A month ago, I looked at the life of English artist Louise Swinnerton and told of her struggle to be accepted into the male-dominated art establishment. It was the time of the suffragettes and their struggle for women’s rights. A similar struggle was taking place across the Atlantic in America where, like the female artists of Britain, the American female artists were struggling to get a foothold in their own art establishments.
All artists need to be able to exhibit their work so that they can enhance their reputation and be recognised as talented painters but also they need to be able to sell their paintings. Too often, females who wanted to learn to paint were dismissed as people who just wanted to paint as a hobby. Why should they earn money from their paintings? Surely the female just needs to marry a wealthy man and let him provide for her. Wouldn’t it be much better if she stayed at home and looked after her husband and their children? A simple male philosophy of the time but of course women were determined to strike out on their own.
In my next two blogs I am looking at the birth of the Philadelphia Ten, often simply referred to as The Ten, an embryonic group of female artists and sculptors that went on to exhibit their work together for nearly thirty years. In the second part of the blog I will look at some of these aspiring artists, based in Philadelphia, who were members of the collective and who, through this group, fought their way to success in the world of American art. The Philadelphia Ten existed between 1917 and 1945 and, during this twenty-eight-year period, regularly exhibited their work together in large annual group shows at the National Academy of Design, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors’ the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Although having their work accepted by the various exhibition jurists at these annual events was a great achievement there were still hurdles to overcome, such as the number of paintings each of the women was allowed to submit and, after having their paintings accepted, the whereabouts of the hanging position of their works within the exhibition, as this was left to the hanging jurists. For young aspiring female artists, it was a long struggle to have all their work displayed and their aspiration of having more paintings exhibited led to the formation of the Philadelphia Ten.
Before the “formation” of The Ten could take place there had to be an establishment for them to learn their trade and somebody to support their desire to become painters. Enter onto the scene Sarah Worthington, who would later become a renowned nineteenth-century American philanthropist and patron of the arts. She was born into a powerful political family on May 10th, 1800, at Chillicothe, Ohio, the daughter of an Ohio senator. She led a charmed life, going to private schools in Kentucky and later Washington D.C. At the age of sixteen, she married her first husband, Edward King, the son of a renowned New York politician, Rufus King. The couple, who lived in Cincinnati, went on to have five children. Her husband died in 1836 and she moved to Cambridge Massachusetts to be close to two of her sons who were attending Harvard University.
In 1844, she married William Peter, who, at the time, was the British consul to Philadelphia. The couple lived in Philadelphia and it was here that Sarah Worthington King Peter began her philanthropic career. Knowing the difficulties women had in progressing with their art, she founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. It was the first American art school devoted exclusively to the training of women. It originally was not simply a fine arts college but one which was set up to teach a trade to women, who struggled to support themselves. They were taught all about lithography, wood carving, and design, which could then be used during the making of household items such as carpets and wallpaper. The institution was renamed Moore College of Art & Design in 1932 after Joseph Moore, Jr. set up a $3 Million-dollar endowment in memory of his parents. Sarah Worthington Peter’s original vision continues to drive the College’s mission to educate women for careers in the visual arts. Sarah’s second husband died in 1853 and she returned to Cincinnati where she would stay for the rest of her life. She continued with her philanthropy and established the Ladies’ Academy of Fine Arts.
Having established the Philadelphia School of Design for Women it was important to staff it with the best teachers. Two of the best and most influential teachers, during the days when the Philadelphia Ten were learning about art, were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield, both talented landscape artists.
Henry Bayley Snell, an Englishman, was born in Richmond in September 1858 where he remained until, at the age of seventeen, he emigrated to New York where he attended the Art Students League. In his twenties, to eke out a meagre living, Snell supported himself by working in the blueprint department of an engineering firm, and by producing marine scenes for a Photoengraving Company. In 1888, thirty-year-old Snell married artist Florence Francis. It was in 1899 that Snell was given the post of art teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. That same year the couple travelled to visit a fellow painter, William Lathrop in his hometown of New Hope, Maine. Liking the town so much the couple moved there in 1900.
In 1921, along with Frank Leonard Allen, Snell founded the Boothbay Studios in Boothbay Harbour, Maine, which operated as a summer school. Henry B Snell remained as a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women until his death in 1943 and during his early days there, he taught many artists who became part of the Philadelphia Ten. During his teaching years, he travelled abroad extensively, frequently accompanied by his students. It was his reputation both as a teacher and a painter that lured many artists to the New Hope Area.
The other lecturer who greatly influenced the women was the watercolourist, John Elliott Parker Daingerfield. Dangerfield was born in March 1859 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the son of Captain John Elliott Daingerfield, commander of a Confederate arsenal, and Matilda Wickham DeBrau Daingerfield. However, from a young age he was raised nearby in Fayetteville, North Carolina and he is looked upon as one of the most important artists to come from this area. From a young age, Daingerfield’s dream was to become an artist and early on in life he learned some basics of drawing and painting from a sign painter in Fayetteville as well as assisting a commercial photographer and a china painter. In 1880, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to pursue a formal art education and went to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design. During his first year there he produced his painting entitled, The Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1880.
In New York, Daingerfield worked as an apprentice in the studio of William Satterle. So impressed by his student that he offered him a job as an instructor in his still life class. To progress further in the world of art, Dangerfield attended classes at the Art Students League. Daingerfield’s most influential mentor was George Inness, whom he met in 1884 when he rented studio space at Holbein Studios on Fifty-fifth street. “Master and pupil” would often study each other’s work. Innes taught Dangerfield the technique of how to get the atmospheric effects of light by mixing layers of paint with thin layers of varnish and it was this procedure that brought about a wonderful sense of mood and tone.
In 1886, Dangerfield’s health began to deteriorate and he decided to leave New York and return to North Carolina and the town of Blowing Rock where he hoped to recuperate. He fell in love with the area and decided to make his home amongst the peace and tranquillity of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Daingerfield spent the rest of his life travelling between his studios in Blowing Rock and New York City and taught out of his studio in North Carolina in the summers and at the Philadelphia School of Design and the Art Students League in the winters. Dangerfield was a very spiritual man and sensed the connection between art and spirituality. He once said:
“…Art is the principle flowing out of God through certain men and women by which they perceive and understand the beautiful. The office of the Artist is to express the beautiful…”
The Philadelphia Ten’s first joint exhibition was held on February 17th 1917 at the Art Club of Philadelphia at 235 South Carmac Street. In all, 245 paintings were on display and this exhibition was looked upon as the birth of the Philadelphia Ten. Following the great success of the event, the group’s exhibitions became an annual event and art critics and collectors always looked upon them as exhibitions of the highest quality, embracing a wide selection of subject matter and a variety of styles. The fact that the artists were able to exhibit a large number of their paintings at each exhibition soon allowed the observers to be able to easily recognise their individual styles, something that had not happened before due to the small number of paintings large exhibitions would allow each artist to show.
In my next blog I will look at the life and works of some of the artists who formed the Philadelphia Ten.
For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.
In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops. In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:
“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”
In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:
Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year.
Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.
Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street. Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.
By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.
In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943 She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine, named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.
In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.
Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!” This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:
“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”
It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night. Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.
Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism. The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting). In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.
With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa. There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:
“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”
Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:
“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”
It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.
Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.
In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome, athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia. But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.
The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return! The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.
Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.
Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body, The child points at the offending hatchet. In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.
Grant Wood in his studio in1931
Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.
Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter. A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them. Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.
Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.
Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.
In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:
“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”
In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died. Park Rinard was at his bedside. Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:
“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”
He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.
After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.
I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.
Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following websites:
When Grant Wood spent time in Munich overseeing the production of stained glass for the memorial window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids he had time to visit the city’s museums and he was inspired by the artistry of the painters from Netherlands, especially Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of the Renaissance artists.
Portraiture normally has a plain background so as not to detract from the sitter but often in Renaissance portraits a landscape background was used which would give you some knowledge about the sitter.
No doubt Grant Wood remembered that type of portraiture when he painted Woman with Plant in 1929. In this work we see a Midwestern woman in country clothes, wearing a cameo broach and an apron bordered with rick-rack stitching. In her hands she holds a plant pot containing a snake plant. She is the epitome of the pioneer woman, and this is a Renaissance-style work with its half-length figure in the foreground and a landscape backdrop and it is the inclusion of a windmill and sheaves of corn which marks it as an American Midwestern depiction. This was actually a portrait of his mother !
In August 1930 at the Iowa State Fair Grant Wood’s painting entitled Arnold comes of Age which was his portrait of twenty-one year old, Arnold Pyne, his assistant on the Memorial Window project.
The renowned American journalist and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering Europe, William Shriver, once asked Grant Wood whilst in Paris, why, having witnessed the emerging art styles in Europe in the 1920’s, would his artistic style change. Wood answered by likening himself to the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, whose 1920 novel, Main Street, satirised the strict conservatism of small-town life. :
“…I am going home to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses… and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits… Isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing… Damn it, you can do it in painting too!…”
A year after the stained glass window was installed at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood completed his iconic painting American Gothic, a painting which many consider to be the most famous painting in American art. So how did all come about?
In the spring of 1930, Grant Wood decided to take a weekend off from his painting and drove the 12o miles from his home in Cedar Rapids, to the home of one of his former student in Eldon, Iowa. The road trip passed through gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. On a Sunday morning in early April, Wood came upon the now-famous house. It was known by the local residents as the Dibble House as it was built by Eldon resident, Charles Dibble, a Civil War veteran and livery stable owner in 1882 for his family, which included himself, his wife, and his eight children.
The house was built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, and is a North American architectural style-designation for an application of Gothic Revival architectural detailing and picturesque massing applied to wooden buildings erected by house-carpenters. This terminology is used when the design of lofty architecture of European cathedrals is applied to American frame houses. The Eldon house was a small, simple frame structure and was no different than many houses dotted around Wood’s home in Cedar Rapids. However, it had one unusual feature. On the second storey there was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. The house mesmerised Wood and he began to wonder what type of people lived in such a house, so much so, after driving around the block he knocked on the door and introduced himself to the residents who showed him around the interior. After thanking the young couple he went back to his car, grabbed his paints and made a quick oil sketch of the house.
After he got back home he told his sister Nan about the house and how it had captivated him. The one aspect of the exceptional house which disappointed him was the fact that the residents were not whom he had envisioned for they were a young couple. He said to Nan:
“… I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed…”
Of course, we now know that the woman in the painting would be his thirty-one year old sister, Nan, but there lay the problem for Grant, for the woman he intended to paint was going to be an “old maid”. However, even knowing the problem he still asked his sister to pose and he showed her his preliminary oil sketch.
There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question. Finally he addressed his sister asking her, if she was willing, to pose for the picture. He then had to sell the concept to her as he wanted the “daughter” to have a plain and old-fashioned appearance and her facial expression was to be one of sternness and sombreness. He asked Nan to imagine what it would be like to be under the control of her elderly and authoritarian father. Nan agreed and that afternoon went off to the store to buy some appropriate sombre brown and black clothes for the painting, as she later recalled:
“…. We were supposed to be small-town people. We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would do some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed…”
Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:
“…It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house. When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me…”
His depiction of a plain, stern-faced Iowa woman has an everlasting, inscrutable quality and some who saw the painting called her the “American Mona Lisa.”
Grant explained to her that he would paint the house in the background and, standing side by side in front of it would be an elderly man and his daughter and that he intended to approach his sixty-three year old dentist, Byron McKeeby, to pose as the man. Grant had exchanged some of his paintings in lieu of payment for dental work with him and he knew McKeeby liked his work, so he was sure he would pose for the painting.
For Nan, Grant could do no wrong, and she was a constant source of encouragement to her brother. She had no misgivings about posing for the American Gothic painting even though she knew ahead of time it would probably be very unflattering. However, she harboured no resentment towards her brother, once saying:
“…Grant made a personality out of me. I would have had a very drab life without it…”
Some say the pair depicted were husband and wife but Grant’s sister Nan maintained it was father and daughter so that she was not to be classified as a woman who would marry a much older man. Grant, himself, never clarified the status of the pair !
The stern-looking man was posed by Wood’s Cedar Rapids’ dentist Byron McKeeby. We see McKeeby dressed in a black jacket and collarless shirt and clean denim overalls. In his right hand he holds a three-pronged pitch fork, the prongs of which are echoed in the stitching of his overalls and again in the Gothic window of the house. Although the depiction of the couple looks suitably posed Wood painted the two people separately and his sister and the dentist never stood together in front of the house.
Comments about Nan as the model were often derogatory with one viewer writing that her face “would sour milk”. Other women protested that Nan was poking fun at them with her dour expression.
American Gothic was displayed in Cedar Rapids after Wood’s death in 1942. Nan, at that time, Mrs Wood Graham, and Dr. Byron McKeeby were united with each other and the painting for the first time, with their “stretched out long” faces as dour as ever !
Grant submitted the painting to the jury for the forty-third annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The judges dismissed it as a trifling “comic valentine,” but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider. The painting was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three-hundred-dollar prize. The painting was bought by the Friends of American Art at the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Newspapers throughout America soon carried articles and reproductions of the painting. Eventually, the picture appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which caused great consternation with the real Iowa farmers and their wives and they were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. However, the painting, which is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in American art, and it helped propel Wood to fame and launch the Regionalist movement, of which Wood became the de facto spokesperson.
The highly detailed style of the work and the two unbending figures at the forefront of the depiction were inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art, that Wood would have seen during his European travels between 1920 and 1926. Despite the negative comments that Wood was belittling the Mid-Western folk he actually intended the painting to be an upbeat declaration about rural America and rural American principles. Remember, the year before American Gothic was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the country was hit by the great depression and America was facing a major crisis. In the Mid-West there was overproduction in agriculture, as farming techniques improved, and farmers started producing too much food. Coupled with the fact that there was less demand from Europe for food from America because they could grow their own crops. This abundance of crops led to falling prices and thousands of farmers became unemployed after having to sell their farms. Despite this Wood wanted his painting to be a positive statement about rural American values, and for it to become an image of comfort and encouragement at a time of great displacement and disenchantment. For Wood the man and his daughter were symbols of survivors who would battle on through the tough times.
Grant Woods, as a token of his gratitude, and maybe knowing of the hurtful remarks about his sister’s appearance in the painting, painted a formal portrait of her in 1931. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, wrote:
“…It’s really kind of a love letter from Grant to his sister. He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself…”
In the painting, Portrait of Nan, he depicts her in fashionably marcelled hair style. The Marcelled hair style was a popular hairstyle of the 1920’s and 1930’s that featured unique waves and styling. Marcel Waves are a deep waved hairstyle reminiscent of American actress and bombshell Jean Harlow. Nan is shown wearing a patent-leather belt and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. She is holding a plum in her left hand whilst the right-hand cups a small chicken. Nan is depicted as a chic-looking and chick-holding modern woman ! Grant Wood bought the little chick at a dime store but it proved to be an unwilling “sitter” for him. His sister Nan recalls the problems her brother had with the chick:
“…Grant kept long hours when he was on a painting spell and would work well into the night. The chick adjusted to his hours and made an awful fuss if it was sent to bed—actually, a crock Grant kept in the closet—before 2 or 3 a.m. It was also fussy about its victuals. It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy. One evening, the chick was acting up while company was over, so Grant deposited it in the crock, placed a book on top and forgot all about it. By morning, deprived of air, butter and gravy, the chick was in a dead faint. We threw water on the chick and fanned her for almost an hour before she came to. It was a close shave. She was pretty weak, and Grant didn’t have her do much posing that day…”
So why were the chicken and the plum featured in the portrait. Wanda Corn a leading Grant Wood scholar knew Nan well before she died, at age 91, and in 1990 wrote about the portrait:
“…He [Grant] undoubtedly liked the chicken because as it perched, young and vulnerable, in the cupped hand of his sister, it conveyed her tenderness. And the plum because, as an artistic convention, fruit has always symbolized femininity…”
So according to Wanda Corn, the two images represented, for Wood, all that was beneficial and wholesome about the Midwest. Many believed the chicken and the plum were symbolic but Grant’s sister Nan had a more down to earth reasoning for the inclusion of the chicken and the plum. In 1944 she wrote about the portrait:
“…Grant said the chicken would repeat the colour of my hair and the plum would repeat the background…”
Nan’s role as a model for Grant’s paintings ended with Portrait of Nan, Tripp Evans wrote in his 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life:
“…After completing the painting, Wood reportedly told his sister, ‘It’s the last portrait I intend to paint, and it’s the last time you will ever pose for me.’”
She was surprised—she’d spent years posing for him—and asked for an explanation.
Wood said, “Your face is too well known…”
..……to be continued
In my final blog about Grant Wood I will look at his later years, showcase more of his paintings and talk about a rumour concerning the artist which would never go away.
Apart from Wikipedia much of the information about the artist and his paintings came from:
During their lifetime most artists paint hundreds of works of art but often, as far as the public are concerned, may just be famous for one of their works. Examples of this are Edvard Munch, who is best known for his 1893 painting The Scream. Johannes Vermeer is best known for his 1665 work Girl with the Pearl Earring and Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his 1503 painting, Mona Lisa. The artist I am looking at today, Grant Wood, will always be remembered for the painting he completed in 1930 entitled American Gothic. Grant Wood is classified as an American Regionalist painter, which is an American term. Regionalism being the work of a number of rural artists, mostly from the Midwest, who came to prominence in the 1930s. The artists tagged with the label of Regionalism often had differing styles but what they shared was an unpretentious anti-modernist style, all of who wanted to simply depict everyday life and their rural conservatism was totally anathema to the left-wing Social Realist painters of that time. American Regionalism, sometimes referred to as American Scene painting, was a naturalist style of painting where typical American life and Mid-West landscapes were lovingly depicted. It was an art based on indigenous imagery from local surroundings.
Grant Wood was born on February 13th 1891. He was the second child born to Hattie DeVolson Weaver and her husband Francis Maryville Wood. He had an elder brother Francis Marion Wood and a younger sister and brother, Nanny (Nan) Rebecca Wood and John Clifford Wood. Grant was born on the family farm near the rural township of Anamosa, Iowa.
Family life was seriously disrupted on March 13th 1901 when Grant’s father unexpectedly died at the age of forty-six, and Grant’s mother Hattie was left to bring up her four children between the ages ranging from eighteen months to ten years of age. She decided to leave the farm and go and live at her family’s home in Cedar Rapids. Life for the Grant family had suddenly changed from the rural idyll of Anamosa to the urban life of Cedar Rapids.
Grant Wood attended the local grammar school and it is said that one of his teachers, Emma Gratten, encouraged the boy’s interest in art. In 1905, aged fourteen, he entered a drawing of oak leaves into a drawing competition which was sponsored by Crayola and he won third prize. As a youth growing up in this small but expanding Midwestern city, his teachers and the community admired Wood’s talent for drawing. He even taught himself to make jewellery, copperware, ornamental light fixtures, and furniture. Once he began attending Washington High School his love of art continued and when he was fifteen, he began a lifelong friendship with a fellow pupil, Marvin Cone, who also had a love of art and the two of them designed sets for the school’s theatre department and provided illustrations for the school magazine. Grant and Marvin also helped with the installation of exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Art Association, which had just been opened in the town’s Carnegie Library in 1905. In 1910 Grant graduated and immediately enrolled on a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft, taught by nationally known architect and designer Ernest Batchelder. It was here that he learnt how to work with metal and jewellery as well as building furniture, a skill that would later serve him well.
In 1913 Grant Wood moved to Chicago and spent much of his time working as a designer at Kalo Silversmiths Shop, which was the important arts and crafts silversmith and leading maker of Arts and Crafts movement silver in Chicago. Besides this day job Grant attended evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and took correspondence and summer school courses in the decorative arts. He remained in Chicago for three years but in 1916 he had to return home to Cedar Rapids when he heard the news that his mother had fallen ill and was having financial problems. Grant took a job as a grammar school teacher to support his mother and his sister, Nan. From 1917-1918 Wood served in the U.S. Army, where he was tasked to paint and design camouflage for the military vehicles.
In 1919 he began as an art teacher for the Cedar Rapids Community Schools and at Jackson and McKinley Junior Highs. He also attended the life drawing class taught by Charles Atherton Cumming at the University of Iowa. His high school teaching did not disrupt his painting and, slowly but surely, his painting techniques improved and soon Wood became famous for his paintings in his local neighbourhood. In 1919, Killian, the local department store in Cedar Rapids, held an exhibition of Wood’s painting as well as work by his schoolfriend Marvin Cone. Out of this came many commissions for portraits of the local dignitaries as well as store window displays for the Armstrong department store and he was commissioned to paint murals for the Eppley Hotels in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Waterloo, and Council Bluffs.
Like most aspiring American artists at the time, Grant Wood wanted to travel to Europe and visit the famous museums and study the many styles of painting, including Impressionism and post-Impressionism which he found fascinating and can be seen in his paintings of the 1920’s. He also said that he had to go to France to appreciate Iowa! To travel to Europe cost money and Wood could not alone afford it but thanks to his long-time patrons, John B. Turner and his son David Turner who owned the city’s mortuary business they had underwritten the trips for Wood to study art in Europe in 1920 and 1923-1924, and in return he gave them a number of his paintings.
Grant made his first trip to Europe in the summer of 1920 when he and his friend from school, Marvin Cone, visited Paris. Grant returned to Paris for a longer stay in 1923 and did not return home until the following year.
This longer stay allowed him time to study at the Académie Julian and journey to the Italian seaside town of Sorrento. His time in the French capital and surrounding countryside proved influential, resulting in a stunning series of impressionistic views of picturesque cityscapes and landscapes, Paris streets and gardens, and the French countryside.
In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids. David Turner of the Turner Mortuary business had bought the large elegant Douglas Mansion with the intention of converting it into a funeral home, they commissioned Wood to redesign the mansion’s interior for its new function. Wood carried out the major refurbishment of the house including doing some interior decorating and furnishing. Grant Wood also designed the iron gates at the front entrance. Once the make-over had been completed it was opened to the public in 1924 and the Cedar Rapids newspaper, The Gazette, wrote about Grant Wood’s hard work which he had put into the refurbishment:
“… [Grant Wood] was responsible for the decorating and furnishing of the interior, and the landscaping of the grounds. He not only personally supervised the work, but also did much of it himself…”
At the rear of the house there was a brick barn which had been converted into a modern garage, which could house six cars. At the suggestion of the Turners, Wood began to build a studio and residence above the garage.
Not having to pay rent for the studio and apartment meant that he could eventually give up teaching his job at McKinley High School.
The Spotted Man by Grant Wood (1924)
What is considered to be his most accomplished work during his time in Paris is his 1924 painting entitled, The Spotted Man, which he painted in the Académie Julian studio. The technique used by Wood in this painting is a kind of Seurat-like pointillism. During his stay in Paris he had probably seen the famous pointillism works by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
According to his sister Nan, Grant, whilst studying at the Académie Julian, was invited by a fellow student to visit his home in Spain and from that trip he painted The Little Chapel Chancelade. However, the setting remains unknown. Before he went back to Cedar Rapids the Carmine Gallery agreed to exhibit some of his work and so he returned to the French capital in 1926 for the Gallerie Carmine exhibition but he came away very disappointed and slightly disheartened as it was only a moderate success.
In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids and in 1924 Wood was doing some interior decorating for David Turner of Turner Mortuary and Turner offered Grant the use of the carriage house behind the mortuary as a studio for his artwork. This now renowned studio situated at No. 5 Turner Alley became home to Wood and his mother for eleven years as well as being Grant’s studio during the most creative period of his career.
The Veteran’s Memorial Building in Grant’s home town of Cedar Rapids is located on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River, between the First and Second Avenue Bridges. A petition to construct a memorial building was filed with the City Clerk on March 4, 1925. To make the building financially viable, a new city hall was incorporated into the plans.
The positioning of the building on an island made Cedar Rapids, one of only two cities, after Paris, France, which had their governments located on an island. The main portion of the building contains four stories, with an eight-story section in the front. A cenotaph tops the eight-story section. The auditorium contains seven banners from veterans’ organizations, and seven American flags were suspended from the ceiling. A Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located above the cenotaph. The architects and the Cedar Rapid’s planners decided to incorporate a large stained glass memorial window.
In 1927 Grant accepted a nine-thousand dollar commission to design and build the stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial building. Despite not having experience with the medium of stained glass and certainly never having accepted such a large commission before, the finished window is looked upon as one of Grant Wood’s greatest achievements.
Wood along with his assistant Arnold Pyle spent months prior to the fabrication of the window. The two would spend hours perched aloft on wooden scaffolding in an old recreation room at the Quaker Oats company, where Wood assembled a full-scale mock drawing. This elaborate study enabled Wood to finalise his design and at the same time it afforded him the opportunity to correct difficulties with the perspective. The Emil Frei art glass company of St. Louis, Missouri was awarded the bid to make the glass for the window. However, it was discovered that due to the intricate detail wanted for the piece, the glass pieces had to be manufactured at a factory in Munich, Germany. Wood went to Munich to supervise the final stages of the production of the delicate pieces of glass. While there he was deeply influenced by the realism of the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th century and when he returned to the United States he was determined to integrate their approach into his own work.
The memorial window is a lasting tribute to Veterans of the six American wars from the Revolutionary War to World War I. It stands 23 feet and 6 inches high and 20 feet wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art. Solemnly standing at the base of the window are six life sized figures of private soldiers wearing the uniform of Private, representing the wars (from left to right): Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, The Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War and the First World War.
Three stood on either side of a sixteen-foot-high central figure which is said to represent the “Lady of Peace and Victory”. Draped over her head is a blue mourning veil, her floating body surrounded by clouds. In her right hand, she holds the palm branch of peace; in her left, the laurel wreath of victory. In an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette from 1928 written by reporter Naomi Doebel, she tells of a conversation she had with Grant’s sister Nan:
“…Mrs. Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modelled for the heroic central figure, a woman standing sixteen feet tall and wearing a Grecian robe. The figure, with toes pointed down, floats in the clouds giving the spiritual effect found in many of the Renaissance paintings. Draped over the woman’s head is a mourning veil of blue. In her right hand she holds the palm branch of peace, and in her left the laurel wreath of victory…”
In 2008 the siting of the Memorial Building on an island proved to be somewhat of a disaster as the Cedar River flooded Mays Island and caused a large amount of damage to the building.
Everybody loved the finished window ? – well, not quite all !!! For the Daughters of American Revolution accused Wood of being unpatriotic because he sourced a German firm to manufacture materials for a U.S. veterans memorial so soon after World War I. The furore resulted in the window not being dedicated publicly until its restoration was completed in 2010 following the flooding of 2008.
Grant Wood was not one to apologize for sourcing the stained glass for the memorial window from Germany, and he called the females of the Daughters of American Revolution, “those Tory gals,” and in 1932 painted a satirical work entitled Daughters of the American Revolution. To Wood this group was both ridiculous and contradictory to the extreme. On a website American Studies at the University of Virginia, they discuss the satirical aspect of the painting:
“…Wood approaches his subjects through many layers of satire. Perhaps most jarring is the juxtaposition of the title and the ladies pictured. That these self-satisfied, teacup-raising, and meticulously coifed septuagenarians might have a thing to do with revolution is nothing short of absurd. Wood has painted the three ladies in a soft-focus haze that at first seems to render them more gentle and sympathetic. Two elements undermine this softness. Perhaps the most noticeable element in the painting is the claw-like hand breaking clearly through the haze and raising the teacup in a wordless and seemingly inappropriate salute to the Revolutionary War…”
Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood, The Regionalist Vision. wrote about the painting:
“…The hand holding the teacup tells us more about the Daughters. It is ringless, which suggests the woman is a spinster, and it is thin and bony, looking very much like the chickens’ feet in some of Wood’s other paintings. Further, the softness of the focus deepens the ladies’ eyes until they are beady and animal-like. They peer out of the painting, waiting only to be recognized for their inherited glory; they are not unlike purebred animals. Wood has further amused himself by placing the ladies in front of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the famed work was considered an American treasure and treated as something of a documentary painting, the truth was that Leutze had painted it in Germany, using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware, and, it was suggested, German soldiers for the models…”
In my next blog I will look at the new style of painting by Grant Wood known as American Regionalism and feature his iconic work of art, American Gothic.
…………………………..….to be continued
I found the information for the two blogs about Grant Wood from the usual sources such as Wikipedia but also gleaned a vast amount of facts from three websites:
My last nine blogs focused on female artists and in many cases their fight for equality and so, for this blog, I thought I better give the men a chance. I have gone back to the end of the seventeenth century to look at the work of a distinguished French artist whose painting genre was looked upon by the Academies of Europe as the lowest genre in the hierarchies of figurative art.
The hierarchy in figurative art was established in the wake of the Italian Renaissance for works in 16th century Italy by the prodigious Italian Academies in Rome and Florence and they were later ratified by all the major European Academies, such as the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture, which was one of the leading Art establishments of the time. The hierarchical list, the top genre being the most important in the eyes of the Academicians, was:
History painting, including historically important, religious, mythological, or allegorical subjects
Genre painting or scenes of everyday life. Landscape and cityscape art
This hierarchical listing was based on a division between art that made a cerebral effort to render visible the universal essence of things and that which merely consisted of mechanical copying of particular appearances. Basically, the list meant that Idealism was honoured and more favoured than Realism.
Let me introduce you to the Master of animal and still life painting, the French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Oudry was born in Paris on March 17th, 1686, the youngest of three brothers. His father was Jacques Oudry, a painter, art dealer, and from 1706, the director of the Académie de St-Luc art school, which was the only serious competition to the more prestigious and influential Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. He was to give all his sons their initial art tuition. Jean-Baptiste’s mother was Nicole Oudry (née Papillon).
Jean-Baptiste Oudry began his artistic studies at the age of eighteen. In 1704, he first studied with the Marseilles-based Catalan-born French painter Michel Serre, a cousin of the portraitist Hyacinthe Rigaud. The following year Oudry began a five-year apprenticeship with the portrait painter, Nicolas de Largillierre whilst also enrolling in drawing classes at the Académie de St-Luc and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris. Largilliere set Oudry the task to copy the works of the Flemish and Dutch schools of the seventeenth century. Through the teachings of Largillierre Oudry began to perfect his sense of colour and enhance his skills as a painter of still life and portraiture, both genres in which his master had rightly built up his reputation. In 1708 Oudry submitted a now-lost bust-length painting of Saint Jerome as his reception piece and this gained him the status of Master in the Académie de St-Luc.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry began giving art tuition to some students, one of whom was Marie-Marguerite Froissé, the daughter of a miroitier (a mirror-maker) and in 17o8 master and student married. The couple went on to have thirteen children, one of who, Jacques Charles Oudry, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a painter.
After completing his apprenticeship, Oudry set up his own business and concentrated on portraiture commissions and still-life painting to earn money but times were hard so he tried to paint whatever was popular with the public. He wanted to create his own style of portraiture and not be seen as just copying the style of his former tutor, Nicolas de Largillierre, who was at the peak of his fame. Oudry’s clients were mostly of the modest bourgeoisie and the lesser nobility.
His financial predicament changed for the better in 1719 when thirty-three-year old Oudry was elected to membership of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (French Royal Academy) as a history painter with his reception work, Abundance with her Attributes. Although classed as a historical painting, look at the superbly painted surrounding array of fruits, vegetables, and animals. It was this talent for painting animals and still life objects that would make him famous. His main rival in this field of painting was Alexandre François Desportes, who at the start of the 18th century had been the principal painter of these genres in France.
In 1721 Oudry completed pendant paintings Dead Wolf and Dead Roe which can be seen at the Wallace Collection in London. These masterpieces were followed by several large hunt pictures, the most notable of which was his large 1723 painting (almost five metres wide) entitled Stag Hunt which was his breakthrough work. It can now be seen at the Stockholm Royal Palace.
It was around this time that Oudry reduced the number of portraiture commissions he accepted and concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes which were beginning to become ever more popular. He even experimented with other genres such as landscapes and cityscapes as can be seen in his 1717 painting, Fire of the Petit Pont.
During the 1720s, Oudry’s paintings of animal and hunting scenes were looked upon as the best in France and through them he even managed to impress the French king, Louis XV. Royal patronage soon followed and from 1724 onwards, Oudry spent all his time creating royal commissions. Through his honoured royal patronage Oudry became the most visible artist at the Paris Salon of 1725 and the following March he was granted his own solo exhibition at the palace of Versailles. His exhibition was a great success and this along with his paintings at the Salon led to him being offered a position at the royal tapestry works at Beauvais in July 1726 where he became the painter of tapestry cartoons. In 1734 Oudry became director of the factory and shortly afterwards he employed François Boucher as factory painter and the collaboration between Oudry and Boucher was one of the reasons for the success of the Beauvais tapestry works in the eighteenth century. During this period Oudry’s painting output declined and it was this way until 1737.
However, his work was in such great demand that he opened his own workshop which produced copies of his works for sale to the public. Between 1722 and 1725, Jean-Baptiste Oudry concentrated on his still-life and hunting scenes and would exhibit his works at the annual open-air Exposition de la Jeunesse which was held on Corpus Christie in the Place Dauphine and on the adjoining Pont Neuf in Paris which was the only public venue available to him.
The Salon in Paris was the official exhibition of art sponsored by the French government. It originated in 1667 when Louis XIV sponsored an exhibit of the works of the members of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The exhibitions, to begin with, were not annual events, in fact they were quite sporadic with only one exhibition being held between 1704 and 1737 but from 1737 they became annual events. The Salon’s original focus was the display of the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts and exhibiting one’s work at the Salon de Paris was vital for any artist to achieve success in France. Having one’s work in the Salon was tantamount to achieving royal favour and in the early days, before the inception of art dealers, it was the only way an artist had to sell their works. The return to annual exhibitions could be one of the reasons why in 1737 Oudry returned to painting and every year after, he would exhibit his works at the Salon.
Through his friend, Jean-Baptiste Massé, a portrait-painter and miniaturist, Oudry was introduced to Henri-Camille Marquis de Beringhen, Premier Ecuyer du Roi (Master of the King’s Private Stables), and organiser of the royal hunt, and he played a part in launching Oudry’s artistic career at court. He arranged for Oudry to have a studio and lodgings for himself and his family in the Tuileries Palace, so that he could work on royal commissions.
Oudry’s hunting scenes were very much admired by Louis XV, and Oudry portrayed the king’s favourite royal hounds, Misse and Turlu, and painted scenes of the king riding to the hunt, which was the monarch’s sporting passion.
Occasionally, Oudry painted portraits, one of which was of the twenty-nine-year old, Marquis de Beringhen. Once again, this painting is part portraiture and part still-life with dead game, a living animal, and a landscape. It typifies Oudry’s method of painting: the stylish elegance of the rococo style is combined with a perceptive sense of observation. We see the marquis sitting upon a knoll at the base of a tree. He is splendidly dressed in his linen shirt, a pale grey hunting coat lined with teal-blue velvet and trimmed with silver braid and buttons, breeches, and thigh-length boots. We see strands of his powdered hair swept back and tied with a black silk ribbon. He holds aloft a red-legged partridge in his left hand and with his right hand he strokes his faithful pointer. To the left, behind the dog we see lying on the ground a powder horn, fowling piece, game, and a game bag. To the right of the marquis, in the distance, we can just make out two women talking on the terrace of a country house, which may be pure idealization and just included as a befitting noble setting that Oudry had devised for the Marquis de Beringhen. Oudry once again highlights his artistic techniques in the way he depicts the lace of Beringhen’s shirt and the silver embroidery on his coat, and in the feathers of the partridge and the fur of the hound.
Oudry soon broke Desportes’ royal monopoly and his work output grew. In 1725, the Paris Salon held an exhibition, the first since 1704, and Oudry submitted twelve pictures, including one entitled Grand Buffet but also known as Still Life with Monkey, Fruit and Flowers, which can be seen in the bottom right corner of the November 25th, 1725 edition of the French gazette and literary magazine Le Mecure de France.
In 1726 Oudry provided twenty-six paintings for an exhibition at Versailles. His other important acquaintance, Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, arranged for Oudry to become the painter to the royal tapestry works at Beauvais. This was to be the start of a new direction for Oudry who over the next decade designed a number of tapestry sets, including four pieces depicting Comedies of Molière, eight pieces based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and four panels depicting Fables of La Fontaine.
Between 1729 and 1734, Jean-Baptiste Oudry produced a total of 276 beautiful and highly finished drawings, including a frontispiece, which illustrated tales from the famous 17th century work by Jean de La Fontaine, Les Fables choisies mises en vers (Selected Fables Rendered in Verse). Each of the scenes was drawn with the brush with black ink and grey wash, heightened with white gouache, on sheets of blue paper, with each image surrounded with a wide border brushed on the same sheet in a darker shade of blue, acting as a fictive mount. These drawings, all made during this five-year period have long been recognised as Oudry’s most famous works as a draughtsman.
In 1728 Oudry began on a royal commission Louis XV Stag Hunting in the Forest at Saint Germain-en-Laye. It was a massive painting, measuring 210 x 390cms. Louis XV was a keen and knowledgeable hunter who knew the name of every one of the dogs in the pack. This work was painted for the hunting pavilion in Marly, and again it is a combination of animal painting and landscape genres. Oudry depiction set in a clearing in the forest of Saint Germain, is the moment of the halloo, the cry or shout used to attract attention or to give encouragement to dogs in hunting.
Louis XV liked this work so much that, in 1733, he commissioned Oudry to produce three tapestry cartoons illustrating the hunts. The tapestries, woven under Oudry’s supervision at the Gobelins factory, were intended to decorate the king’s bedchamber and antechamber and the Council Chamber at the Château de Compiègne. In 1738, it was decided that the series should comprise nine cartoons; the last was completed by Oudry in 1746 and delivered to Gobelins. They made two sets of the tapestries. One set for the chateau at Compiègne and the other was sold to Philip, Duke of Parma, the King’s son-in-law.
In the 1720s and 1730s, Jean-Baptiste Oudry established himself as the preeminent painter in France of hunts, animals, still lifes, and landscapes. His Painted Menagerie focused on a set of eleven life-size portraits of exotic animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles, painted by Oudry between 1739 and 1752. The paintings ultimately went into the ducal collection in Schwerin, Germany. The most famous of these is the splendid portrait of Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who had become a celebrity in mid-eighteenth-century Europe. The Indian rhinoceros, who was born in Assam and had been named Clara, caused a sensation in Europe. A Dutch captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, brought the three-year-old rhino in 1741. It was an animal that had never been seen before in Europe and he presented her at the Saint-Germain Fair in Paris, where she inspired many artists to undertake drawings and studies of her. Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s depiction of her is life size. The grand painting was shown at the Paris Salon in 1749 and acquired in 1750 by Duke Christian Ludwig II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin together with Oudry’s series of menagerie paintings. In all, there were approximately 57 drawings by him which ended up in the possession of the court in Schwerin.
Although Oudry is remembered for his animal and hunting scenes his idealized landscape work was of the highest quality. In 1750 the Dauphin, Louis, the elder son on Louis XV, commissioned Oudry to paint a picture of rural life which would highlight the bountiful and beauty of Ile-de-France and to promote the state’s progressive agricultural policy. Later the painting became known as The Farmhouse.
Oudry was not a very wealthy man but lived comfortably. Oudry lost some of his responsibilities when Louis Fagon, the king’s Intendant des Finances, was replaced by Daniel-Charles Trudaine. Oudry suffered two strokes in quick succession in 1755. The second left him paralysed and he died shortly thereafter in Beauvais on April 30th, 1755, aged 69. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Thomas in Beauvais. His son, Jacques-Charles Oudry, trained by his father, was also an accomplished painter.
World War II started on September 3rd, 1939 and, by the end of that month Gluck’s Bolton House home had been commandeered by the Auxiliary Fire Service, but she was allowed to keep and occasionally stay at the studio. Whilst looking for a house to rent she went to stay with Nesta’s mother, Mrs Sawyer. These were troubled times for Gluck as witnessed by a passage from a letter she wrote to her mother on September 24th, 1939:
“…My looks say I am well, my spirit is a mess at the moment and my body and nerves almost at the end of their tether…”
The thing which was causing Gluck’s despondency was not the perils of the war but her finances. Not just her finances, but the control of her finances, which had been denied her and put in the hands of The Family trustees, her younger brother Louis, her mother, and her cousin Sir Samuel Gluckstein. This rankled with her for the persona she had adopted was that of a man, a person of competency, influence, and potency, but to The Family, it was all a pretence, for in their eyes she was just a woman and thus, in their social classification, she was a person with no authority. Her father, who had looked upon his daughter as somewhat wayward and rebellious, had made sure that level-headed and wise people would control her finances thus avoiding the possibility that she would squander her money and become poverty stricken and eventually destitute.
Gluck was paid rent by the Auxiliary Fire Service for Bolton House and her trustees agreed for her to rent a small house, Millers Mead, which was in Plumpton just two minutes away from Nesta’s home. In the small garden there was a simple outhouse which she used as her studio. She employed a married couple to act as her servants. The annual rental cost was £218. In July 1941 the Auxiliary Fire Service vacated Bolton House and stopped paying the rent and so the financial burden fell back on Gluck and as Bolton House was left empty because Gluck remained at Millers Mead, it started to suffer through lack of occupancy and there was a cost to carry out expensive repairs. Her money was slowly but surely trickling away. She had the high cost of running three places, her Letter Studio in Lamorna, Bolton House and Millers Mead. In a letter to her on July 30th, 1941, one of the trustees, Sir Samuel Gluckstein wrote that she needed to limit her expenditure:
“…I am not endeavouring to read you a lecture but I am endeavouring to help you to avoid getting into financial distress…”
Gluck sent numerous letters to her trustees pleading for more money and more control of it but it was to no avail. Her mother, a trustee, seems to have been annoyed at these constant missives as can be seen in a very terse letter she sent to her daughter on May 25th, 1942:
“…I cannot either understand or cope with this continual correspondence with copy letters to Louis and Mr Dyer but I would like to make this perfectly clear…..Today everybody’s income has been reduced to exactly half….if you were to write a thousand letters you would not alter this, and I do think, in these very strenuous, nerve racking days, the less correspondence you and anyone has the better…..I do not get younger and these things make me very unhappy…”
The two other trustees were less tactful and did not hold back in their condemnation of her moaning about money, and her brother warned her that her attitude would finally break their brother/sister relationship. She met with Louis and her mother in August at the Trocadero but the meeting collapsed due to violent rowing between the participants. In a letter to her mother four months later Gluck wrote:
“…This talk was of a nature so disgusting and shocking to me that it became clear that I cannot discuss any matters connected with my Trust affairs without a witness and a shorthand writer…”
An impasse between her and her three trustees had reached an impasse. Her income was important to her and whilst living in Millers Mead she received several portrait commissions including one from Nesta who wanted Gluck to paint a portrait of her elderly mother, Ethel Sawyer. The result was a depiction of an English gentlewoman with her veiled hat, no-nonsense smile, pearls, mayoral collar and bright, if somewhat watery, eyes. Gluck would paint a second portrait of Nesta’s mother in 1943 as she lay dying. This period of war and the death of loved ones was a time when people wanted portraits of their relatives, some of which would prove to be consoling images.
Gluck also carried on with her floral paintings and in 1943 produced a work entitled Pleiades depicting a tangle of pink convolvulus and grasses. This work was a real labour of love for Gluck spent hours in the garden crouching over the same patch of weeds despite suffering painful backache and the onset of arthritis in her hands. The details in the painting are remarkable, such as the drops of dew on the web. Can you see the grasshopper on the leaf? She worked on the painting on and off for two years and it became a burden. She wrote about it to her mother on August 16th, 1942:
“…if I don’t get it done before September is over I am dished – and there are two waiting prospective purchasers. Anyway I am not anxious to face it again a third year and the work in it is terrific. I can only do very little every day and it is a strain on the yes. It is certainly going to be worth it when finished, but when will it ever be finished?…”
The painting was finally finished in August 1943.
Gluck’s relationship with Nesta started to unravel during the war years. Nesta sent fewer letters to her lover when they were apart and when home with her husband Seymour. Nesta’s visits to Gluck became fewer and shorter in duration. Gluck’s diary entries noted when Nesta came and how long she stayed. Cracks were beginning to appear in her relationship with Nesta. Gluck had moved to Plumpton to be near Nesta but with her time with Nesta diminishing rapidly she began to feel isolated in comparison to her former social life when she lived in Hampstead. One of the few people who visited her was her old friend Craig who stayed for a month in November 1943 but Craig noticed how Gluck seemed depressed. The depression was brought on by her deteriorating liaison with Nesta and the wrangling with the Family Trust who controlled her money and believed that she had to be more frugal. She was desperately unhappy and for her, life was all gloom.
It was in 1942 that Gluck completed a self portrait and the way she has depicted herself is not one of happiness. There is no softness of expression. There is no expression of warmth or love in her eyes. She has depicted herself with her head tilted slightly backwards looking cheerlessly down on the viewer with a mutinous and antagonistic expression.
Gluck was working on several paintings during 1943, including one entitled Jerusalem and the floral painting Pleiades as well as two small landscapes and a triptych for Sussex Council of Churches. It was during the commission for the Sussex Council that she made several trips to the small West Sussex town of Steyning to see the council chairman, Bertram Nicholls. Whilst there she visited the Heald sisters, Nora Heald and Edith Shackleton Heald, at their home at Chantry House, in the town of Steyning, and would often stay their overnight or for a weekend break. Both Heald sisters were journalists. Nora was editor of The Lady and spent most of the week in a flat above the newspaper’s offices in London. Edith, the younger of the two sisters, was a correspondent for the London Evening Standard and tended to work from home. Gluck became a great friend of Edith, possibly due to a common issue, desolation. Gluck was deeply despondent due to her failing relationship with Nesta and Edith was very unhappy when her lover, the Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, died in January 1939. Gluck and Edith were able to console each other and Gluck spent the Christmas of 1943 with Edith at Chantry House – the first time in eight years that Gluck had not spent Christmas with “her darling wife” Nesta. Edith Heald tried to help Gluck through this distressing period and the two would often take trips along the south coast visiting the various English seaside towns. Soon Gluck was spending most of her days and nights at Chantry House although she never lost contact with Nesta.
Gluck received a commission from Wilfrid Greene to paint his portrait. Greene was resigning as Principal of the Working Men’s College and had been asked to present a drawing of himself to the College and he decided that Gluck should be the artist. On 16 July 1941 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Greene, of Holmbury St Mary in the County of Surrey. Gluck stayed at his Dorset home, The Wilderness, for a few days whilst working on the portrait.
Gluck’s doomed love affair with Nesta ended in 1944. Gluck had almost seen the break-up coming. What she wanted from Nesta was the sole access to her heart, her total commitment to the relationship. Sadly, she latterly realised that this was never going to happen. Their love for each other was not equal. Nesta was never going to leave her husband who supplied the finances for her lavish lifestyle and this upset Gluck. To Gluck, their love for each other was one sided and although they corresponded and met in the following years, the “marriage” was over.
Gluck could not bear to be alone and, after the break-up of her relationship with Nesta Obermer, she accepted Edith Heald’s invitation to come join her and her sister (plus the sisters’ servants!) and live in Chantry House. Gluck accepted and on October 6th, 1944 she moved in. Edith Weald was delighted with the decision, her sister less so. For Gluck the move and new home took away some of the disappointment with Nesta’s attitude. It solved her financial problems and the relationship with her trustees, as her Hampstead home, Bolton House, was sold in 1945 and the money reverted to the Gluck’s Trust fund. She did however keep the studio but had a wall built separating it from Bolton House. In some ways she looked up to the sisters and the way they had both made their own way in a male-dominated industry without the reliance on someone else’s money. Gluck was now away from her mother and away from the temptations of London’s West End. It was the perfect working environment. What was once known as the Yeats’ Room in Chantry House became her study and a cottage in the grounds of Chantry House became her studio.
Raynard Goddard the Lord Chief Justice approached Gluck with a commission. He had seen the sketch she had done of Wilfrid Greene and he wanted Gluck to produce a similar work but this time in oils to present to the Inner Temple. She agreed but because of illness she did not complete the painting until 1949.
Gluck and Edith Heald’s relationship changed from friendship to a lesbian affair and this did not please Nora Heald. It was not just Nora that viewed her sister’s relationship with Gluck as distasteful, some of her sister’s erstwhile friends found the situation unbearable and began to distance themselves. The living arrangements at Chantry House were becoming problematic and far from harmonious and there were frequent excruciating tensions and shrieking matches between the three residents. Gluck always sided with Edith against Nora and the latter felt betrayed. With all this turmoil Gluck only completed one painting in 1946, and to escape from the cauldron Edith and Gluck went to Lamorna for a month that summer. On returning home they found Nora no easier to live with. Nora did not dare invite her friends and work colleagues to Chantry House, after all, she was the editor of The Lady which did not countenance ladies being in lesbian relationships. Something had to give. Nora wanted Gluck out and Edith and Gluck wanted Nora out. Gluck wanted a home and Edith was determined to provide her with one. Add to this the fact that Nesta still called on Gluck and became jealous of her relationship with Edith.
In 1947, after some pressure from her trustees Gluck sold her Lamorna studio. The situation with the Chantry House ménage à trois was finally sorted with Nora reluctantly leaving. Gluck’s trustees agreed to pay Nora half the value of Chantry House and the linen, tableware and ornaments were equally divided between the two sisters. The ménage à trois became a ménage à deux.
Even though many years had passed since her break-up with Nesta, Gluck never recovered from losing her or from the upheaval to her life caused by the war. Add to that the permanent estrangement between her and her brother Louis who managed her trust fund after her mother died in 1958. In addition, both Edith and Gluck were getting older and began to suffer from a variety of illnesses in their latter years. Gluck’s periods of depression became longer and she painted very little. Whether it was a cause she wanted to focus her mind back on art, we will never know, but she had a love of quality painting materials and was unhappy with the standard of paints and canvases on offer and so she began a dogged decade-long battle with the British Board of Trade and commercial paint manufacturers, who, in her mind, were producing inferior products that threatened to deteriorate over time. Fortunately for her, this cause had the backing of the Arts Council of Great Britain, British Colour Manufacturers Association, and two important museums. After a long battle she succeeded and the British Standards Institution Technical Committee on Artists’ Materials was formed and this meant that for the first time, there were published standards regarding the naming and defining of pigments, cold-pressed linseed oil, and canvas.
After the victory, Gluck returned to painting using the special handmade paints supplied by a manufacturer who had taken Gluck’s standards as a challenge. In all, fifty-three of these pieces were exhibited in a solo show at the Fine Art Society in 1973, and they were very well-received. The exhibition was her first since 1937. She was buoyed by the success of the exhibition and optimistic about the future. However, the directors of the Fine Art Society did not concur. For them the future of Gluck and her work were not as she saw it. She was now eighty years of age, was not in good health, suffering from arthritis and heart problems, painted slowly and they believed that her optimism about her future was simply her antidote to counter her depression. However, some of her older paintings were later shown by the Fine Art Society in their mixed exhibitions.
In 1973, Gluck completed her last painting and it was one with an unusual title, Rage, Rage against the Dying Light which comes from the lines of a poem by Dylan Thomas:
“…Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light…”
Edith Heald’s health deteriorated rapidly and it was agreed by her doctor that Gluck could not safely look after her and she was admitted to the Homelands nursing home in January 1975, aged ninety. Edith felt abandoned and betrayed. Gluck, who was not able to drive anymore, was chauffeured to the nursing home twice a week, to visit Edith, who according to Gluck seemed very sad and forlorn. Gluck was now living alone, albeit with her servants, and found the upkeep of Chantry House almost impossible. In the Autumn of 1975 Gluck returned to her cottage at St Buryan in Cornwall for the last time.
On October 11th, 1976, Gluck had Edith transferred from her Homelands nursing home she had been in for two years, to one close to Chantry House which would make it easier for her visiting her erstwhile friend but the move proved disastrous as within five weeks of the transfer Edith Heald died on November 5th, 1976. Gluck was in total shock on hearing of Edith’s death and blamed herself for having Edith transferred to her new nursing home. Two weeks after the funeral Gluck suffered another heart attack.
Gluck’s cousin Julia Samson visited her in January 1978 and recalls the event:
“…We talked and had tea. She thought of me as young and her sensibility wouldn’t have let her make a young person sad. I said I’ll come and see you next week. She didn’t say anything, just looked at me and her eyes were very very sad. There was a passion there inside. Perpetual liveliness…”
That next-week visit never came to fruition as Gluck died the next day, January 10th, 1978. She was 82. Her brother Louis broke off his Swiss holiday to attend the funeral of his sister and it was reported that his youngest son witnessed his father crying for the first time.
Nesta Obermer outlived Gluck by six years, dying at her French home in Vaud on October 3rd 1984 aged 91.
Most of the information for this blog came from two excellent books – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
Gluck Art and Identity by Amy De La Haye (Author), Martin Pel (Author), Gill Clarke (Author), Jeffrey Horsley (Author), Andrew Macintos Patrick (Author)
Both are excellent reads and fill in all the gaps in the life of Gluck which I have passed over.
In November 1932, the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street, London, hosted Gluck’s much heralded third solo exhibition. Constance Spry decorated the Fine Art Society galleries for the exhibition. All the paintings were hung in the main gallery which Gluck transformed into what became known as the Gluck Room. All her paintings were mounted in her own Gluck frames. This frame was described in Jacob Simon’s 1996 book, The Art of the Picture Frame:
“…The essential feature of the Gluck frame’, according to a note in the catalogue of her 1937 Fine Art Society exhibition, ‘is that it becomes part of any wall whatever its character, colour or period… It can be painted the same colour as the wall, or covered with the same wall-paper, or made in any wall material…”
Gluck designed the interior of the Gluck room. It was a series of white panelled bays and pilasters which echoed the steps of the Gluck frames and this resulted in a unified effect of pictures and their setting. Modern furniture was added. Twenty-nine of Gluck’s paintings were shown at this exhibition, eleven of them were depictions of flowers with the pride of place going to her painting entitled Chromatic. Others on display were portraits of her mother, James Crichton-Browne, Margaret Watts and Georgina Cookson.
There was also room for landscape paintings featuring her beloved Cornwall.
The exhibition was a great success and the visitors from all walks of life queued to see Gluck’s paintings. Even Queen Mary put in an appearance. So popular was the exhibition that the Fine Art Society extended its run for a month and added a few more of Gluck’s paintings. Newspaper and magazine reviews couldn’t have been better. In the journal, The Lady, the art critic wrote of Gluck’s sensitive brush and delicate sense of tone, colour and composition:
“…no one who loves painting should miss this exhibition. It is perhaps not irrelevant that it occurs at the tercentenary of Vermeer…”
The Sunday Times regaled Gluck’s clarity of definition, clean light colour, feeling for stately design and Florentine dignity of composition, whilst The Times commented on Gluck’s suavity of workmanship. Most of the newspapers ran pictures of her work and gave passionate and affirmative reviews.
It was in early 1932 that another woman came into Gluck’s life. She was Ella Ernestine Sawyer, known as Nesta Sawyer. Gluck and Constance Spry were invited to a dinner party at Broadlands, in Romsey, Hampshire by Molly Mount Temple. Broadlands was a Palladian mansion and the home to Molly and Wilfred Ashley, the 1st Baron Mount Temple and once the country residence of Lord Palmerston when he was prime minister. Molly Mount Temple, an imperious figure, was the second wife of Ashley and a regular client of Constance Spry. Constance arranged the flowers at Broadlands and Molly’s London town house, Gayfere House in Westminster. In 1936 Gluck painted the portrait of this commanding female entitled The Lady Mount Temple. We see her imposing figure dressed by the Italian fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli in black and white. Her head is cocked to one side with a haughty look of arrogance. At that soirée, Molly introduced Nesta Obermer to Gluck.
Nesta was the daughter of a diplomat who had married the wealthy playwright Seymour Obermer in 1925 when she was thirty-one years of age. Before the marriage Nesta Sawyer had some of her literary works published under the name, Nesta Sawyer. Seymour Obermer, a widower, was some thirty years older than his wife. The couple led a glittering international life, wintering in Switzerland and spending the summers in Venice. For the elderly Seymour Obermer, his wife added a touch of style and elegance to his life. I suppose in today’s parlance she would be looked upon as his “trophy wife”. Diana Souhami summed up Nesta’s character in her biography of Gluck:
“…Strength and fearlessness were Nesta’s attributes. It was she who loved life to the full, charmed people with her glamour, generosity and understanding, had a go at everything – painting, writing, singing, drove fast cars, got her pilot’s licence, did yoga, got gold medals for skating and skiing and travelled the world…”
May 23rd 1932 was a special day for Gluck. This was the day that a chauffeur driven car whisked her off to Nesta’s home, The Mill House, which was in the East Sussex village of Plumpton. Gluck was to be Nesta and Seymour’s weekend guest. According to Gluck’s letters it was during this weekend that Nesta and Gluck fell in love. From then on, this day in May was looked upon as their anniversary date. From then on Gluck’s diary was full of entries about when the two women met, lunched, dined and sent and received each other’s letters. Gluck later looked upon the letters as the YouWe letters, letters which were affirmations of their romantic love that spanned the gap of frequent separation. Some of the hand-written love letters still survive but when the relationship ended Nesta destroyed many she had received from Gluck and sent some back to Gluck.
In June 1936 Gluck and Nesta embarked on a lesbian relationship which was so intense and all-consuming that it caused a division between Gluck and her previous close friends such as former lover, Constance Spry.
This close relationship with Nesta was to lead to Gluck’s most famous painting, completed in 1936, known as Medallion or the YouWe painting. The work is a portrait of Gluck and Nesta Obermer and according to Gluck it came about after the two women went to see the Mozart opera, Don Giovanni at Glynbourne on June 23rd 1936. Nesta and Gluck sat in the third row of the stalls and Gluck recalled how she felt the intensity of the music which fused them into one person and matched their love. In her biography of Gluck, Diana Souhami describes the painting:
“…The gaze of aspiration and direction and the determined jaws have something of a feel of socialist revolutionary art. Nesta’s fair hair forms a halo around Gluck’s dark head…”
This dual-portrait depicts the artist and her lover, the American socialite Nesta Obermer. Gluck was forty-one and Nesta forty-three. The painting which was quite small (31 x 36cms) is the bringing together of Gluck with Nesta Obermer, whom she termed “her dear wife”. The painting hung on a wall in Gluck’s Bolton House residence and it consoled her during the frequent weeks of separation while Nesta travelled the world with her American husband. For Nesta the painting was all about teasing people who, on looking at the depiction of the two women, began to wonder about the nature of their relationship. The depiction was a dichotomy of honesty and restraint. For Gluck this relationship with Nesta was one she believed would last forever. It was a relationship which would banish her loneliness but of course like many relationships there is often an end point. The end point for Gluck’s relationship with Constance Spry came the day after Gluck and Nesta had attended the Glyndebourne opera. Gluck had invited Constance to dinner at Bolton House and during that evening Gluck told her that they could no longer be lovers. It was the end of the relationship. Constance had been a great influence on Gluck. She encouraged Gluck’s talent and introduced her into the heart of 1930’s English high society.
Gluck’s deep love and all-consuming passion for Nesta can be seen in a letter she wrote to her in the Autumn of 1936:
“…My own darling wife. I have just driven back in a sudden almost tropical downpour in keeping with my feelings at leaving you – my divine sweetheart, my love, my life. I felt so much I could hardly be said to feel at all – almost numb and yet every nerve ready to jump into sudden life…………..I love you with all my being now and for ever. Good morning dear heart and goodbye…”
Nesta was Gluck’s inspiration and in Gluck’s mind, her wife. In 1936, she wrote to Nesta:
“…Love, you are such an inspiration to me, and that you should be my darling wife too is all any man can expect out of life, don’t you agree?…”
Like all relationships there are good times and bad times. In 1937 Nesta Obermer was experiencing a lot of her own problems. Her elderly father was dying and her mother was becoming wary of her daughter’s relationship with Gluck, which she had been told by her daughter was just a casual relationship. Gluck was also starting to be concerned about her relationship with Nesta. She was jealous of Seymour and felt side-lined by his rightful claim on his wife’s time. She was starting to believe that her love for Nesta was much stronger than Nesta’s love for her. Gluck’s anticipation of receiving at least one letter a day from Nesta did not seem to be reciprocated by Nesta in her attitude to Gluck’s letters of love which she seemed to open “when she had time” unlike Gluck who almost opened Nesta’s letters before they exited the letterbox in her hallway. She mentioned this to Nesta in her letter but fearing that the tone of the missive would be seen as complaining, she ended by saying:
“…Don’t make any mistake – I know you love me, I know how you love me and I know that nothing like this can prevent me loving you, but my ears went back and I felt the armour close with a snap again round my heart which had become, I suddenly realised dangerously softened…”
Nesta was feeling the pressure from all sides as she wintered with her husband in St Moritz. Her father was dying (he died in April that year) and she felt guilty for not returning home to visit him as her mother pleaded for her to do. Gluck was becoming more needy, also wanting her to come back to England as she was barely surviving on just Nesta’s letters. Nesta’s husband Seymour wanted her to stay and in fact he wanted to lengthen their planned winter stay in Switzerland. It was almost certain that Gluck disliked Seymour’s hold on his wife and Seymour disliked Gluck’s influence on his wife and because of all this, Nesta was being torn different ways by various people.
For Gluck her artistic life had to continue notwithstanding her often troubled relationship with Nesta and on November 16th 1937 her new solo exhibition at the New Bond Street premises of The Fine Art Gallery opened. Thirty-three of Gluck’s paintings were on show with others on stand-by. There was a mix of genre – portraiture featuring people who were in the news at the time, floral paintings and idealised landscapes. All were up for sale and the prices ranged from £2 to £300. As was the case with her 1932 exhibition, this one was hailed as a great success. In the November 24th 1937 edition of the Bystander, a British weekly tabloid magazine, the art critic wrote:
“…I do not remember for years seeing such a display of versatility. Gluck’s flower paintings would be her strong point if her landscapes were not so brilliant, and her landscapes might get the top marks if it were not for her portraits or her still life…”
Her paintings were reproduced in many of the national newspapers and magazines. The Times lauded her, commenting on….
“…the clearness of her sense of form, her subtle use of colour and curiously reserved emotional content…”
The art critic of the Daily Telegraph, T.W.Earp called her crowd scenes little gems of humorous perception.The Daily Sketch wrote a piece about Gluck describing her as having:
“…the profile of a Greek god with eyes that shone like black diamonds…”
Gluck spent the summer of 1938 holidaying with Nesta in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Unbeknown to them, World War II was only a year away and this was going to cause Gluck a lot of hardship but even more depressing for Gluck was the slow unravelling of her relationship with her beloved Nesta.
..……..to be continued
Most of the information for this blog came from two excellent books – Gluck: Her biography by Diana Souhami.
For a much fuller account of Hannah Gluckstein’s life, treat yourself to these biographies.
Another great read is Gluck: Art and Identity by Amy De La Haye (Author), Martin Pel (Author), Gill Clarke (Author), Jeffrey Horsley (Author), Andrew Macintos Patrick (Author)