The artist I am looking at today is the twentieth century American painter John Koch. I will also look at the life he had with his extremely musically talented wife Dora. Both their successes came from hard work and their mutual support of each other. For them, it was hard work that achieved you a grand lifestyle which the couple enjoyed during their married life. He is best known for his portraits, nudes, and paintings of genteel urban interiors, often set in his own light-filled Manhattan apartment.
John Koch was the son of Marian Joan and Edward John Koch and was born in his grandmother’s house in Toledo, Ohio on August 18th, 1909. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in the university town of Ann Arbor, a city in the U.S. state of Michigan, where his father was in the furniture business but unfortunately, failed to make a success of it. John Koch described his father as a man of great charm, a great reader, but a poor businessman. His father also unsuccessfully ran for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket.
In his early teens John Koch developed a love of art and, later in life, he revealed in an interview:
“…The possibility of being other than a painter never seriously occurred to me. Ever since I could hold a pencil, the desire I had to reproduce amounted to passion…”
In 1923, at the age of 14, John, for a short period, took some lessons in drawing in charcoal and that was essentially the only formal art training he received. During high school, he did however spend two summer vacations at the artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and around 1928, shortly after graduation he sailed to Paris, not to enroll at an artistic establishment, but to simply paint by himself and savour the life of an artist in the European capital of art. His self-tuition focused on going to the Louvre and copying the work of the Masters. According to John, the Louvre was his master. John became so skilled at copying the famous works that he once produced an imitation of a painting by Gustave Courbet that was subsequently mistaken for a genuine work. In 1929, Koch exhibited his work at the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon de Printemps and received an honourable mention, which was to be the first of his many awards.
In his early twenties, John Koch joined the Internationale Union des Intellectuals, where he mixed with such luminaries as André Gide, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Malraux, the French novelist, art theorist, who later became Minister of Cultural Affairs, and Jean Cocteau, the poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist, and critic. This group would assemble in the homes of its members and presented Koch with his first exposure to the lives of artists and intellectuals. It also gave him the opportunity to sit in on discussions about Surrealism and, swayed by what he heard and seen, even painted a few Surrealist works himself but was unhappy with his attempts and gave up on that genre.
John spent over four years in Paris and during that time he developed a formidable technique, evident in his beautiful rendering of light playing on surfaces. A good example of this can be seen in his later painting, The Plasterers which he completed in 1967. It was described in the New York Historical Society’s 2001 exhibition catalogue as:
“… a tour de force of (the artist’s) ability to bring the outside into an interior through reflection of light playing off surfaces…”
The Plasterers stands among John Koch’s most important paintings.
Before John had set sail for Paris in 1928, it is thought he had met the newly married, Dora Schwartz, and was impressed by both her beauty and her talent as a pianist. The two quickly became friends, but their mutual affinity was put on hold when John sailed for Paris, intent on pursuing his life as a painter in the world’s art capital. Dora Schwartz (née Zaslawskaya) was a Jewish immigrant, born on July 18th 1904 in the Ukraine city of Kremenchuk in the oblast of Poltava. Her father Max had immigrated to the United States the previous year and she then travelled by ship to a new life in America with her mother Celia and her older siblings Joseph and Fay, along with a young cousin. Another of her brothers, Israel, was born six years later. Dora’s father’s early occupation was as a peddler and family legends has it that Dora’s musical talent was discovered thanks to a large toy piano with real black and white keys that her father brought home for her. This was the start of her musical career ! Eventually after a lot of training, she became a gifted pianist, which led to a career as a piano teacher and she would go on to coach some of the outstanding concert pianists of the day. Later she became head of the piano department at the Manhattan School of Music and developed its chamber music section. On September 12th 1927, Dora Zaslawskaya, aged 23, married New Yorker Herbert S. Schwartz Herbert was also a talented musician and his family had hoped that one day, he would become a concert pianist, a similar aspiration was had by Dora’s mother for her daughter. Herbert Schwartz, however, chose to pursue a college education rather than continue studying music and when he and Dora married, he was beginning his third undergraduate year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with the hope of eventually becoming a physician. He was accepted into medical school but dropped out after one semester. Following his rejection of medical studies, he enrolled at Columbia University the following fall to study philosophy and graduated in 1933. By this time, the marriage between Dora Zaslavsky and Herbert Schwartz was almost over and they decided to end the relationship in an amicable divorce. However, in the state of New York the only grounds for divorce was adultery and so in 1934 they arranged for, and staged a fraudulent act of adultery, at which the said defendant, Herbert T. Schwartz, was not even present ! The divorce decree was granted on August 10th, 1935. There were repercussions with regards this fake adultery set up which are complicated and too long for me to go into the details but you can read about the Ohio Court of Appeal case in 1960, Schwartz v Schwartz
Meanwhile, John Koch left Paris in 1934 and returned to America, settling in Manhattan, initially staying at a friend’s apartment on Washington Square. He already knew Dora Schwartz. He could well have met her and her husband in Paris. They had sailed to Europe on the SS. Minnetonka on September 26th 1932. When he settled in Manhattan in 1934 and heard about her impending divorce, he was determined to make her his wife. John went to live in an apartment block in Manhattan at 56th & Madison, in a room next door to the apartment Dora was sharing with her sister Fay. A year later, the couple sealed their love by marrying on December 23rd, 1935 and moved into their first “together home”, an apartment at 865 First Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets, in Midtown Manhattan. It catered for both their needs with the bedroom served as John’s studio and the living room with piano was Dora’s studio. The newlyweds hosted parties driven by sharp business acumen: as John served cheap port to his wife’s students and their parents, Dora worked the room, procuring portrait commissions for her husband.
In 1935 John Koch exhibited works at his first New York exhibition which was held at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery. His work was well received and Emily Genauer, the art critic of the New York World-Telegram described John as:
“…the man to watch……a young man with a great gift…”
In 1939 John held a sell-out one man show of his works at the Kraushaar Gallery, a long-established gallery run by the niece of the founder, Antoinette M. Kraushaar. John Koch had a special relationship with the gallery and its owners and during the next thirty-five years the Gallery held a further dozen one-man exhibitions of his work.
It was in the thirties that John’s painting East River was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and it was one the first museum acquisitions of his work.
In 1941, starting on November 12th and carrying on until December 30th, the Whitney Museum of Art held its Forty under Forty Exhibition. It was the museum’s Annual Exhibition and that year it was an Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, chosen by members of the Museum staff from the work of artists forty years of age, or younger. John Knox submitted two paintings, Marble Quarry and Portrait of Mary. That same year he also exhibited at the 51st Annual Exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago.
By the 1940s, John Koch’s success and recognition continued to grow. From 1942-45 he joined the United Service Organizations in the art sketching and portrait division in veterans’ hospitals and from 1944-46, Koch took up the post as tutor and taught figure painting at the Art Students League in New York. However, with regards financial success he became one of the featured artists of classical portraits at Portraits Inc. Portraits, Inc., was founded in 1942 by Lois Shaw, an art and antiques dealer and socialite. In the early 1940’s, Mrs. Shaw partnered with the USO to give weekly studio parties in her Park Avenue gallery that often centred on portraiture. She contacted a number of portrait artists and asked them to contribute their services by doing life drawings of the military men and women in uniform who attended the parties. This allowed Koch to earn a substantial income. The joint income of John and Dora was such that they managed to buy a summer residence at Setauket on Long Island.
More and more illustration commissions came in to Maxfield and soon he was becoming financially sound. In 1898, with money earnt and financial help from his father, Maxfield and Lydia felt able to purchase some land atop a hill in Plainfield, New Hampshire, which overlooked Mount Ascutney. Here Maxfield built a one-room cabin. Lydia would often remain in Philadelphia to carry on teaching which also allowed Maxfield to carry on with his own work as well as planning and building a larger home for them. Maxfield and Lydia would stay with his parents at their large home, Northcote, whilst their new home was being built. Maxfield’s father and mother had moved to Cornish, New Hampshire in 1894 where there was a thriving artist’s colony founded by the American sculptor, Augustus St. Gaudens.
Maxfield and Lydia’s new home, known as The Oaks, was built on a large tract of land on an isolated hillside across the valley from his father’s home and close to the Vermont-New Hampshire border. It comprised of a guest house, studio, and 45 acres of hillside land and was so named because of the magnificent trees next to their home especially one giant old oak tree.
The Oaks was built around the trees and rocks on the hillside site. The largest white oak in Sullivan County, New Hampshire, stands near what was the front entrance of the house, and the ground floor was built on two levels to accommodate a large rock ledge.
Two years after Maxfield and Lydia had moved into their newly built home, he had a health scare. Lydia, whilst teaching at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, received an urgent telegram from her father-in-law telling her that Maxfield had been taken seriously ill and she should return home immediately. Lydia instantly left her school and took the train to Windsor. She would never return to her teaching position at Drexel nor would she carry on with the private students she had been tutoring. Maxfield Parrish was diagnosed as contracting tuberculosis which at the time was a deadly illness. Lydia stayed with her husband despite the disease being highly contagious. After being discharged from hospital, Lydia followed her husband to a Saranac Lake sanatorium in New York State where he underwent treatment and began his recuperation. The sanatorium treatment was expensive but financial help came to Maxfield through a cheque for five hundred dollars given to him by his best friend and neighbour, the American writer, Winston Churchill. Churchill who had also settled in the area in the same year as Maxfield in 1898, became great friends. The two were of a similar age, and Churchill had married the same year as Maxfield and Lydia. During the convalescent years between 1900 and 1901 Parrish painted at Saranac Lake, New York and at Hot Springs, Arizona,
Whilst convalescing at Saranac Lakes Parrish received a commission from Century Magazine to illustrate the Ray Stannard Baker series entitled Great South West and from the money Parrish received, he was able to afford to further convalesce in Castle Creek Hot Springs in Arizona during the winter of 1901-02. Maxfield and Lydia returned home to The Oaks in April 1902. The Spring and summer of 1902 up until 1904 was probably the happiest Lydia had ever been. No children as yet, she was able to devote time to cultivate the garden and time for her to paint, it was just as life should be for her.
Maxfield’s health had improved and he was now looking out for new commissions. In 1903 Maxfield accepted a commission from Century Magazine to illustrate Edith Wharton’s book Italian Villas and Their Gardens which they were going to serialise.
For him to complete this commission Maxfield decided to travel to Italy and photograph and then paint the different villas that Wharton would be writing about in her book. Days after his marriage he had “abandoned” his wife to go to Europe on his own but this time she accompanied him, and in a way, it made up for the honeymoon they had missed at the time of their wedding. It was a time when Maxfield and Lydia became very close. Sadly, for her, it was to be the only trip she would make with him.
All artists need models and many married male artists often use their young wives. Before Lydia Parrish gave birth to their first child in 1904, she was Maxfield’s model in a number of his works including the Scribner Magazine October 1900 cover.
She also modelled for Maxfield’s beautiful full-page drawing of Ann Powel, framed by a simple doorway, to accompany Annie Tynan’s piece in the 1900 Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, The Story of Ann Powel.
Maxfield Parrish also used himself as a model for some of his paintings. One example of this is his 1905 illustration, Potpourri, which featured in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1905. The illustration depicts a nude boy picking flowers in the forest. The large sun is peeking through the foliage and typically of Parrish there are two columns and a large fountain or urn. It is reputed that Parrish attached a string to his camera and snapped the photo of himself to use as the model for the illustration. The illustration was drawn to illustrate a poem by H.C. Dwight and the line:
“…Ah, never in the world were there such roses as ones from that enchanted trellis hung…”
Lydia Parrish’s modelling days had come to an end in 1904 when she became pregnant with their first child, John Dilwyn, who was born that December. For the previous years, Lydia Parrish had been an equal partner with her husband. She would entertain his and her friends as well as prospective clients. She ably ran the household, managed the household finances, and oversaw the domestic help that had finally come to assist her after the birth of Dillwyn in December 1904. In 1905, she was expecting their second child, and was struggling to look after her first child as well as running the household for her husband, not to mention the lack of time she had for her own art and her writing. It was decided that Lydia needed more help and so, Maxfield and Lydia Parrish hired sixteen-year-old Susan Lewin who had been working at Maxfield Parrish’s father’s house, Northcote, since she was fourteen and was pleased at Stephen Parrish’s suggestion that she should help his son and daughter-in-law. She received a wage of a dollar a day plus board and lodgings. Sadly, life for Maxfield and Lydia would never be the same again !!!
Young Susan Lewin was born in the farm town of Harland Vermont on November 22nd 1889. She was one of six children of Elmer and Nellie Lewin and because of the household’s financial problems had to abandon school after only two years in order to become a wage earner. She was a tall and willowy young woman with thick cascading hair and an oval face with large expressive eyes and a classic profile. She first met Maxfield when she was working for his father at Northcote and his good looks and charm was not lost on her. She had just the romantic appearance which reminded Maxfield of the ladies depicted in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which he loved, and her good looks and charm was probably not lost on him!
The arrival of their first child caused problems for Maxfield as he was constantly being interrupted by noise whist trying to concentrate on his painting and so, had a builder, George Ruggles, build a fifteen-room studio, some forty feet across the lawn from the main house. The building comprised of three bedrooms, a kitchen, two painting rooms, two bathrooms, a dark room for his photography and rooms to store all his artistic paraphernalia which he used to construct his compositions. Here he could paint in peace. For his wife Lydia, her painting days were over. She had to look after their children and keep them from disturbing her husband! The relationship between Maxfield Parrish and Susan Lewin was symbiotic. She tended to him hand and foot. She was passive and obedient and always eager to please and was amenable to all his wishes. She was an excellent cook and a perfect servant to her master. Later her two sisters, Annie and Emily joined the household as extra help for Mrs Parrish.
In the early days of Sue Lewin’s stay at The Oaks she did receive a number of suitors but nothing became of them. However, one suitor, Kimball Daniels, also began courting Sue’s sister Annie and eventually in 2011 the two were married. He worked for the Parrish family tending their sheep and cows as well as harvesting the crops. Kimball was the model for Parrish’s 1905 painting, Harvest. We see him standing proudly on a hillock, scythe in hand. Tragically he was found dead from a broken neck on the property twenty months after his marriage.
Not only did Susan Lewin help Maxfield’s wife with childcare she also became a model for some of Maxfield’s paintings. The first painting for which the sixteen-year-old girl posed was entitled Land of Make-Believe. The painting depicts two figures in a verdant and enchanted garden. The taller figure on the right is based on a photograph of Susan Lewin in costume. She stands in a contrapposto pose among blooming climbing roses. The two figures are attired in medieval costume and this adds to the unreality of the scene. Maxfield Parrish’s idealized fantasy worlds he created in his painting, such as this one, appealed to the buying public. These works were simply pictorial escapism and his fantasy world helped them believe there were safe and gentle places which were so different from the world they currently lived in. Parrish’s illustration was used as the frontispiece to Rosamund Marriott Watson’s Make-Believe published in Scribner’s Magazine in August 1912. Marriott Watson’s poem reminisces about the care-free childhood world of “let’s pretend” filled with enchanted woods, castles, and witches.
In the 1995 book, Maxfield Parrish: A Retrospective, by Laurence and Judy Cutler, they wrote about Maxfield’s delight at having Susan in the household:
“…When Susan bounded around The Oaks with babes in arms, Parrish watched her with fascination. He imagined her as his counterpart to Lord Leighton’s companion model, Dene. When he first asked her to model for him and that first pose resulted in the painting Land of Make-Believe, Parrish was so happy with the outcome that he began to use Susan as his constant model…”
In the Land of Make-Believe, look closely at the way Parrish has lit up this depiction. There is a double lighting effect. The figures in the foreground are illuminated by soft and delicate light, while if you study the cliffs in the background you can see that they glow luminously from the radiance of the setting sun giving the work a feeling of depth whilst the two enormous columns in the middle ground of the depiction anchor Maxfield’s painting as well as acting as a frame for both the foreground and background. The inclusion of monumental columns like these appear in one of his most famous works – the 1922 painting entitled Daybreak, which turned out to be one of the most replicated paintings in American history and will be discussed in the next part of this series.
By 1909 Parrish’s demands on Sue to model for his paintings were becoming increasingly intense. In 1909 she posed for a number of characters of his large-scale mural The Pied Piper which had been commissioned by the Palace Hotel in San Francisco for their Pied Piper bar and restaurant, a favoured spot of locals and visitors from around the world.
The Pied Piper, originally named The Happy Valley Bar, made its grand opening in 1909. Composed specifically for the re-opening after the 1906 earthquake, Maxfield Parrish created The Pied Piper of Hamelin painting, which still graces the hotel after over 100 years.
In 1910, Edward Bok, the director of Ladies Home Journal offered Maxfield a commission to paint eighteen panels for The Girls’ Dining Room at the Curtis Publishing building in Philadelphia, which was under construction at 6th and Walnut. Each painting would be placed between the windows which overlooked the street. Bok, because the company employed so many females, decided that they should have their own dining room on the top floor. It was a mammoth assignment and Bok wanted it completed within twelve months and agreed to pay Parrish $2000 per panel. Parrish completed the first piece, Florentine Fête Mural in July 1910 and he sent it to the building’s architect, Robert Seeler, for him to approve, writing:
“…The scene will be in white marble loggia: the foreground will be a series of wide steps extending across the entire picture leading up to three arches and supporting columns…It will be my aim to make it joyous, a little unreal, a good place to be in, a sort of happiness of youth…”
There are over a hundred figures in the panels of the murals and Maxfield had Sue Lewin to model for all but two of them. It was such a monumental project that both Maxfield and Sue moved out of the main residence at The Oaks and lived in his studio whilst Maxfield’s wife remained at the big house with the children. Maxfield Parrish was forty-six years of age when he completed the commission and it is interesting to read in Alma Gilbert’s 1990 book, The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, the artist thought of himself as being much younger. She wrote:
“…Sue Lewin was the woman who ‘youthened’ Parrish’s spirit. The Florentine Fête panels are his tribute to that wish to remain young, as embodied by the beautiful young woman who so dominated his art and his thoughts during the midpoint of his life…”
Parrish completed all but one of the mural paintings by 1913 and the final one was finished in 1916.
……………………………….to be continued.
Much of the information for these Maxfield Parrish blogs comes from the excellent 1990 book by Alma Gilbert: The Make Believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin,
Another of Hedley’s paintings projecting school life was his 1883 work, In School. The boy in the painting was John Irwin, the younger brother of Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving shop.
Hedley used Irwin in a number of his painting. one of which was his 1884 work known as The Ballad Seller. The setting is the Black Gate in Newcastle with Castle Garth in the background. The red roofs of Castle Garth can be seen behind the Black Gate in Ralph Hedley’s depiction. The Black Gate formed the entrance to the street, which had been built inside the castle walls. There was only a short stretch of street left standing by the time Hedley painted this picture. It has now all been demolished, though the outline of the street can still be seen. It is thought that Hedley made many plein air sketches for the background. In the painting we can see the rough wooden fence that had been put up around the Black Gate in 1883 by the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries during the renovation work. Hedley’s painting depicts broken and missing stones as well as damaged window glass. The Black Gate of the Norman castle, which was completed at the end of the thirteenth century, had become run down. However, the painting is all about the trade of selling ballads. Ballad sellers were looked upon in the eighteenth century as impoverished, uneducated, and morally-lacking people who were allegedly conspiring with pickpockets. It was suspected that whilst plying their trade, they hoped to distract their audience with their songs while the pickpockets went to work. Later, they would share their ill-gotten gains. Ralph Hedley would have witnessed poor women street sellers having to take their children with them, like the baby in the ballad-seller’s arms in this picture. John Irwin was once again used as a model for one of the boys.
Older brother Tom Irwin was himself the model for one of the men in Hedley’s 1885 painting Shoeing a refractory horse in the stocks – Shoeing the bay mare. He was the man standing on the right wearing the brown cap, velvet jacket and velvet trousers. He was seventeen years of age when he modelled for the work. Tom Irwin, who worked at Ralph Hedley’s woodcarving workshop, and his family arrived in Newcastle around 1880. He remembered the first meeting with Hedley and how the artist had admired their clothes:
“… When we came from the country where we had been farming, we brought several quaint articles of clothing, caps, clogs, baskets etc, which proved invaluable to your father’ work, and… which we know were much appreciated by him… “
Ralph Hedley believed that art should be a pictorial record of the working lives of local people, and his paintings were particularly valuable for the record they provide of everyday life on Tyneside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His 1888 painting, Going Home, is a depiction of two coal miners returning home from working at the pit at Blaydon, near Gateshead. The younger of the two men wears a cap to protect his head from the low beams, and he wears a pair of shorts because of the heat in the mine. In his hand is a safety lamp and a sack to kneel on. This was an extremely popular painting and a print of it was made the following year which proved extremely popular with the public.
One of Ralph Hedley’s 1891 paintings, Go, and God’s Will be Done, fascinates me as there is a story behind the depiction. At first glance there is obviously something dramatic happening in this painting, but what is it all about? On the floor in the left foreground a cat sleeps peacefully before the fire, unaware of the chaotic happenings going on in the room. This is the home of a lifeboatman and in the bed is his wife who is very ill. The husband, in his shirt sleeves, leans over to talk to her. Next to him stands a lifeboatman who has come to take him away to their lifeboat. The door of his cottage is held open by his daughter and we can see that outside there is a gale force wind blowing over rough seas, in which is a boat in trouble. The call has gone out for all the local lifeboatmen to rush to launch the lifeboat and the wife’s husband is torn between his duty to his sick wife and his duty to the lifeboat rescue. The painting is based on the English poet and journalist, George Roberts Simms poem, The Lifeboat. The words of the poem which Hedley has illustrated so beautifully are:
“…I didn’t move, but pointed to the white face on the bed-
“I can’t go, mate,” I murmured; “in an hour she may be dead,
I cannot go and leave her to die in the night alone.”
As I spoke Ben raised the lantern, and the light on my wife was thrown;
And I saw her eyes fix strangely with a pleading look on me,
While a tremblin’ finger pointed through the door to the ragin’ sea,
Then she beckoned me near and whispered “Go, and God’s will be done!
For every lad on that ship, John, is some poor mother‘s son…”.
So how did the story end? It had a happy conclusion. The husband went with the lifeboat and helped to save the crew of the sinking ship. One of them was his long-lost son, and when he took him home, his mother was overjoyed and recovered from her illness. The poem was quoted in the exhibition catalogues when the work was exhibited in 1891 and 1892, in Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, and South Shields, and in the Royal Academy. The painting is now in the collection at Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.
Hedley completed an interesting work in 1900 entitled Ars Longa, Vita Brevis which was exhibited at that year’s Royal Academy Exhibition. It would almost be classed as a Vanitas painting focusing on the unstoppable transience of life but it does not have the usual Vanitas symbols such as burnt out candles and skulls. And yet the title of the painting, Ars longa, Vita Brevis meaning Art is long, life is short is the perfect title for a Vanitas work. The painting is one that elicits our sympathy for the aging artist we see before us. Look how the depiction evokes this feeling. The setting is a small drably-coloured attic space in which we see the artist sitting on his bed in front of an easel. He loosely holds his palette and brushes and yet he has to rest them on his knees. He has nodded off to sleep in the middle of his work. Is it that he is tired or is it a sign that he has almost given up on life? What are his circumstances and what are his thoughts? Is he lonely and without friends? Does he mull over his past life and consider past decisions that he has made and which have brought him to this point in his life? I will leave you to decide.
In the foreground of his 1886 painting, Duty Paid, we see a man has come to an office on the quayside to collect a parcel brought in by the ship. He puts his money on the table which is due in Custom’s Duty and one of the Customs officers meticulously fills in details of the payment in a ledger. On the other side of the table, another official seals the parcel with red wax, evidencing that duty has been paid. This is a typical Ralph Hedley depiction of local people and local scenes. His oeuvre provided us with an important record of life in the region in that period between the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
One of the strangest paintings by Ralph Hedley depicted John Graham Lough an English sculptor who was recognised for his funerary monuments and a variety of portrait sculpture. He also produced ideal classical male and female figures. Lough had come to London in 1824 to study the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. He was living and had his studio on the first floor of a house in his Burleigh Street lodgings, above a greengrocer’s shop, and it was there that he embarked on a mould for his massive statue of Milo of Croton based on his studies of the Elgin Marbles and the work of Michelangelo. According to Joshua Lax’s 1884 book, Historical and Descriptive Poems, this was the sculptor’s big chance at being a successful sculptor. The biggest problem Lough faced was that his studio was too small and the ceiling height was too low for him to complete the statue. Joshua Lax explains:
“…With the recklessness of a bold genius reduced to desperation, he actually broke through the ceiling of the room above him and made for himself sufficient space to work at his statue. The owner began to take steps for instituting legal proceedings, and even consulted Mr. Brougham (afterwards Lord Brougham) for this purpose. Brougham went to look at the Milo, and see for himself what Lough had done… The news of the strange affair soon spread, and, before long, the whole street where Lough’s room was situated was lined with the carriages of ladies and gentlemen, who had come to view the place, and to see Milo…”
In the painting we see the unhappy landlord and his lawyer, Henry Brougham at the base of the sculpture whilst the sculptor is at work on the upper part of the work, unrepentant with his destruction of the ceiling in his lodgings.
In 1898 Hedley completed a painting which was to realise the highest price for one of his paintings at auction, (£43,020 at Bonhams in 2004). It was entitled The Tournament. Hedley was influenced stylistically by the Newlyn school and other social realist painters. He also focused on life in his much-loved Newcastle and the surrounding Tyneside area for his subject matter. The scope of his depictions was enormous. It ranged from the uncompromising realism of workers on the dockside and miners to the delightful naivety of children at play, as we see depicted in The Tournament.
Ralph Hedley’s involvement with the Bewick club, as successful exhibitor, committee member and eventually as president, guaranteed him a number of wealthy patrons for both his wood carvings and his paintings. However, his work was also loved by the working class, the subject of many of his works, and they gained access to his work through the many reproductions of his most well-known works could be found in local papers, tea promotions and adverts for cigarettes. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and exhibited a number of paintings at the Royal Academy.
Ralph Hedley died on June 11th 1913 aged 64 at his terraced home in 19 Belle Grove Terrace, Newcastle-on-Tyne. There is a blue plaque commemorating Ralph Hedley who lived in the house from 1888 to his death in 1913.
If you went into a room, on the walls of which were a large number of paintings by the great artists of the past but without identifying labels, how many do you think you would recognise? If there were three painting in the room done by each artist, although not grouped together, how many would you be able connect to each artist. For the art history aficionados, maybe the brushstrokes would act like fingerprints. Maybe the colours used by the individual artists would lead you to solve the quest. If they are figurative paintings maybe an artist has his/her own way of depicting them. The reason for those questions is that my artist today has such recognisable paintings that I am sure after reading this blog and looking at his paintings you will be able to identify his work when you see it. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century Swiss painter Ernest Biéler. He was a multi-talented artist, draughtsman, and printmaker. He worked in oil, tempera, watercolour, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic and pencil. He also created mosaics and stained-glass windows.
Ernest Biéler was born on July 31st, 1863, in Rolle in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland. It is located on the north-western shore of Lake Geneva between Nyon and Lausanne. His father, Samuel Biéler, was a veterinarian and his mother Natalie de Butzow, of Finnish-Polish descent, was a teacher of music and art. Ernest’s maternal grandfather was in the diplomatic corps, and was a one-time Finnish ambassador to Switzerland until his sudden death, which brought difficult financial times to the family.
Samuel Biéer and his wife Nathalie had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. With finances tight, Ernest’s father moved his family to Lausanne, where he had been offered a well-paid post as a lecturer in zoology at the University of Lausanne. Although little is known with regards Ernest Biéler’s early childhood, it is understood that in 1880, aged seventeen he graduated from the College of Art in Lausanne and then, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian.
Often in our lives we do something that unbeknown to us at the time will affects our future plans. For twenty-one-year-old Ernest Biéler the time was the summer of 1884 during a walking holiday in the high peaks of the Vallais region, in the southwest of Switzerland. To its south lies Italy and the Aosta Valley and Piedmont and to the southwest France the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes of France. During his hike, Ernest visited the remote mountain village of Savièse.
From there, the beautiful landscapes stretched in all directions, and the people that inhabited the village seemed to almost have circumvented civilization. The village, its people and the spectacular landscape had a great effect on Biéler and would feature in many of his works. This village was to become a great part of his life and through his depictions of the village and the people it would cement his place in the art world which was what he had always strived for.
Biéler was fascinated by the Savièse folk and their traditions. Add to this the ideal outdoor conditions with the brilliant light, which was ideal for plein air painting He went back to the Savièse in the autumn of 1886 and completed numerous sketches that he would use later for one of his masterpieces. He organised for the following summer to have a large stretcher delivered to his Paris studio for him to complete his ambitious work. Biéler completed the painting in his Parisian studio using his preliminary sketches. The finished work entitled Devant l’église de Saint-Germain à Savièse (Outside the Church of Saint-Germain in Savièse) was extremely large, measuring 204 x 302cms. The setting for this work was not one particular church in a particular village but rather a commonplace church with its mighty stone pier and its arched doorway. Before us we see a large group of women gathered together in the warm sunlight. They are all turned out in their dark blue Sunday dresses and are following the mass from the outside. Some are diligently studying their prayer books whilst others have been designated as child minders. By its composition and handling, the work was bound to arouse the interest of avant-garde circles: the figures are made monumental by the close framing. Look at the way Biéler has referenced the effect of the intense sunlight. The way the folds of the clothes reflects this penetrating light. The effect of the light can be seen in the way the artist has added the bluish shadows, applied in broad brushstrokes, to the walls. We can see in this work how Biéler was influenced by the French Impressionists. The painting was seen by a counsellor of state from Vaud, Eugène Ruffy, who bought it for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne. The one stipulation of the sale was that Biéler was allowed to keep the painting for a while so that he could present it at the Salon of 1887 in Paris.
Many painters in the late nineteenth century clung to the beauty of rural life and religious ceremonies in a way of counteracting the swiftly changing world due to industrialisation which witnessed rural people leaving their communities to search for their dreams in the towns and cities. Biéler and many artists such as Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet depicting such ceremonies and village communities was a way of remembering the peaceful times in rural communities.
In 1892, Biéler was struggling financially and had to sell his property to pay off the many debts he had accumulated. He left Paris and settled in Geneva and was fortunate enough to receive a commission to paint the ceiling in the new concert hall, the Victoria Hall. The building came about thanks to the Consul of England, Daniel Fitzgerald Packenham Barton, who was based in Geneva and had two great passions, navigation, and music, and being one of the extremely rich could satisfy both of them. He arranged that the Geneva architect John Camoletti built the Hall, and he dedicated it to his sovereign Queen Victoria. In 1894, the building was completed. The theme of Biéler’s ceiling paintings was Harmonia, queen of Thebes, the mythical figure of harmony.
On September 16th 1984, the concert hall was engulfed in flames that partly destroyed the interior décor. That night the interior of the Hall was devastated and the world-famous organ simply melted and collapsed. It was soon decided to restore the interior of the hall as far as possible in the original style, which was flamboyant and heavily decorated. The City having decided to restore the building, also decided that the ceiling décor which had been painted by Ernest Biéler had to be replaced by a contemporary work by Dominique Appia.
One original ceiling image which caused a controversy at the time was Biéler’s painting, Naked, ringing the bell. However, the commission was hailed a success and Biéler’s reputation grew, bringing financial rewards.
In 1896, Biéler rented a house for a workshop in Savièse, and immersed himself in village life but he had to return to Paris so as to carry on with his studies at the Académie Julian. Along with fellow artists, such as Édouard Eugène Francis Vallet, Raphaël Ritz, and others, Biéler founded the Ecole of Savièse. This name became synonymous with his unique style of work, in which we see an extraordinary level of detail, that became extremely popular with the public. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Ernest Beeler began building a large house of his own in Savièse with his own workshop and various auxiliary facilities. In 1900, aged 37, he exhibited two works that earned him a silver medal in the Paris Salon and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.
Around 1906, Biéler became undecided about his painting style. Should he abandon his realistic painting style in favour of modernism, which rejected history and conservative values such as realistic depiction of subjects and which adopted a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. When asked whether he was a realist or an idealist, he simply replied:
“…An artist can strive for both. One does not exclude the other. The national feeling has nothing to do with art…”
In 1909, at the age of 46, Ernest Biéler married a Parisian divorcee, Michelle Laronde, who already had a young son and was an art tutor. They decided to live in Paris rather than the village of Savièse. The reason, as he wrote to a friend, was because his new wife was “too urban to live in Savièse.” In fact she did not want to have anything to do with Switzerland which caused a problem for Biéler, as his main source of income was from Switzerland, where he was still receiving numerous commissions, and for that reason he had to stay for long periods in Switzerland without his new wife.
The second decade of the twentieth century proved to be a problematical and difficult period for Biéler. In 1911 his father died. Seven years later his mother died and during that intervening period war raged in Europe. In 1916, Biéler reluctantly decided to leave his wife and the French capital and move to Vevey, a Swiss town, close to Lake Geneva and about thirty miles north-west of his beloved Savièse. In 1917 he buys a house in Montellier-sur-Rivaz. Now living apart from his wife, there followed the inevitable divorce in 1921.
During this decade, it was not just these personal problems of death and divorce that he had to deal with, he also had an artistic setback. He had been working for four years on his exceptionally large (146.3 x 376.4 cms) painting, L’Eau mysterieuse (Mysterious Waters). Although it was acclaimed when it was shown in Paris in 1912 and subsequently bought by the Gottfried Keller Foundation, after it was exhibited in Switzerland, it failed to persuade him to remain in the French capital. Biéler had meant the work to be an art nouveau manifesto with the aim to establish in Paris the importance of this graphic style and of the seldom-used medium of egg tempera. The work is painted on sheets of paper mounted on canvas and set within a large wooden frame which had been fashioned to Biéler’s instructions. Its long, narrow format recalls the works seen on cassoni, or marriage chests which are a rich and showy Italian type of chest. These long and narrow paintings had been revived by the English Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones. The smooth-flowing depiction is of thirteen princesses fanning out in the foreground which is offset by a number of the trees in the background. The basin into which the women stare, occupies nearly half of the painting. The setting is autumn with fallen leaves on the ground and the surface of the pond. The women are kneeling, gazing into the pond, fascinated by their own reflections and worry at what they see – their unstoppable ageing. However, this depiction is all about Ovid’s myth of Narcissus, enchantment and the feminisation of heroes which was popular at we entered the twentieth century.
In 1917 Ernest set up shop in a vast studio in Montellier near Rivaz and there he began producing the great decorative works that will ensure him lasting fame. He created stained-glass windows for churches (Saint Francis, Lausanne; Saint Martin, Vevey; Saint Germain, Savièse), mounted-canvas ceilings (Victoria Hall, Geneva; Theatre of Bern) and frescoes (Jenisch Museum, Vevey; the main hall of the Greater Council, Sion).
From 1923, Beeler spent the last 25 years of his life in Savièse. In 1928, when he was sixty-five years of age, he married for the second time. His second wife was Madeleine de Kerenville, who was 20 years his junior.
Ernest Biéler died in Lausanne on June 25th, 1948 and is buried in St. Martin’s Cemetery in Vevey.
Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries. The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,
A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth. Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:
AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.
Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.
It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited, for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.
One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris. It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers). It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches). Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration. The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting. The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist. So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us? Look at the female. Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll. Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress. The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face. She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner. She pouts. What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness? On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress. What was the artist’s reason for that? Are they from her lover who she has now rejected? Look at her gaze. Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes? So many unanswered questions. Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!
When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:
“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”
The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.
During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany. Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition. Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany
At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland . Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe. Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright. For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne. In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix. Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art. Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.
Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate. It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting. The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child, was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.
Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today. There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be. His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.
Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.
Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her. In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:
“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”
At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney. It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.
Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.
In March 1918, Hilda Rix Nicholas left England on a sea voyage back to Australia. She and her late husband’s brother, Athol Nicholas, arrived in Melbourne on May 10th. She needed to get her love of painting back on track and she did this through the city’s Women’s Art Club and the support of Henrietta Maria Gulliver, one of its founding members. She was soon back in the groove and in November she was amongst the members of the Art Club whose works were displayed at the Athenaeum Hall. The art correspondent of the Punch magazine (November 21st, 1918) wrote:
“…The dominating personality of the show is Mrs Hilda Rix Nicholas, who exhibits a charming profile of a young girl entitled The Pink Scarf which is painted in Mrs Nicholas’ most arresting manner…”
When she travelled to Australia Hilda brought with her the sketches and paintings she had completed during her time in Europe and North Africa and over a hundred were exhibited at the Melbourne’s Guild Hall. The exhibition was a great success and many of her paintings were sold including her 1914 work, In Picardy, which was purchased by National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition moved to Sydney and more of her paintings were bought by private collectors as well as several purchased by National Gallery of Victoria.
Hilda left Melbourne and moved to Mosman, a coastal suburb on the Lower North Shore of Sydney. She continued to exhibit her portraits of Australian military men. She painted heroic images of soldiers which accentuated the spiritual aspects of war and was in line with the thoughts of the day with regards Anzac mythology and the unashamed masculinity of the Australian nationhood. The paintings were works of unapologetic patriotism. They were loved by the public but more conservative critics were troubled by the modern and ‘masculine’ characteristics of the exhibition. With the public liking her patriotic paintings she tendered for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library but was not chosen. The mural commission was given to Harold Septimus Power. An official portrait by George Coates in 1920 depicted the Australian War Artists. The group portrait includes the official War Artists; standing l-r: (Sir) John Longstaff, Charles Bryant, George Lambert, A. Henry Fullwood, James Quinn, Septimus Power, Arthur Streeton, seated back l-r: Will Dyson, Fred Leist, front: George Bell. Note they are all male !
One of her patriotic works was her painting simply entitled A Man. For her model Hilda chose a returned serviceman. She must have thought about her late husband as she painted this work. Look at the way that through her brushstrokes she has affectionately fashioned pockets, buttons, pouches for ammunition and creases in the sleeve. This anonymous ANZAC hero is framed by stormy skies and with so many of the troops dying on the battlefield one realises that despite the uniform, the tin helmet and rifle they all failed to keep him safe. Although this is a patriotic depiction it is also a portrayal of defencelessness as much as it is of military might. Having failed to receive the commission for a war memorial mural at the Melbourne Public Library, Hilda abandoned her military portraiture work and began to concentrate on painting local landscapes and portraits.
Hilda believed that the public’s taste in art had changed. Despite the numerous Australian casualties in the First World War, estimated at 62,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Australian population wanted not just to think of their dead but consider the future and a reminder of this was to reflect on their beautiful land and the hard-working Australians who remained and were carrying on with their life. It was not just in art that this desire to look forward was seen, as many writers of the time, such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, penned stories who eulogised about the merits of pioneer life.
In 1922, accompanied by her friend Dorothy Richmond, whom she had met in Sydney around 1919, Hilda set out to paint in rural New South Wales and one of the paintings she completed around this time was one depicting her friend on a horse. The painting was entitled In the Bush, Dorothy Richmond on Horseback.
Hilda completed a portrait of her friend, Dorothy Richmond in 1926, entitled Une Australienne, Dorothy Richmond. It is a strong portrait of her good friend. Dorothy is dressed in the height of fashion. She looks out at us with a forceful pose, one of belief in her self-importance, almost haughty but the look gives her a sense of empowerment. She has posed with her head turned causing tension on her neck muscles. This was one of eight pictures Hilda Rix Nicholas had exhibited in the Salon of 1926. The Salon judges were impressed with her work, and she was made an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts as a result.
Around 1923, Hilda and Dorothy first travelled to Delegate on a painting trip. The small New South Wales town was situated just a few kilometres from the state border between New South Wales and Victoria. The area was ideal for landscape painting. The couple stayed in a property owned by the Wright family and soon Hilda became friendly with Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar. It was during their stay at Delegate with the Wrights that she completed one of her most well-known works, In Australia, His Land. The painting was a portrait of Ned Wright, the manager of the property at Delegate. He is depicted on horseback, with his pipe clasped between his teeth. His stance is casual, self-assured, and heroic, which was consistent with the up-beat nationalism of Australia at the time. The backdrop to the portrait is a panoramic view of an Australian pastoral landscape.
A similar setting can be seen in her 1920 work, Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie. It is a commemorative depiction of the Australian landscape, which she held so dearly. For Hilda it was a way of paying homage to the land of her birth. It is a painting full of light and for Hilda it was all about recording the beautiful landscape. We can imagine the joy and pride she got from painting the scene as we look at the distant land through the trees which have cast giant shadows on the ground. She commented on why she wanted to spend her time depicting the Australian landscape, giving her reason as:
“…show the people [of Europe] what is possessed in a land of beauty where the colour scheme is so different, and which sent so many gallant men to the struggle for liberty…”
Another of her paintings, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains of that time captured the spectacular view of the Three Sisters. It is an unusual rock formation representing three sisters who according to Aboriginal legend were turned to stone. The character of the Three Sisters changes throughout the day and throughout the seasons as the sunlight brings out the magnificent colours. The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and ‘Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry. As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.
It was always in Hilda’s plans to return to Europe and take with her the collection of landscape works she had built up in the previous six years and so, after a successful exhibition of her work in Sydney in 1923 she packed up her things and was ready to return to France. In 1924, Hilda, along with her travelling companion, Dorothy Richmond, set sail, on the SS Ormonde, for France, with the intention of exhibiting her work. Also, aboard the vessel was the Australian Olympic team travelling to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics and the Adelaide Chronicle of July 19th 1924 carried a fascinating story about an incident on the voyage:
“…The Australian artist, Mrs. Rix Nicholas, has been included amongst Australia’s aspirants for Olympic honours. This surprising information comes from a member of the team in a letter to his parents, received only this week. On the voyage home aboard the Ormonde it was noticed that one of the passengers paid particular attention to the athletes when they were on deck for daily training. Day by day she continued to study every member at work. Eventually she summoned sufficient courage to approach the manager (Mr Merrett), with the request that the team be lined up. He agreed, and Mrs. Nicholas selected a certain member as a model. Although somewhat embarrassed, he agreed to pose. When the team arrived in Paris it was learned that an artists’ competition was to be held, in conjunction with the Olympic games, and it was decided that Mrs. Nicholas should represent Australia as the Olympic candidate. The painting, when completed, will be entered m the competition for artists. It was on this account that she was included, and all were overjoyed at having a Woman representative…”
Hilda and Dorothy arrived in Paris in June 1924 and rented a studio in Montparnasse which had formerly been the home of the French painter Rosa Bonheur. In 1925, Hilda’s works were exhibited at the Georges Petit Galerie in Paris, which was a popular alternative exhibition space to the official Salon. Her paintings were much admired by the critics and public and the exhibition was deemed a great success. Her success in Paris was recorded in the February 28th 1925 edition of the Sydney newspaper, The World News, a newspaper published in Sydney, Australia from 1901 to 1955.
GIFTED VICTORIAN ARTIST.
SHOWS “AUSTRALIA” IN PARIS.
Fashioned of the stuff that good and true women are built of, there is little wonder in the cabled news that Mrs. Hilda Rix Nicholas, the clever painter from, the southern Australian State, Victoria, has made good as an artist in Paris, one of the great art centres of Europe. She is an intensely patriotic Australian, and, swayed by this fine feeling, recently gave an exhibition of her country’s typical scenery and atmosphere in a series of exquisite paintings that attracted the Parisian critics and the public. Notwithstanding that she was already represented in the Luxembourg National Gallery, the French Government purchased one of the group, entitled “In Australia,” for the same gallery, which has only two other Australian artists represented, viz.. [Arthur] Streeton and [Rupert]Bunny.
It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel. Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists. An example of this is her work entitled MoroccoMarketplace with the Pile of Oranges. It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.
In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier. It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation. She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows. We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light. Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun. She wrote:
“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”
Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils. When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg. Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes. Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child. The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work. He further commented:
“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”
Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:
“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”
The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West. In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.
Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture. It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:
“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”
Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient. Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia. There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her.
Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted. Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic
Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier. The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds. Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting. Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.
Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère. It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background. Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples. The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London. If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies. Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England. Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home. At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37. Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news. Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter. For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings. She remembered the time saying:
“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”
Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.
Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne. George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers. Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher. He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded. Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post. His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios. Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.
Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion, He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.
Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live. In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works. One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.
Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas. The work comprised of three panels. The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity. Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose. The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero. Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.
She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation. This work depicts an emaciated woman crying. She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us. The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation. The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work. In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:
“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield. The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”
Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.
The other day, I was looking through a list of famous nineteenth and twentieth Australian artists. The compiler of the list believed that the greatestAustralian painters were Sidney Nolan, Peter Booth, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Frederick McCubbin, and John Olsen. I had heard of a number of these but what surprised me about the list was that it contained no female artists and so I decided to focus this blog on one such painter.
Emily Hilda Rix Nicholas was born on September 1st 1884, in the Australian city of Ballarat, some twenty-five miles north west of Melbourne. Her father, Henry Finch Rix was born in Woolwich, Kent on January 12th 1848, and her mother, Elizabeth Sutton, was born in Manchester, England in 1853. They had both emigrated as children with their families in the middle of the nineteenth century and the pair met and married in 1876. The couple had their first child, Elsie Bertha in 1877 and Hilda was born seven years later. Henry Rix was a mathematics teacher, an amateur poet and talented sportsman. He was a teacher at Bendigo, Ballarat and at Carlton. After a brief stint teaching in Ballarat, he was a mathematics master at Wesley College Melbourne for ten years between 1874 and 1884. He played for Carlton’s Australian Rules team and later became Inspector of Schools. In the book, A History of State Education in Victoria, Henry Rix was described as:
“…Of the men who have labored and passed away since 1900, Mr. H. F. Rix deserves to be especially remembered. Working under the result system, he foresaw the new day and strove to make it possible. His enthusiasm, his industry, his initiative, his research, and his sympathy made him a great inspector and a leader in educational reforms…”
Henry’s wife, Elizabeth, as well as being an accomplished singer, helped run a successful music business in Ballarat. She played an active part in the Austral Salon, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of women journalists in Melbourne in 1890 as a club for women writers. It then developed into a club whose aim was to introduce aspiring young musicians to an interested audience. She was also a talented amateur painter and had her own studio in Melbourne’s Flinders Street. Hilda and her sister Elsie being brought up in a musical household both learnt musical instruments and would perform at local shows. Elsie, like her mother, had a beautiful voice and performed at the Austral Salon. Hilda, as a small child, developed a love of drawing and painting and she and her sister would often design advertising posters for events at the Austral Salon.
Hilda attended Merton Hall High School, now Melbourne Girls Grammar School and although she was not an exceptional student she did excel in art under the tutelage of a Mr Mather. On leaving Merton Hall in 1902, eighteen-year-old Hilda enrolled on a three-year course at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where one of her teachers was the foremost Australian Impressionist, Frederick McCubbin. Notwithstanding his standing in the art world, Hilda was critical of McCubban’s teaching style which she referred to as being “vague persuasions”. However her biographer John Pigot, in his 2000 book, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Art, writes that the creativity of individuals rather than imitating the style of any one school of painting; he (McCubban) modelled the importance of nationalistic ideas and subjects that would become so prominent in her later painting and McCubban’s work emphasised the painting’s subject over technical considerations.
Hilda Rix’s work was so good that, although still a student, she had some of her drawings shown at annual exhibitions at the Victorian Artists’ Society and the Austral Salon. To earn herself some money she worked as a professional illustrator submitting her work for inclusion in textbooks and periodicals. Hilda was always with pencil and sketch pad and in her early days would persuade extended family members to sit for her whilst she sketched their portraits. Studies in two sketchbooks from her early years in Melbourne are now held at the National Library of Australia and in 2012 one of Rix’s early sketchbooks survives and pages from it were reproduced in Karen Johnson’s book, In Search of Beauty: Hilda Rix Nicholas’ Sketchbook Art
For most would-be artists who lived away from Europe such as Americans and Australians the Holy Grail was to visit and study art in Paris and London. Hilda’s father Henry decided to offer her a chance to sample the European art world and, in 1906, planned a family trip to England which, being as he was an educator, would also afford him the opportunity to study British education reforms. All his plans came to nought as Henry died that year, on February 27th aged just fifty-eight. His death at such a relatively young age precluded his widow from receiving a pension. After many discussions the family managed to cobble together money from an inheritance, money earnt from their rental income from their home, and finally money Hilda and her mother raised by selling off their many works of art and they were able to set sail for England early in 1907.
For Hilda, going to Europe to study art was only part of the solution to her improving her artistic skills, she needed to find a good teacher who was willing to tutor her. Before she left Australia, she spoke to Arthur Streeton, the Australian landscape painter who was the leading member of the Heidelberg School, which was also referred to as Australian Impressionism. He suggested that on arrival in London she contacted John Hassall, an English illustrator, who, in 1901, had opened his own New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington. When Hassall looked at Hilda’s work he was impressed by its quality and agreed to mentor her. She remained with him until the end of 1907 at which time, she, her mother and sister left England and travelled to Paris and rented an apartment in Montparnasse
In Paris Hilda made many friends who were involved in the art world, such as fellow Australian, Emanuel Phillips Fox. Fox had arrived in Paris in 1896 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he gained first prize in his year for design. The following year he trained at the École des Beaux-Arts where two of his tutors were William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who were considered the greatest artists of their time. He returned to Australia in 1890 but returned to London after receiving a commission to paint a scene of the landing of Captain Cook in Australia, which had the strange caveat that he must paint the work abroad.
The 1902 painting, The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770, depicts a wholly European perspective on the inauguration of relations between the British visitors and the local Aboriginal men of Botany Bay. In a post-Federation display of nationalistic projection, it shows Captain Cook stepping onto Australian land as part of a shore party, heroically interceding between the threatening local men who brandish spears and his own marines who aim to shoot them.
Hilda Rix also met Fox’s wife, Ethel, an English-born Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painter.
In Paris Hilda enrolled at the Académie Delécluse, operated by academic painter Auguste Joseph Delécluse. It was an atelier-style art school which was very supportive of women artists, and, in fact, it allotted more space to women students than to men. Men and women were trained separately, and it had two studios for women and only one for men. It was an extremely popular place to learn, especially among English and American women artists. At the height of its popularity, it was one of the four best-known ateliers in Paris. From this artistic establishment, Hilda moved to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where one of teachers was the Swiss-born illustrator Théophile Steinlen. She also studied at Académie Colarossi. It was around this time that Henri Matisse had a studio in the French capital and, as was the case with other professional artists, he also sometimes attended Colarossi’s to gain access to their models which he could use, free of charge, for his work. Matisse would also open the door of his studio to aspiring artists whom he would offer tuition and have them experiment with the techniques of Post Impressionism. It could well be that this is where Hilda first met Matisse.
Whilst living in Paris, the family would travel to Italy and other parts of France including Étaples, the fishing port in the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France which was so popular with artists. In 1909 Hilda Rix met and became very friendly with a Dutch architecture student Wim Brat. Their initial love ended when Hilda realised how her fiancé was a “mother’s boy” and was completely dominated by her, a woman who strongly disapproved of Hilda. Inevitably, Hilda broke off the engagement. Notwithstanding this personal setback, Hilda continued with her painting and exhibited her work at the 1911 Paris Salon. The painting, Return of the Hunt, was completed by Hilda in 1911 and depicts a woman on horseback in chocolate brown leather gloves with a large hare slung over her back.
Hilda Rix, accompanied by her sister and mother, took up residence in the rural art colony of Étaples the summer of 1910. Here she met Henry Ossawa Tanner, a well-established American artist in France, who was viewed as one of the leaders of the Étaples artists’ colony and a member of the art organization, the Société Artistique de Picardie. It was not just France and Italy which seduced artists, many started to cross the Mediterranean to paint and sketch in North Africa. Hilda Rix made two painting trips to the African continent. The first was in January 1912 when she travelled with a group of artists, including Henry Ossawa Tanner, and his wife, who were visiting Morocco via Madrid, Cordoba, and finally Algeciras, they had hoped to take a boat to Tangiers but the weather was too bad, which forced the travellers to Gibraltar for what proved a rough crossing to the Moroccan port.
Tanner being an African American and Rix being a female made them unconventional and exceptional travel and work companions on this journey. They stayed in Tangier and the northern port town of Tétouan. Matisse and Hilda Rix stayed in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France for most of February and March. They both painted views from the windows of their rooms at the hotel. Both of them worked on portraits and would use the same models and utilised an unused room in the hotel which the owner allocated to them. The room became a temporary studio space.
An example of the similar portraiture was Hilda’s painting, Hamido Sleeps and Matisse’s work, Moroccan Amido. In both cases the young model was a stable-hand at their Tangiers hotel.
In Matisse’s painting the young man stands easily and naturally, his slim long-legged form is emphasised by the narrow canvas format the artist has used. In the painting, Matisse captures the dark skin, the bright white shirt, the pure colours of the waistcoat and short trousers.
Hilda loved Tangier and spent hours sketching and painting in the open-air markets. She wrote home about how she loved Tangier and its market, writing:
“…Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work…”
Hilda Rix was fascinated by the buying and selling in the marketplace as well as the multitude of colours of the clothes worn by the people. In a letter home, dated February 12th 1912, she wrote:
“…”See how most of them are covering their faces – They have mostly cream draperies & perhaps orange waistcoats and little tight mauve green trousers – (tight at ankle) – Some may be wonderfully dressed under[neath]…”.
In a postcard she sent home a week later she wrote:
“…’Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me absolutely – Have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh I do love it all! …”
Of the 850+ blogs I have done in the last ten years, I think only three have been about living artists. Maybe I was concerned that they would be upset with what I had written or maybe they would be unhappy if I had been inaccurate, although I try to get facts from various sources to avoid errors. My featured artist today is a person who commented how he liked one of my blogs and when I looked at his blog/website and some of his artwork I decided that he would make for an ideal subject. I wrote to him and he was happy for me to do a small bio on his life and art, so let me introduce you to John Pototschnik, pronounced Poe-toe-sh-nic. John is a Signature member of the Oil Painters of America and a Master Signature Emeritus member of the Outdoor Painters Society. He is recognized in “Who’s Who in American Art” and “Who’s Who in the Southwest.” In addition, his work has appeared in multiple artist magazines and books. He’s also the author of a best-selling book: Limited Palette Unlimited Color published by Streamline Publishing.
John was born in England, in the Cornish coastal town of St. Ives, on November 14th 1945. His father was Ernest Felix Pototschnik, a native of Kansas whilst his mother, Patricia Mary Pototschnik (née Symons) was born in Trewartha, Lelant in Cornwall. She was Ernest’s second wife. Ernest’s first wife died during the birth of their son Ernest Francis. John’s father was a member of the US Army which was stationed in England during the Second World War and he met Patricia when he attended a local dance. John’s mother once told him that she remembered that first meeting saying she was especially attracted to Ernest because of his short stature, the way he carried himself, and the American uniform. The couple soon fell in love and were married in St Ives on February 12th 1945. John was their eldest child and he has a sister, Patsy Ann.
Around 1946 Ernest Pototschnik was discharged from the army, and returned to America where he purchased a home in Wichita, Kansas, prior to his wife and John travelling across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary some months later to join him. The family relocated to Wichita, Kansas and remained there for the next twenty-two years. John attended the Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Wichita and then enrolled at the city’s Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School. At school John enjoyed draughtsmanship and biology. He liked to sketch especially aircraft and racing cars. As a youth, his parents were comfortable with him going off on his own, exploring the neighbourhood. He even went door-to-door selling his mother’s cookies or collecting money for his paper route. John also often spent time with his father on hunting trips. He believes this freedom to roam was how he built up his love of small American towns.
After graduating from High School in 1963, he went to the Pittsburg State Teacher’s College in Pittsburg, Kansas for one year. During his early life at home there had been no exposure to art and the possibility of becoming an artist was never in consideration. However, it was during the time at the College that John had the first thoughts about art being a definite possibility in his future. He remembered purchasing the Famous Artist School correspondence course but admitted that he never completed it. He explained that there was just no time for this extra-curricular study as life was filled with college work, athletics, and an after-school job. He said that he had little time for anything else.
In June 1964, John enrolled at Wichita State University and embarked on a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a major in Advertising Design. During his university days he worked for a number of graphic design and illustration companies. One of the companies was Oblinger-Smith Planning Consultants where he worked as a graphic designer and, it was here, that through a work colleague he met Marcia who in October 1971 became Mrs Marcia Pototschnik. His love of airplanes also had him sign up for the USAF College Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). Upon graduation from college, I was guaranteed an Air Force commission and on leaving university in June 1968, John spent the next four years working for the United States Air Force stationed at El Segundo, California where he worked as an Internal/Public Information Officer working in community relations and edited the base newspaper.
Following completion of his time in the military in June 1972, he moved to Dallas and set about establishing a freelance illustration career although he proudly states he had his first paying job when he was ten years old, mowing lawns in the summer, raking leaves in the autumn and shovelling snow in the winter and at fifteen earned money as a part-time dish-washer at a local department store and during his first year of college days he was a consummate hamburger-flipper! For the next ten years of his life he worked as an illustrator for all the major advertising agencies and design studios. Of this decade as an illustrator he said he enjoyed the time:
“…I very much enjoyed working as a freelance illustrator. There was a great variety of work and its associated challenges. Being able to meet those challenges and satisfy a client was very rewarding. I also liked seeing my work in print. It also afforded me the opportunity to work in a number of media: pencil, pen/ink, watercolour, and acrylic. It also trained me to work under pressure and to meet tight deadlines…”
But all good things had to come to an end and for John the graphic design jobs were very time consuming and he said that his life revolved around long working hours and frequent bouts of little sleep. This lifestyle of constant pressure and ever-demanding deadlines could not go on forever and so in 1982 John made the decision to leave the world of illustration and graphic design and turn his mind to the world of Fine Arts.
However, it was not just himself he had to consider as now he had a wife and two sons, Jonathan in 1975 and two years later a second son, Andrew. But what did his wife think of his decision to quit his lucrative graphic designer career. John comments:
“…Marcia has always been supportive of my art career regardless of the direction I decided to take it. She is a woman of common sense and has never been materialistic, in that she needed things to make her happy. She loved being a mother and homemaker…”
One can see how the decision to enter the world of Fine Artist was a financial gamble and he spoke about the decision:
“…Many well-known illustrators were leaving the field and moving into the fine arts in the 1970’s. It was something I had always wanted to do but was told from the very beginning, “You’ll never make a living as a fine artist”. So, I chose to work in the commercial art side of the business. Seeing other illustrators make the leap encouraged me to do the same…”
The switch to Fine Arts from being an illustrator and graphic designer was a massive change in John’s life and he was aware of the perils of this transition, saying:
“…Change is always a gamble. Fortunately, I was pretty naïve concerning what it would take to succeed, and to the realities of the fine art business. I thought the transition would be smooth and easy. I would just start painting different subjects, charge the same prices I was getting as an illustrator, and begin calling myself a fine artist. The only part of that that worked out was that I was painting different subjects. Galleries recognized my work as being illustrative, and nothing sold at my illustration prices. Fortunately, the transition was eased somewhat by a friend who suggested I paint a series of paintings showing that the oil industry and wildlife could co-exist in the same area. If I did the paintings, he agreed to help me find six corporate sponsors that would purchase the paintings and their accompanying prints. That project worked well as it gave me time to begin working in oil, painting en plein air, developing my work, and funding my first year in the fine arts. Actually, there was not much thought given to financial success. I just figured one way or another this would work. However, it did take seven years to return to the level of income I was making as an illustrator…”
So how did the change of artistic direction go for John? He recalled those early day struggles:
“…Yes, there was a definite struggle. I did not realize it when I set my mind on becoming a fine artist, but fine art was beginning all over again. It is not a continuation of an illustration career; it’s starting a new career. I grew the career by doing lots of small paintings (5”x7” – 8” x 10”). These sold at very reasonable prices. I sold a lot of them, which helped grow a collector base. Then I began writing a monthly newsletter in order to stay in contact with the collectors. Determining the price structure for my paintings is interesting in itself: As stated earlier, I began using illustration prices for the paintings…nothing sold. I then cut the prices in half…nothing sold. I cut the prices in half again…I then began selling just about everything. That’s why those early paintings were so reasonable…”
John has painted in many mediums but his favourite is oils as it dries much slower than acrylic and thus affords him the chance to manipulate and correct his work until it is just right. He also is pleased by the way oils has substance and retains brushstrokes. When I asked John about his depictions being predominantly rural, he commented:
“…Much of what I paint are deeply felt impressions formed during my childhood. I grew up in the 1950s. It was a totally different time. I grew up in small neighbourhoods, small houses, small towns, near the country. My parents and grandparents had flourishing vegetable gardens. My mom made homemade cookies which I sold door to door. I had newspaper routes in which I delivered morning and evening newspapers door to door. I was free to ride my bicycle all around town and visit my friends. All these things, and much more, are in my work…”
His finished works are often the result of plein air painting which he enjoys but he says that about 99% of the plein air work is just for learning how to get a good handle on understanding nature. Some of those studies are used as a starting point for larger studio works. Less frequently, they are completed compositions unless they are for an art show or plein air competition, then, I will do larger completed works on location.
In so many of the artists I have looked at over the years many depict realist situations, such as the poverty of the peasants and the back-breaking labour they had to endure and so I asked John why he has not also painted those often harrowing depictions. He replied:
“…. I’ve never experienced personally the realities and hardships of actual farm life. I’ve been around farms, mainly as a child, so to this day have a more romanticized view. As an adult, I’m not unaware of the reality. I just choose to depict something that is somewhere between Realism and Idealism…”
He is also aware of the taste of the buying public. Do they want paintings depicting hard-hitting realism on the walls of their house or would they rather have idealised rural beauty adorning their lounges and dining rooms? John believes the latter is the case and the sale of his works of art bears out that assumption.
I asked him which of the great artists of the past he admired most. He was most definite with his reply:
“…My favourite expressions of art are found in the Barbizon and Naturalism schools. Breton and Millet are certainly two of my favourites, but there are many more from that era, painting in that genre. There are so many artist’s works, past and present that I greatly admire, so I will say that the 1800s is my absolute favourite period in art history…”
He said he loved the works of Camille Corot, Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet. In their paintings he saw a great sensitivity to people and nature. They have the ability to express all nature’s subtleties in such a unified, calming, peaceful way which he found very appealing. Only what is necessary is stated, nothing is overworked. He also liked the Naturalism of the art of Stanhope Forbes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Leon Lhermitte, Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Charles Sprague Pearce, Frank Bramley, Jules-Alexis Muenier, George Clausen, Gari Melchers, and Jules Breton. He liked how the Naturalists works are highly refined, almost photographic. Subjects are of common folks in everyday situations, people of the land, usually depicted in rural settings. I find all this extremely appealing, especially the high degree of finish. Finally, he said that he loved the work of the Russian Itinerants, such as Arkhipov, Kramskov, Levitan, Perov, Repin, Svetoslavsky and how their paintings are gritty, earthy, bold, and emotionally powerful. He summed it up by saying:
“…The common thread running through all the work I most love is a sense of the real. Subjects are of common folk doing common tasks. They are not idealized. Small towns, cottages, rural landscapes, and people going about their daily lives in that environment predominate. All of the above artists speak of the reality and truth of everyday life, there is no pretentiousness. I feel each artist has approached their work and subject with humility and is therefore able to capture the soul and spirit of the subject with great sensitivity…”
I finally asked John on his views for Fine Art in the future and the up and coming aspiring artists. How will the future compare with the past? He replied:
“…I’m not sure what the future holds for the fine art of painting. There will always be a place for beautiful things, things that elevate, but whether individual hand-crafted paintings will have as much value and importance to future generations as they have had in the past, I don’t know.
Lack of art education, shortened attention span, ever expanding technology, increased desire for the latest and greatest thing…and a new generation that has had little exposure to fine art… could greatly affect how fine art is valued in the future.
That being said, among serious art students, there seems to be a real move toward realism, and even classicism. Non-objective art among many is seen as empty and devoid of substance. They want more. Ateliers, teaching solid drawing and painting principles, have sprung up around the world. The Art Renewal Center is a strong influence in promoting a return to representational art. Also, the current plein air movement in the United States has encouraged a huge number of amateur artists to pick up their brushes and go outdoors. The negative side of the plein air movement is that people seem to think if a work is done in plein air, it must be good. What I see is a lot of poorly executed, poorly composed, and poorly drawn works. When these works are promoted in magazines and social media, one is led to believe the work is good and that anyone can be an artist. Doing something quickly is better than doing something thoughtfully and carefully seems to be the driving force.
Painting workshops are very helpful in providing for an artist’s livelihood. Unfortunately, many that are teaching should not be teaching because their work is of poor quality. Also, not every good artist is a good teacher. I recommend choosing one’s instructor carefully.
Finally, I disagree with students taking one workshop after another, jumping from one instructor to the next. Over and over again, I see this happening but see no improvement in the students work. It seems it’s more about saying I studied with so-and-so, than actually seriously applying what is taught…”
John has received many awards for his art and in 2018 the Art Renewal Center, the largest online association with 50,000 of the greatest works in history, recognized him as a Living Master (ARCLM). The requirements for Living Master status are extensive with the main caveat being, “The artist has dedicated themselves to becoming a realist artist with the wish to express our shared humanity through the visual arts.”
To find out more about John Pototschnik have a look at his website:
One of Fern Coppedge’s later paintings, The Coal Barge, which she completed around 1940, featured the Delaware Canal. The sixty-mile canal and the coal barges, which ploughed their way down its length, were an important means of transporting anthracite coal from north-eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. This barge trade lasted a hundred years and started in 1932 and in its heyday, over three thousand mule drawn boats travelled up and down this waterway carrying more than one million tons of coal every year. This mode of transport became obsolete with the transporting of coal by rail. This depiction of the canal and towpaths was a favourite depiction of many artists at the time. There was a connection between Fern and the mules, which were used to tow the barges, as her studio was in a barn which once housed the working animals.
In 1933 Fern completed a painting entitled Evening Local, New Hope which originally had the title, Five O’clock Train, which pictorially presents historical documentation of the schoolhouses which were in the New Hope-Solebury School District. The painting depicts New Hope Elementary School which can be seen on the hill off West Mechanic Street in New Hope. The building is no longer a school but is now the home of the New Hope Jewish congregation Kehilat NaHanar known locally as the “Little Shul by the River.”
Coppedge divided her time between her Boxwood home in Lumberville, her studio in the coastal town of Gloucester where she often spent summers, and a studio in Philadelphia which she used during exhibitions. In 1916 Fern spoke about her plein air painting at the Massachusetts fishing town of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and how she had many ardent onlookers. She wrote:
“…In the waters shown in my paintings, there were a number of lobster traps. The fishermen were so much interested in the development of the picture of this familiar scene that in order to have an excuse to see it they would bring me a freshly boiled lobster, and the old sea captains would entertain me with thrilling stories of stormy nights spent in their little fishing schooners on the Newfoundland Banks and the Georges…”
In 1922 Fern was accepted into the all-women art society known as the Philadelphia Ten and exhibited regularly with them through to 1935. They were an exclusive and progressive group of female artists and sculptors who ignored society rules of the time by working and exhibiting together.
Coppedge once talked about her favoured methodology of painting and how she favoured working plein air to capture the essence of nature, notwithstanding inclement weather conditions:
“…I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush. I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm’s length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation…”
Pennsylvania Impressionism was an American Impressionist movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. The movement is sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School” of landscape painting. Fern Coppedge was the only female member of The New Hope School. She was part of that art movement and devoted numerous pictures to her Bucks County environment especially her winter scenes and she would suffer for her art with her plein air painting in the sub-zero conditions. She was fascinated with the beauty of the snow. There is no doubt that the extreme cold winters challenged her devotion to plein air painting. She tried to get round this and carry on painting as long as she could by removing the back seat of her car to paint from an enclosed warm area. In cold windy conditions she would often tie her canvases to trees to fight off the wind and would wear her unfashionable but fit-for-purpose bearskin coat. It was said by a local art critic for The New Hope magazine in November 1933:
“…We remember seeing Mrs. Coppedge trudging through the deep snow wrapped in a bearskin coat, her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling with the joy of life…”.
There was a difference between her paintings and the other New Hope Impressionists. Unlike other New Hope Impressionists, Fern Coppedge looked at the landscape scenes she was to paint with different eyes than them. Of course, the first thing she acknowledged was what the eyes saw or the true photographic image. However, she would also want an input from her imagination and how the scene felt like to her, and it was this power of imagination that led her to paint scenes with colours and tones which did not exist in reality.
An example of her differing style can be seen if you compare her depiction of Carversville with the depiction of the same place by her fellow New Hope School artist, Edward Redfield.
Often her scenes would not be topographically correct. Again, it was down to her power of imagination which countered reality and the finished result was an idealised version of the scene which was all about pleasing the artist. In her mind, the depiction was a battle between what was actually there in front of her against what she imagined should be there. Instead of depicting building using true brown and grey colours, Fern preferred to use pink and turquoise to, as if by magic, brighten facades. A travesty of art ? Maybe we should think of how nowadays we adjust photographs, using photo editing packages, to achieve, not a true result, but a result we find more pleasing ! The fact her paintings sold so well is testament that the buying public had no problem with her idealisation or colour shifts.
Fern joined “The Philadelphia Ten” in 1922 and exhibited regularly with them for the next thirteen through 1935. The Philadelphia Ten, which was founded in 1917, was both a unique and forward-thinking group of women artists and sculptors who ignored the rules of society and the art world by working and exhibiting together for almost thirty years. Their work was varied and included both urban and rural landscapes, portraiture, still life, and a variety of representational and myth-inspired sculpture. The group of local female artists started with eleven founding members, who were all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), but over the years the membership rose to thirty artists, twenty three who were painters and seven who were sculptors.
In the summer of 1925, Coppedge travelled to Italy and immersed herself in painting local scenes. She stayed in the city of Florence, which was a base for her travels around Tuscany, ever recording pictorially the beauty of the Tuscan landscape. It is thought that during her time in Tuscany Fern was inspired to change her painting style. She began to simplify the natural elements she saw before her, often flattening them and she also became much more audacious when it came to her colour choices. One of my favourite works from this period is Coppedge’s painting entitled The Golden Arno. She had sketched views of the great Italian river as it passed through Tuscany and the painting was completed back in her home studio. Coppedge talked about this painting and how it came about:
“…From my hotel, overlooking the Arno in Florence—looking from the balcony window—I saw the Arno River flowing gently like molten gold. It was late afternoon, and lazy Italian boatmen floated past in the dark, sturdy barges, wending their way down the river. Along the opposite bank were charming old stucco houses in colours of pale and rusty yellow, rose, pink, and old red. Tiled roofs, arched doorways and deeply recessed windows, balconies, towers and turrets against the background of cypress trees—all mirrored in the waters of the Arno. Church towers and ancient castle walls patterned against the hills inspired me and thrilled me with an irresistible desire to put on canvas my impressions…”
In 1926, the painting of the Arno was included in an exhibition of The Philadelphia Ten. It received great praise from both viewers and art critics. The painting was later exhibited in exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and it is now regarded as one of her best works. It was also reproduced on the cover of The Literary Digest in March of 1930. The painting was acquired by her local high school, mostly likely after the school opened in 1931. Around 1934, Fern stopped exhibiting with The Philadelphia Ten and instead focused on exhibiting at her studio,
During her artistic career she received several awards including the Shillard Medal in Philadelphia, a Gold Medal from the Exposition of Women’s Achievements, another Gold Medal from the Plastics Club of Philadelphia, and the Kansas City H.O. Dean Prize for Landscape.
Coppedge died at her New Hope home on April 21st, 1951 at the age of 67. Her husband, Robert W. Coppedge, died in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1948. The Coppedges, who were married in 1904, remained husband and wife for 44 years. Fern Coppedge was one of America’s most prolific painters, having completed over five thousand works during her lifetime. I will leave the last word on Fern Coppedge and her paintings to Arthur Edward Bye, an American landscape architect born in the Netherlands who grew up in Pennsylvania who said:
“…Man and his activities seem pleasantly remote but not absent in her landscapes. She fills them with houses and churches, lanes, bridges, and canals. They have therefore, that suggestion of human life, coloured with brightness, exuberant, which best answers the needs of most of us…”
Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.