall of 1952, Sexton joined him in San Francisco, where his ship was being overhauled, and almost immediately became pregnant. They returned to Massachusetts for the Christmas holidays and Sexton remained at her parents' home for the remainder of her pregnancy. Linda Gray Sexton was born on July 21, 1953, and shortly thereafter the Sextons bought a house in Newton Lower Falls, MA, and Kayo accepted a position with his father-in-law's wool company. Two years later, Joyce Ladd Sexton was born on August 4, 1955.
Shortly after Joyce's birth, Sexton began a year-long slide into the depression that would plague her for the rest of her life. Feeling disoriented and agitated, she sought help from Dr. Martha Brunner-Orne who diagnosed post-partum depression and prescribed medication. After five months of treatment Sexton developed a paralyzing fear of being alone with her children. She became increasingly prone to attacks of blinding rage which often led to abusive behavior towards Linda. Afraid that she would actually kill the child, Sexton finally confided some of her problems to her family and they rallied to support her. During Kayo's business trips, his sister would stay with her, and Kayo's father offered to help cover some of the expenses of therapy. Sexton's parents sent their housemaid to help with the housework and also sent money. However, this practical help did not solve Sexton's problems and in July of 1956 she entered Westwood Lodge, a private hospital, for three weeks. While at Westwood Lodge, Sexton met Dr. Brunner's son, Dr. Orne, who was to be her psychiatrist for the next eight years.
Sexton was released from Westwood Lodge on August 3, 1956, but her condition continued to decline. Dr. Orne placed her in Glenside Mental Institution after she took an overdose of Nembutal in November. Sometime in 1956, Sexton began writing poetry. She showed the poems to Orne who vigorously encouraged her to continue writing. Over the course of 1957, Sexton brought over 60 completed poems to Orne for approval. In the fall of 1957, she began attending an adult education poetry workshop taught by John Holmes. By the end of the year, Holmes suggested that Sexton seek publication. In April of 1958, The Fiddlehead Review published "Eden Revisited."
Sexton continued to attend Holmes' seminar through 1958. It was there that she met and became close friends with Maxine Kumin. That same year, Sexton attended the Antioch Writer's Conference, where she worked with W.D. Snodgrass, and took a graduate poetry writing seminar with Robert Lowell. In 1959 she received a Robert Frost Scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. In 1960 this work culminated in the publication of a collection of poems, To Bedlam and Partway Back. Well received, Bedlam was the first of ten collections of verse Sexton published in her lifetime.
In 1961 Sexton received a Radcliffe Institute fellowship as did her friend Maxine Kumin (1961-1963). The two women became part of a circle of close friends that included the fiction writer Tillie Olsen and the painter Barbara Swan. Sexton bought one of Swan's first lithographs, and the two later collaborated on various projects, including some broadsides, jackets for three works ( Live or Die, The Book of Folly, and The Death Notebooks), and illustrations for Transformations.
Over the next fourteen years Sexton wrote poetry, short stories, a major theatrical production, and presented her poetry at readings, alone and with musical accompaniment. She taught poetry courses at Boston University, Oberlin, and Wayland High School. She became a major presence in the American poetry scene and helped earn respect for women poets in general. In 1965 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 1967 she received both the Shelley Memorial Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die (1966). In 1968 Sexton was awarded honorary membership in the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the first woman to receive this award, and in 1969 she was made a member of the Radcliffe chapter. She received honorary doctorates from Tufts University and Fairfield University in 1970, and from Regis College in 1973.
Despite these and other accolades, Sexton continued to struggle with her mental illness, taking pills and drinking heavily to combat her fears. To the dismay of many, but perhaps the surprise of none, she took her own life on October 4, 1974. Sexton's daughters and friends published several volumes of poems and letters after her death, including 45 Mercy Street (1975), Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1977), and Words for Dr. Y.: Uncollected Poems with Three Short Stories (1978).
The Anne Sexton Art Collection consists of fifteen oil paintings by Anne Sexton, and eight lithographic proofs of the same image by Barbara Swan. The paintings by Sexton, all undated, were created as a part of her therapy. Seven of the proofs by Barbara Swan represent states of a broadside publication of Sexton's poem "For the Year of the Insane" (1967). The eighth proof is for a poster for Sexton's 1967 appearance at the International Poetry Forum. The works are divided into two series: I. Paintings by Anne Sexton, and II. Prints by Barbara Swan for "For the Year of the Insane." They are arranged by accession number. Titles of the paintings were supplied by the cataloger.
The Ransom Center also has extensive Anne Sexton materials in its Manuscripts Collection, its Library, its Photography Collection, and its Personal Effects Collection.
A minimum of twenty-four hours is required to pull art materials to the Reading Room.
Gifts (G621, G859), 1980
Helen Young, 2002
Anne Sexton Art Collection--Item List