EVEN IF ANDREW WYETH'S depictions of the scantily clad Helga are not as boffo a summer attraction in Washington as many predicted, the city's reception could have been worse. Consider the tribulations of poor Alfred Alboy-Rebouet, a less popular but once-famous 19th-century French artist, whose painting of a nude incited the wrath of the city's do-gooders 100 years ago.
Nellie H. Bradley, superintendent of the local Woman's Christian Temperance Union's Department for the Suppression of Impure Literature and Art, declared war on "advertising cards" that hung in the cigar stores of Washington.
She directed her attack in particular at reproductions of an Alboy-Rebouet painting called "Night," in which the heroine forgot to wear her pajama top, or much else for that matter. In March 1887, Bradley handed the following notice to tobacconists: "You are hereby informed that the display of the nude female figure in your place of business is so notoriously and offensively conspicuous at every opening of your door as to make you amenable to the law enacted by Congress for the protection of the youth of the District . . ."
The cigar store owners took refuge in the Temple of Art. They pleaded that the original of "Night" was on display in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and therefore was hardly offensive.
Bradley wasn't intimidated. She suggested "that much which is called artistic is vulgar. If we make any mistakes, they shall be on the side of purity and good morals. We shall give the benefit of every doubt to the sweet boys and girls who are growing up in our homes and need our protection."
She noted -- approvingly -- that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had destroyed 112 framed paintings. For the moment, Bradley said she merely wanted to cleanse the cigar stores of the advertising cards. "Why is it that so many of our cigar and news dealers exhibit indecent pictures?" she asked. "Is it to cultivate a taste of art? Nay, not so."
The cigar store owners adopted the strategy of inviting prosecution in hopes of overturning the 1864 law that Bradley accused them of breaking. The driving force behind that law had been Col. Lafayette Baker, head of the Secret Service during the Civil War, who, with President Lincoln's permission, had gained notoriety by burning $22,000 worth of confiscated smut in front of the White House. But Baker's popularity had waned quickly and he had been driven out of town by citizens aggrieved at his excessive zeal. Laws he had encouraged had not been enforced. At the time, Washingtonians believed there were bigger troubles in river city than trying to suppress artistic expression. Both police and citizenry urged a new law to keep kids out of pool halls. Even the WCTU thought enforcing the 1864 law against Sunday liquor sales was more important than Bradley's crusade against the cigar stores.
As for "Night," it never achieved the national acceptance the Helga paintings would receive. In 1951 it was declared surplus -- a victim of changing tastes rather than prudish ones -- and sold by the Corcoran to a New York gallery acting for an anonymous buyer.