Lucile Swan, painter and sculptor, was born in Sioux City, Iowa on May 10, 1890. She received her early education at an Episcopal boarding school. In 1903 she moved to Chicago, and in 1908 began study at the Chicago Art Institute.
Swan married artist Jerome Blum in 1912. From 1916 through 1923 she worked and travelled in Corsica, Japan, China, Tahiti and France. In 1924 she divorced. Two years later, she closed her Chicago studio and moved to New York City where she continued her work.
In 1929, Swan accepted a commission from the Cenozoic Laboratory in Peking. It was shortly after her arrival in China that year that she met Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at a dinner given by Dr. Amadeus Grabau. She later recalled that the meeting changed her life.
Swan and Teilhard became lifelong friends. He was a frequent teatime guest at her house in Peking where hours passed in conversation regarding the latter's philosophy. Over the years, a copious correspondence was exchanged between the two friends, most of which was published posthumously in "The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan," edited by Thomas M. King, S.J., and Mary Wood Gilbert (1993). The earliest extant letter from Teilhard dates from August 30, 1932; the last is dated March 30, 1955, just before his death.
Among Swan's most remembered works during her time in China from 1929 to 1941, are the portrait bust of Teilhard de Chardin, now at the Museum of Natural History in Paris; and a reconstruction (nicknamed "Nelly" by Teilhard) of one of the skulls of sinanthropus, the Peking Man, under the supervision of Franz Weidenreich, German anatomist and paleoanthropologist. During her time in China, Swan also modeled many studies of prominent Chinese and Western friends. Swan's artistry is especially revealed in her clay figures of children, Chinese jugglers, sword dancers and other colorful characters that caught her eye.
In August 1941, Swan decided reluctantly to leave China in face of the Japanese occupation during World War II. She took up residence in Washington, D.C. Seven years passed before Swan and Teilhard de Chardin met again, in March 1948, during what was his sixth visit to the U.S. Over the ensuing years, the epistolary communication continued to within days of Teilhard's death in New York, during his last visit to the U.S., on Easter Day, April 10, 1955. Lucile Swan died ten years later, also in New York, on May 2, 1965.
Sources for this sketch and biographical information regarding all individuals cited in the ensuing correspondence are as follows:
- Baudry, Gerard-Henri. "Dictionnaire des Correspondants de Teilhard de Chardin," (Lille, 1974).
- King, Thomas M., S.J. and Mary Gilbert Wood, eds. "The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan," (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1993)