Ernest Biéler

                                           The Braiding of Straw by Ernest Biéler

If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise?   If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist.   For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints.  Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest.  If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them.  The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it.  Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler.  He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.

Portrait of Nathalie Biéler, the artist’s mother by Ernest Biéler(1906)

 

Portrait of Samuel Biéler,the artist’s father by Ernest Biéler (1906)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne.  His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which  brought difficult financial times to the family.

                                                       Paysage a Saviese by Ernest Biéler (1925)

Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.

                                                                                               Savièse

Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans.  For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France.  During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse. 

                                    Girl with Scarf by Ernest Biéler

From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization.  The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works.  This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.

         Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse)                                                                                           by Ernest Biéler (1886)

Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions.  Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting  He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces.  He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches.  The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway.  Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight.  They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside.  Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders.  By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing.  Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light.  The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls.  We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists.   The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne.  The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.

                                                                 Retour du bapteme by Ernest Biéler

Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities.  Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.

                                                             Mother and Child by Ernest Biéler

In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria.   In 1894, the building was completed.  The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.

                                 Sketch for the ceiling of the Victoria Hall mural by Ernest Bieler (1893)

On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.

                                                               Naked, Ringing the Bell by Ernest Biéler

One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell.  However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.

                                                                     La Râclette, by Ernest Biéler (1903)

In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian.  Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities.   In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

                                                                   Vue de Savièse by Ernest Biéler

Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style.  Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.  When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:

“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”

                                               Le vieux duc de savize cloutiergranois by Ernest Biéler

In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor.  They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse.  The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.

                                                        Deux jeunes Valaisannes by Ernest Biéler

The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler.    In 1911 his father died.  Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe.  In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse.  In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz.  Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.

                                   L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters) by Ernest Biéler (1912)

During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback.  He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters).  Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital.  Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera.  The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest.  These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting.  The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond.  The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing.  However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.

                                              Jeune Chevrier (Young Goatherd) by Ernest Biéler

In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).  

                                                       L’Homme des Camps by Ernest Biéler, (1917)

From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time.  His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.

Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.

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Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 4.

                                                                            Hilda Rix Nicholas (1910)

Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries.   The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,

                                                                          His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth.  Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.

Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.

It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited,  for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.

            Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris.  It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers).  It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches).  Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration.  The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting.  The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist.   So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us?  Look at the female.  Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll.  Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress.  The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face.  She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner.  She pouts.  What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness?   On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress.  What was the artist’s reason for that?   Are they from her lover who she has now rejected?  Look at her gaze.  Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes?    So many unanswered questions.  Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!

When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:

“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”

The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.

                                               Le Bigdouen by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany.  Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition.  Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany

                                                      The Fair Musterer by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1935 )

At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland .  Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe.  Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright.  For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne.   In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix.  Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art.  Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.

                 The Shepherd of Knockalong by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1933)

Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate.  It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting.  The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child,  was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.

                                                    Rix – The artists son by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1948 )

Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today.  There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be.  His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.

                                                                     The Shearer by Rix Wright (1949)

Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.

Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her.  In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:

“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”

                   Rix Wright, son of Hilda Rix Nichols Wright

At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney.  It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.

Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 3.

The Pink Scarf by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1918)

In March 1918, Hilda Rix Nicholas left England on a sea voyage back to Australia.  She and her late husband’s brother, Athol Nicholas, arrived in Melbourne on May 10th. She needed to get her love of painting back on track and she did this through the city’s Women’s Art Club and the support of Henrietta Maria Gulliver, one of its founding members.  She was soon back in the groove and in November she was amongst the members of the Art Club whose works were displayed at the Athenaeum Hall.  The art correspondent of the Punch magazine (November 21st, 1918) wrote:

“…The dominating personality of the show is Mrs Hilda Rix Nicholas, who exhibits a charming profile of a young girl entitled The Pink Scarf which is painted in Mrs Nicholas’ most arresting manner…”

                                                        In Picardy by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1914)

When she travelled to Australia Hilda brought with her the sketches and paintings she had completed during her time in Europe and North Africa and over a hundred were exhibited at the Melbourne’s Guild Hall.  The exhibition was a great success and many of her paintings were sold including her 1914 work, In Picardy, which was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.  The exhibition moved to Sydney and more of her paintings were bought by private collectors as well as several purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.

       Australian Official War Artists by George Coates (1920)

Hilda left Melbourne and moved to Mosman, a coastal suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney.  She continued to exhibit her portraits of Australian military men.   She painted heroic images of soldiers which accentuated the spiritual aspects of war and was in line with the thoughts of the day with regards Anzac mythology and the unashamed masculinity of the Australian nationhood.  The paintings were works of unapologetic patriotism.  They were loved by the public but more conservative critics were troubled by the modern and ‘masculine’ characteristics of the exhibition.  With the public liking her patriotic paintings she tendered for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library but was not chosen.  The mural commission was given to Harold Septimus Power.  An official portrait by George Coates in 1920 depicted the Australian War Artists. The group portrait includes the official War Artists; standing l-r: (Sir) John LongstaffCharles BryantGeorge LambertA. Henry FullwoodJames QuinnSeptimus PowerArthur Streeton, seated back l-r: Will DysonFred Leist, front: George Bell.  Note they are all male !

                                                A Man by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1921)

One of her patriotic works was her painting simply entitled A Man.  For her model Hilda chose a returned serviceman.  She must have thought about her late husband as she painted this work.  Look at the way that through her brushstrokes she has affectionately fashioned pockets, buttons, pouches for ammunition and creases in the sleeve.  This anonymous ANZAC hero is framed by stormy skies and with so many of the troops dying on the battlefield one realises that despite the uniform, the tin helmet and rifle they all failed to keep him safe.  Although this is a patriotic depiction it is also a portrayal of defencelessness as much as it is of military might.  Having failed to receive the commission for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library, Hilda abandoned her military portraiture work and began to concentrate on painting local landscapes and portraits.  

                                                                                         Australian Stamp issue

Hilda believed that the public’s taste in art had changed.  Despite the numerous Australian casualties in the First World War, estimated at 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Australian population wanted not just to think of their dead but consider the future and a reminder of this was to reflect on their beautiful land and the hard-working Australians who remained and were carrying on with their life.  It was not just in art that this desire to look forward was seen, as many writers of the time, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, penned stories who eulogised about the merits of pioneer life.

                               In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback by Hilda Rix Nicholas

In 1922, accompanied by her friend Dorothy Richmond, whom she had met in Sydney around 1919, Hilda set out to paint in rural New South Wales and one of the paintings she completed around this time was one depicting her friend on a horse.  The painting was entitled In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback.

                  Une Australienne (Dorothy Richmond), 1926 by Hilda Rix Nicholas

Hilda completed a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Richmond in 1926, entitled Une Australienne, Dorothy Richmond.  It is a strong portrait of her good friend.  Dorothy is dressed in the height of fashion.  She looks out at us with a forceful pose, one of belief in her self-importance, almost haughty but the look gives her a sense of empowerment.  She has posed with her head turned causing tension on her neck muscles.  This was one of eight pictures Hilda Rix Nicholas had exhibited in the Salon of 1926. The Salon judges were impressed with her work, and she was made an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as a result.

                                                         In Australia, His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

Around 1923, Hilda and Dorothy first travelled to Delegate on a painting trip.  The small New South Wales town was situated just a few kilometres from the state border between New South Wales and Victoria. The area was ideal for landscape painting.  The couple stayed in a property owned by the Wright family and soon Hilda became friendly with Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar.  It was during their stay at Delegate with the Wrights that she completed one of her most well-known works, In Australia, His Land.  The painting was a portrait of Ned Wright, the manager of the property at Delegate.  He is depicted on horseback, with his pipe clasped between his teeth.  His stance is casual, self-assured, and heroic, which was consistent with the up-beat nationalism of Australia at the time. The backdrop to the portrait is a panoramic view of an Australian pastoral landscape.  

             Through the gum trees, Toongabbie by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1920)

A similar setting can be seen in her 1920 work, Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie. It is a commemorative depiction of the Australian landscape, which she held so dearly. For Hilda it was a way of paying homage to the land of her birth.  It is a painting full of light and for Hilda it was all about recording the beautiful landscape.  We can imagine the joy and pride she got from painting the scene as we look at the distant land through the trees which have cast giant shadows on the ground.  She commented on why she wanted to spend her time depicting the Australian landscape, giving her reason as:

“…show the people [of Europe] what is possessed in a land of beauty where the colour scheme is so different, and which sent so many gallant men to the struggle for liberty…”

                              The Three Sisters, Blue Mountains by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1922)

Another of her paintings, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains of that time captured the spectacular view of the Three Sisters.  It is an unusual rock formation representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend were turned to stone. The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours.  The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe.  These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry.  As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.

 It was always in Hilda’s plans to return to Europe and take with her the collection of landscape works she had built up in the previous six years and so, after a successful exhibition of her work in Sydney in 1923 she packed up her things and was ready to return to France.  In 1924, Hilda, along with her travelling companion, Dorothy Richmond, set sail, on the SS Ormonde, for France, with the intention of exhibiting her work.  Also, aboard the vessel was the Australian Olympic team travelling to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics and the Adelaide Chronicle of July 19th 1924 carried a fascinating story about an incident on the voyage:

“…The Australian artist, Mrs. Rix Nicholas, has been included amongst Australia’s aspirants for Olympic honours. This surprising information comes from a member of the team in a letter to his parents, received only this week. On the voyage home aboard the Ormonde it was noticed that one of the passengers paid particular attention to the athletes when they were on deck for daily training.  Day by day she continued to study every member at work. Eventually she summoned sufficient courage to approach the manager (Mr Merrett), with the request that the team be lined up. He agreed, and Mrs. Nicholas selected a certain member as a model. Although somewhat embarrassed, he agreed to pose. When the team arrived in Paris it was learned that an artists’ competition was to be held, in conjunction with the Olympic games, and it was decided that Mrs. Nicholas should represent Australia as the Olympic candidate. The painting, when completed, will be entered m the competition for artists.  It was on this account that she was included, and all were overjoyed at having a Woman representative…”

Hilda and Dorothy arrived in Paris in June 1924 and rented a studio in Montparnasse which had formerly been the home of the French painter Rosa Bonheur.  In 1925, Hilda’s works were exhibited at the Georges Petit Galerie in Paris, which was a popular alternative exhibition space to the official Salon.  Her paintings were much admired by the critics and public and the exhibition was deemed a great success.  Her success in Paris was recorded in the February 28th 1925 edition of the Sydney newspaper, The World News, a newspaper published in Sydney, Australia from 1901 to 1955.

GIFTED VICTORIAN ARTIST.

SHOWS “AUSTRALIA” IN PARIS.

Fashioned of the stuff that good and true women are built of, there is little wonder in the cabled news that Mrs. Hilda Rix Nicholas, the clever painter from, the southern Australian State, Victoria, has made good as an artist in Paris, one of the great art centres of Europe.  She is an intensely patriotic Australian, and, swayed by this fine feeling, recently gave an exhibition of her country’s typical scenery and atmosphere in a series of exquisite paintings that attracted the Parisian critics and the public. Notwithstanding that she was already represented in the Luxembourg National Gallery, the French Government purchased one of the group, entitled “In Australia,” for the same gallery, which has only two other Australian artists represented, viz.. [Arthur] Streeton and [Rupert]Bunny.

………………..to be concluded.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 2. Morocco and many family tragedies

Morocco, marketplace with pile of oranges by Hilda Rix Nichols painted during one of her two trips to Tangier

It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel.  Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists.  An example of this is her work entitled Morocco Marketplace with the Pile of Oranges.  It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.   

                            Men in the Marketplace by Hilda Rix (1914)

In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier.   It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation.  She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows.  We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light.  Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun.  She wrote:

“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”

                                                       Grande Marché, Tangier by Hilda Rix (1916)

Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils.  When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg.  Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes.  Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child.  The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work.  He further commented:

“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”

Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:

“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”

 Moroccan Market Scene by Hilda Rix Nicholas (crayon and pastel on paper)

The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West.  In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.

                           Moroccan Loggia by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1912-1914)

Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture.  It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:

“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”

Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient.  Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia.   There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her. 

                             Hilda Rix painting in Tangier market place (1914)

Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted.  Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic

                                         The Arab Sheep Market Tangier by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier.   The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds.  Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting.  Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.

                                Grandmère by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère.  It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background.  Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 

                                           Hilda with her mother and sister during European trip.

Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples.  The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London.  If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies.  Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England.  Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home.  At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37.  Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news.   Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter.  For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings.  She remembered the time saying:

“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”

 Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.

Hilda and Matson after the marriage

Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne.   George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers.  Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher.  He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded.  Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post.   His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios.  Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.   

Major George Matson Nicholas charcoal and pastel drawing by Hilda Rix Nicholas drew this portrait of her new husband two days after their wedding on October 9th 1916

Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion,  He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.

                                           These Gave the World Away by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1917)

Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live.  In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works.  One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.

                                               Central panel of Pro Humanitate by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1917)

Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas.  The work comprised of three panels.  The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity.  Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose.  The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero.  Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the  Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.

                                                           Desolation by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1917)

She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation.  This work depicts an emaciated woman crying.  She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us.  The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation.   The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work.  In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:

“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield.  The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”

Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.

…………………………….to be continued.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 1.

                          Hilda Rix Nicholas (circa 1910)

The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists.  The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.

                                   Henry Finch Rix

Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne.  Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th  1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853.  They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later.  Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman.  He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools.  In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:

“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”

Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat.  She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience.  She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street.  Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows.  Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon.  Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.

                      Frederick McCubbin -Self-portrait, (1886)

Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin.  Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”.  However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.

                                                 An early sketch by Rix Nichols

Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon.   To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals.  Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits.  Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art

                                         Poster for the Salon des Beaux Arts (1913) by Hilda Rix

For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London.  Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms.  All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight.  His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension.  After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and  they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.

                             John Hassall in his studio, 1909

For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her.  Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism.  He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington.  When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her.  She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse

                                                                 The Ferry by Emanuel Phillips Fox

In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox.  Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design.  The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.

               The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) by Emanuel Phillips Fox

The 1902  painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770,  depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them. 

                      Portrait of Ethel Carrick, c.1912. 

Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.

In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse.  It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men.  Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men.  It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris.  From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen.  She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work.  Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism.  It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.

Retour de la chasse by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1911)

Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists.  In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat.  Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda.  Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement.  Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon.  The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.

                                                                     Three friends by Hilda Rix (1912)

Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910.  Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie.  It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa.  Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent.   The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.

Morocco, marketplace with pile of oranges by Hilda Rix painted during one of her two trips to Tangier

Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey.  They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan.  Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel.   Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them.  The room became a temporary studio space. 

                                                          Hamido sleeps by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido.  In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.

Moroccan Amido by Matisse (1912)

In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used.  In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.

                                               Through the arch to the sea by Hilda Rix Nichols (1914)

Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets.  She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:

“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”

                                       Hilda Rix painting in Moroccan marketplace

Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people.  In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:

“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.

In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:

“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”

…………………..to be continued.

John Pototschnik. The living rural artist.

Of the 850+ blogs I have done in the last ten years, I think only three have been about living artists.  Maybe I was concerned that they would be upset with what I had written or maybe they would be unhappy if I had been inaccurate, although I try to get facts from various sources to avoid errors.  My featured artist today is a person who commented how he liked one of my blogs and when I looked at his blog/website and some of his artwork I decided that he would make for an ideal subject.  I wrote to him and he was happy for me to do a small bio on his life and art, so let me introduce you to John Pototschnik, pronounced Poe-toe-sh-nic.  John is a Signature member of the Oil Painters of America and a Master Signature Emeritus member of the Outdoor Painters Society. He is recognized in “Who’s Who in American Art” and “Who’s Who in the Southwest.” In addition, his work has appeared in multiple artist magazines and books.  He’s also the author of a best-selling book: Limited Palette Unlimited Color published by Streamline Publishing. 

John was born in England, in the Cornish coastal town of  St. Ives, on November 14th 1945.  His father was Ernest Felix Pototschnik, a native of Kansas whilst his mother, Patricia Mary Pototschnik (née Symons) was born in Trewartha, Lelant in Cornwall. She was Ernest’s second wife.  Ernest’s first wife died during the birth of their son Ernest Francis.   John’s father was a member of the US Army which was stationed in England during the Second World War and he met Patricia when he attended a local dance.  John’s mother once told him that she remembered that first meeting saying she was especially attracted to Ernest because of his short stature, the way he carried himself, and the American uniform. The couple soon fell in love and were married in St Ives on February 12th 1945.  John was their eldest child and he has a sister, Patsy Ann.

                                              At the Edge of Town by John Pototschnik (24 x 30ins)
The sound of an approaching train can be heard in the distance. There has been a brief, early afternoon shower. The mailman has yet to deliver the day’s mail and pick up the letter in the box addressed to a dear friend. Children are just getting out of school and will soon arrive home on the school bus. (Location: Kansas) https://www.pototschnik.com/paintings/at-the-edge-of-town/

Around 1946 Ernest Pototschnik was discharged from the army, and returned to America where he purchased a home in Wichita, Kansas, prior to his wife and John travelling across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary some months later to join him.  The family relocated to Wichita, Kansas and remained there for the next twenty-two years.  John attended the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Wichita and then enrolled at the city’s Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School.  At school John enjoyed draughtsmanship and biology.  He liked to sketch especially aircraft and racing cars. As a youth, his parents were comfortable with him going off on his own, exploring the neighbourhood.  He even went door-to-door selling his mother’s cookies or collecting money for his paper route.  John also often spent time with his father on hunting trips.  He believes this freedom to roam was how he built up his love of small American towns.

After graduating from High School in 1963, he went to the Pittsburg State Teacher’s College in Pittsburg, Kansas for one year.  During his early life at home there had been no exposure to art and the possibility of becoming an artist was never in consideration.  However, it was during the time at the College that John had the first thoughts about art being a definite possibility in his future.   He remembered purchasing the Famous Artist School correspondence course but admitted that he never completed it.  He explained that there was just no time for this extra-curricular study as life was filled with college work, athletics, and an after-school job. He said that he had little time for anything else.

                                                 Be Still My Soul by John Pototschnik (30 x 40ins)
A time of reflection, contemplation, and dreams comes easily in the peacefulness of the country. The soft light and gentle breeze refresh the soul. (Location: Georgia. Private collection).  Last year, this work was awarded the Silver Medal at the Oil Painters of America 27th Annual National Juried Exhibition of Traditional Oils, which was held at the Steamboat Art Museum in Steamboat Springs, CO. Of the more than 2,000 entries, only about one-tenth of those were selected for the exhibition.

In June 1964, John enrolled at Wichita State University and embarked on a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in Advertising Design.  During his university days he worked for a number of graphic design and illustration companies.  One of the companies was Oblinger-Smith Planning Consultants where he worked as a graphic designer and, it was here, that through a work colleague he met Marcia who in October 1971 became Mrs Marcia Pototschnik.  His love of airplanes also had him sign up for the USAF College Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). Upon graduation from college, I was guaranteed an Air Force commission and on leaving university in June 1968, John spent the next four years working for the United States Air Force stationed at El Segundo, California where he worked as an Internal/Public Information Officer working in community relations and edited the base newspaper.

                           For a Moment, All the World Was Right by John Pototschnik (30 x 40 ins)
For a Moment, All the World Was Right – It’s a busy world, full of noise, stress and worry, but for the young playmates, for this time in their life, all in the world is right. Being with friends, loved by their parents, feeling safe and protected…that is their reality. They are content and happy. (Location: New Hampshire. Private Collection)

Following completion of his time in the military in June 1972, he moved to Dallas and set about establishing a freelance illustration career although he proudly states he had his first paying job when he was ten years old, mowing lawns in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn and shovelling snow in the winter and at fifteen earned money as a part-time dish-washer at a local department store and during his first year of college days he was a consummate hamburger-flipper!  For the next ten years of his life he worked as an illustrator for all the major advertising agencies and design studios.  Of this decade as an illustrator he said he enjoyed the time:

“…I very much enjoyed working as a freelance illustrator. There was a great variety of work and its associated challenges. Being able to meet those challenges and satisfy a client was very rewarding. I also liked seeing my work in print. It also afforded me the opportunity to work in a number of media: pencil, pen/ink, watercolour, and acrylic. It also trained me to work under pressure and to meet tight deadlines…”

But all good things had to come to an end and for John the graphic design jobs were very time consuming and he said that his life revolved around long working hours and frequent bouts of little sleep.  This lifestyle of constant pressure and ever-demanding deadlines could not go on forever and so in 1982 John made the decision to leave the world of illustration and graphic design and turn his mind to the world of Fine Arts.

                                             Meeting of the Lines -by John Pototschnik (20×20 ins)
Many train lines congregate in this small agricultural town. The area bristles with activity. The sounds of the grain industry and rumble of the trains are heard throughout the town and are enchanting to young boys. (Location: Kansas. Private collection)

However, it was not just himself he had to consider as now he had a wife and two sons, Jonathan in 1975 and two years later a second son, Andrew.  But what did his wife think of his decision to quit his lucrative graphic designer career.  John comments:

“…Marcia has always been supportive of my art career regardless of the direction I decided to take it. She is a woman of common sense and has never been materialistic, in that she needed things to make her happy. She loved being a mother and homemaker…”

One can see how the decision to enter the world of Fine Artist was a financial gamble and he spoke about the decision:

“…Many well-known illustrators were leaving the field and moving into the fine arts in the 1970’s.  It was something I had always wanted to do but was told from the very beginning, “You’ll never make a living as a fine artist”. So, I chose to work in the commercial art side of the business. Seeing other illustrators make the leap encouraged me to do the same…”

               Plein air oil painting, Wylie Church by John Pototschnik (16″ x 12″)
When John heard about a plan to tear down the original St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, he worked hard, along with a committee, to save the structure and even wrote a letter appealing to the Bishop. Not only did the tiny church remain, but it is now immortalized in one of his paintings.

The switch to Fine Arts from being an illustrator and graphic designer was a massive change in John’s life and he was aware of the perils of this transition, saying:

“…Change is always a gamble. Fortunately, I was pretty naïve concerning what it would take to succeed, and to the realities of the fine art business. I thought the transition would be smooth and easy. I would just start painting different subjects, charge the same prices I was getting as an illustrator, and begin calling myself a fine artist. The only part of that that worked out was that I was painting different subjects. Galleries recognized my work as being illustrative, and nothing sold at my illustration prices.  Fortunately, the transition was eased somewhat by a friend who suggested I paint a series of paintings showing that the oil industry and wildlife could co-exist in the same area. If I did the paintings, he agreed to help me find six corporate sponsors that would purchase the paintings and their accompanying prints. That project worked well as it gave me time to begin working in oil, painting en plein air, developing my work, and funding my first year in the fine arts. Actually, there was not much thought given to financial success. I just figured one way or another this would work. However, it did take seven years to return to the level of income I was making as an illustrator…”

                                                        Rural Hideaway by John Pototschnik (25 x 28 ins)
Where does the road lead? Does it lead to a beautifully secluded little house in this gentle, non-threatening, peaceful environment? The question invites wonderful speculation and the viewer can visualize themselves walking that road to discovery. (Location: Georgia. Private collection)

So how did the change of artistic direction go for John?  He recalled those early day struggles:

“…Yes, there was a definite struggle. I did not realize it when I set my mind on becoming a fine artist, but fine art was beginning all over again. It is not a continuation of an illustration career; it’s starting a new career. I grew the career by doing lots of small paintings (5”x7” – 8” x 10”). These sold at very reasonable prices. I sold a lot of them, which helped grow a collector base. Then I began writing a monthly newsletter in order to stay in contact with the collectors.  Determining the price structure for my paintings is interesting in itself: As stated earlier, I began using illustration prices for the paintings…nothing sold. I then cut the prices in half…nothing sold. I cut the prices in half again…I then began selling just about everything. That’s why those early paintings were so reasonable…”

                                      Saturday Afternoon Game by John Pototschnik (16 x 20 ins)
School is over for the week. Classmates and neighbourhood friends enjoy a game of basketball at this small town American home. Location: Kansas)
https://www.pototschnik.com/paintings/saturday-afternoon-game/

John has painted in many mediums but his favourite is oils as it dries much slower than acrylic and thus affords him the chance to manipulate and correct his work until it is just right.  He also is pleased by the way oils has substance and retains brushstrokes.  When I asked John about his depictions being predominantly rural, he commented:

“…Much of what I paint are deeply felt impressions formed during my childhood. I grew up in the 1950s. It was a totally different time. I grew up in small neighbourhoods, small houses, small towns, near the country. My parents and grandparents had flourishing vegetable gardens. My mom made homemade cookies which I sold door to door. I had newspaper routes in which I delivered morning and evening newspapers door to door. I was free to ride my bicycle all around town and visit my friends. All these things, and much more, are in my work…”

His finished works are often the result of plein air painting which he enjoys but he says that about 99% of the plein air work is just for learning how to get a good handle on understanding nature. Some of those studies are used as a starting point for larger studio works. Less frequently, they are completed compositions unless they are for an art show or plein air competition, then, I will do larger completed works on location.

                                                   Land of Abundance by John Pototschnik (35 x 65)
Holmes County in the state of Ohio is an Amish community. Retaining many of the old world ways, eschewing many of the modern world’s technology and conveniences, the typical means of transportation is the horse and buggy. The magnificently kempt structures and fields are an endless source of inspiration for me. (Location: Ohio)
https://www.pototschnik.com/paintings/land-of-abundance/

In so many of the artists I have looked at over the years many depict realist situations, such as the poverty of the peasants and the back-breaking labour they had to endure and so I asked John why he has not also painted those often harrowing depictions.  He replied:

“…. I’ve never experienced personally the realities and hardships of actual farm life. I’ve been around farms, mainly as a child, so to this day have a more romanticized view. As an adult, I’m not unaware of the reality. I just choose to depict something that is somewhere between Realism and Idealism…”

He is also aware of the taste of the buying public.  Do they want paintings depicting hard-hitting realism on the walls of their house or would they rather have idealised rural beauty adorning their lounges and dining rooms?  John believes the latter is the case and the sale of his works of art bears out that assumption.

I asked him which of the great artists of the past he admired most.  He was most definite with his reply:

“…My favourite expressions of art are found in the Barbizon and Naturalism schools. Breton and Millet are certainly two of my favourites, but there are many more from that era, painting in that genre. There are so many artist’s works, past and present that I greatly admire, so I will say that the 1800s is my absolute favourite period in art history…”

                                                      Staying Home by John Pototschnik (16 x 27ins)
A few inches of snow on a day of bitterly cold temperatures comes to a close. The porch light comes on. It’s just too cold to go out tonight, We’re staying home where it’s warm. (Location: Texas)
https://www.pototschnik.com/paintings/staying-home/

He said he loved the works of Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet.  In their paintings he saw a great sensitivity to people and nature. They have the ability to express all nature’s subtleties in such a unified, calming, peaceful way which he found very appealing. Only what is necessary is stated, nothing is overworked.  He also liked the Naturalism of the art of Stanhope Forbes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Leon Lhermitte, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Charles Sprague Pearce, Frank Bramley, Jules-Alexis Muenier, George Clausen, Gari Melchers, and Jules Breton. He liked how the Naturalists works are highly refined, almost photographic. Subjects are of common folks in everyday situations, people of the land, usually depicted in rural settings. I find all this extremely appealing, especially the high degree of finish.  Finally, he said that he loved the work of the Russian Itinerants, such as Arkhipov, Kramskov, Levitan, Perov, Repin, Svetoslavsky and how their paintings are gritty, earthy, bold, and emotionally powerful.  He summed it up by saying:

“…The common thread running through all the work I most love is a sense of the real. Subjects are of common folk doing common tasks. They are not idealized. Small towns, cottages, rural landscapes, and people going about their daily lives in that environment predominate. All of the above artists speak of the reality and truth of everyday life, there is no pretentiousness. I feel each artist has approached their work and subject with humility and is therefore able to capture the soul and spirit of the subject with great sensitivity…”

                              Remembering Murphy Grocery by John Pototschnik (14″ x 24″ – Oil}
John could often be found with his easel painting on the side of the road. His painting of the old Murphy Grocery Store at FM 544 and Murphy Road evokes nostalgia in many who remember the store. He has sold many prints of the painting and the original hangs in the Smith Public Library today.

I finally asked John on his views for Fine Art in the future and the up and coming aspiring artists. How will the future compare with the past?  He replied:

“…I’m not sure what the future holds for the fine art of painting. There will always be a place for beautiful things, things that elevate, but whether individual hand-crafted paintings will have as much value and importance to future generations as they have had in the past, I don’t know.

Lack of art education, shortened attention span, ever expanding technology, increased desire for the latest and greatest thing…and a new generation that has had little exposure to fine art… could greatly affect how fine art is valued in the future.  

That being said, among serious art students, there seems to be a real move toward realism, and even classicism. Non-objective art among many is seen as empty and devoid of substance. They want more. Ateliers, teaching solid drawing and painting principles, have sprung up around the world. The Art Renewal Center is a strong influence in promoting a return to representational art. Also, the current plein air movement in the United States has encouraged a huge number of amateur artists to pick up their brushes and go outdoors. The negative side of the plein air movement is that people seem to think if a work is done in plein air, it must be good. What I see is a lot of poorly executed, poorly composed, and poorly drawn works. When these works are promoted in magazines and social media, one is led to believe the work is good and that anyone can be an artist. Doing something quickly is better than doing something thoughtfully and carefully seems to be the driving force.  

Painting workshops are very helpful in providing for an artist’s livelihood. Unfortunately, many that are teaching should not be teaching because their work is of poor quality. Also, not every good artist is a good teacher. I recommend choosing one’s instructor carefully.  

Finally, I disagree with students taking one workshop after another, jumping from one instructor to the next. Over and over again, I see this happening but see no improvement in the students work. It seems it’s more about saying I studied with so-and-so, than actually seriously applying what is taught…”

John has received many awards for his art and in 2018 the Art Renewal Center, the largest online association with 50,000 of the greatest works in history, recognized him as a Living Master (ARCLM). The requirements for Living Master status are extensive with the main caveat being, “The artist has dedicated themselves to becoming a realist artist with the wish to express our shared humanity through the visual arts.”


To find out more about John Pototschnik have a look at his website:

https://www.pototschnik.com/about/

Fern Isabel Coppedge. Part 2.

                                                      The Coal Barge by Fern Isabel Coppedge

One of Fern Coppedge’s later paintings, The Coal Barge, which she completed around 1940, featured the Delaware Canal.  The sixty-mile canal and the coal barges, which ploughed their way down its length, were an important means of transporting anthracite coal from north-eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia.  This barge trade lasted a hundred years and started in 1932 and in its heyday, over three thousand mule drawn boats travelled up and down this waterway carrying more than one million tons of coal every year.  This mode of transport became obsolete with the transporting of coal by rail.  This depiction of the canal and towpaths was a favourite depiction of many artists at the time.  There was a connection between Fern and the mules, which were used to tow the barges, as her studio was in a barn which once housed the working animals.

                                            Evening Local, New Hope by Fern Isabel Coppedge (C.1930)

In 1933 Fern completed a painting entitled Evening Local, New Hope which originally had the title, Five O’clock Train, which pictorially presents historical documentation of the schoolhouses which were in the New Hope-Solebury School District.  The painting depicts New Hope Elementary School which can be seen on the hill off West Mechanic Street in New Hope.  The building is no longer a school but is now the home of the New Hope Jewish congregation Kehilat NaHanar known locally as the “Little Shul by the River.”

                                                         The Opalescent Sea by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Coppedge divided her time between her Boxwood home in Lumberville, her studio in the coastal town of Gloucester where she often spent summers, and a studio in Philadelphia which she used during exhibitions.  In 1916 Fern spoke about her plein air painting at the Massachusetts fishing town of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and how she had many ardent onlookers.  She wrote:

“…In the waters shown in my paintings, there were a number of lobster traps. The fishermen were so much interested in the development of the picture of this familiar scene that in order to have an excuse to see it they would bring me a freshly boiled lobster, and the old sea captains would entertain me with thrilling stories of stormy nights spent in their little fishing schooners on the Newfoundland Banks and the Georges…”

                                       The Philadelphia Ten.
                             Fern Coppedge, back row on left)

In 1922 Fern was accepted into the all-women art society known as the Philadelphia Ten and exhibited regularly with them through to 1935.   They were an exclusive and progressive group of female artists and sculptors who ignored society rules of the time by working and exhibiting together. 

Coppedge once talked about her favoured methodology of painting and how she favoured working plein air to capture the essence of nature, notwithstanding inclement weather conditions:

“…I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush. I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm’s length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation…”

                                            Winter Solitude, Lambertville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Pennsylvania Impressionism was an American Impressionist movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. The movement is sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School” of landscape painting. Fern Coppedge was the only female member of The New Hope School.  She was part of that art movement and devoted numerous pictures to her Bucks County environment especially her winter scenes and she would suffer for her art with her plein air painting in the sub-zero conditions.   She was fascinated with the beauty of the snow.  There is no doubt that the extreme cold winters challenged her devotion to plein air painting.   She tried to get round this and carry on painting as long as she could by removing the back seat of her car to paint from an enclosed warm area. In cold windy conditions she would often tie her canvases to trees to fight off the wind and would wear her unfashionable but fit-for-purpose bearskin coat.  It was said by a local art critic for The New Hope magazine in November 1933:

“…We remember seeing Mrs. Coppedge trudging through the deep snow wrapped in a bearskin coat, her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling with the joy of life…”.

                                              Carversville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

There was a difference between her paintings and the other New Hope Impressionists.  Unlike other New Hope Impressionists, Fern Coppedge looked at the landscape scenes she was to paint with different eyes than them.    Of course, the first thing she acknowledged was what the eyes saw or the true photographic image.  However, she would also want an input from her imagination and how the scene felt like to her, and it was this power of imagination that led her to paint scenes with colours and tones which did not exist in reality.

       The Brook at Carversville by Edward Redfield (ca. 1923), (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

An example of her differing style can be seen if you compare her depiction of Carversville with the depiction of the same place by her fellow New Hope School artist, Edward Redfield.

Often her scenes would not be topographically correct.  Again, it was down to her power of imagination which countered reality and the finished result was an idealised version of the scene which was all about pleasing the artist.  In her mind, the depiction was a battle between what was actually there in front of her against what she imagined should be there.  Instead of depicting building using true brown and grey colours, Fern preferred to use pink and turquoise to, as if by magic, brighten facades. A travesty of art ?  Maybe we should think of how nowadays we adjust photographs, using photo editing packages, to achieve, not a true result, but a result we find more pleasing !  The fact her paintings sold so well is testament that the buying public had no problem with her idealisation or colour shifts.

                                                 Back Road to Pipersville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern joined “The Philadelphia Ten” in 1922 and exhibited regularly with them for the next thirteen through 1935. The Philadelphia Ten, which was founded in 1917, was both a unique and forward-thinking group of women artists and sculptors who ignored the rules of society and the art world by working and exhibiting together for almost thirty years. Their work was varied and included both urban and rural landscapes, portraiture, still life, and a variety of representational and myth-inspired sculpture.  The group of local female artists started with eleven founding members, who were all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), but over the years the membership rose to thirty artists, twenty three who were painters and seven who were sculptors.

                                               The Golden Arno by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c. 1926)

In the summer of 1925, Coppedge travelled to Italy and immersed herself in painting local scenes.  She stayed in the city of Florence, which was a base for her travels around Tuscany, ever recording pictorially the beauty of the Tuscan landscape.  It is thought that during her time in Tuscany Fern was inspired to change her painting style.  She began to simplify the natural elements she saw before her, often flattening them and she also became much more audacious when it came to her colour choices.  One of my favourite works from this period is Coppedge’s painting entitled The Golden Arno.  She had sketched views of the great Italian river as it passed through Tuscany and the painting was completed back in her home studio.  Coppedge talked about this painting and how it came about:

“…From my hotel, overlooking the Arno in Florence—looking from the balcony window—I saw the Arno River flowing gently like molten gold. It was late afternoon, and lazy Italian boatmen floated past in the dark, sturdy barges, wending their way down the river. Along the opposite bank were charming old stucco houses in colours of pale and rusty yellow, rose, pink, and old red. Tiled roofs, arched doorways and deeply recessed windows, balconies, towers and turrets against the background of cypress trees—all mirrored in the waters of the Arno. Church towers and ancient castle walls patterned against the hills inspired me and thrilled me with an irresistible desire to put on canvas my impressions…”

         The Literary Digest March 1st 1930 edition with Fern Coppedge’s picture on the front cover

In 1926, the painting of the Arno was included in an exhibition of The Philadelphia Ten.  It received great praise from both viewers and art critics. The painting was later exhibited in exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and it is now regarded as one of her best works. It was also reproduced on the cover of The Literary Digest in March of 1930. The painting was acquired by her local high school, mostly likely after the school opened in 1931.  Around 1934, Fern stopped exhibiting with The Philadelphia Ten and instead focused on exhibiting at her studio,

                                                  Lamplighters Cottage by Fern Isabel Coppedge (1928)

During her artistic career she received several awards including the Shillard Medal in Philadelphia, a Gold Medal from the Exposition of Women’s Achievements, another Gold Medal from the Plastics Club of Philadelphia, and the Kansas City H.O. Dean Prize for Landscape.

Coppedge died at her New Hope home on April 21st, 1951 at the age of 67.  Her husband, Robert W. Coppedge, died in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1948. The Coppedges, who were married in 1904, remained husband and wife for 44 years.  Fern Coppedge was one of America’s most prolific painters, having completed over five thousand works during her lifetime.  I will leave the last word on Fern Coppedge and her paintings to Arthur Edward Bye, an American landscape architect born in the Netherlands who grew up in Pennsylvania who said:

“…Man and his activities seem pleasantly remote but not absent in her landscapes. She fills them with houses and churches, lanes, bridges, and canals. They have therefore, that suggestion of human life, coloured with brightness, exuberant, which best answers the needs of most of us…”


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

Fern Isobel Coppedge. Part 1

Fern Isabel Coppedge in her studio

My featured artist today was one of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, an artistic movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. Often the movement was referred to as the New Hope School or the Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting.  Leading artists of the movement taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There was a difference between Pennsylvania Impressionism and Impressionism practiced in other parts of America as, with the former, the personification of their art was the thick brushwork and the way they almost had a dedicated concentration on landscape painting.  Today’s artist was one of the great American painters of her time and although she has been tagged with the term, Impressionism, Fern Isabel Coppedge has of late been labelled as a follower of Colourism,  which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art.  Thus, her paintings are looked upon as part Impressionism part Colourism, which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art. Coppedge’s paintings offered up her bold and unorthodox use of bright vibrant colours similar to Fauvism, which is also characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork.

Gloucester Harbour by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century American painter, Fern Isabel Coppedge, a landscape artist, who was famed for her depiction of the villages and farms of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, often blanketed with snow, as well as her harbour scenes of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she spent her summers.

Fern (Kuns) Coppedge, Dessie (Kuns) Garst, George Dilling Kuns, Margaret Effa Kuns, Vada Dilling Kuns, Maria (Dilling) Kuns, John L. Kuns, Mary (Kuns) Klepinger

Fern Isabel Kuns was born on July 18th 1883 in the small town of Cerro Gordo which lies about twelve miles east of the central Illinois city of Decatur.  Her parents were John Leslie Kuns and Maria Anna Dilling.  Fern was one of six children.  She had four sisters, Margaret Effa, Dessie, Vada, and Maria and one brother, George Dilling.  Sadly, the first-born of John and Maria’s family was a boy, Joseph, who died in 1873 aged ten. 

Home of Fern Kuns and Family in McPherson, Kansas (c.1900)

Her father had a small farm which he had inherited from his father, but was constantly struggling to make ends meet, so much so that in 1886, when Fern was aged three, he had to sell the farm, at a loss, so as to feed the family and pay for their education.  John and his family moved west to California in the hope of finding work but nought came of it, although Fern’s eldest sister Margaret, nine years Fern’s senior, said that life in California was the best year of her childhood.  When potential opportunities did not work out for their father, they headed back east and arrived in Kansas. In 1889, the Kuns’ finally settled in McPherson, Kansas and occupied a house on the campus of McPherson College.

Watercolour by Margaret Effa Kuns (c.1935)

When Fern was thirteen years old, she went back west to Palo Alto in California where her sister Margaret Effa was studying at Leland Stanford University.  Fern,  still too young to leave the school system, enrolled at the Pasadena High school.  During her stay in California she enjoyed the company of her elder sister, Margaret Effa, and was fascinated watching her painting in a watercolour class.  This was what first instance which eventually made Fern fall in love with painting and drawing.  Effa encouraged her sister’s newly found love of art and would take her to museums to study famous paintings.

An early insight of Fern’s early work can be gleaned by a comment she once made about her art and her unusual views of the use of colours.  She said:

“…People used to think me queer when I was a little girl because I saw deep purples and reds and violets in a field of snow. I used to be hurt over it until I gave up trying to understand people and concentrated on my love and understanding of landscapes…”

Robert William Coppedge

In 1900, at the age of seventeen, Fern Kuns went back to Kansas and, upon her return to the Midwest, she studied at McPherson College and later the University of Kansas.   Shortly after her return to Kansas, she met her future husband, Missouri-born, Robert William Coppedge, a high school science teacher, botanist, and amateur artist.  On January 2nd, 1904, Fern Kuns and Robert Coppedge were married in her parents’ home in McPherson, and the ceremony was followed by a four-course wedding breakfast. Fern and her husband moved east to the Kansas state capital, Topeka.  Robert continued with his teaching profession whilst Fern continued with her love of painting and four years later, when they moved to Illinois, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1908 to 1910. 

Back Road to Pipersvill by Fern Isabel Coppedge

From Chicago she moved to New York, where she enrolled at the Arts Student League.  She studied with the artist, muralist and illustrator, Frank Vincent DuMond and the Impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase.  In 1917, Fern spent time studying at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where one of her tutors was the Pennsylvania artist and art teacher, Daniel Garber and that year she had some of her artwork accepted into that year’s annual exhibition.  In that summer she studied at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock where winter painting specialist, John Fabian Carlson, was director.  Carlson was one of the great interpreters of the wooded landscape and was a great influence on Fern Coppedge.

Pigeon Cove by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c.1930)

In 1917 Fern visited Pennsylvania for the first time. She immediately fell in love with its picturesque-wooded hills and the many old-fashioned Bucks County towns which reminded her a little of her home state, Kansas. She remained in Pennsylvania for over thirty years and went on to own homes in Philadelphia, and the Bucks County towns of Lumberville, where she purchased a home and art studio in 1920, which she named Boxwood, sometimes referred to as The Boxwood Studios. 

Lumberville in Winter by Fern Isabel Coppedge

In her painting,  Lumberville in Winter, we see depicted a yellow building which is believed to be her first Boxwood studio which had once been a Quaker meeting house dating to the 1700s and is featured in several other works by the artist.  The small two-storey building would feature in many more of her paintings.  Living close to her in the small village of Cuttalossa was her former tutor, Daniel Garber.

October by Fern Isabel Coppedge (after restoration work)

There is an interesting story about Fern Coppedge’s painting entitled October.   In May, 2011, a man with a small but pleasant oil painting entitled October, fresh from a New Jersey estate, walked up to the owner of a hot dog stand in North Carolina, Alison Bledsoe.  The hot dog lady, looked at the dirty landscape of a bridge, some yellow leafed trees, and some brightly coloured houses. She was not quite sure if the interesting painting was worth buying, but as it was not expensive she purchased it.   Seven months later, on December 4, 2011, Les and Sue Fox of West Highland Art Auction Brokers and authors of The Art Hunters’ Handbook, in cooperation with Alasdair Nichol of Freeman’s Auctioneers, sold the professionally cleaned New Hope, Pennsylvania bridge scene by Fern Isabel Coppedge for $29,800 at auction. 

The Tow Path by William Langson Lathrop
Landscape painter William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938) moved to New Hope in 1898, where he founded a summer art school, which became known as The New Hope School

Nine years later, in 1929, Fern Coppedge moved seven miles down-river to the small town of New Hope.  It  was a  town located along the route of the Old York Road, the former main highway between Philadelphia and New York City.  At the time when George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, it was known as Coryell’s Ferry, after the owner of the ferry business, and got its current name after a fire destroyed several mills in 1790. It was said that once the mills were rebuilt, there was a “new hope” for this small town on the Delaware river.  The town would later be joined by a bridge to Lambertville, on the New Jersey side. Artist William Langston Lathrop and his family moved to New Hope in 1898 and founded an art school and he is now considered the father of The New Hope School

Snow And Sunshine by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern Coppedge lived on North Main Street in the centre of New Hope, in an early American style stone house and studio which she had built and was designed by architect Henry T. MacNeill in 1929.  This too was named Boxwood !   Over the years Fern Coppedge painted a number of pictures of her Boxwood home, at which she held many exhibitions of her work.  In 1907 Daniel Garber, who had once tutored Fern at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1900’s,  joined the early group of American Impressionists who would evolve into The New Hope School of Pennsylvania Impressionists. Fern became a member of the group and at the time she was the only female member of the New Hope School. Members of the New Hope School lived and painted in a number of Bucks County towns near New Hope, including Lumberville and Carversville. But the “New Hope School” name stuck and that is what these talented artists who followed in the footsteps of the French Impressionists are now called.

………………………to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

Frederick Childe Hassam – The American Impressionist.

Frederick Childe Hassam

Today I am looking at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, and an important illustrator during the “golden age” of American illustration in the 1880s and 1890s.  He was a leading American Impressionist, although he baulked at that “title”.   Let me introduce you to Frederick Childe Hassam.

Self portrait

Frederick Childe Hassam was born on October 17th 1859 in the family home on Olney Street on Meeting House Hill, Dorchester, the upper middle-class suburb of Boston.  He was the son of Frederick Fitch Hassam and Rosa Delia Hassam (née Hawthorne) who hailed from Maine.  His father, a Boston merchant and hardware store owner, collected Americana well before this hobby became a popular pastime and he passed this interest in history along to his son.  Hassam was educated at Dorchester’s Meeting House Hill School and Dorchester High School, where he studied French, German, Latin and Greek while playing several sports.  Childe had his first lessons in drawing and watercolour whilst a pupil at the Mather public school in Dorchester, although his parents showed little interest in his art.

The Evening Star, by Childe Hassam, pastel on tan paper, (1891)

The family’s fortunes changed dramatically on November 9th 1872 with the sudden outbreak of fire in the basement of a commercial warehouse in the city.  The fire burnt for twelve hours and in that time had destroyed 65 acres of Boston’s downtown, 776 buildings and much of the financial district, including Childe Hassam’s father’s business.  For financial reasons, Childe had to drop out of high school without qualifying, and get a job, so as to help his family in their time of dwindling finances.  His father arranged for his son to work in the accounting department of publisher Little Brown & Company, but his lack of ability to work with figures soon ended that career.  Childe had talked to his parents about his love of painting and sketching and eventually persuaded his father to allow him to take up an artistic career.   Childe Hassam managed to secure a position as an apprentice wood engraver with George Johnson.  In a short time, Childe had proved himself to be an accomplished draughtsman producing designs for commercial engravings such as images for letterheads and newspapers.

A Back Road, by Childe Hassam, (1884)

It was around 1879 that Hassam began painting in oil but his favourite medium was watercolours.  Childe Hassam’s initial formal art studies began in 1878 when he joined the Boston Art Club.  The institution was founded in 1854 by local artists in order to instigate a democratic organization where there would be a collaboration in the promotion, selling and education of art.  From there he enrolled at the Lowell Institute in Boston which ran classes in freehand practical design.

Old House, Nantucket by Childe Hassam (1882)

In 1882, Childe Hassam took part in his first public group exhibition at the Boston Art Club.  Other artists at the Boston Art Club, at that time were nationally prominent painters such as William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, and John Singer Sargent.  Following his success at this exhibition Childe Hassam submitted some of his watercolour paintings for his first solo exhibition held at the William & Everett Gallery in Boston.

Childe Hassam illustration for St Nicholas Children’s magazine

In 1882, Hassam became a freelance illustrator and founded his first studio. His illustration forte was his illustration of children’s stories for magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Monthly magazine, and The Century. He continued to develop his technique while he attended the drawing classes at the Lowell Institute, which was a division of MIT, and at the Boston Art Club, where he took life painting classes. 

New signature

The following year, his friend Celia Thaxter convinced him to drop his first name, Frederick, and thereafter he was known simply as “Childe Hassam”. He also began to add a crescent symbol in front of his signature.

Gate of the Alhambra by Childe Hassam (1883)

Because of his formal art training was limited he was advised that he should travel to Europe and enhance his artistic knowledge.  The advice came from fellow Boston Art Club member, Edmund Henry Garrett, an American illustrator, bookplate-maker, and author as well as a highly respected painter, who was renowned for his illustrations of the legends of King Arthur.  Garrett persuaded Hassam to accompany him to Europe in the summer of 1883.  The two travelled extensively through Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain and during their journey they would study the Old Masters at various museums and create watercolours of the various European landscapes.  While in Paris he was very much influenced by the painterly brushstrokes and pure colours of the Impressionists and it was noticeable that around this time his palette brightened and he discovered a love for depicting city subjects which would stay with him all his life.  In all, Childe Hassam completed sixty-seven watercolours and these were exhibited at his second one-man exhibition in 1884.

Maude Sewing by Childe Hassam (1883)

After a long courtship, Hassam married Montreal-born Kathleen Maude Doan in February 1884 and during their lifetime together, she organised the Hassam household, arranged all her husband’s travel itineraries and looked after the other domestic tasks. She featured in a number of his paintings including his 1888 work, Geraniums, which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year.

Paris Scene by Childe Hassam (1887)

During the early 1880s, the couple lived in Boston, and Hassam became one of a small number of American artists to paint watercolours of urban street scenes.  Although he believed that his paintings had improved, he decided to return to Paris and seek further artistic tuition.  In 1886 he and Maud arrived at the French capital for the start of their three year stay and Hassam attended classes at the Académie Julian, where he studied under the influential instructors Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.   To make ends meet Hassam would send his oil and watercolour painting back to Boston to be sold.  The money he received for them was enough for he and Maud to afford to stay in Paris. During his time in Europe, he continued to prefer mundane street and horse scenes, shunning some of the other depictions favoured by the Impressionists, such as opera, cabaret, theatre, and boating. 

Le Jour de Grand Prix Day by Childe Hassam (1887)

In 1887 he completed his painting Le Jour de Grand Prix Day which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Whereas he normally painted using a darker more tonal palette, in this work he used light colours to encapsulate the impression of a bright sunny day.  The setting was the journey to Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne and the Grand Prix de Paris horse race which was held annually in June at the Longchamp track.  The affluent racegoers bedecked in their finery can be seen riding atop the horse-driven coaches which travel along the tree-lined avenue Bois de Boulogne, which is now Avenue Foch.  In the top left of the painting we catch a glimpse of Arc de Triomphe.  A slightly larger version of the painting, which is in the New Britain Museum of American Art collection, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888.  Of the painting Childe Hassam said;

“…I am painting sunlight. . . a ‘four in hand’ and the crowds of fiacres filled with the well-dressed women who go to the ‘Grand Prix…”

Geraniums by Childe Hassam (1888)

He also liked to paint garden and “flower girl” scenes, some of which included a depiction of his wife, Maude, an example of which is his 1889 painting entitled Geraniums which he presented at the Salon exhibition that year. During his three-year stay in the French capital he managed to exhibit at all three Salon exhibitions.

Fifth Avenue Winter by Childe Hassam (1915)

The couple returned to America in 1889 and went to live in a New York City studio apartment a studio apartment at Fifth Avenue and Seventeenth Street.  Hassam began making paintings and etchings of New York city. Hassam saw the city as a place of similar beauty and excitement to Paris especially in the fashionable neighbourhoods along Fifth Avenue and at Washington Square.  It was from this apartment window that Hassam painted the view outside.  His 1915 painting entitled Fifth Avenue Winter depicts the bustling Manhattan thoroughfare which was quickly becoming a popular shopping district around the time he made this work. His composition features flecks of colour and blurred forms to depict reflected light and rapid movement. The accelerated pace of modern city life is evoked by the depiction of the street full of streaming traffic, including two green double-decker buses at lower right.  The fashionable street was the route taken at that time by horse-drawn carriages and trolley buses. It was one of his favourite paintings and he exhibited it several times. The work now hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fifth Avenue in Winter by Childe Hassam (c.1892)

Around 1892, Hassam painted a view of the busy thoroughfare in Winter.  The work entitled Fifth Avenue in Winter now hangs at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art

End of the Trolley Line, Oak Park, Illinois by Frederick Childe Hassam (c 1893),

Childe Hassam and his wife lived in New York for the rest of their lives.  He would work on his illustrations in his studio and when, weather permitting, he would go out and paint landscapes en plein air.  Not long after settling in the city, Childe Hassam became involved in the setting up of The New York Watercolour Club in 1890 and became its first president.  The organisation, unlike the American Watercolor Society, accepted both men and women into its ranks and the Club’s first exhibition was held that year.  The organisation’s exhibitions were jury-selected affairs and thus the standard of the works on show was much higher than other artistic societies.  The New York Watercolor Club’s exhibitions were held in the building which was constructed as the result of the founding of the American Fine Arts Society at 215 West 57th Street in 1889. Other art organizations headquartered in the building were the American Federation of Arts, American Watercolor Society, Artists’ Aid Society, Mural Painters, and the Art Students League of New York. Its galleries also held National Academy of Design, Architectural exhibitions.

Washington Arch, Spring by Childe Hassam. (1893)

Hassam’s painting Washington Arch, Spring which he completed in 1893 is an example of why he was termed an Impressionist and also highlights his love of cityscapes and ones which depict the hustle and bustle of life on  the tree-lined avenue settings which were often seen in French Impressionist paintings.  The marble Roman triumphal arch is situated in Washington Square Park, in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City.  The depiction of the Stanford White designed arch reminded Hassam’s of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Hassam lived just north of the Square, and so he was able to watch the various stages of its construction, transitioning from first a temporary wood and plaster structure, to the eventual beautiful marble structure which was completed in 1892. The depiction is unusual in a way as the Arch which is at the end of Fifth Avenue is partially blocked by trees.  In the work, Hassam included several pedestrians along with a street cleaner and a horse-drawn carriage.

Celia Thaxter’s Garden, Isles of Shoals, Maine by Childe Hassam (1890)

At the beginning of the 1890’s Childe Hassam focused a number of his paintings with floral depictions and many were set in the gardens of his friend, the New England poet, Celia Laighton Thaxter who lived with her father at his Appledore Hotel on the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands and tidal ledges situated approximately 6 miles off the east coast of the United States, straddling the border of the states of Maine and New Hampshire.  He painted images from Appledore Island.  He said that he found the rocks and the sea are the few things that do not change and that they are wonderfully beautiful.

Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals by Childe Hassam (1901)

Among them is the 1901 view Coast Scene, Isles of Shoals, the first painting by Childe Hassam to enter the collection of the Metropolitan Museum.  The oil painting is done in luminous colours, and depicts the remote Isles of Shoals off the rocky shoreline of New England, which was a favourite haunt of Childe Hassam at the end of the 19th century and where he painted a series of similar coastal scenes.  Childe Hassam liked to journey out of the city and he loved to visit places such as Newport, Portsmouth, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and other New England and this urge to free himself from the bustling city made him decide to buy a summer residence.

Old House, East Hampton, L.I. by Childe Hassam (1919)

Childe and Maude Hassam first visited East Hampton in 1898 at the invitation of his friend and fellow artist Gaines Ruger Donoho. During the next two decades the couple returned to Long Island during the spring and autumn as the guest of New York businessman Henry Pomroy. In 1919, Hassam and his wife Maude purchased Willow Bend, an eighteenth-century shingled cottage at 48 Egypt Lane. The house was sold to the Hassams by Donoho’s widow who lived next door. Childe Hassam moved into “Willow Bend” in May of 1920 and remained in the house until that October. This became their annual routine which they would maintain for the rest of his life.  While in East Hampton, Hassam sought inspiration from his surroundings and found beauty in the local architecture, the uneven coastline, and the wild landscape of eastern Long Island. During his six month stays in East Hampton, Hassam produced a series of works that focused on his home and its surrounding landscape.  Though Hassam rejected being associated with French Impressionists, there is an obvious influence seen in his painting Old House, East Hampton, a typical East Hampton clapboard home, with its rich colours and quick brushstrokes.

Just Off the Avenue Fifty Third Street, May 1916 by Childe Hassam (1916)

Hassam’s interest in flag subjects dates back to his time spent in Paris from 1886 to 1889. Inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived.   Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May 1916 is the first work in the flag series that Hassam painted during the First World War. The sun-dappled street, trees and façades of the grand brownstones are painted in a vibrant palette characteristic of Hassam’s technique at the height of his abilities. In the work. We see a refined residential street in New York, a favoured subject of the artist.  Hassam depicts decorations for the patriotic parade that took place along Fifth Avenue and he has immersed the viewer in an atmosphere of nationalistic pride.

Allies Day, May by Childe Hassam (1917)

During the First World War Childe Hassam created his famous images of flags of the United States and its allies which some scholars have characterized as Hassam’s contribution to the war effort.  One such painting was his 1917 work entitled Allies Day, May.

October Sundown, Newport by Childe Hassam (1901)

In 1920 Hassam received what he deemed to be the greatest honour of his career when he was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters.  The Academy is an honour society of the country’s 250 leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. Each year it elects new members as vacancies occur.  When Childe Hassam died, he bequeathed several hundred artworks to the Academy.

Frederick Childe Hassam died in East Hampton, Long Island on August 27th 1935, aged 75.  His wife Maude passed away eleven years later on October 13th 1946.  She was 84.