Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850 – 1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.  Today I want to look at the life of one of her contemporaries, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who was born just six years earlier.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe was born December 10th, 1850 in a small log cabin farmhouse, built by her father, near Irving Cliff in Honesdale, in rural north-eastern Pennsylvania.  It was a picturesque area, which the historian, writer and author of the short stories, Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irvine, described as:

“…Honesdale is situated between high hills on a plain through which two romantic mountain streams flow, uniting in the village and forming the Lackawaxen River. There are two wide basins where the streams unite, and the water was formed into the two most picturesque lakes. From the Eastern shore of one of these, Lake Dyberry, a solid ledge of serried and moss-grown slate rock rises almost sheer to the height of nearly 400 feet…”

Peasant Girl Before a Gate by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie was the only child of William Brownscombe, originally a farmer in the English county of Devon who had left England to seek his fortune in America in 1840 and his American wife Elvira Brownscombe (née Kennedy), who was said to be a direct descendent of an original Mayflower passenger.  Her mother who was a talented writer and amateur painter, nurtured her daughter’s interest in poetry and art.  Her early exploration of drawing is mentioned in the entry for Jennie Brownscombe in the 1897 book, American Women Fifteen Hundred Biographies:

“…She was studious and precocious, and about equally inclined to art and literature. She early showed a talent for drawing, and when only seven years old she began drawing, using the juices of flowers and leaves with which to colour her pictures. In school she illustrated every book that had a blank leaf or margin available…”

Jennie won awards for her art at the Wayne County Fair  when she was a high school student.

The New School-Mistress by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1873)

In 1868, when Jennie was eighteen years old, her father died.  To help herself and her mother financially, Jennie began selling illustrations to book and magazine publishers based on the landscape around her home and Irving Cliff.  One such illustration appeared in the illustrated journal, Harper’s Weekly, of September 20th 1873, entitled The New School-Mistress.   She also accepted a post as a school teacher at the high school in Honesdale.  Eventually she moved to New York to study art.  To get an idea of what this young aspiring artist was like we need to see the description of her given by art historian, Florence Woolsley Hazzard in her article on Brownscombe for the three-volume biographical dictionary, Notable American Women 1607-1950, in which she described the young artist:

“…she was slender, with a thin face in which large brown eyes and a dimpled chin were distinctive, and reserved in manner. She lived simply with one companion or servant…”

Jennie Brownscombe left home and went to New York where she studied under the Paris-born academic-style painter Victor Nehlig who had come to America in 1850 and opened up a studio in New York city, and was elected as an academician in the National Academy of Design.  In May 1871 Jennie graduated from the School of Design for Women of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art more commonly known as the Cooper Union or Cooper Institute which was a privately funded college located in Cooper Square in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City.

Portrait of a Young Woman in Pink and Green by Jennie Brownscombe (1898)

For the next four years, until 1875, Jennie was enrolled at the National Academy of Design where she attended the Antique and Life Schools and studied painting under the tutelage of the American painters, Thomas LeClear and Lemuel Wilmarth, who was the director of the Academy.  The Academy also paid Jennie to teach some of the classes and this helped defray the cost of her tuition.  Whilst at the Academy Brownscombe won the first prize, the Charles Loring Elliott Medal, in the Antique School and the first prize, the Suydam Medal in the Life School, which was given annually by the Academy for achievements in life drawing and painting in the Life studies school.

Unfortunately, the Academy encountered financial problems at the end of the 1874/5 academic year and could no longer afford to employ Wilmarth and there was even talk that come the start of the next academic year in the autumn the Academy would not re-open.  With the uncertainty as to whether the Academy, due to financial pressures, would cancel all classes temporarily, forcing students to forgo drawing from life for a significant period of time, something had to be done.  Apart from this uncertain future, many of the students were also unhappy with the rigid artistic teaching at the Academy believing the favoured academic-style was too conservative especially in comparison with what was happening at the time with the art in Europe with the birth of Impressionism.  And so, in 1875, Lemuel Wilmarth and a group of artists, most of whom were students at the National Academy of Design, and many of whom were women, founded The Art Students League and Wilmarth was confirmed as its first president.

The present Art Students League of New York Building, West 57th Street, New York

Jennie Brownscombe was one of the founder members of the Art Students League.  Another founder member was the sculptor and illustrator James Edward Kelly whose comments about Jennie were published in 1925 in the Fiftieth Anniversary of the League publication.  He recalled the young artist:

“…Although I used to see Miss Jennie Brownscombe when she came to Harper’s Art Department, and as a student at the old Academy, I always visualize her sitting at her easel – working,  working, ceaseless and untiring.  The outcome was a series of paintings and etchings showing the halcyon days in the home life of America…”

The League opened its school with studio space on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. Things were somewhat cramped and classes were conducted in just one small room.  It proved so popular that many more art students joined and by the end of the first semester the League had to rent the whole of floor to accommodate this new influx of artists.  Jennie returned to the National Academy of Design in 1879 and remained there as a student until mid-1881.

After completing her studies at the Academy, Jennie travelled to France and studied in Paris under the Polish-born American painter, Henry Mosler, who became well-known for his Breton peasant depictions.  Jennie returned to the United States but an eye injury curtailed her art until 1884 at which time she returned to painting in her studio in New York City.  Whilst living in New York she found time to make regular visits back to her mother who was still at the family home in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Her mother died in 1891.

The Homecoming by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1885)

Jennie Brownscombe’s art was of various genres.  Many of her works focused on the observance of rural family life and it was the sentimentality of these works which appealed to buyers who liked to remember those trouble-free days.  A good example of this is her 1885 painting, The Homecoming, which depicts the return of a husband and the greeting he received from his wife and child on the doorstep of their log cabin.  Everything we see in the painting oozes with happiness and contentment –  what’s not to like about it?

Ready for the Oven by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

In another depiction of contented homeliness,  Ready for the Oven, we see a lady in the kitchen.  She holds a pie, which she has just made and is about to put it into the oven to bake.  Again, this is a work depicting the joy that can be had by simply staying at home and looking after one’s family.  It is a depiction of a clean and well organised country kitchen and the rural idyll.  A lot of her genre works featuring rural life were about a clean and contented homely American lifestyle and is in stark contrast to the rural/ peasant kitchens we see depicted in some of the Dutch genre paintings where realism seemed to mean showing less than clean interiors and chaotic lives, often caused by the demon alcohol.  So, what did people want from their paintings – idyllic sentimentality or realistic hell on earth?

Love’s Young Dream by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

One of the most popular example of Brownscombe’s idyllic but sentimental depictions is her idealized painting depicting rural family life which is entitled Loves Young Dream.  The painting has two distinct parts to it.  In the right foreground, and squeezed in, we have the porch of a wooden house and three people whilst on the left and in the background the space is open and clutter-free as we look towards the hills shrouded in mist but it is this openness which gives us the sense of vast sweeping and unspoilt countryside and set up of the painting highlights the isolation of the small house.

We see a young woman standing on the outside step of her modest wooden home.  Her expression is one of yearning, as she looks out at the winding country lane which leads to her family home.  In the distance, we can just make out a man on horseback approaching. Could this be who she is awaiting?  On the right of the painting we see an elderly couple sitting on the porch. One, probably her mother, looks up from her knitting and looks at the young woman and probably worries about her daughter’s expectations.  She is completely oblivious to the fact that the cat is playing with her ball of wool.  The other person on the porch is an elderly man who is completely engrossed in his book and has no time to observe his daughter, wife or the approaching rider.

The New Scholar by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1879)

In another example of her genre paintings we have The New Scholar which captures what school days were like in a rural community in the past.  In the work, we see a very young girl heading to her lessons. She is new to the school and is somewhat frightened at the reception she would receive from her fellow pupils. She walks towards the school room door, head down, but surreptitiously eyeing some of her fellow pupils whilst they line her approach and blatantly study her.   This is yet another beautifully portrayal of individuals.  This work is housed in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts by Jennie Brownscombe

In some works, she would produce depictions of special moments of American history such as the arrival of the first settlers in her painting The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts which commemorated the event which took place in early autumn of 1621, when the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, which was an English custom.  Another reason for the depiction by Brownscombe could have been the colonial roots of her mother’s family.

In the painting, we see a group of Puritans in dark and dour-looking clothes gathered around a table being blessed by a pastor.  The idealisation of the depiction shows friendly native Americans looking on at the ceremony and are ready to participate in this communal meal. In the background, we see a solitary log cabin set amongst the yet to be developed New England countryside.  This is a quintessentially American depiction and paintings like this were very popular with American public.  Brownscombe sold the reproduction rights to more than a hundred of her genre and historical works which were then used by publishers to produce prints or incorporate them in calendars and greeting cards.

Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784 by Jennie Brownscombe

Brownscombe was among a group of artists of the Colonial Revival Movement, which was a cultural movement which was both an architectural and decorating style. It was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was motivated by a romantic adoration of the early American past. Paintings were created by artists depicting early American scenes.  Colonial heroes like George Washington and colonial history were popular subjects for artists, inspired by the 1876 centennial, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.  Jennie Brownscombe’s painting Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon is a classic example of Colonial Revival Movement painting.

Colonial Minuet by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Brownscombe developed a structured lifestyle geared up to her artistic life.  She would travel to Italy and spend the winters in Rome and it was during one such winter she met the American still-life and landscape artist George Henry Hall who had a studio in the Italian capital.  They became close friends and Hall who was twenty-five years her senior, became her mentor.  During the summer months, the two of them would return to Hall’s American residence, in Kaaterskill Clove Valley, in New York’s eastern Catskill Mountains, lying just west of the village of Palenville.   When Hall died in 1913 at the age of eighty-eight, he bequeathed the house and studio to Brownscombe.

Children Playing in the Orchard by Jennie Brownscombe (1934)

In 1932 Jennie Brownscombe suffered a stroke which temporarily stopped her painting but two years later in 1934, when she was eighty-four years old, she completed a work for the Lincoln School in her hometown of Honesdale entitled Children Playing in the Orchard.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who never married, died on August 5th, 1936 four months before her eighty-sixth birthday and was buried next to her parents in the Glen Dyberry Cemetery in Honesdale next to her parents.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (c.1930)

I end this story with a quote from the blog The Jellybean Tree which perfectly sums up the life and work of Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and why her paintings appealed to so many:

“…Jennie Brownscombe was a pilgrim in her own way, making a name and life for herself in a time when most women were still housewives and mothers. She tapped into a talent and nostalgia that warmed the hearts of her viewers. Artists like Brownscombe place a mirror to our lives, forcing us to see the beauty in every day. Creative types can sometimes become bogged down with visions of the fantastic. A reminder of the subtle grace of life is always welcome…”

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Theodore Robinson. Part 3 – Monet, Giverny and Robinson’s muse, Marie.

At the Piano by Theodore Robinson (1887)

Whilst Robinson often depicted women at work, other paintings of his  portrayed women at rest, sometimes relaxing at the piano as was depicted in his 1887 painting At the Piano.  The painting was completed whilst he was staying at the home of John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, a wealthy American writer and activist, and an acquaintance of Robinson who was related to the elite Astor, Livingston, and Stuyvesant families. Chanler was a great supporter of American artists who had come to Paris to follow their artistic dream and it is thought that on occasions had provided financial support to Robinson.

Look at the different textures depicted such as the glistening surface of the piano top and the glowing fabric of the woman’s dress.  We can almost hear the sound of the music as we see the fingers of the lady caress the ivory keys.

The painting was very popular and Robinson believed he knew why.  In his diary entry for September 10th, 1893 he wrote:

“…It is probably the sincerity with which it was done – I remember it seemed to me a sad failure at the time, and at Archie’s rue Dumont d’Urville just before leaving for the country…”

At the Piano by Whistler (1859)

Many believe the inspiration for this work was a painting Robinson may have come across when he was in Philadelphia in 1881 or New York in 1882 when At the Piano by James Abbott McNeil Whistler was being exhibited. Albeit that work, which is a study of Whistler’s half-sister and niece, is much darker in comparison to Robinsons painting which is aglow with delicate light.

Lady in Red by Theodore Robinson (1885)

The model for Robinson’s painting was thought to be Marie a love interest of his during his time in Paris and Giverny although they never married.  Robinson first met Marie at the start of his second visit to France in the Spring of 1884.  She was an artist’s model who lived in Paris.    He first portrayed Marie in a watercolour in 1885 entitled Lady in Red in which she is depicted in profile against a dappled background of leaves and fragile branches.

The Red Gown (also known as His Favorite Model) by Theodore Robinson (1885)

Although that was just a head and shoulder depiction we see she is wearing a red costume which was often seen in other Robinson portraits, such as his painting entitled The Red Gown, and the dress is thought to be one of Robinson’s studio props.

Val d’Arconville by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

Another of Theodore Robinson’s works featuring Marie was his beautiful 1888 work entitled Val D’Arconville, which can be seen at the Chicago Institute for Art.  In this depiction, we see Marie sitting on a flower-filled hillside overlooking the Arconville Valley which is situated southeast of Paris.  In the painting, Robinson used densely layered, broken brushwork, which was a technique he picked up from Monet.  This clever artistic method has the observer of the work relinquish their focus on the woman and their eye is led down the slope, and across the valley.  This was not simply an impressionistic painting which captured momentary effects such as the grass moving in the breeze, it becomes more of a structural work with the inclusion of the houses in the middle ground.

The painting was originally owned by Arthur Astor Carey, a cousin of John Armstrong Chanler, who had taken up residency at Giverny during the summer 1887.  The identity of Marie as the sitter for the painting was confirmed by an entry in Robinson’s diary for June 11th1893 in which he stated:

“…Mrs B. told me of the inspiration she got from a picture of mine (Carey’s, with Marie on the hill-side)…”

Little is known of Marie but in Sona Johnston book In Monet’s Light she quotes from a letter of a fellow American tourist and lodger at Hôtel Baudy who wrote home:

“…By the way, dear, it looks very strange but Mr. Robinson has a model down here who has a little daughter . . . Everyone says that . . . the little girl is the daughter of Mr. Robinson [and] the child looks very like him.”

Robinson had fell heavily for his muse and in a letter to his sister-in-law, Mary, on May 20th, 1887, he wrote:

“…I am in love with a French Girl, it is an affair of some time – and I came close to writing of it to Father but did not.  It is quiet just now and nothing may come of it so you had better say nothing about it – She has the same name as you in French – Marie – but she is as dark as you are fair…”

Nobody ever knew the surname of Robinson’s love as he never wrote it down in any of his letters or in his diary.  Despite his deep love for the young women, nothing came of the relationship.  The couple never married and we will never know why.  Maybe it was because of his failing health or maybe it was because of his poor financial state.  We do know that the relationship was not as Robinson would have liked as he discussed his disappointment with the state of his love life on many occasions over the dinner table with Will Low and his wife.   His relationship with Marie lasted for six years until he finally left France but he continued to correspond with Marie up until his death.

Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Giverny became a popular spot for artists around mid-1880’s.  It is known that John Singer Sargent visited the village around 1885 and met with Monet and it was the latter’s love of en plein air painting that appealed to Sargent.  It was in that year that Sargent produced his painting entitled Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood which depicts the great man at work watched over by his future second wife, Alice Hoschedé.

In 1880s and 1890s, American aspiring artists poured into Paris looking for places at its art schools and a chance to work in the ateliers of famous French painters. To them Paris was the Mecca of art and to study at one of the academies or ateliers was a “must have” experience and at the same time it was a sought-after freedom from the rigidity of artistic training at American academies.  For them to study at one of the famed Parisian academies and then to head for the countryside or the coast during the summer months was, for them, their idea of Shangri-La.

In the summer of 1887 a small group of young American artists made their home in Giverny.  How this came about was documented in a book written by the English Impressionist painter, Dawson Dawson-Watson entitled The Real Story of Giverny, based on a conversation he had had with the American artist, John Leslie Breck in 1888.  Breck recounted:

“…In the spring of ’87 [he and] Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo Wendel, and a chap named Taylor whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some place to go for the summer.  All of the usual places, Pont Aven, Etretat, Ecoigu, and Grèz, were rejected because their interest was in finding a new location to paint. After consulting the destination board at the Gare St. Lazare, they agreed that Pont del’Arche was appealing, so they decided to visit the town and see if it was as picturesque as its name.

The train to Pont del’Arche followed the Seine into Normandy and required a change at Vernon. As they approached Vernon, Metcalf pointed out a little village of white houses and a Norman church at the base of the hill on the opposite bank of the river and commented on its loveliness. At Vernon, they were told the village was Giverny. Once aboard the new train they were treated to a second view of Giverny when they crossed the Seine and were doubling back. The painters agreed unanimously that if Pont del’Arche was not to their liking they would return to Giverny the following morning, which was exactly what they did…”

After the initial discovery, other American artists soon followed and many began to extend their visits beyond the summer months.

Robinson’s photograph of the Monet-Hoschedé family gathering at Giverny (c.1892)

In April 1883, forty-two-year-old Claude Monet left his home in the western Paris suburb of Poissy and went to live in the small Normandy farming village of Giverny, a village he had passed thorough many times during his train journeys from Paris to Rouen.  The unpretentious village nestled at the bottom of a hill across the River Seine from the town of Vernon.  It was then made up of simple farms, modest houses, and a Norman church and at the time had a population of less than three hundred residents.  What appealed to Monet about Giverny and the surrounding area was its pastoral charm.  Monet, at this time, had been widowed for four years.  He arrived at Giverny and set up home along with his two children, Jean and Michel, and his former patrons Ernest and Alice Hoschedé.  Ernest Hoschedé, a departments store magnate and art collector had been declared bankrupt in 1877 when his business failed.  With nowhere to live, he and his wife and six children went to live with Claude and Camille Monet and their two children.

Charcoal sketch of Claude Monet by Theodore Robinson (1890)

At the time of Monet’s arrival at Giverny, his artistic career was starting to take off.  Giverny was to be a secluded and peaceful retreat and so he was less than pleased by the summer influx of artists to Giverny.  In his 1993 book Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionists Colony. William Gerdts recalls what Monet told a reporter about the influx of Americans:

“…When I first came to Giverny I was quite alone, the little village was unspoiled. Now, so many artists, students, flock here, I have often thought of moving away…”

However, the great man did not move away. Instead he progressively removed himself to his compound where his garden and lily pond provided all the subject matter he needed for his paintings.

Theodore Robinson’s photograph of Monet (c.1889)

Theodore Robinson agreed with Monet about the downside of the influx of visitors and was set against the idea put forward by John Leslie Breck to establish Giverny as an artists’ colony, and he was quoted as saying:

“…Breck conceived the idea of making an art colony of it [Giverny]. Theo Robinson strenuously objected saying they had found a lovely spot and should keep it to themselves…”

Breck had replied that because everyone had been so damn nice, he wanted them to reap some real financial benefit and not withstanding Robinson’s objection, Breck had persuaded Monsieur Baudy, the owner of Café Baudy they frequented, to build six rooms in the courtyard in back of the building and so Hôtel Baudy came into existence.  He even persuaded the landlord to build a studio for Willard Metcalf.

Theodore Robinson may have objected to making Giverny a hub for artists to visit in the summer for other than selfish reasons, it could well have been due to his own social reserve.  Robinson was not an unfriendly person but was quite happy with his own company.  Robinson, at thirty-one years of age, was older than his friends who had come to Giverny with him and this may have been a factor as to why he had been befriended by Monet.  Robinson, being close to Monet, was probably aware of Monet’s dislike of the village being overrun by visiting artists.  Robinson and Monet’s friendship was an interesting one.  It was not based on Monet being the master and Robinson the pupil.  It was a friendship based on a shared common love – painting, and both appreciated the talent of the other.  It was a friendship that would last even after Robinson returned to America with many letters passing from one to the other.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

Robinson returned briefly to New York at the end of 1887, but was back in Paris by early 1888 and had once again re-visited Giverny that summer. One of his paintings he completed during that summer is now considered to be one of his first Impressionist paintings.  It was La Vachére. It is interesting to note that this work highlights a dilemma for Robinson.  Is he an Impressionist painter or an Academic painter?  The painting would seem to be part Impressionism in the way the trees and foliage are depicted as patches of colour and part Academic in the way he depicts the woman.  She is simply a figurative study within an Impressionistic backdrop.  The painting was exhibited in the 1889 Paris Salon.

Autumn Sunlight by Theodore Robinson (1888)

A more impressionist style of painting can be seen in Theodore Robinson’s 1888 work entitled Autumn Sunlight.  In this painting, we see a young woman standing in the woods.  She is what is termed a faggot gatherer, a person who collects firewood, a bundle of which we see at her feet.   The background of speckled light hints at tonalism, which emphasizes atmosphere and shadow. However, the foreground with its myriad of leaves depicted by a montage of broken brushstrokes is pure Impressionism.

Winter Landscape by Theodore Robinson (1889)

Robinson returned to New York in December 1888.  He rented a studio in Manhattan.  His artistic output was less than it had been during his days in Giverny but produced works that he exhibited at the American Watercolor Society in the Spring of 1889.  Come the summer of 1889, Robinson was back in Giverny and it was during that year that he completed his beautiful work entitled Winter Landscape.  The work depicts ta view of the village of Giverny after it had succumbed to a freak snowstorm.  The red rooves of the houses were suddenly transformed to a patchwork of white and the entire village is swathed in a icy-looking purple-blue ambience.  Once again Robinson had returned to New York that winter and entered this painting at the Society of American Artists annual exhibition.  It won the Webb Prize, an award given for the best landscape in the exhibition, painted by an American artist under forty years of age.  He also received a monetary prize amounting the three hundred dollars.  Ironically this was one of the pure landscapes Robinson painted without a person or persons being part of the scene and the category for the prize stipulated that only “pure” landscape paintings would be accepted by the judges!

Capri and Mount Solaro by Theodore Robinson (1890)

Robinson was back in Giverny, once again a resident of Hôtel Baudy, for the summer of 1890 but the highlight of the year for him was his trip to Italy and the south of France.  During that winter journey Robinson visited Capri and from that stop-over produced the painting Capri and Mount Solero.  This landscape work was a depiction of the town and mountain as seen from a hillside which looks across from the town.  Again, in this work, we see the juxtaposition of his two styles.  We have the geometrical depiction of the village and the flat-roofed houses and yet we have the Impressionism style loose brushstrokes which are used to depict the foliage.

Capri by Theodore Robinson (1890)

For the first three months of 1891 Robinson was in Frascati, a town twenty kilometres south-east of Rome.  It was in March 1891 that Monet contacted Robinson, summoning home:

“…[Spring] is close … and I hope you are not going to delay taking possession again of your little house…….”

Robinson returned to Giverny in April 1891 after a brief stay in the French coastal town of Antibes.  Once again, having arrived back in Giverny, he took up residence at the Hôtel Baudy where he stayed until December, at which time he returns to New York.  The year 1891 was one of the most productive for Robinson and it was in that year that he once again began to dabble with photography.  He wrote to his family explaining why:

“…Painting directly from nature is difficult as things do not remain the same, the camera helps retain the picture in your mind…”

Two in a Boat Theodore Robinson (1891)

His use and dependency on photography varied but was mainly for use in his figurative work.  In some cases, it was found that he drew a grid of squares on the photograph and on the canvas or sheet of paper he was to draw on so that he could transfer a composition with great accuracy.  One painting he completed using this method to depict the two figures was Two in a Boat which he completed whilst in Giverny in the summer of 1891.  The depiction is of two women reading while lounging in a skiff floating on the Seine or Epte rivers. The method Robinson used to complete the work is given by the Phillips Collection in Washington which houses the painting:

“…The relationship between Two in a Boat and the photograph from which it derived offers a vivid example of Robinson’s painting process. He lightly scored the photograph and the canvas with graphite and sketched in the composition, using the grid as a measure. The grid and under-drawing are visible throughout, because Robinson’s pink primed canvas was left exposed in many areas, particularly in the lines defining the interior of the occupied boat and the figures. The painting differs slightly from the photograph: Robinson excluded a fourth boat to the starboard side of the skiff and the branch falling diagonally from the top left corner; furthermore, the photograph’s strong contrast has been replaced by an overall tone of violet and green…”

Robinson was pleased with the painting and exhibited it in the Society of American Artists’ 1895 annual exhibition and in his one-person exhibition at Macbeth’s later that year.

On May 13th, 1892, Robinson departed for what would prove to be his last summer in Giverny and the following month celebrated his fortieth birthday.  Celebrate was probably not the best way to describe this milestone in his life as he was suffering from a bout of severe depression and self-doubt.

La Debacle (also known as Marie at the Little Bridge) by Theodore Robinson (1892)

In 1892 Robinson completed one of his best known and best loved paintings.  It had the strange title of La Débâcle and later a subtitle of Marie at Little Bridge was added.  The sitter for this work was again his muse, Marie, Robinson’s great love and regular model.  In the painting, we see a fashionably dressed young woman seated on the stone foundation of the bridge over the River Epte, which runs close to Giverny.  Something or someone has disturbed her although we have no clue to what or who it is.  Clutched in her hand is the most recent novel written by Emile Zola entitled La Débâcle which had just come on sale that year.  The title of the book refers to the ignominious defeat of France in its battle with Prussia in 1870.  However, there may be another reason for the title of the painting as Robinson had proposed to Marie on a number of occasions and had been spurned and in a way that was Robinson’s own Débâcle.  It was also the year Robinson left Giverny and France for the last time but with him on his final journey back to America was this painting.

The Wedding March by Theodore Robinson (1892)

Also in 1892 Robinson produced what is probably his best-known work, The Wedding March.  The painting was based on the wedding of the American painter, Theodore Earl Butler to one of Monet’s stepdaughter, Susan Hoschedé.  In a letter to his friend he described the event:

“…There was a double ceremony – first at the Mairie – then at the church.  Nearly all the wedding party were in full dress……Most of the villagers and all the pensionnaires were there – guns were fired, two beggars held open the carriage doors and received alms…”

Although one may have thought that Robinson painted the work using a photograph of the processional march but in fact he painted it from memory. In the painting, we see the procession from the orange-sided Mairie, or City Hall, on its way to the old Norman church down the lane which has since been named the rue Claude Monet. In the depiction, we see Monet himself escorting the bride at foreground while Butler and Madame Hoschedé bring up the rear. The unidentified girl in the middle is thought to be the youngest Hoschedé daughter.

Gathering Plums by Theodore Robinson (1891)

Robinson arrived back in America on December 12th, 1892.  He had hoped to survive financially through the sale of his paintings but this was not to be and due to ever increasing financial difficulties Robinson was forced to teach a summer class for the Brooklyn Art School.  Robinson was a shy person who favoured his own company and so due to this and his lack of confidence, teaching was not a favourite occupation, but beggars cannot be choosers.

Père Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge (1891)

For the next three years, Theodore Robinson continued to paint and teach at various colleges but his health was beginning to fail.   During the winter of 1895, asthma was increasingly consuming more of Robinson’s strength. In his final letter to Monet in February 6th, 1896 he wrote to the great man saying that he hoped to return to Giverny but it was not to be. He finally succumbed to the respiratory ailment that he had been suffering from all his life and he died on April 2nd, 1896 at the New York home of his cousin, Agnes Cheney. Robinson’s funeral was held on 4 April at the Society of American Artists in New York, and his body was then sent to Evansville, Wisconsin for burial.  His death came just six weeks before what would have been his forty-fourth birthday.

Theodore Robinson has long been considered the first American Impressionist.

 

 

 

 

Theodore Robinson. Part 2 – Naturalism, Realism and Giverny

Theodore Robinson

……………………Theodore Robinson returned with some of his fellow students to the Fontainebleu Forest in the summer of 1878 to carry on with their en plein air painting but probably the highlight for Robinson that September was his trip to Italy with his fellow École des Beaux-Arts student Kenyon Cox.  They visited Turin, Milan, Verona and Bologna on their way to Venice.  In his 1986 book, An American Art Student in Paris, The Letters of Kenyon Cox 1877-1882, H.Wayne Morgan quotes from a letter Cox sent to his family after he had returned to France on December 15th 1878 and from it we have an insight into the physical health of his erstwhile fellow traveller, Robinson.  Cox wrote:

“…Robinson has come back from Venice very much used up.  He caught some sort of fever there and was sick for some days in a little German hotel, waiting for money to leave with, confined to his bed, unable to eat anything…….and almost afraid he should get out alive.   He is very thin and feeble, but I hope if he takes care of himself and lives better he will come around…”

Suzette (Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Robinson left Europe and returned to New York in late 1879 and rented a studio on Broadway hoping to establish himself as a professional artist but his financial situation became dire and he had to close his studio and return to his family in Evansville where he would paint local scenes but also dabbled with illustrative work.  One such illustration, Suzette, appeared in the August 31st 1880 issue of the Harper’s Young People magazine  in conjunction with a children’s story Viola’s Sketch.   The original black chalk drawing with white heightening, on grayish blue paper, mounted on board can be found at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.   It depicts an outdoor scene with a young girl, turned to the right, in a humble frock intent on sewing.  Her hair is styled in a long braid and she stands in wooden shoes, looking downward wistfully at her work.  The simple depiction of this guileless peasant girl probably harks back at Robinson’s academic training in Paris and the rustic genre imagery we have seen in the works of Jean-François Millet

However, Robinson’s life was at a low point, both physically and mentally as indicated in letters he sent to his friends.  One such friend was Will Low a fellow student at Carolus-Duran’s atelier in Paris.  In his 1908 book, A Chronicle of Friendship, Low wrote that on hearing of his friend’s predicament he had to:

“…extricate Robinson from the surroundings where….he was fast relapsing into a vegetable state…”

And so, Low arranged for Robinson to take a teaching position in New York at Mrs Sylvanus Reed’s Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, a latter day finishing school for young women.  In May 1881 Robinson was elected to the Society of American Artists and following the short spell of teaching he began to work for the muralist and stained-glass window maker John La Farge.  He and his friend Will Lowe worked on a La Farge commission from Cornelius Vanderbilt to decorate his New York 5th Avenue home and following this they worked on Vanderbilt’s Tarrytown residence on the Hudson River.  Robinson then went on to work for the decorative painting company run by Prentice Treadwell and he works on architectural decorations in Boston, Albany and on decorations for the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as well as commissions for the well-heeled nouveau-riche industrialists.

Daisy Field, Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

In May 1881 Robinson’s mother died and he returned briefly to Evansville to be with his family but returned to New York that August.   During these periods of employment Robinson still carried on with his own paintings and spent time in the summer travelling around New York State, Vermont and made painting trips to Nantucket with fellow artists in the summer of 1882 painting local island life.

Nantucket by Theodore Robinson (1882)

Theodore Robinson spent the summer of 1882 on Nantucket Island and produced several paintings based on local scenes, including the one above.  The depiction of the rider and his mount at rest under the tree is a depiction of tranquillity and serenity.  In the distance, on the horizon, we can just make out the sea which lends itself to the belief that the setting was somewhere on the New England coast, probably Nantucket Island.  The painting can now be found at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia.

Flower of Memory by Theodore Robinson (1881)

He completed a beautiful work in 1881 entitled Flower of Memory which is a romantic (if somewhat schmaltzy) depiction of a young lady in an Empire dress, standing alone in a garden.  This sort of depiction was very popular with folk in America at this time and could well have epitomised the figures he was painting as a decorative artist for the La Farge and Treadwell commissions.

A Poacher by Theodore Robinson (1884)

However, Robinson’s art was not dominated by cloying sentimentality in his depictions as he was very much a believer in the realism portrayed in works such as those by Winslow Homer on of his favourite painters.  This is borne out when we look at his 1984 work, The Poacher.

French Impressionism had permeated towards America and Impressionist paintings had started to become sought-after items.  The influential Parisian art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel had organised a large exhibition of works of Manet, Monet, Pissaro  and Renoir in Boston in September 1883.  So just as Impressionism was arriving on the American shores in the Spring of 1884, Theodore Robinson, who had saved enough money to buy himself a sea passage, left the country to return to France where he would remain for the next eight years with just the occasional visits back to New York.  During his stay in France he would also make trips Belgium and Holland where he would take in the Flemish and Dutch art scene.

By the end of the 1870’s the leading exponent of the style of art known as Naturalism, which is the depiction of realistic objects in a natural setting, was Jules Bastien-Lepage.  When Robinson arrived in France in 1884 the popularity and standing of Lepage was escalating, and his works of art were in great demand, a fact that Robinson must have been well aware of and there is no doubt that Lepage’s works influenced Robinson.   Lepage’s popularity and the sale of his artwork increased even more in December 1884 when he tragically died of stomach cancer at the young age of forty-four and this adulation culminated in 1885 with a retrospective of his paintings at the Hotel de Chimay in Paris which proved to be a runaway success.

Le petit Colporteur endormi (The little sleeping pedlar) by Bastien-LePage

Often Lepage’s works depicted rural peasants and urban labourers  and these detailed portrayals lacked sentimentality and yet brought home to the observer an honest if somewhat blunt snapshot of the life of the less well-off. Such was their popularity they appeared regularly at the Salon  exhibitions.

In 1886 Robinson’s good friend Will Low along with his wife arrived in Paris and Robinson was there to greet them as they alighted from the train at Gare St. Lazaire.  Such was his friendship with Low that for the next twelve months he lived with them at their rented accommodation on Rue Vernier in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.   Robinson’s work during his time in France was diverse.  There was the sentimentality of works like Flower of Memory which as I said earlier probably originated from his time of painting mural decorations for La Farge and Treadwell.  There was his landscape work which derived from his en plein air painting at the Fontainebleau Forest during his summer breaks from the Paris Academy and finally there was his interest in genre painting and the depiction of peasants and urban dwellers at work or at home which he became interested in during his trips to Flanders and the Netherlands.

A Cobbler of Old Paris by Theodore Robinson (1885)

His 1885 painting A Cobbler in Old Paris is a prime example of Robinson’s look at urban life.  The focal point for the work is the woman who leans in through the open window to talk to the cobbler.  One should almost look at this work as a part still life painting with the cobblers workbench littered with still life objects, the tools of his trade, as is the wall in the background filled with the racks of shoes.  This type of scene of tranquil everyday life was popular in Victorian times and Robinson completed many similar works.

Young Girl with Dog by Theodore Robinson (1886)

In his 1886 painting, Young Girl with Dog, Robinson has preserved Bastien-Lepage’s method of honestly and frankly portraying an un-idealized figure seen in a landscape.   There is also an American source of inspiration that would have been well-known to Robinson. This small vertical format containing the standing figure illuminated under a dappled light is evocative of a series of watercolours produced by Winslow Homer in the summer of 1878 when he was invited to stay at Houghton Farm in upstate New York, the home of his patron Lawson Valentine.

Weary by Winslow Homer (1878)

One such work by Homer was entitled Weary.  Robinson was not only an early admirer of Homer’s watercolours, but it is rumoured that he purchased one of the watercolours in 1894.  Robinson first visited Giverny, a small Norman village, which was situated on the banks of the River Seine halfway between Paris and Rouen in 1885 when he and a friend of Claude Monet, Monsieur De Conchy visited the French painter. Claude Monet had moved there in 1883 with his two young sons Jean and Michel.   Pierre Toulgouat who was a descendent of Monet, wrote of the time in his 1948 book, Skylights in Normandy:

“…in 1885, his [Monet’s] friend, De Conchy came to visit him, accompanied by the young American painter, Theodore Robinson – and Robinson, particularly, was to remain a faithful Givernois, until his death, painting there when he could and writing longingly of it when he had to be away…”

In June of 1886 Robinson was in Paris and managed to visit Monet’s work at the Fifth International Exhibition of the Impressionists at the Galerie Georges Petit and came away captivated by Monet’s works especially their colour and luminosity

Portrait of Madame Baudy by Theodore Robinson (1888)

In June 1887 Robinson moved out of Paris and went to live in Giverny. He moved into rooms at the newly-opened Hotel Baudy, which lay in the centre of the village and was run by Angélina Baudy.  Giverny and the surrounding area, for Theodore Robinson, was all about the simplicity of the landscape, the colours and the light and he would love to go off and explore and paint.  He loved everything about the area.  He loved the hills and fields, the old buildings, the people and the animals and would immerse himself in the area painting as much as he could in the ever changing conditions of light and weather.

Valley of the Seine, Giverny by Theodore Robinson (1887)

A fine example of this is his 1887 painting Valley of the Seine in which we see a minute figure in white which somehow secures a pattern of one horizontal and several diagonals that contain and depict several hillside swaths of yellow and grey, and a triangle of blue sky. For his portrayal of the countryside Robinson has used muted earthen colours, ones that he would use in many of his later paintings.

La Vachère (The Cowherd) by Theodore Robinson (1888)

During his stay around the Giverny area Robinson depicted many of the residents of the area.  Most of his paintings featured women at work, sometimes seen gathering wood and fruit sometimes tending the farm animals or doing the laundry.  An example of this is his large 1888 painting entitled La Vachère (The Cowherd) 219 x 152cms (86 x 60 ins) which is housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Before us we see a young woman and a cow both surrounded by foliage that glistens in the reflected light.  Look how Robinson has cleverly left an opening between the trees in way of the girl’s head.  It enhances the young woman’s profile and frames her face as well as adding depth to the depiction.  The addition of the cow into the depiction is almost as if the animal is vying for supremacy in the painting but it is completely ignored by the girl.

In The Grove by Theodore Robinson (c.1888)

One strange thing about this painting is that shortly after he completed the work Robinson painted the same woman in the same setting but without the cow!  Maybe he thought the animal detracted from the beauty of the female. The picture, which is much smaller, is entitled In the Grove and is also part of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s collection.

In my final look at Theodore Robinson’s life in the next blog, I will look closer at his relationship with Claude Monet and showcase more of his later works.

Theodore Robinson. Part 1 – the early years of the American Impressionist

Theodore Robinson

When we think of Impressionism and Impressionist painters we immediately think of French artists and if I was to ask you to name a few French Impressionist painters, I guess you wouldn’t have a problem and the names of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Bazille, Pissaro and Cézanne would easily roll off your tongue.  However, if I was to ask you to cite some famous American Impressionists I guess the names of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent would come immediately to mind, some may even suggest William Merritt Chase or John Henry Twachtman but, especially if you were not an American, it would become a struggle to think of the names of any other American Impressionist.  In my blog today I am looking at the life and work of one of the first American Impressionists, Theodore Robinson, albeit he is not the best known.  Lovell Birge Harrison, the American genre and landscape painter, teacher, and writer and prominent practitioner and advocate of Tonalism wrote about Robinson in a 1916 article in Century Magazine, saying:

“…The one who always stands out most vividly in my own mind …[is] Theodore Robinson, who is now taking his place beside Inness, Wyant, and Winslow Homer as one of our American old masters…”

Self Portrait by Theodore Robinson (c.1887)

Robinson was one of the most skilful and gifted American artists of the nineteenth century. He said he always knew he would become an artist and once said of himself that perhaps he was born to make sketches.  His accomplishments as an artist take on an even greater meaning considering that he was a man who would have to battle all his life against poor physical health.

Harbour Scene by Theodore Robinson (1876)

Theodore Pierson Robinson was born on July 3rd 1852 in the small northern Vermont town of Irasburg which lies twenty-five miles south of the US-Canada border.  He was the third of six children of Elijah and Ellen Brown Robinson.  Sadly, his two sisters and one of his brothers died in childhood, leaving just Theodore and his two brothers Hamline and John.  In 1843, his father, who had worked on the family farm in Jamaica, trained to become a minster in the Methodist congregation but due to ill health had to give up the ministry and he became a shopkeeper opening is own clothing store.

Young Woman Reading by Theodore Robinson (1887)

In 1855, whilst still a very young child, Theodore and his family moved from Vermont and went to live in the small town of Barry, Illinois and two years later they moved again, this time to Evansville, southern Wisconsin, another small town that was first settled in the 1830s by New Englanders who were attracted to the area by its unspoiled wooded landscapes.  Another reason for the move to the countryside of Wisconsin was because of Theodore’s health.  As a young child, he had developed asthma which had weakened him and would trouble him for the rest of his life.  He enrolled at the local seminary where his artistic talent was first noted, winning  prizes for penmanship.   He would also often sketch portraits of friends and family as well as the parishioners who came to the local Methodist church.

In 1869, aged 17, after he had completed regular schooling, and because of his burgeoning artistic talent,  along with his mother’s dogged perseverance, he enrolled as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Unfortunately, he did not stay there long as his asthma worsened, a chronic condition that he had suffered with since childhood, and so it was decided that he should move away from polluted air of city life and move to the cleaner drier mountain air of Denver, Colorado.  It must have done the trick for a few years later, he did return to Evansville where he carried on with his portraiture work which he would sell and with the money he earned he would put it aside for his art college fund.  In 1874 he moved to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design.   This establishment was founded in 1825 by a group of artists including Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Cole, Martin E. Thompson, all students of the American Academy of Fine Arts, who had grown increasingly impatient with the constraints of the Academy, and in 1825 they had left to found the National Academy of Design. The idea for its existence was said to be

“…to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition…”

On the Housatonic River Connecticut by Theodore Robinson (1877)

Whilst there, Robinson studied under Lemuel Everett Wilmarth and when not at the Academy would spend hours sketching in nearby Central Park.  We have seen with many of the European academies, the narrow and rigid academic training in art was not for everybody with some aspiring young artists wanting more freedom with regards what was being taught and how it was being taught.  As far as Robinson and several his fellow students were concerned there was a two-fold problem with the American Academy of Fine Art.   Firstly, the Academy was run by a group of older artists who were landscape painters and concentrated on teaching that artistic genre despite many of the students, including Robinson, wanting more emphasis on figurative painting.  Secondly, the students believed that their prospects to exhibit, and ultimately sell their work, was being limited by the Academy.  Another reason could have been that in 1874 the Academy temporarily suspended activities.  Rumours flew around that the establishment was in financial trouble and so its students felt they had nowhere to turn and wondered about their future.  In 1875, this dissatisfaction and confusion about the future lead Wilmarth, along with a group of his students, including Robinson, to form the Art Students League. This Art Students League met and held its classes in a small rented space over a shop at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street.  It was so small a space that a daily schedule of studio instruction had to be organised, with women studying in the afternoon and men at night. However, this alternative organisation allowed these painters a greater influence on their curriculum and would also allow them greater access to exhibition space.

Suzette (also known as Peasant Girl) by Theodore Robinson (1879)

Theodore Robinson fulfilled one of his artistic goals two years later in 1876 when he went to study art in Paris, a city looked upon at the time as the centre of the world of art.  Most American art students during the second half of the nineteenth century viewed their study in New York as a stopping-off point on their artistic journey before they headed to Europe.   The first art tutor Robinson studied with in Paris was the French painter, August Carolus-Duran, whose studio was in the Boulevard Montparnasse.  Carolus-Duran was renowned for his elegant portrayal of members of French high society and people travelled from far and wide to become one of his sitters.

Portrait of Mrs Astor by August Carolus-Duran (1890)

Carolus-Duran was probably well known to artists in America for his 1890 portrait of the American banker’s wife, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the doyenne of American high society in the latter half of the 19th century, who maintained the stance of “old money” in the face of changing times and values when the nouveau riche were coming to the fore.   Also, studying under Carolus-Duran, at that time, were John Singer Sargent, the landscape and genre painter Carroll Beckwith and the muralist and author Will Hicock Low.   It was Low who recalled being with Theodore Robinson at that time in Carolus-Duran’s atelier, when he wrote in his 1908 book A Chronicle of Friendship, 1873-1900:

“…Among the new arrivals one year was Theodore Robinson, who, timidly, with due respect for my two years experience in Paris student life, sought my acquaintance… Frail, with a husky, asthmatic voice and a laugh that shook his meager sides and yet hardly made itself heard, yet blessed with as keen a sense of humor as anyone I have ever known, Robinson was received at once into our little circle. At first he seemed almost negative, so quietly he took his place among us, but once the shell of diffidence was pierced few of the men had thought as much or as independently…”

Arabs Arguing by Jean-Leon Gérome

Theodore Robinson was only with Carolus-Duran for a short time and rumour has it that they did not agree on some aspects of the artistic training,  Robinson moved on and became a student at the École des Beaux-Arts, and a pupil at the atelier of the French painter and sculptor, Jean-Léon Gérome, an artist, who had always been a great believer and follower of the painting style known as Academicism, a style of painting and sculpture produced under the influence of European academies of art. Gérome was noted for his portraiture and his history paintings which often featured Arabian scenes, which was known as Orientalism, and was an art genre of Academic art, popular in the nineteenth century which represented the Middle East.  The fact that Robinson was accepted into this atelier is testament to his artistic ability as it was the most admired studio and the one that most American students wanted to attend.

Spinning by Theodore Robinson

In 1877 Theodore Robinson achieved another of his artistic goals, one which every art student strived for; he had a painting, Une Jeune Fille, accepted at that year’s Salon. One can only imagine how delighted he was to get his painting hung at the Salon.  In a letter to his mother he wrote of his joy:

“…My picture is accepted and I tremble with joy…”

The Bridge at Grèz-sur-Loing by Corot (c.1860)

Robinson went on to exhibit his works at five more Salons during the 1880’s.  Following the time spent on his Salon entry and its inclusion at the 1877 Salon, Robinson decided to take a break from his studies and head out of the city and delve into the nearby countryside around Fontainebleau.  He and some of his fellow artists, Will Low, Birge Harrison and Walter Launt Palmer travelled to the village of Grèz which was on the banks of the River Loing on the southern edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, some fifteen kilometres south of Barbizon.  At the time, this was an area that was awash with artist colonies such as those at Barbizon, Grèz-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing and Thomery but at this time, Grèz was the most popular with artists who wanted to spend the day painting en plein air and the evening spent talking about art.  This popular idyll was described in the book Theodore Robinson’s La Debacle, 1892: an American Artist in France by Betsy Kathryn Koeninger, in which she quotes the words of the Scottish painter John Lavery, a student at the Académie Julien who stayed in the village in the early 1880’s.   He described the ambience of the village and its surroundings:

“…a pleasant place surrounded by large fields of white and yellow water lilies and poplars and willows. There was also the much-painted bridge… a ruined castle and an ancient church… [and] Madame Chevillon’s Inn with its long garden down to the water’s edge where guests could sit in bathing dress to eat after a swim or a sail in a skiff…”

Farmhouse at Grèz by Theodore Robinson

Robinson’s friend and colleague from the Academy, Birge Harrison, who had travelled to Grèz with him and remembers him, wrote an article in the December 1916 edition of the Century Magazine, entitled With Stevenson in Grèz.  He wrote:

“…Robinson was far from handsome in the classic sense. An enormous head, with goggle-eyes and a whopper-jaw, was balanced on a frail body by means of a neck of extreme tenuity; and stooping shoulders, with a long, slouching gait, did not add anything of grace or of beauty to his general appearance.” It was not Robinson’s physical prowess that interested Harrison, but his strength of character. “[Out] of those goggle-eyes shone the courage of a Bayard, and in their depths brooded the soul of a poet and dreamer, while his whole person radiated a delightful and ineffable sense of humor…”

Another visitor to Grèz that summer was the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and he and Theodore Robinson immediately became good friends.

Once summer was over Robinson returned to Paris and his studies at Gérome’s studio and to copying the paintings of the Masters at the Louvre.  The climate in Paris during that winter was harsh and Robinson, a poverty-stricken artist, lived in poor conditions and suffered with colds and asthma attacks, all of which affected his work and he wrote to his mother:

“…When I’ve taken cold and cough all night my work is greatly interfered with not to mention the inconvenience it causes…”

On the Canal by Theodore Robinson

In 1878, Robinson decided to send one of his paintings to the Society of American Artists first exhibition.  The group had been founded the previous year by artists of attending the National Academy of Design which they believed did not satisfactorily meet their needs, and was far too conservative in its thinking.  This was the same reasoning behind the formation of the Art Students League which Robinson helped Wilmarth to organise in 1875.  The Society of American Artists was very valuable to those American artists who, having studied art in European cities, were returning home but discovered that there were inadequate prospects to exhibit their work. Robinson became a regular contributor to their annual exhibitions.

In my next blog I will be looking more at Theodore Robinson’s life and a very important and influential friendship he had with his French neighbour.

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Apart from the usual internet sources I found many details about Theodore Robinson’s life in an essay written  for the catalogue of the Theodore Robinson exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York in March 2000 by the American writer and art curator, D. Scott Atkinson.

Alice Neel. Part 6. The latter years

 Alice Neel (1900-1984)
Alice Neel
(1900-1984)

Alice Neel had been receiving money for her involvement with the Works Project Administration (WPA).  The WPA was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people, mostly unskilled men, to carry out public works projects.  The WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.  At its height in 1936, this federal project, the Federal Art Project employed over 5,300 artists. The Arts Service Division created illustrations and posters for the WPA writers, musicians, and theatres. However, with the onset of World War II, mass unemployment ended as millions of men joined the services and so President Roosevelt decided that there was no longer a need for such a national relief programme and the WPA was closed down at the end of 1942.  Alice was out of work and had then to turn to the state for public assistance which she kept drawing on for the next decade.

Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition
Photograph of Alice Neel sitting before her paintings which was used in the inviation to the exhibition

In March 1944 Alice held a solo exhibition at the New York Pinacotheca Gallery run by Rose Fried.  This was her first solo exhibition since 1938.  There were twenty-four of her works on display. The exhibition received mixed reviews.  An article in the prestigious art magazine, ArtNews, described her work:

“…Neel’s paintings at Pinacotheca have a kind of deliberate hideousness which make them hard to take even for persons who admire her creative independence … Nor does the intentional gaucherie of her figures lend them added expression. However, this is plainly serious, thoughtful work and in the one instance of The Walk, it comes off extremely well…”

As Bob Dylan once said The Times They are a-changin and this was the point in time that Alice Neel found herself.  After the 1944 Alice Neel’s retrospective exhibition at the Pinacotheca, gallery director Rose Fried never showed anything with a figure in it.  According to Neel, Rose had become a pure abstractionist and the works that Alice produced were no longer wanted.  The art world was changing; it had almost completely turned its back on Social Realism which had been the art form that had made Neel’s work so popular in the 1930’s.  So, Alice had to change but as another famous lady politician once said, “this lady is not for turning” and Alice likewise would not change her artistic style to suit others. In an interview with Eleanor Munro for her 1979 book Originals, American Women Artists, Neel is quoted as saying:

“…I never followed any school.  I never imitated any artist.  I never did any of that…”

Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel
Sam and Hartley By Alice Neel

For Alice Neel, she knew what she wanted to paint and nobody or nothing was going to alter her artistic desires even though New York was now awash with European émigré artists who were leaders in the world of Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism such as Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali, all of who had fled across the Atlantic to avoid the rise of Nazism.  Alfred Barr had founded the MOMA and in October 1942, millionaire, Peggy Guggenheim, who was married to Max Ernst, had arrived in New York from war-torn Europe had opened a new gallery/museum.   It was called The Art of This Century Gallery.  The Art of This Century Gallery was situated at 30 West 57th Street in Manhattan and occupied two commercial spaces on the seventh floor of a building that was part of the midtown arts district which included the Museum of Modern Art, and three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubist and Abstract art, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery.

During the 1950’s Alice Neel was kept under surveillance by the FBI.  In a memo from their Miami office based on a 1954 letter sent to them by an informant they concluded that Alice Neel was:

“…a muddled romantic, Bohemian type Communist idealist who will carry out loyally the Communist sympathiser type of assignment, including illegal work if ordered to do so…”

Their file on her and her activities remained open until the early 1960’s.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

In March 1953, Alice’s mother comes to live with her in her Spanish Harlem apartment.  Sadly a year later Alice snr. aged 86, died from complications brought on by a broken hip.  For Alice, this was yet another traumatic moment in her life  She had always had to battle with depression and the death of her mother triggered the onset of the debilitating malaise for the next few years.  Physically she put on weight and sought the comfort of alcohol.

Alice often complained that she could not get any gallery space for her works of art.  She painted prolifically but still wanted to exhibit them.  The problem was that her genre of art had lost its appeal with the public.  She was going through a difficult period with mental health issues and was attending therapy sessions with a psychologist, Dr Anthony Sterrett.  He spent time with her trying to make her become more self-confident and self-assertive and it was he who persuaded Alice to contact Frank O’Hara to see if he would sit for her.  O’Hara was an American writer poet and art critic who was working as a reviewer for the prestigious art magazine, Artnews, and who, in 1960 was Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art.  This position at the MOMA made him a prominent figure in New York City’s art world. He was looked upon as a leading figure in the New York School, which was an informal group of artists, writers and musicians who drew inspiration from jazz, surrealism, abstract expressionism, action painting and contemporary avant-garde art movements.

Frank O'Hara by Alice Neel (1960)
Frank O’Hara by Alice Neel (1960)

Alice completed two portraits of O’Hara in 1960 and they were looked upon as her breakthrough works.  In the painting, Frank O’Hara, Alice has beautifully and faithfully captured his distinguishing and unique profile.  The side view is hawk-like which is softened slightly by the bunch of lilac behind his head.

Frank O'Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)
Frank O’Hara No.2 by Alice Neel (1960)

In stark contrast, the second portrait, Frank O’Hara No.2 is a more shocking depiction of the man.  Our eyes are immediately drawn to his bad teeth, which looked like tombstones, his sharp nose and somewhat wild eyes.  To be brutally honest, at first, he comes over as being ugly, even, dare I say, repulsive, but there is a vulnerability about Neel’s depiction of him.

Six years later, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a jeep on the Fire Island beach, after the beach taxi in which he had been riding with a group of friends broke down in the dark.  He died the following day.

Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)
Kate Millett by Alice Neel (1970)

In America, the 60’s was dominated by the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War with its protests which swept the country.  It was also a time when the second wave of the modern feminist movement emerged.  It was a time when there was the growing cry for equal opportunity for women and it soon became one which could not be ignored.   Enter Katherine Murray “Kate” Millett, best known as Kate Millett.  She was an American feminist writer, educator, artist, and activist. She attended Oxford University and was the first American woman to be awarded a postgraduate degree with first-class honours by St. Hilda’s.  She is probably best known for her ground-breaking 1970 book Sexual Politics, which was her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.

Time magazine cover
Time magazine cover

This book became a bible for feminism and feminist protest was such a hot topic that in August 1970, Time magazine decided that Kate would be the face of the feminist movement and therefore should appear on the cover of their magazine.  Millet was unimpressed by the way she was heralded as the embodiment of the movement and refused to pose for a painting by Alice Neel which would be used for the cover.  She believed that no one person could presume to represent the objectives of the feminist movement.  Time magazine was not to be put off by her refusal and instead asked Neel to complete the portrait, using a photograph.  After the publication of the magazine Alice Neel and her art was always linked with the feminist movement but as Alice once quipped, she had been a feminist before there was feminism!

Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel (1970)

The year 1970 was also the year that Alice Neel painted one of her most famous works, a depiction of Andy Warhol.  The painting can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and rather than me trying to describe the painting I have reproduced the words of the museum’s audio-guide which was put together by Trevor Fairbrother, an independent curator and writer:

“…It’s an interesting year for both of these artists. Alice Neel was seventy years old when she painted it, and in a sense, was just hitting her stride as an important American realist. She’d had an incredible career since the thirties, but she hadn’t really had much recognition until the wave of feminist interest in the arts in the sixties. And suddenly she was a forebear for a whole new generation of feminist artists and writers.  The late sixties were much harder on Warhol. He’d been shot two years before Neel painted this portrait—an attempted assassination by a member of his artistic circle. In posing shirtless for Neel, he exposes the corset that he was required to wear for the rest of his life. He also bares his aging body, his chest sagging so that he almost appears to have breasts.  She shows him—I think it’s this kind of essence of loneliness and vulnerability, but at the same time I think she knows that he knows that everybody is looking at him. He was very much invested in famous artists. He wanted to be a kind of brand-name Pop artist, and he certainly is that now, long after his death. He, Warhol, in a sense is rising to her challenge to sit for her, to be painted and to take his clothes off. And so, in a sense, he’s doing a brave thing, but he’s also―he’s getting through it by shutting his eyes and being very focused internally.  I think part of the soulfulness of this picture is the fact that it might seem unfinished. I wouldn’t say it’s unfinished. I think she decided she had what she needed, and she stopped where she was ready to stop. The picture doesn’t need more…” 

Fame came to Alice Neel late in life and she believed she had the right to bask in the glory.  Her son Hartley recounted his mother’s feelings about this sudden fame:

“…She felt it was something she deserved.  She basked in it.  She really enjoyed it.  When we were young, she struggled, waiting around for some critic to review her work, up or down.  All of the sudden they were saying good things about her.  Her paintings were on the walls, and people were buying her work.  It was all different.  She wasn’t bitter.  She had a very upbeat attitude toward the whole thing…”

Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)
Self-portrait by Alice Neel (1980)

On October 14th 1980 at the Harald Reed Gallery on East 78th Street in New York a benefit dinner for the Third Street Music School Settlement was being held at which was the debut of an art exhibition entitled Selected 20th Century American Self Portraits, one of which was Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait which she had begun five years earlier.

She looks out at us completely oblivious or unconcerned about what we are thinking about why an eighty-year-old woman would want to depict herself naked.  Does she feel vulnerable?  There is no sign of that in her facial expression, in fact Neel’s steely gaze rivets us.  She exudes an air of self-confidence, despite her less than picture-perfect body.  We see her sitting regally in an upholstered chair with its hard vertical-striped arms which tend to accentuate her yielding and bounteous rolls of flesh.   It is a “warts and all” portrait.   She does not hide the visible signs of aging.  Instead she has decided to reveal herself with characteristic truthfulness and somewhat defencelessness. Yet there is also a sense of pride in this depiction.  In her right hand she holds a paintbrush whilst her left hand grasps a rag and, as we see no easel or canvas in the depiction, the two serve as artistic elements. The only personal accessory depicted is the presence of her eyeglasses which may have been added by her to remind us of her frailty and that she has passed her prime.

The painting was of course controversial and caused a stir but it also was testament that it was an audacious work by an artist who at the time was at the top of her form.  The other unusual aspect of this work was that beside a few pencil-sketched self-portraits, it was her first self-portrait painting.  The painting now resides at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington.

Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)
Loneliness by Alice Neel (1970)

In 1970 Alice completed a work entitled Loneliness, which she ironically referred to as a “self-portrait”.  It was about this time that her younger son Hartley had married Ginny and moved to Massachusetts.

Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)
Ginny in a Striped Shirt by Alice Neel (1969)

Throughout her life Alice continued with her portraits of her family.  Her future daughter-in-law, Hartley’s wife, Ginny featured in her 1969 work, Ginny in a Striped Shirt.  Ginny was a feminist who looked upon Alice as a role model and they became good friends even before she became involved with Hartley.

Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)
Pregnant Woman by Alice Neel (1971)

Her other daughter-in-law, Nancy, Richard’s wife and Alice’s assistant during the last two decades of her life, was depicted in Alice’s 1971 painting, Pregnant Woman.  In the work, we see an image of her husband looming in the background.

In 1980 Alice Neel’s physical health takes a turn for the worse and after a series of tests it is decided that she had to be fitted with a pacemaker to regulate her heart rate. Four years later in 1984, during a routine visit to the Massachusetts General Hospital to have her pacemaker checked, X-rays indicate that she has advanced colon cancer which has already spread to her liver. She immediately undergoes surgery and afterwards returns to Vermont to stay with Hartley, Ginny and their children while she recuperates.

From the Spring to the Summer of 1984 she returns to New York and Spring Lake. With the help of her son and his wife, Richard and Nancy, and despite her rapidly deteriorating health, she continues with her busy schedule including an appearance on the Johnny Carson Show

Among her many commitments, interviews for the ArtNews article continue, and, on June 19th, she makes a second appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ during which she insists that Johnny Carson visit her in New York to sit for a portrait. In July, she had to receive chemotherapy which further weakened her.  Despite her weakened condition, she continues to paint.

Alice Neel died in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on October 13th 1984 surrounded by her family and was buried in a private burial ceremony at a cemetery near her studio in Vermont.  On February 7th 1985, a memorial service for her is held at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

My look at the life and works of Alice Neel has been a long journey stretching over six blogs and yet I know I have missed so much out about her life and because she was a prolific artist I know I have only scratched at the surface with regards her works of art.  I have been careful not to be judgemental with regards her lifestyle which probably added to her problems but she had a difficult and often sad life which often was beyond her endurance.  She however always wanted to do her own thing and I leave you with one of her quotes:

“…”I had a very hard life, and I paid the price for it, but I did as I wanted,” Miss Neel said then. ”I’m a high-powered person…”  

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I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the other blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown at several exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time including one I am due to visit next month:

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)

Alice Neel. Part 5. Sam Brody, the new man in her life, family portraits and “he said, she said”

It is almost five weeks since I published Alice Neel.  Part 4 and the reason for the delay was not my lost interest in the subject but having to suffer the trauma of house moving!

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Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)
Alice Neel and Sam Brody (1940)

The year was 1940 and another man entered Alice Neel’s life.  He was the photographer and film critic Sam Brody.  Brody was born in London on New Year’s Day 1907.  His parents were Abraham and Sophie Brodetsky (later shortened to Brody).  He was raised by Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to America in 1920, via Paris and London when Sam was thirteen years old.  His father was a journeyman tailor who eked out a living in various sweatshops and he and his family struggled financially and maybe because of this lifestyle Brody’s father was a great believer of Marxism, a philosophy he would pass on to his son who would cling to those beliefs for the rest of his life.

The Workers Film and Photo League
The Workers Film and Photo League

Sam Brody was a founding member of the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) which was an organization of filmmakers, photographers and writers which began in 1931 dedicated to using film and photography for social change and presenting, in a documentary-format, the Great Depression from a Marxist perspective. These documentaries focused on the burning issues of the time such as the U.S. Labour Movement, the National Hunger marches of 1931 and 1932 and the Bonus March 1932. Much of the output was not for general release was shown more at Communist Party and trade union events.  There was also a philanthropic aspect to the work of the WFPL organisation as they joined up with Workers International Relief group to show their films at fund raising events.

Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)
Sam, Snow (How like Winter) by Alice Neel (1945)

It was in January 1940 that Alice Neel met Sam Brody at a Works Progress Administration (WPA) meeting.  Alice was introduced to him by her friend, the sculptor, Blanche Angel, who told her that Brody was an excellent photographer and would be an ideal choice to take some photos of her new son, Richard. This was just two months after her lover and father of her new-born child, José Negron had walked out the family home.  According to Alice Neel, there was an immediate magnetism between her and Brody (not corroborated by Brody!) and she was very forthright in her 1959 interview with the photographer, Jonathan Brand about him and how she had attracted him:

“…He was such a show off, such and intellectual.  He came home with me that night.  And of course he fell in love with me immediately.  He was very gallant when he fell in love.  He brought me flowers, and he came every day.  He told me he had divorced his wife because she had an affair with a travelling salesman…”

Sadly for Alice, the last fact was not true.  However, a few weeks after their initial meeting Brody moved into Alice and her son’s East 107th Street New York apartment.  Although José, the father of Alice’s son had moved out he kept returning for visits in order to give Alice some money and during his visits, as Brody would angrily term it, he would “serenade” her with his guitar.  Brody’s anger with José relationship with Alice may seem reasonable to many but for the fact that he had lied to Alice with regards his marital status.  Brody had married a Russian woman Claire Gebiner in 1927 and the couple had two children, a son Julian and a daughter Mady.  Even when Brody moved in with Alice he would visit Claire and his family every afternoon.  For a long time neither Alice nor Claire knew of each other’s existence!

Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel
Sam and Hartley by Alice Neel

Alice was drawn to Sam Brody as she considered him to be an intellectual and believed in his fight for worker’s rights and his support for the downtrodden.  On the other hand, she soon realised that Brody had a fiery temperament and the two would have many fierce and passionate arguments which turned into unbridled screaming matches.  Ironically, despite Brody “two-timing” Alice and Claire, he was jealous of Alice’s previous relationships with the likes of John Rothschild and her previous lover and father of her child, José Negron and it was said that Brody and Rothschild had come to blows.  What is more sinister about Brody’s relationship with Alice was that he took out his jealousy on Alice’s son Richard whom he derived a violent dislike.  In the documentary Alice Neel, Richard Neel recalled this violence:

“…He used to kick me under the table all the time.  He kicked me under the table and one time I screwed up enough courage to say ‘Stop kicking me under the table’.  Well she [Alice] had to go out that evening and he beat me up.  He really did………. It was intermittent but it was physical violence and it was directed at Alice and it was certainly directed at me…”

Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)
Sam and Richard by Alice Neel (1940)

Neel who was painfully aware of the treatment of her son by Brody painted a very moving picture of the two entitled Sam and Richard in 1940.  In the work we see a venomous looking Sam tightly grasping the terrified Richard.  Richard almost became blind due to dietary deficiencies when he was one-year old and this must have added to his pain.

In January 1941 Alice became pregnant with Sam Brody’s child and on September 3rd a son, Hartley Stockton Neel was born.  The joy of this birth was tempered by the fact that soon after the event Brody’s wife Claire caught sight of her husband wheeling the pram and lovingly lifting Hartley out of the carriage.  Claire, as one can imagine, was devastated.  Not only was her husband two-timing her but he had a child with another woman.

Phillip Bonosky, the writer and friend of Alice,  wrote about Sam Brody in his journal and described him and his behaviour towards Alice’s children:

“…A Jew…. who is obviously a pathological case of some sort.  I met both the boys [Richard and Hartley].  The eldest one [Richard] is almost totally blind as a result of a dietary deficiency when he was just one year or so old.  The youngest boy’s father [Brody] who seems to flit about the country pounces down on them from time to time and while he is there, he tortures and abuses the eldest child and showers psychopathic affection on the younger one, his own.  Alice herself is torn by her feelings for and against him and doesn’t know what to do…”

Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)
Hartley on the Rocking Horse by Alice Neel (1943)

Hartley featured in a number of his mother’s paintings.  In a 1943 painting Hartley on the Rocking Horse we see her younger son on a rocking horse. Look at his facial expression.  Is it one of joy to be astride the horse?  I rather think his wide-eyed facial expression is not one of delight but more one of fear that he may fall off and he may have had to be coaxed to stay on the “beast”.  If you look carefully at the mirror in the background you will see that the artist has added a mirror-reflection of herself.

Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)
Richard at Age Five by Alice Neel (1946)

Two years later in 1945 Neel painted a portrait of her five-year old son, Richard entitled Richard Age Five. His troubled upbringing can be seen in the demeanour of the youngster.  Look carefully at the depiction.  See how he clings to the back of the chair.  Look at his wide-eyed expression.  There is a vulnerability about the child and knowing the background of his upbringing and his bad relationship with his mother’s lover, Brody, we can sympathise with what he had to endure.

Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)
Hartley with a Cat by Alice Neel (1967)

Twenty-five-year-old Hartley appeared in another work painted by his mother in 1967 entitled Hartley with a Cat.

Alice Neel holding her daughter Santillana (1927)
Alice Neel holding her daughter Santillana (1927)

Alice gave birth to four children.  Her first-born child Santillana died of diphtheria just days before her first birthday and never featured in any of Alice’s paintings although there is a 1927 photographs of her and her mother.

Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)
Isabetta by Alice Neel (1934)

Her second born child Isabetta, who was born in 1928, featured in just one painting by Neel and this 1934 work is a controversial depiction of the six-year old.  For those of you who have not read the early blogs on Alice Neel, Alice and her Cuban husband Carlos Enriquez had Isabetta in November 1928 but soon after Carlos took his daughter to live with his family in Cuba and Alice, who had a major mental breakdown and was hospitalised never regained custody of her daughter.  Neel was rarely given access to her daughter except on one occasion in 1934 when mother and daughter were together long enough to paint the most extraordinary and, some would say, scandalous portrait. The little girl stands naked with her hands planted firmly on her hips in what looks like a rebellious pose, one that makes it clear that despite what is offered to her to stand still, she is having none of it.  Isabetta defiantly focuses her fierce blue gaze fixes on her mother almost as if she is questioning why should she stand before her naked.  Look out the artist has depicted her child’s hands.  The fingers are claw-like giving the child a more sinister air.  What was going through Alice Neel’s mind when she painted this portrait?   I struggle to understand why a mother would depict her daughter in such a fashion.  Only she knows.

It is obvious to all mothers the trauma the loss of her child affected Alice but we should not discount the trauma the child suffered with the loss of her mother.  Did she feel abandoned?  Isabetta and her mother met once more when she was ten years old.  It was not a good visit maybe because Alice was heavily pregnant with Richard and Alice and Isabetta never bonded.  There were to be many traumatic times in Isabetta’s life including, when she was eighteen years old, her proposed nuptials were called off by her fiancé’s parents, two weeks before the wedding.  Maybe the separation from her mother and other setbacks she had to endure stayed with her all her life as in 1982, aged 54, she committed suicide. Her mother, Alice, was to die two years later.

Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)
Two Girls in Spanish Harlem by Alice Neel (1941)

Whilst living in the Spanish Harlem district of New York Alice painted many studies of the inhabitants such as her 1941 double portrait of two young girls, Carmen and Hilda entitled Two Girls in Spanish Harlem (Carmen and Hilda) which was a beautiful example of her artistic ability.

Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)
Spanish Family by Alice Neel (1943)

I particularly like her 1943 painting entitled Spanish Family which depicts a mother and her three children.  Look how Neel has portrayed the facial expressions of the four characters.  Words are not needed to express how they all feel.  None are smiling.  The mother looks despondent and we get a feel of what life must have been like for her during those hard times.

Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)
Fire Escape by Alice Neel (1948)

A 1948 painting by Neel, entitled Fire Escape, deviated from her normal figurative work and shows a tenement building close to where she lived.

Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)
Dead Father by Alice Neel (1946)

On May 3rd 1946 Alice Neel’s father, George, died, aged eighty-two and the day following the funeral in Colwyn Alice painted his portrait, Dead Father. In Patricia Hills book Alice Neel, she quotes Alice talking about the painting:

“…He was a good and kind man and his head still looked noble.  I didn’t set out to memorize him, because I was too affected.  But the image printed itself…”

My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1946)

That same year Alice completed a painting of her newly-widowed mother.

My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)
My Mother by Alice Neel (1952)

Six years later, in 1952, she completed another depiction of her mother, Alice snr.

In the title of this blog I added “he said, she said”.  The reason for this is that most of the information I got for these blogs about Alice Neel came from the book Alice Neel.  The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban and during my delving into the many internet sites about the artist I came across one by David Brody who was the son of Sam Brody and Sondra Herrera whom he married after his liaison with Alice Neel ended in 1958.  He was unhappy with what Phoebe Hoban had written about his father and for the sake of being even-handed I thought you should have a look at what he wrote:

http://www.sambrody.com/hoban.html

In my next blog I will take a final look at the paintings and life of this great American figurative artist.

 

Alice Neel. Part 4 – José Santiago Negrón

Alice Neel (1900–1984) was one of the most significant American painters of the 20th century. Her psychologically charged portraits tell intimate and unconventional stories, as much about people living on the margins of society and in subcultures as about the New York cultural elite and her own family. Alice Neel led an exceptionally interesting life as a single parent and a feminist in a time when the world of art was largely male-dominated.

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Alice Neel Exhibition 10.6.2016 – 2.10.2016

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Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)
Fishing Pier, Spring Lake by Alice Neel (1938)

Alice spent the summer of 1934 with her mother and father in a cottage at Spring Lake, New Jersey, a short distance from the beach.  She was still with John Rothschild, who had help fund the buying of the single storey, red-shingle cottage in 1935 and he, besotted with Alice, had left his second wife in the summer of that year. Sadly for John, it was a one-way relationship as she was often very rude to him and would often refer to him as the “money man” but she would never dispense of his company even when she had other love interests, and to be fair to her, he too had many other affairs whilst being close to Alice.

John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)
John with Hat by Alice Neel (1935)

Neel completed a portrait of John in 1935 entitled John with Hat in which we see him in a white suit wearing a hat with the sea as the background.  In an interview with Patricia Hills in 1982, Neel talked about the painting and voiced her dislike of Rothschild’s character:

“…I painted him in a hat, that’s when I decided to get rid of him……I thought anybody that could take that much joy out of the hat and suit, there was something wrong with him……He was utterly empty.  He really had the makings of a voyeur in that way…”

Of course she didn’t dump John.  Maybe sense prevailed or as she put it:

“…But I didn’t really get rid of him because he kept pursuing me and I had such a hard life that it was very nice to go to Longchamps or the Harvard club for dinner…”

Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)
Kenneth Fearing by Alice Neel (1935)

It was the 1930’s and America at this time was in the middle of the Great Depression and the labour classes were suffering badly.  One of the great poets and novelist of the time, who encapsulated in his work those desperate times, was Kenneth Fearing and he was depicted in a 1935 painting by Alice Neel.  Fearing was a fervent left wing radical and Marxist and co-founder of the Partisan Review, a literary and arts magazine with close ties with the Communist Party, USA.  He championed the cause of the downtrodden worker and is depicted in one of his favourite haunts, a late night coffee shop. Fearing is illuminated by a single lightbulb, a symbol of enlightenment and modernism.  It is a painting of symbolist iconography.   We see him wearing his large artsy-type glasses, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, reading a book which is propped up in front of him.   Alice Neel depicted a skeleton squeezing blood out of Fearing’s heart, which was meant to symbolise his heartfelt feelings for all the people who were suffering during the troubled times of the Depression.  Fearing may not have been impressed by this iconography as when he saw the work he told Neel to remove what he termed “that Fauntleroy” from his heart.  However, Neel was adamant about the inclusion saying:

“…The reason I put it there was that even though he wrote ironic poetry, I thought his heart bled for the grief of the world…”

 There are a number of minor “characters” depicted in the work including, in the foreground, a baby, which was said to be Fearing’s son who was born that year, and a newlywed couple. The rest of the cast of characters formed part of a tormented world, a world of disorder and chaos, which we see going on around Fearing whilst he quietly reads his book.  In the foreground there are some disfigured soldiers and bleeding corpses.  In the right background we can see police beating civilians.

Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)
Pat Whalen by Alice Neel (1935)

Another communist to feature in one of Neel’s 1935 paintings was the Irish labour organiser, Pat Whalen, a longshoreman who had organised many dock strikes.  He sits at a bare wooden table in his creased and shabby coat and open-necked shirt. The background is bare.  This painting is all about the man and his face, his furrowed brow and piercing blue eyes.   She depicts him staring into the middle-distance of a promised future, his heavy, oversized fists clenched over a copy of the Daily Worker, which was the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) newspaper.

José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel
José Santiago Negron by Alice Neel

In September 1935, Alice Neel moved alone to an apartment in West 17th Street in New York. She would not countenance John moving in with her so he moved to his own apartment close by.  Alice would return to Spring Lake every summer but not to the small cottage but to a larger house she bought later.     It was shortly after her arrival in New York that Alice and John Rothschild visited the nightclub, La Casita, and there, performing in a band, was José Santiago Négrón a handsome Puerto Rican nightclub singer and guitarist. Alice was immediately attracted to the “beautiful Latino”.   He was slender, dark and handsome.  He was also ten years younger than Alice and was married with a young child, Sheila.  Alice acknowledged the similarity between him and her first husband as quoted by Cindy Nemser, the American art historian and writer and founder and editor of the Feminist Art Journal:

“…You know what he was?  He was a substitute for my Cuban husband although he was completely different…”

During an interview with the American art historian Patricia Hills, Neel recounted that first meeting with Negron and her successful seduction of the Puerto Rican:

“…I went to the nightclub with John [Rothschild] and I had on a silver lame dress that was beautiful and José was charmed with all this wealth and elegance.   Toward José I made my one aggressive action.  I went down there one night, to that nightclub, and I knew José was going to want to come home with me, and he did…”

Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)
Sheila by Alice Neel (1938)

In a very short time Negron left his wife Molly and child Sheila and moved in with Alice.

Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)
Nazis murder Jews by Alice Neel (1936)

In September 1936 Alice Neel completed a work entitled Nazis Murdered Jews in which she depicts a Communist organised torchlight protest at which she and some of her Works Progress Administration (WPA) colleagues took part.  Neel was one of the few artists of the time that highlighted the fate of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

Tragedy once again struck Alice in 1937.  In January that year she became pregnant, much to her delight but much to the prospective father, José Negrón’s displeasure.  He threatened to leave her.  In July, six months into the pregnancy she had a miscarriage.  Her unborn daughter had been strangled by her own umbilical cord.  Add to this heartbreak, the fact that Alice and José had money problems and this was also causing stress to their relationship.  Notwithstanding this, Alice became pregnant again at the end of 1938.  She must have been in a quandary as to what to do as it is known that her friend John Rothschild gave her money for an abortion and although she accepted the gift, she spent it on a phonograph!

Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)
Elenka by Alice Neel (1936)

The imminent birth of her child made Alice and José abandon the bohemian life of Greenwich Village and move to a quieter apartment in East 107th Street in the Spanish Harlem neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan and it is in this area where she would remain for the next twenty-four years.  This neighbourhood proved a wonderful place for her to paint pictures of her surroundings and the many characters who lived there.

Life with José Negrón was good.  In a 1969 interview she mused joyfully about those days referring to her then unborn child:

“…I was out in nightclubs every night.   I did the tango, the rhumba, all those dances.  Richard is the product of nightclubs…”

The Family by Alice Neel (1938)
The Family by Alice Neel (1938)

On September 14th 1939 Alice gave birth to her first son.  Alice and José called him Neel Santiago but this strange combination of Christian name and surname, Neel Neel, was later dropped and he became known as Richard Neel.  In December 1935, less than three months after the birth of his son, José Negrón walked out of the relationship with Neel,  This was the second time he did this, having left his wife Molly and their daughter, Stella, to live with Alice.  José Negrón’s nephew Ralph Marrero commented on the relationship break-up:

“…I don’t think Alice was interested in staying in touch with José.  Alice was more interested in her art and José was interested in himself…”

Alice put a different spin on the event in an interview with Jonathan Brand in 1969.  She stated:

“…Of course José should never have done what he did.  It was wrong…..He never should have left like that.  I could have tried to stop him but the whole thing sickened me.  I thought it was so frivolous.  We had lived together for five years…..why pick this time when this little kid is maybe four or five months old and just leave like that?  I thought it was frightful…”

José Negrón had never married Alice but would later  go on to marry two more times and, although born a Catholic, ended up becoming an Episcopal priest.

T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)
T B Harlem by Alice Neel (1940)

One of the most moving paintings Alice Neel did featuring José Negrón’s family was one entitled T.B. Harlem which she completed in 1940, a year after José had left the family home.  It was a painting which drew attention to the poverty and social isues of the time and yet never lost sight of the individuality of the sitter.   In this painting, Neel depicted José’s brother Carlos Negrón. Carlos was just twenty-four at the time of the painting and had, two years earlier, moved from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem.  At this time tuberculosis spread in overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, and at the time of the painting, the only available treatments to counteract the disease were radical. In the painting we see Carlos with a bandage on his chest covering the wound from his thoracoplasty, a procedure that was originally designed to permanently collapse the cavities of pulmonary tuberculosis by removing the ribs from the chest and by so doing, rest the tuberculosis-infected lung by removing ribs.  Although it is a good likeness of Carlos, Neel distorted and elongated his neck and arms. In the painting Alice has used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten Carlos’ silhouette and the lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Carlos’ face conveys a sense of dignity.  His right hand lies across his chest in a pose which we saw in traditional images of the martyred Christ.

………to be continued.

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I have used numerous internet sources to put together this and the following blogs on the life and art of Alice Neel and I am currently reading a fascinating book about the artist by Phoebe Hoban entitled Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty. It is a very interesting read and one I can highly recommend.

Alice Neel’s art is being shown in a number of exhibitions in America but there are also a series of exhibitions of her work travelling around Europe at the current time:

Painter of Modern Life at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

(June 10th – October 2nd 2016)

and at the

Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, Holland

(November 5th, 2016 – February 12th 2017)