Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner
Texts concerning individual artworks in the exhibition
Texts followed by AH are authored by Arthur D. Hittner and those followed by GS are authored by George V. Speer
Building a Nation (Construction)
c.1938 oil on canvas
Leon Bibel was a Polish émigré who collaborated on public murals in Northern California before moving East, where he found work in New York City through the Federal Arts Project. Building a Nation (Construction) employs the visual language, simultaneously democratic and triumphalist, favored by FAP administrators. The painting combines Regionalist references -- in the small vignette of a farm and the implied narrative of a barn-raising -- with compositional and figural choices that were more commonly found in paintings and murals created for urban audiences. The dominant composition of three men hoisting timbers, for example, restates the visual culture of heroism among skilled workers laboring to erect the Empire State Building at the rate of one floor per day. Hyper-masculinized figures such as those in Bibel's canvas appeared throughout the 1930s in painting, photo-journalism and the graphic arts as emblems of optimism, effort, and endurance.
The tangle of beams and muscled arms appears chaotic at first glance, as if to suggest the noise and collective energy of the project, a sense of progress being made that is symbolic of the recovery of the nation as a whole. A closer look, however, reveals that the timbers join one another at right angles -- that is to say, in support of one another. Eventually, the four walls joined together will bear the weight of the finished structure. In much the same way, these American yeomen and their counterparts across the continent work towards the common good. Order emerges from disorder, many hands make the burden light. GS
Mother & Child
1934 sculpted mahogany
Although it was created two years earlier, Mother & Child by the talented San Francisco sculptor Brents Carlton appears here as a three-dimensional counterpart to one of the cornerstone paintings of this exhibition, Harold Rabinovitz's Eventide. Carlton's sculpture presents us with two of the three figures appearing in Eventide, the mother and infant, rendered in the round with the same sense of strength and solidity that characterizes Rabinovitz's corresponding subjects on canvas. Both works employ the prevailing artistic vocabulary of the period: powerfully fashioned figures with ample hands and strong limbs. And like Caravaggio's Madonna di Loreto (c. 1604-06, Sant'Agostino, Rome), both mothers appear barefoot and each securely grasps her naked infant in a determined effort to protect him from harm.
The medium of sculpture, however, allows Carlton more freedom to liberate his subjects from time and place. The sculptor enhances this timelessness by sculpting eyes and hair in a classical manner. Rabinovitz's family, in contrast, is firmly rooted in the Depression era as indicated by the dated garments, the foreboding skies and the trappings of a meager existence. Yet Carlton's unbowed, sturdily upright figures seem adequately girded for the times in which they were rendered, equipped to thrive against any and all odds. AH
Daniel R. Celentano
late 1930s oil on canvas
As he did in The Houseboat, seen elsewhere in this exhibition, Daniel Celentano structured Between Rounds on opposing diagonals to frame the narrative. Two edges of the ring below and three parallel ropes above all lead to the sinewed figure of the boxer, whose body glows in the harsh overhead lamps, emanating its own energy. Harshly drawn shadows -- particularly in his arms and neck -- describe a body relentlessly trained for this moment. Celentano kept the background dark and minimally detailed to emphasize the tension and focus of the boxer and his trainers. From his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, Celentano learned the expressive power of the male body, using angular gestures and distorted proportions to convey the physical, atavistic urgency in the short break before the bell. Indeed, extended looking reveals that, if the boxer were to stand, he would loom far out of scale with respect to the others. As in many of Benton's paintings and murals, there is a latent sexual tension between these men: The trainers violate the boxer's space: The man at left straddles the fighter's thigh and the position of his right fist suggests that his "joe" risks being emasculated by the opponent. To the right, the man's gesture amounts to a poke in the ribs, as if the trainer hopes to needle him into action. Throughout, limbs and bodies create a rhythmic movement from side to side, into and out of the pictorial frame, that evokes the thrusts and retreats of the combatants themselves. GS
Daniel R. Celentano
The Day's News
c. 1936 oil on canvas on board
Daniel Celentano's The Day's News is one of a related group of works set in the cramped tenement interiors typical of the ethnic Italian neighborhood in which the artist lived. The painting portrays an extended family huddled around the patriarch as he reads from a newspaper after the evening meal. "He paints the humble domestic life that he knows with a frankness as to its happenings, a sympathy and a timeless eye for detail that command respect," wrote a critic for The New York Times. The critic reassured his readers that "[t]he curious may learn all about that life from his paintings without going to the trouble of doing settlement work or running the slightest risk of getting out of their class." Reading the day's news aloud was one way for immigrant families to facilitate assimilation into their adopted culture.
Supper Hour, a closely related interior scene featuring an extended family enjoying their evening meal, was exhibited by Celentano at the Art Institute of Chicago's Annual Exhibition in 1936 and at the Dayton Art Institute in 1939. A third work, Idle Hours (executed in 1936), which was exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in 1937 and at the Art Institute of Chicago the following year, may be the pre-dinner vignette which begins the multi-painting sequence. AH
Daniel R. Celentano
c.1936 oil on canvas
The site of this vignette, which Arthur Hittner has identified as among the houseboats moored along the East River, reflects Daniel Celentano's history as a native New Yorker and his embrace of urban genre themes. At the same time, The Houseboat embodies a more widely defined visual culture in the 1930s that celebrated the robust personalities and physical energies of "the people." The Houseboat evokes both a specific moment in the present and a timeless, enduring bond of family -- two themes that underlay many government-supported public murals as well as paintings and graphic works created by artists across the nation.
The dynamic composition, in which two opposing diagonals anchored at the bottom margin draw us into the narrative, directly reflects Celentano's early study with Thomas Hart Benton, who worked and taught in New York until his disillusionment with modern, "foreign isms" drove him back to his native Kansas City. The houseboat is an organic form, a framing device for the figures that echoes in Benton's mural cycles in New York and the Midwest. Celentano heightens the muscularity and twisting, vigorous gestures of the grown men much as Benton would do throughout his career. Every form in the composition is simultaneously solid and animated, again, in the manner of Celentano's teacher -- but Celentano's brushwork is more obvious and expressive, lending a physicality, a "life" to the painted surface that parallels the boisterous lives of these working-class New Yorkers. GS
Daniel R. Celentano
1930s graphite on paper
The Italian-American painter Daniel Celentano undoubtedly found the subject matter for Shooting Craps in the Italian Harlem neighborhood in upper Manhattan that inspired much of his work. Street corners, porches and alleyways were routinely commandeered as gathering places for makeshift games of dice. The activity was also a frequent subject for photojournalists such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. A game of craps provided instant neighborhood entertainment at minimal cost. All that was required was a few minutes of time and a pair of dice. Celentano took advantage of the range of values offered by graphite: He emphasized the moment of the crap shoot by intensifying and complicating the rendering of bodies and clothes on figures closer to the game. Peripheral figures and the streetscape itself fade away, further concentrating our attention on the gamblers.
Idle time was overly plentiful during the Depression. Like the card players in Helen Farr's Poker, the dice players in Celentano's composition (including both older boys and adults) found reassurance in social interaction and a welcome distraction from the challenges of daily survival. At another level, the game of chance served as a metaphor for the vagaries of life. AH/GS
1933 oil on canvas
Completed in the same year as his Young Ball Player, James Chapin's elaborate Street Market depicts a quintessential New York City street scene, capturing the hustle and bustle of the fruit and vegetable vendors, their customers and passersby in what was likely his own West Village neighborhood. Chapin lived at 299 West 12th Street at the time this work was executed, directly across the street from Abingdon Park, a quarter-acre greenspace constituting one of Manhattan's oldest parks (and where weekend street markets are still staged today).
While the artist made numerous modifications in the details of the buildings which abutted the park, he was much more interested in the human activity occurring within it. Chapin meticulously imbued his figures with character and individuality, from the little girl accompanying her grandmother as she carries a bag of produce in the left foreground to the man who passes through the scene in the right foreground, perhaps on his way to work (if, indeed, he was fortunate enough to be employed). Though the scene takes place in the depths of the Depression and the abundance of produce seems strangely at odds with the prevailing sense of want, Chapin steadfastly refuses to evoke sympathy or pathos. Instead, his subjects go on about their business, revealing a gritty determination to carry on. AH
Young Ball Player
1933 (with later additions) oil on canvas
From the ubiquitous sandlots of small-town America to the grandstands of Yankee Stadium, baseball was firmly entrenched in the American consciousness when the Depression hit. Babe Ruth was a hero and the national pastime offered a welcome distraction from the anxieties of everyday life. James Ormsbee Chapin was at the height of his popularity when he executed this homage to the local athletic hero, the fair-haired slugger whose exploits on the diamond were the stuff of local legend in cities and towns across the country.
Young Ball Player (alternately titled Swagger of the Young Ballplayer) is the earliest of four known works by Chapin depicting ageless, semi-professional "bush league" ballplayers. Painted when Chapin was living in the rural New Jersey community of Glen Gardner (he also maintained a studio/residence in New York City), his subject wears the uniform of the nearby Woodglen, New Jersey town team.
Chapin's portrayals of ballplayers, boxers, farmers, railroad workers and other ordinary heroes of the American Scene were rendered with the same strength and dignity as his later likenesses of famous Americans such as Robert Frost, Katharine Hepburn, Dwight D. Eisenhower and fellow painter Edward Hopper. AH
c.1946 oil on canvas
Although Beatrice Cuming was chiefly active as a painter and educator in Connecticut, her canvas titled Industrial Landscape more likely represents a factory complex associated with a Standard Oil subsidiary in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As Arthur Hittner and others have noted, Cuming's work demonstrates her affinity for the work of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. The title, alone, recalls Sheeler's iconic canvases American Landscape and Classic Landscape, while the setting evokes Demuth's poignant My Egypt, a painting in which the artist assessed his brief career and terminal illness against the "timeless" monumentality of Lancaster's industrial structures.
Formally, Cuming's painting owes a great deal more to Sheeler. The leaden sky of grays and blues, together with the depth of field suggested by the roadway and diminishing utility lines recall Sheeler's works from the early 1930s. In particular, the individual striding away from us echoes a similar, almost invisible figure that alone occupies the industrial complex in Sheeler's American Landscape. Both artists captured a melancholic sense of silence and stillness, of a moment -- in a community, or perhaps in a nation's history -- that has passed.
That said, there is none of the linear precision and geometric abstraction of Sheeler's or Demuth's canvases in Industrial Landscape. Instead, the undulating forms of the roadway and the railing that overlooks the tracks, together with the tilting planes of roofs and storefronts, recall Charles Burchfield's haunting scenes of disintegrating Midwestern towns. It is as if, only a year or so beyond America's triumph in the Second World War, Beatrice Cuming already anticipated the decline of Northeastern cities into what we know today as the Rust Belt. GS
c. 1940 oil on canvas
A well-respected painter and art instructor, Jerry Farnsworth was praised by one critic for infusing his Working Girl with a sense of "fatigue and determination," twinned experiences that can be fairly said to have characterized the times. Working Girl was painted around 1940, a transitional point between the decade of the Depression and the onset of World War II. Americans were fatigued by the tribulations brought on by the worldwide economic collapse and would soon grow weary of war.
Farnsworth created this canvas in his New York City studio using a professional artist's model. As the generalized background confirms, Farnsworth's Working Girl was meant to convey a universal emotion rather than to portray a particular sitter in a specific time and place.
The young woman in the painting shows an uncanny ability to tune out distraction and focus on the work at hand. She could be a wife or daughter working to make ends meet in hard times and contributing to her family's welfare. Or perhaps Working Girl presaged the heroic contributions that American women would make on the home front in the inevitable conflict to come. Americans who were already debilitated by a decade of economic struggles would soon be confronted by the even darker reality of another world war. AH
Helen Farr (Sloan)
c.1940 oil on masonite
A student and later the (much younger) wife of Ashcan School painter John Sloan, Helen Farr harbored the same interest as her teacher/husband in observing and portraying the everyday life around her. She was a resident of New York City when she executed Poker, basing it upon her observations "while riding the second or third avenue 'L'...on the edge of Harlem." According to her recollection, the figures she painted from memory were "sitting on a rooftop near."
Although marginalized, the African-American community was as integral to the American Scene in 1940 as the infinitely more visible white society. Farr took pains to depict the participants and spectators of a neighborhood card game with a keen sense of solemnity and dignity, much as William L'Engle portrayed his African-American subjects a decade earlier in Nightclub Dancer (Harlem), which appears elsewhere in this exhibition. Like the dice players and spectators in Celentano's Shooting Craps, Farr's subjects are ordinary people socially engaged in a simple card game, a welcome diversion from the challenges of everyday life. AH
Place in the Sun
1934 oil on masonite
Although her education and career followed by more than two decades the urban genre work of the Ashcan School -- Henri, Sloan, and Bellows -- Fife's painting Place in the Sun and a related work titled The Lovers (or The Stoop) exemplify the conditions of "life lived outside" that so fascinated the earlier
painters. The crush of urban, working-class neighborhoods seen, for example, in Bellows' famous canvas The Cliffdwellers, defined the public areas of the city as the only places in which friendship, courting, and romance could unfold. Fife's colleague, Reginald Marsh, often conveyed the eroticism of urban encounters in such works as George Tilyou's Steeplechase. In Place in the Sun, Fife has captured the gregarious solidarity of working girls enjoying a smoke and a few minutes of sun during their lunch hour. The classic pyramidal shape of the composition does nothing to defuse the erotic physicality of these women. And yet, the arms, long, shapely legs and hiked-up skirts are less about attracting the attention of a few bums on a fire escape and more expressive of the freedom and self-awareness of these girls, each of whom might have plans of her own that don't include a man. Fife's friendship with Isabel Bishop, another chronicler of the lives of working women, might have suggested the theme as well as the composition, which effectively pushes the men to the margins. GS
Edward B. Firn
c.1935 oil and tempera on masonite
Edward Firn was a noted painter in Cincinnati and the greater Midwest during the interwar years. A critic of the day noted that Firn "likes to paint the people of the mountains...They are simple in their desires...and they are sincere." In County Fair, two modest ladies of Kentucky wait anxiously as judges consider the merits of their pickles and peppers, while in the background, brilliantly colored quilts testify to the strength of another domestic art among women in the Heartland.
At stake is another year of bragging rights, certainly, but a woman's ability to "put up" or preserve her kitchen garden's bounty bore directly upon her family's survival. Thousands of farming communities scraped through the Depression on such stores of canned goods held in cellars and in footed, white enamel kitchen cupboards called "hoosiers." Firn's palette is a patriotic red, white and blue with repeating hues in hats and dresses that subliminally unite the women and suggest a larger community. Firn might very well have borrowed from the great Regionalist painter Grant Wood's painting titled Daughters of the American Revolution (see below). The figures in County Fair create a frieze across the visual plain much as in Grant's painting; the tall, central figure is positioned and scaled as if echoing Grant's formidable matriarch, who wields a teacup and looks out at the viewer through hooded eyes. Further, Kirn's younger woman, who peers directly at us from behind the older generation, repeats the rightmost figure in Daughters of the American Revolution -- another matriarch whom many suspect is Grant Wood in drag.
In Daughters of the American Revolution, the committee members appraise their visitor for her suitability as a member of the august sisterhood; the judging of preserves in County Fair is far more democratic in nature, but the contestant's anxiously clasped hands signal her urgent hope for even a small victory with which to assuage the accumulated setbacks and disappointments of rural life in the Depression. GS
Street of Dreams
c.1945 oil on canvas
Douglas Gorsline's Street of Dreams is in the tradition of urban genre scenes established by John Sloan and Robert Henri, among others, just after the turn of the century. This is a complicated painting. On the one hand, the young girl who turns to look back at us is unaccompanied by a beau, perhaps less fortunate in that respect than the two couples in the middle distance and beyond. But then again, those couples seem destined to spend the evening in one of the bars that beckon through the haze of streetlights. Perhaps Gorsline is suggesting that the lights, music, cigarette smoke and cocktails of a bar conspire to create a warm -- and deceptive -- fog of feeling much as the moon does outside, an atmosphere conducive to dreams of romance. Most problematic is the question of the young lady's intentions. She embodies the independent working girls of New York who first appeared in works by Sloan and Henri and in 1945, a generation later, were more empowered and independent after wartime employment.
Much depends on who we imagine is the object of her attention: She might be looking back to encourage a girlfriend who accompanies her on an evening of adventure ? in the spirit of paintings by Isabel Bishop and Hollywood films such as Stage Door, which turned on narratives of working women bolstering one another in a man's world. But Gorsline has emphasized the young lady's figure, the way her glowing dress clings to her curves. She shows some leg. And most compromising of all, she has taken off her hat -- a signal in the behavioral codes of the time that a woman will entertain a seduction. The "dreams" about which Gorsline is so ambivalent seem to tend toward the disappointments of urban romance. But if we choose to read the painting more optimistically, perhaps this is a scene in which a pretty girl has caught a first glimpse of a fine fellow and has stopped to look back and consider the possibilities. GS
Setting Up the Circus
1935 oil on canvas
Vermadel Griswold's Setting Up the Circus provides a bright, colorful, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world of the circus, portraying not only the preparations of the circus workers -- often referred to as "carnies" -- but, as well, the sense of anticipation among the local residents in the foreground who watch intently as the circus begins to take shape. The composition is balanced and lively, its breadth of activity heightened by the artist's use of a large canvas and strong horizontal elements such as the broad planes of the circus tent. The horses, a favorite subject for Griswold, are deftly drawn. While very few works by Griswold have come to light, at least two other circus subjects are known. One of these, Sideshow, is a delightful vignette featuring circus promoters and performers working the crowd outside a sideshow tent.
Griswold, who lived in Connecticut, did not consider herself a professional painter, although she maintained a relationship with a distinguished New York gallery. Like many female artists of her day, she was content to subordinate her career to that of her more prominent husband (in this case, a leading physician). Yet despite these self-imposed constraints, Griswold remained a keen observer of the lives of her Connecticut neighbors. AH
Earl B. Holdren
Suits and Loans
1942 oil on masonite
Earl B. Holdren studied art, design and advertising at Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh during the early 1930s. After working briefly as an artist and freelance designer in New York and Pittsburgh, he had turned to a full-time career in advertising by the middle of that decade while continuing to paint and exhibit on an occasional basis in Pittsburgh.
Advertising in America exploded with the rise of the consumer society in the 1920s. While the industry suffered during the economic downturn that followed, commerce remained a critical component of the American experience from New York's ritzy Fifth Avenue to the modest neighborhood pawnshops in cities and towns across the country.
Holdren's Suits and Loans depicts three figures in front of a small urban shop in a low-income Pittsburgh neighborhood. The figure on the left, attired in a flashy white suit, suggests a salesman extolling the virtues of his wares. The other two figures pay minimal attention to his sales pitch as they casually consider the establishment's broad offerings, ranging from musical instruments and shotguns to suits, topcoats and even loans. While the precise location of the scene is uncertain, the shop bears some resemblance to Sam Seltzer & Co. at Fifth Avenue and Diamond Street in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The Hill District was known as the "Harlem of Pittsburgh" and the best venue in the city for jazz. AH
Richard F. Kollorsz
1934 watercolor on paper
Crossroads by Richard F. Kollorsz is the bourgeois complement to Holdren's Suits and Loans. A pure urban landscape, Kollorsz's view of a middle-class neighborhood (quite possibly the Mount Washington section of Los Angeles) emphasizes commerce. Though the painting is largely devoid of figures, their presence is implied by the numerous vehicles parked along the street. Signs for a drug store, "The Warehouse" (in the center) and Safeway Stores attest to the dominance of business activity at this intersection.
German born and classically trained in his native country, Kollorsz immigrated to Hollywood in 1929, finding work in set design for films. Although he worked with the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros on a Los Angeles mural project in 1932, Kollorsz was an intensely private individual who avoided contact with the local art community and only rarely exhibited.
The subject matter and technique of Crossroads relate closely to watercolors by Regionalist painters of the so-called "California Style" including Paul Sample (represented in this collection by an oil), Millard Sheets, Phil Paradise and Barse Miller, all active during the same period. AH
William J. L'Engle
Nightclub Dancer (Harlem)
c.1930 oil on canvas
Emerging after the First World War, the so-called Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American music, art, dance and literature, found its zenith in the nightclubs, theaters and cafes of New York City's Harlem district. William L'Engle, a Louisiana-bred and Paris-trained artist who spent his winters in New York, was captivated by the art and culture of urban black America. The painter and his artist wife, Lucy, were particularly fascinated by modern dance, enrolling their daughters in the children's dance group formed by legendary choreographer Isadora Duncan. L'Engle completed several works featuring members of the Martha Graham dance troupe and other pioneers of modern dance.
Nightclub Dancer (Harlem) relates closely to a series of paintings and drawings by the artist that capture the spirit of the Jazz Age. A description of a related work (Girls Dancing, Harlem, 1930) in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, applies equally to this painting: "In tight clothes, very sexy, and moving to a rhythmic beat, [L'Engle's] dancers epitomize the then current view of blacks as primitive, exotic, and highly sensual."
Neatly framed by the nightclub patrons in the foreground and the musicians in the background, L'Engle's alluring dancer dominates the canvas. Cubist elements in the center of the composition illuminate her like a spotlight. The beat of the music and the dancer's graceful movements are accentuated by subtle curves, from the sousaphone in the upper left of the painting to the patron's arm in the lower right. AH
Alexander O. Levy
1936 oil on panel
Alexander Levy was a German émigré who followed the common path of his country's expatriate artists, studying first with Frank Duveneck in Cincinnati.
From Duveneck and another teacher, Robert Henri in New York, Levy developed the lush, assertive handling of paint that animates Negro Spiritual. Henri, in particular, urged his students to take their art "out of the studio and into the streets," to find compelling subjects among everyday Americans. Levy's limited palette of muted browns, ochres, and grays conveys both the austerity of the urban church and the seriousness of the moment. From his mentors, Levy learned the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, brushed in with generous applications of paint that, in particular, animate the eyes and facial planes of the central figure. In Negro Spiritual, the stillness of the group implies that the song being sung by the church choir is among the powerful, slow-paced and mournful hymns that expressed both the sorrow of Christ's sacrifice and the tragedy of an enslaved people -- perhaps "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord" or "There Is a Balm in Gilead." Each congregant reacts in a different manner: The older gentleman in the second pew internalizes the words and music; the svelte young woman in the back is respectful but not overtly moved. By contrast, the strongly-modeled elderly woman at the heart of the composition incarnates, in her scale, expression, and prayerful gesture, the power of the music itself. Her expression is visionary and transporting. Just behind her, a girl of about ten embodies yet another generation of African Americans who will grow up drawing strength from shared faith and treasured rituals of churchgoing. GS
Harvey H. Meadows, Jr.
c. 1930 ink or wash on paper
When the Depression reached its lowest point in 1933, the unemployment rate in the United States was nearly twenty-five percent. For black Americans, the rate was likely twice as high. Homelessness was rampant. Vignettes like that portrayed in Sleeping Man were common everyday scenes, particularly in urban America. This highly sensitive depiction of a proud but downtrodden victim of the Great Depression was executed by an obscure Midwestern artist identified as Harvey Hatchett Meadows, Jr. Although he is known currently by only a handful of works, Meadows in Sleeping Man reveals a keen eye for the poignant and the skill to render it with only a few, simple lines. Though homeless and unemployed, the man clings to the dignity conferred by his suit, the last remnant of an earlier, more prosperous life. The sketch brings to mind the climactic scene in Golddiggers of 1933, in which Joan Blondell, playing the role of a streetwalker, intervenes when an officer attempts to arrest a sleeping vagrant: In the now famous number, titled "My Forgotten Man," Blondell pulls the bum's jacket aside to reveal a medal for heroism in the Great War. Her lament shames all of the more fortunate who have turned their backs to the veterans, leaving them to starve in the desperate years of the Depression. AH/GS
Standing Nude in Interior
1941 oil on canvas
Joseph Meert left his native Belgium as a child and settled with his family in rural Kansas. He studied art first at the Kansas City Art Institute (1923-26) and then at the Art Students League in New York City (1926-29), where, like Daniel Celentano, who is represented by four works in this exhibition, he came under the influence of the dean of the Midwestern Regionalist painters, Thomas Hart Benton. Meert returned to the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935, serving as Benton's teaching assistant when his mentor moved there to head the Painting Department. While teaching there (through 1941), the artist executed several mural commissions for post offices in Missouri and Indiana.
Meert probably painted Standing Nude in Interior in Kansas City, shortly before his departure for New York City later that year. While more restrained than his mentor in the portrayal of the figure, Meert depicted the model with a robust sexuality that we can trace to Benton's influence. The artist also cleverly pays homage to Cézanne by his skillful rendering of what appears to be a Cézanne still life reproduction in the background. AH
c. 1929-1934 oil on masonite
Like the circus featured in Vermadel Griswold's canvas, the zoo was a favorite destination for American families in the 1930s and remains so today. In Elephants, the Russian émigré artist Gregory Orloff captures the fascination of parents and
children as they pause before the elephant habitat at one of Chicago's landmark zoos, either the Brookfield Zoo -- for which Orloff painted murals and signage while employed as an artist by the Chicago Park District -- or the Lincoln Park Zoo. The Brookfield Zoo, which opened in 1934, drew over one million visitors during its inaugural three months.
Elephants is typical of Orloff's relatively flat, decorative mural style and predilection for peopled landscapes celebrating the American Scene. As the provenance of this work suggests, Elephants was probably painted for the now-demolished Forest Glen Elementary School in GlenEllyn, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. When the building was razed in the late 1940s, the painting was discarded by workmen on a pile of rubble, from which it was rescued by a resourceful lad who remembered seeing the painting in his second-grade classroom years before. AH
1936 oil on canvas
Eventide is a monumental painting that, in its theme and composition, draws upon scripture, art history, and the visual culture of America in the 1930s. The archaic, poetic title immediately lifts the painting beyond the ordinariness of its subject -- a farm woman with her just-bathed baby preparing to greet her husband at the end of a long day. The mother's torqued, somewhat unnatural posture evokes hieratic medieval compositions, in which expressive distortions established the mystical, otherworldly realm of the spirit. But her intense focus on her baby as well as the exchange of gestures between mother and child reflect humanistic changes in such images after the fourteenth century. At the lower right, a potted flower stands in for white lilies, the emblems of purity found in countless representations of the Virgin Mary. The plant sits atop a simple wooden stool within the house, so that the home is both a modern symbol of shelter and safety -- from the turmoil suggested in the darkened clouds in the distance ? and a subtle reworking of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden that further protects Mary's virtue. The flower is effectively another character in the narrative: Its upward growth gently repeats the spiraling postures and gestures of the mother and child and leads the eye out of doors as if to draw their attention to the father's approach.
In the middle distance, serpentine furrows of dark, rich soil compositionally conjoin husband, wife, and child. Rabinovitz thus invokes the idea of the "Madonna of the Meadow," a powerful trope in Regionalist music, literature and painting in the 1930s. In public murals across the country, she and the stalwart husband approaching the house -- Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmer brought into the twentieth century -- incarnated pioneer virtues of faith and fortitude, a "usable past" from which modern Americans might draw strength. Throughout Eventide, the artist's drawing and paint handling are almost sculptural, lending a weight and monumentality to the forms commensurate with the scale of the canvas. This stylistic approach imbues the narrative with an enduring timelessness, a perfect and unbreakable unity among family, nature, and home. To a people battered by climatic and economic disasters, there could be no more powerful an embodiment of hope than the baby, who would no doubt have a better future. GS
1939 tempera on paper
The mining and exploitation of coal played a major role in the social, industrial and economic history of Pennsylvania. It is not surprising that New York City artist Philip Reisman selected it as the subject matter for Coal Town, his 1939 entry in the competition for a proposed post office mural project in Mercer, a small community in the heart of the coal mining country of Western Pennsylvania.
Beginning in the early 1930s, Reisman was employed by the WPA Federal Art Project on various easel and mural projects in New York City and competed for mural commissions in federal buildings in cities and towns across the country. An avowed Social Realist, Reisman imbued many of his works with a pronounced social conscience.
The overall composition of Coal Town derives from El Greco's View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1610, Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain), although this allusion to the Spanish master was likely lost on the competition's judges. From left to right, Coal Town traces the cycle of the coal mining process. In the left foreground, a lonely miner rests with his dog outside the mine entrance. The raw coal moves by rail and chute through the center of the composition toward the smoke-belching refinery that dominates the picture on the right. In the background Reisman portrays the company town with its modest housing and local church. The artist's social politics pervade the composition. Coal might be "king," but the debilitating effects of the industry are unmistakably evident in the weary miner and the choking atmosphere of smoke and haze. This ambivalence, in all probability, contributed to the decision to award the mural commission instead to a local Pittsburgh artist whose mural was titled Clearing The Land. AH
Katharine (Portrait of Katharine Bigelow Higgins)
1939 oil on canvas
A society portrait on the surface, Umberto Romano's Katharine (Portrait of Katharine Bigelow Higgins) is, at another level, a minor Regionalist masterpiece, characterized by the broader, more muscular brand of stylized realism that became associated with the Regionalist aesthetic. A native of Italy, Romano settled in Massachusetts where he became a highly regarded artist and instructor. During the Depression, he participated in the WPA program as a muralist he was commissioned in 1935 to produce a six-panel mural for the Springfield, Massachusetts post office on the history of that city -- while pursuing a teaching career at the Worcester Museum of Art and at an art school he established in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Painted in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1939, Katharine (Portrait of Katharine Bigelow Higgins) depicts the twenty-two-year-old wife of Carter Chapin Higgins, son of a Worcester, Massachusetts industrialist (a Chapin ancestor was immortalized by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens as The Puritan). Romano portrays Katharine with great sensitivity, at ease in an elegant white dress whose folds echo the freshly plowed furrows of the rural landscape beyond -- which is believed to be a view of Dorset, Vermont, a summer retreat of Katherine's childhood years. In this unusually large composition, Romano invokes the motifs of Italian Renaissance portraiture to create a strikingly contemporary Regionalist statement. AH
Paul Starrett Sample
Wedding (or Mexican Wedding)
1933 oil on canvas
Paul Sample painted Wedding (or Mexican Wedding) at a moment when his professional visibility was broadening from California -- where he had taught and exhibited for some years -- to New York City. As was the case with other artists who would come to be known as the Taos School or Santa Fe School painters, Sample was captivated by the elemental simplicity and startlingly clear light of Northern New Mexico while "just passing through." As a practicing painter in California, Sample had a distinct advantage over Eastern artists, many of whom were overwhelmed by the rigorous contrasts of light and shadow characteristic of New Mexican landscapes. California, after all, had its own, penetratingly intense light for much of the year.
Like the Taos and Santa Fe painters, Sample explicitly embedded his pueblo scene in the larger topography of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The bell tower and intermediate range of hills provide chromatic transitions between the earthen settlement and the distant peaks. Adobe houses merge organically into one another; the simple church with its planked doors exhibits fissures in its walls and seasonal patches of varied colors that testify to its age and centrality in the community. Throughout, paint textures unify human and natural elements in the composition.
Sample's wedding party is a largely undifferentiated composition of silhouetted shapes, while the interior of the church is equally occluded. Brilliant sunlight juxtaposed with the severity of shadows and darkened windows simultaneously conveys the harsh beauty of the region and the insularity of devoutly Catholic Hispanic communities in Northern New Mexico, which jealously guarded their communal rituals from the prying eyes of curious "Anglos." GS
Wells Moses Sawyer
Boy at a Window
c.1938-1940 oil on masonite
This charming yet enigmatic work evokes the precariousness of life in the years preceding the advent of the Second World War, particularly within the African-American community. Wells Moses Sawyer was probably in his mid-seventies when he painted this sensitive portrayal of a young black man. While the unidentified urban neighborhood depicted in the upper half of the painting appears relatively prosperous, we sense that the young man pictured in this work is unsettled. His room is bare, his pants are tattered and the object he caresses in his right hand on the windowsill appears to be the source of melancholy. It could be a small book, a religious token or perhaps a framed photograph of a loved one back home.
It is possible that Boy at a Window refers to the Great Migration, the movement in the interwar years of African-Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest. Many left their families behind while seeking to find work and establish lives for themselves in unfamiliar -- but theoretically less discriminatory -- surroundings. In this sense, Sawyer's evocative painting suggests the inevitable loss of place, family, and history among the migrants. AH
James B. Turnbull
1942 oil on canvas
As a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, James Turnbull understood the specifics of WPA commissions articulated by supervisors in Washington -- uplift, regional authenticity, narratives both historic and timeless. By these standards, both the theme and composition of Tobacco Croppers were unsuitable. At the same time, however, the canvas suggests Turnbull's awareness of the plight of sharecroppers in his native state of Missouri and, very likely, his exposure to the photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others created under the auspices of another New Deal initiative, the Farm Security Administration. Also scripted by telegrams from Washington, FSA photographs of desperately poor or displaced farmers in Appalachia, the Deep South, and the Dustbowl were intended to garner Congressional support for rural relief programs.
In its depiction of unending, generational poverty, Tobacco Croppers is very like the images of sharecropper families that Evans contributed to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his collaborative effort with the poet James Agee. Tobacco Croppers shares with the Agee/Evans book a complex problem of representing the poorest of the poor: At what point does such an image veer away from reportage and advocacy and into the trap of naturalizing the conditions of these Americans?
In Tobacco Croppers, the composition leads the eye from the sleeping toddler to her parents, still young and strong, and into the shadowed interior of the unpainted shack, where an older woman contributes to the family's chores. The exposed, diapered bottom of the little girl, in particular, echoes the unselfconscious nakedness of children in Evans's photographs. Everyone is barefooted. Turnbull's paint textures -- in the wood siding, and again in the burlap sheet spread on the porch -- reinforce the smelly, scratchy, and debilitating work of binding tobacco leaves for curing. Ultimately, Turnbull may have been driven to express in this poignant easel painting a personal sympathy for the disenfranchised that his mural commissions foreclosed. GS
c.1950s (based on earlier maquette) carved mahogany
Although the prominent sculptor Albert Wein probably carved the mahogany version of Embracing Couple in the 1950s, it was based on a half-size plaster maquette created at least a decade earlier, judging by the outdated clothing worn by the figures.
Wein's early work embraced the prevalent WPA aesthetic that favored massive, muscular forms. While the figures in this composition are bulky, the overall sculpture exhibits a decidedly more angular quality unlike the rounder, more Regionalist forms seen in the other sculpture included in this exhibition, Brents Carlton's Mother & Child.
The title Embracing Couple is a later, purely descriptive label appended to this piece on the assumption that the subjects are locked in a tender embrace and because the sculptor had explored the theme of romantic love on several other occasions. In an alternative interpretation, however, the couple might be construed as marathon dancers and their expressions those of exhaustion rather than tenderness. Marathon or endurance dance events were a popular fad in the 1920s and 1930s, often attracting hordes of contestant couples competing for prize money. AH
Resource Library note: The above text is contained in the catalogue for the exhibition.
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