Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 22, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of The West Bend Art Museum. The essay was previously included in a publication accompanying the exhibition. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition publication were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the publication accompanying the exhibition which contains the essay, please contact The West Bend Art Museum. directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Gerrit V. Sinclair 1880-1955: A Retrospect

 

THE LEGACY/FINDING A VOICE

by Janet Treacy

 

Artist and educator Gerrit V. Sinclair left a legacy to savor. His paintings capture the essence of life and the times, highlighting his surroundings, no matter where he was. For more than thirty years he depicted Wisconsin's landscapes, towns, lakes, homes, people involved in daily activities, capturing how man worked and relaxed. Unlike many earlier Wisconsin artists, he was not trained in the German academic tradition but rather in a newer modernist style of American Art garnered, no doubt, through his studies at The Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition, Peter Sinclair's private collection of his father's work, reveals Sinclair's perception of local life experience in mid-America. He contrasts urban life settings and activities with the serenity and integrity of the countryside. The reality of each scene is palpable. Although each painting carries a theme of place, that place is universal enough to have broader significance.

Sinclair was born in Grand Haven, Michigan, in 1890. His father, a boat builder, came from Glasgow, Scotland, to work in the Great Lakes region. In 1896, the family moved to South Chicago. In 1910, after completing high school, he spent five years at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. In his second year, he received The Art Institute's highest award, the John Quincy Adams Traveling Scholarship, which along with other awards enabled him to continue art studies. He possessed a powerful desire to paint but remained uncertain of what to say and how to say it. Later, he made this astute observation of his South Chicago neighborhood: "The steel mills made weird red skies at night. The doorways were lower than the sidewalks and many-paned windows held pots of geraniums. It deserved to be put on canvas, but I did not know it." After hundreds of drawings, he realized that painting was not a matter of recording exactly what he saw before his eyes, but knowing "what to put on the canvas and what to leave out." Finally, he was rewarded with his first successful painting. Then came the war.

The United States, siding with Britain, France, Russia and Italy, entered World War I in 1917. Immediately, Sinclair enlisted in the American Ambulance Corps and was sent to northern Italy, near Venice, where he and his fellow officers transported wounded soldiers from the battlefront. Intense war scenes unfolded around him, affecting him with a sense of numbness, unreality. Fortunately, his off-duty hours balanced the experience with visiting famed European churches and galleries, observing some of the world's most significant art. He absorbed all that he could from the remarkable paintings, captivated by perspective, color, allocation of space, the building of form, all the while recording his impressions in sketchbooks. Indeed, the years 1917 to 1919 were filled with vivid memories that profoundly influenced his later work.

His style is at once modernist, realist and regionalist. He selects an authentic picture of American urban and rural experience of the 1930s and 1940s, avoiding socially conscious topics, choosing not to document the desolation and isolation of the period. To be sure, works are emotionally subdued, even evoke a sense of nostalgia. His figures are poised and relaxed, not active nor muscular. They are types rather than individuals. They are ordinary citizens. Culture became his raw material, an endless source of subject matter. He relied on his own experience, his environment, to create a reality. He painted pictures that were tasteful, comfortable, and appreciated in homes. They were not politically charged.

In 1920, Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink left their positions at Milwaukee-Downer College to open the not-for-profit Layton School of Art located in the lower level of the Layton Art Gallery. The classical style building, on Jefferson and Mason Streets in downtown Milwaukee, and its collection were a gift to the city from businessman and philanthropist Frederick Layton. The school's purpose was to produce skilled, creative artists, able to earn a living in business, industry or education. Students were allowed to express independent ideas; Partridge did not subscribe to the common practice of copying other artists work.

Practicing artists, who agreed with her progressive ideas, were invited to become teachers. Significantly, Gerrit Sinclair was the first instructor chosen. His approach, direct observation of life and nature, agreed with Partridge's. Helen Hoppin, Dudley Crafts Watson, Emily Groom, Gerhard Bakker, and Stella Harlos also became faculty. Sinclair taught at the Layton School until 1954, just one year before his death. A highly regarded teacher, his influence is well documented through the achievements of: Joseph Friebert, Forest Flower, Karl Priebe, Charles Thwaites, Jerry Sylvester, Edmund Lewandowski and Fred Berman, among others. His legacy lives on in these former students.

In 1925, Sinclair married Katharine Springer, who came from Chicago to Milwaukee as registrar at Milwaukee Downer College. They maintained a home in Milwaukee, 3274 North Newhall, where they raised their family, daughter, Barbara, born in 1926, and son, Peter, born in 1930. In their adult years, both children pursued artistic careers. In 1929, Sinclair took a year's leave of absence from Layton School to live in Paris. In Paris, he observed, everything was extremely modern. Easel paintings were looked upon as a thing of the past. Undaunted, Sinclair worked diligently to produce more than forty canvases.

Sketching was a life-long pursuit. Preferring to paint in the studio and to sketch outdoors, he amassed a collection of illustrations that provided him with ideas, structure and details for subsequent works. For quick sketches, he preferred watercolor. For painting, he favored tempera, a mixture of oil, varnish, egg, water and color. It is said that he kept this special amalgam in the family refrigerator. The mix was used to develop color and build texture. His colors are consistent and controlled, constituting a palette that is akin to that of other regional artists of this period. At first glance his compositions seem direct and representational with rather simplified forms, but upon closer examination the viewer sees more formality and complexity within the color, spatial relationships and patterning. By building paint layers, he successfully creates an illusion of depth. He is skilled at creating a path to move the viewer's eye about the surface. He is attentive to vertical and horizontal lines and architectural patterns. Compositions are informed by combined sketches, picking and choosing details that are satisfying. He is adept at filling the space from foreground to background. The small scale of these easel paintings is misleading because of the fullness of the scene portrayed. Yacht Club, 1945 (plate 1), shows Sinclair using stairs to raise the eye to a couple, a sailor and his girl. The scene is Milwaukee's lakefront, a popular attraction on a warm, sunny weekend day. City Hall, 1945 (plate 2), a midcareer piece, presents an unusual view of Milwaukee's City Hall looking from the north to the southwest. The roadway becomes an intersection that zigzags across the picture plane. Road Along Lake, 1931 (plate 3), is a relaxing scene at a nearby Wisconsin inland lake, possibly Lake Beulah, a site of other paintings, obviously being enjoyed by a couple in a rowboat. Water across the lower edge parallels a roadway, then above that he layers a storefront, possibly a candy store and a small family resort, and then, leading the eye all the way through to the back of the painting, he has filled the hillside with lush, fully bloomed trees. Finally a rural setting, Brown Cow, 1938 (plate 4), brings together flat, open fields and open sky with a road cutting diagonally across the picture. The dated model of car indicates the era. Various farm buildings line the vista while high wire electrical lines spring up in a vertical pattern, a balance to the horizontal plane of the picture.

During the Depression years 1933-1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Art Programs launched public support for unemployed artists. Several opportunities were created, such as the Public Works Art Project (PWAP) and subsequent Section of Painting and Sculpture in the Treasury Department, Federal programs that provided employment for artists. Competitions were held for post office and courthouse murals throughout Wisconsin and beyond. Later the Works Progress Administration (WPA) offered enhancement for public buildings, the city's schools and hospitals.
Thanks to the United States Treasury Department competition, quite a number of commissions were won by Sinclair and his colleagues: Santos Zingale, Charles Thwaites, Edmund Lewandowski, Peter Rotier (placed in West Bend), Schomer Lichtner, Ruth Grotenrath, all preeminent Wisconsin artists. Gerrit Sinclair's murals of 1930-1940, Lumbering and Rural Mail, were placed in Wausau, Wisconsin's Federal Building.

This exhibition' s exceptional collection of Sinclair's work showcases consistent, high quality painting, compositional proficiency, and thoughtful selection of color and texture. Images do not have the emotion of Richard Lorenz's disappearing wilderness or Edward Hopper's desolation. Indeed, Sinclair's work emits a sense of optimism. He depicts reality in a contemporary world by placing his people in the city, amid surroundings of bridges, commercial buildings, automobiles, trains and trucks against rural settings, farmers surrounded by spacious farm fields, working with hand tools, horse-drawn carts and tractors. He avoids any blatant reference to years of political upheaval, world war, economic depression, unemployment and poverty. Sinclair exudes self-assurance in selections that are neither dramatized nor idealized, at the same time that Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Mexican Muralists, Rivera, Orozco and Sequeiros were glorifying the "heroic" worker and heavy industry. Sinclair certainly was aware of these movements but had long ago decided his course. It was a matter of selectivity, not unfamiliarity. Eventually, John Steuart Curry found his way to Wisconsin, becoming the first artist-in-residence in the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon Curry's death in 1946, Sinclair applied to be his successor. It was not to be, as Aaron Bohrod was chosen.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors attracted the finest from the community's artists. Yearly juried exhibitions were prestigious and were often a vehicle for artists to have their work seen by their peers, to be reviewed by prestigious jurors, and to sell their work. For many years, Gerrit Sinclair was an active participant, even serving as the group's President. Layton teachers were active members. Many also held leadership positions in the community. Not surprisingly, this included: Charlotte Partridge, Emily Groom, Elsa Ulbricht, Ruth Grotenrath, Schomer Lichtner, Francesco Spicuzza, Robert Schellin, Santos Zingale and, most importantly, Gerrit Sinclair. Exposure to his work through these and other exhibitions allowed him to be successful at selling his paintings.

This exhibition represents the brilliant accomplishments of an amazingly productive, talented and dedicated artist whose art is certainly of its time. Although unsure of himself early on, he demonstrated that he had plenty to say visually. He found a voice that resounded with assurance and ease. He was a significant artist of his time and was widely quoted.

"My interest in art is derived from a keen liking for out-of-doors and the constant and varied effects due to changes in light. In painting I am mostly drawn to the "primitives" and those later artists whose work gives me a fine sense of organization; whose chief merit is fine pattern of color and value. In my own work I try to give an interesting design element and a true feeling or illusion of third dimension.
 
I very seldom paint on the spot, preferring to work from memory. The sketching I do is mostly for analysis for the possibilities of color or value pattern that I can later organize."
 
Gerrit V. Sinclair
April 18, 1933

These comments reappeared in the February, 1957, Memorial Exhibition Catalogue.

A Milwaukee Journal article of December 24, 1955, citing his passing, describes Sinclair as a "craggy, Lincolnesque figure with an uncoordinated gait, usually tousled hair and rumpled clothes, not that he was by nature untidy, he was simply not preoccupied by matters of personal appearance." Margaret Fish (Rayhill) described him similarly, "tall and lanky, even tempered and cheerful." Known affectionately as "Sinky" by students, he was modest, sincere and unaffected by his excellent reputation. He had a keen memory for details and kept myriad sketchbooks as reference for his compositions. Work can be found in private collections and in several public collections, including Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, the Milwaukee Art Museum and West Bend Art Museum.

Collecting historical information on an artist so recently deceased, even fifty years, is uneven. It becomes obvious that each publication has a particular focus and may be lacking in presenting "the whole story." The daily press is invaluable in reporting exhibitions, notable current events, and deaths, especially throughout the 1920's and 1930's and beyond. Catalogues are helpful, but are often lacking dates. At this point there are diminishing firsthand reports of older events and personalities due to deaths, relocation of family members, and even failing memories. Archives, either personal or museum, held are in need of constant updating. Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors has been diligent in seeking to fill in missing information.

 

About the author

Janet Treacy holds degrees from Marquette University and Mount Mary College in Milwaukee. From 1980-1996, she was a member of the Milwaukee Art Museum's curatorial staff. In that capacity, she was responsible for numerous regional art exhibitions, publications, lectures and programs. Today, she is an independent curator and writer and serves in an advisory capacity to arts-related organizations in Wisconsin.

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