Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 20, 2012 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Wendy Greenhouse, PhD. The essay was published in the brochure for the exhibition The Art of George Ames Aldrich, held August 21 - November 16, 2012 at Brauer Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text are reproduced with permission of the respective copyright holders. If you have questions or comments regarding the source materials, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition brochure, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:
Escape Artist: George Ames Aldrich
by Wendy Greenhouse
One of Indiana's favorite artists, George Ames Aldrich (1871-1941) was a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, and studied art at New York's Art Students League in the early 1890s. Aldrich went to Paris in 1894 for further instruction, remaining for some six years. He then divided his time between Europe and America, working as an illustrator for English and American periodicals. By 1904, meanwhile, he had painted the first interpretations of what would become his signature subject: a stream bordered by quaint rural cottages or a mill (fig. 1). His subjects, compositions, and bravura painting of the surface of swiftly flowing water were inspired by the works of Norwegian impressionist landscapist Fritz Thaulow (1847-1906). With little foundation Aldrich later claimed both Thaulow and American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) as his teachers, part of a largely fabricated professional identity designed to enhance his prestige at home.
Before his move to the Midwest in the mid-Teens, Aldrich led a somewhat peripatetic life, combining landscape painting, etching, theatrical set design, magazine illustration, and dog breeding -- the latter undertaken in partnership with his first wife, fellow artist Eugenie Wehrle (1879-1975). In 1917, the couple settled on Chicago's South Side. Aldrich was already middle-aged when he finally turned full-time to work as a professional fine artist. In 1918, he made his debut in the Art Institute of Chicago's annual exhibition for area artists and he soon joined the Palette and Chisel Club, among other important local artists' organizations. Aldrich traveled widely in the US, broadening his subjects to include scenes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the West and Southwest, and the forest preserve near Chicago; he also painted idyllic fantasy landscapes (fig 2). The settings of French rural life remained his perennial favorite, however. Following another trip abroad, in 1920, he added village scenes, including blue-saturated wintertime nocturnes, to his repertoire. A prolific painter, Aldrich made numerous renditions of these and other popular subjects. His style drew on the broken brushwork of Impressionism and the muted shadows of Tonalism for an effect regarded at the time as both up-to-date and commendably conservative.
In the Midwest Aldrich focused his efforts on catering to the traditionalist taste of middle-class buyers, especially those outside the city. He visited towns in Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Indiana, as well as Illinois, and exhibited his paintings in women's clubs, hotels, and other civic venues. He boosted the appeal of his art by his personal presence in such regional locales, where he was lionized in the local press as an internationally renowned artist of elite family pedigree and Parisian academic training. In 1922, he showed to great acclaim at the Progress Club in South Bend, Indiana. Then newly divorced, Aldrich married Esta Grantham, a local schoolteacher, and took up residence in the city. He became the center of its burgeoning art life as a founder of the Fine Arts Club, an occasional writer on art matters for a South Bend newspaper, and a favorite among area collectors. His peaceful Indiana woodland scenes, typically featuring a stream receding between snowy banks (fig. 3), and his views of riverside factories glimpsed from a flattering distance appealed to local pride; his images of old French rural mills resonated with collectors in midwestern river towns that had developed thanks to water power and transport.
During this time Aldrich's reputation was growing in Chicago as well. In 1925 he won the Municipal Art League's Thompson Prize at the Art Institute. The following year, he moved with his wife and daughter back to the city's South Side, no doubt encouraged by the recent founding of two important exhibition venues targeted at the conservative art consumers among whom he had already found success: the Chicago Galleries Association, a cooperative gallery created by the Municipal Art League, and the Hoosier Salon for artists who worked in Indiana, held at the Marshall Field & Co. department store. He won prizes at each, and in 1926 he participated for the only time in a major exhibition outside the Midwest, at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Aldrich maintained his ties to South Bend, however, and spent considerable time in northern Indiana and southern Michigan.
Even before the Great Depression devastated the art market, Aldrich's success was undermined by alcoholism and depression. Yet he continued to paint prolifically until the end of his life. In the late 1930s his iconic paintings were reproduced on promotional materials for such corporations as International Harvester and toothpaste manufacturer Iodent Chemical, demonstrating the wide appeal of his pleasing pictures of an idealized bygone rural Europe and a bucolic Midwest. While these signature subjects dominate his total oeuvre of some one thousand canvases, Aldrich's actual production ranged far beyond them to include vistas of Chicago's skyline and industrial scenes (fig. 4) as well as floral still lifes.
Even when picturing Chicago's steel mills, however, Aldrich created decorative fictions of a piece with his self-fashioned professional persona. With their blend of naturalistic verisimilitude and poetic sentiment, his paintings fulfilled a popular ideal of art as a soothing refuge from modernity, at once accessible and refined, familiar and removed. His approach was almost invariably euphemistic, "reveal[ing] a romanticist" who "sees an idyll in a French village and a magnificent pageant in a steel foundry," according to one contemporary. Combining romantic scenery, elegiac sentiment, and facile technique, Aldrich's typical paintings offer comfort laced with a touch of melancholy and regret, promising a safe haven in an era of dizzying change.
About the author
Images from the exhibition
(above: George Ames Aldrich (1871-1941), The River Elaune, Bellengreville, 1908, Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 inches. Gift of Phyllis (Buehner) Duesenberg (VU 1954) and Richard W. Duesenberg (VU 1951, BA, VU 1953, JD). Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, 95.08)
(above: George Ames Aldrich (1871-1941), Untitled (Oliver Hotel summer/fall landscape), undated, Oil on canvas, mounted on board, 67 x 92 inches. Collection of the Charles S. Hayes Family)
(above: George Ames Aldrich (1871-1941), Untitled (Oliver Hotel winter river scene), undated, Oil on canvas, mounted on board, 66 1/2 x 90 1/2 inches. South Bend Museum of Art, Gift of National City Bank, 1999.4)
To view additional images from the exhibition, please click here.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Gregg Hertzlieb, Director/Curator, Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, for his help concerning permission for publishing online the above essay and accompanying images of artworks in the exhibition.
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