Editor's note: The following 1981 essay was written by Robert E. Preszler, Curator, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, for the illustrated catalogue William H. Singer, Jr. (1868-1943), Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 81-51329. The essay is reprinted with permission of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact Washington County Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

William H. Singer, Jr.

by Robert E. Preszler

 

While there are numerous contemporary accounts available concerning the life of William H. Singer, Jr., the perspective provided by the passing of time is important in re-evaluating his life. Not unlike his painted mists and fallen snow shrouding the details of the underlying landscape, the romanticized aura of the personal or traditional accounts of Singer's life have tended to obscure the degree of accomplishment and recognition which he achieved as an artist in his lifetime. From a wider vantage allowed by time and distance, we have an opportunity to review his life anew.

In many respects, Singer's life followed a pattern that amounts to a standard for an American artist of the last quarter of the 19th century: his career choice met with the predictable family objections (though his mother encouraged him, his father threatened to cut off his financial support); his confidence was bolstered by the acceptance of two of his works in a major annual exhibition (the 1900 Carnegie International); his exposure to the currents of the day was broadened at a popular artists' colony (Monhegan, Maine); and his training was regarded as 'incomplete' until he sojourned in Paris, enrolled in an established academy, and studied under a well-known artist of the day (the Academie Julian and Jean-Paul Laurens, respectively).

Although Singer's life seemingly conformed to a familiar mold in many respects, in other ways, his life and art defy neat categorization. For instance, Pittsburgh, as described by contemporary accounts, seems an unlikely place for an artist of fine sensibilities to emerge. The turn of the century, for that matter, presented what must have been an almost baffling period of change and counter-reaction, in art styles and dictates. These are elements of Singer's background which, when considered further, can help us more truly appreciate his accomplishments.

William H. Singer was born in Ligonier, Pennsylvania on July 5, 1868, the son of a prosperous steel manufacturer. Little is known about Singer's early formative years in Pittsburgh, except that, as a child, "he was allowed to paint and draw for his own pleasure; and he would spend every spare hour on it, when not visiting the museums and galleries. . . (and) that he found sympathy and support in his mother."[1] Even though his father was known to spend an occasional evening painting from postcards and photographs, it is conceivable that he viewed his son's efforts somewhat warily. Much later in life, Singer would say: ". . . until 1901 when I started for Paris, I existed only; from that time a chance was given to me to live."[2]

Without personal accounts of his youth, which may yet emerge, we can only speculate upon the nature of Singer's early experience in the atmosphere of his hometown. The Civil War had brought prosperity to Pittsburgh's ironmasters, but the population as a whole suffered the problems of immigrant crowding, poverty, crime, political corruption, and labor strife. Despite the best efforts of such philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie, the city was beset with social conditions which seemed to defy solution.

A Pittsburgh artist of an earlier generation, David Gilmour Blythe (1815-1865), painted Hogarthian scenes which actually made the turbulent social and political scenes of the city the subject of his art. Reflecting back on Blythe's experience at about the year 1854, Bruce W. Chambers conveys to us a Pittsburgh, where it was a way of life ". . . that among those corrupting influences and one from which institutions and gentry fled alike, was the constant suffocating pall of soot that hung over the city day and night. . . ."[3] Singer, we may conclude, was one who fled the city. Years apart from each other, both Blythe and singer exhibited at the J. J. Gillespie Gallery in Pittsburgh. While Blythe embraced the city as his subject matter, Singer almost entirely eradicated any trace of man and his dwellings from his sunlit meadow and mountain scenes. It seems almost as though Singer sought to escape permanently the associations of ". . . his youth in that large factory-town, a smoky black town, surrounded by coalmines and iron works."[4]

 

II

 

As Singer reached his late twenties, several events occurred to encourage his artistic aspirations, the most important of which was his marriage to Anne Spencer Brugh in 1895. Anna, as she was called, not only shared his artistic interests but, throughout their long life together, remained his firmest supporter and kindred spirit.

Another event which proved to be a turning point for the artist was the acceptance of two of his pieces in one of the country's leading annual exhibitions, the Pittsburgh Carnegie International Exhibition in 1900. Related to this success is an incident which is described in many of the accounts of Singer's life. During a trans-Atlantic crossing, supposedly Andrew Carnegie encountered Singer's father and urged him to acknowledge his son's talent: "It would be unjust," Carnegie argued, "to keep this talent cooped up in a factory instead of giving it the chance of free development."[5]

Question remains, though, as to whether William Singer, Sr. was as recalcitrant as often asserted regarding his son's chosen career. Certainly it is doubtful that he readily accepted the idea that his son and namesake would reject a livelihood in which he, himself, had played such an active and prominent part. According to tradition:

At last Mr. Singer, Senior, agreed to allow his son to abandon the family business and dedicate himself to his brush and palette. The fiery steel furnaces were to be exchanged for a quiet painter's studio, but on condition that the young artist was to stake his livelihood on his new profession and with his own efforts support himself and his young wife. . . .[6]

The father may have refused to offer direct financial assistance but, contrary to the assertion above, support actually was made available in the form of interest from funds invested in the son's behalf.

The turn-of-the-century, greeted in this country and around the world with a new wave of optimism, presented William H. Singer, Jr., too, with a new promising beginning. Around 1900, the firm in which Singer's father and Andrew Carnegie were partners was sold; Singer-Nimick & Co. merged with Crucible Steel; Singer, Sr., age 65, retired; and William and Anna departed Pittsburgh for the artists' colony on Monhegan Island, Maine and later, Paris, Holland and, finally, Norway.[7]

 

III

 

Released from the constraints of the previous years and, no doubt, stimulated by Monhegan Island's creative atmosphere, Singer's painting developed appreciably in its new surroundings. He also began what would become life-long friendships with such artists as Walter Griffin and the Norwegian-born Martin Borgord (who would later be instrumental in the Singers' decision to visit Norway). The works which exist from Singer's months at Monhegan suggest that he was already well advanced in both the technical and expressive demands of painting. His views of Monhegan's inland settings and of fishing boats lying off shore are surprisingly confident for someone supposedly on the threshold of his career.

Singer's work conformed to the current and prevailing influence of French Impressionism as interpreted by its American adherents. One painting in particular, of sailboats resting in a small inlet harbor, demonstrates Singer's grasp of the essential elements of the style, in the use of alternating chromatic devices, yet with a subtle shift in emphasis from a purely French style toward one more indigenous to the American setting. Though not intentionally conceived as an attempt to confront the status quo of French academic painting, French Impressionism nonetheless was an affront to tradition. In their desire to experiment with the boundaries of painted reality and technique, French Impressionists succeeded in shifting the focus from an art reinforcing contemporary convention, to one which emphasized 'art for art's sake.' American artists did not entirely accept the more radical tenets of the style, One way in which American Impressionism proved to be distinct was in its tendency to give emphasis to the materiality of the subject. Rather than having the subject dissolve in a diaphanous veil of shimmering light, American artists retained an emphasis upon substance and form, Singer, like the American painters before him, J. Alden Weir and Childe Hassam, adapted Impressionism to their own characteristic manner along these lines.

 

IV

 

In spite of the adaptation of an essentially French-inspired painting style, there is an element unique to American landscape art that endures tenaciously which, for want of a better description, may be thought of as a 'sense of place,' The phenomenon can be identified from before the Civil War, in the work of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and continuing on to the present day, Attention to the 'facts' or details of a view denoting a specific time and place are an ongoing concern, Not so obvious, however, is a simultaneous attention to the materialistic and spiritual implications of the landscape, For Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett and others of the Hudson River School, the American landscape -- under the heading of Nature -- implied considerably more than a subject for paint and canvas, as the following quote makes clear:

Since pristine nature was seen to directly reflect God and his laws, landscape became a teacher of moral truths by depicting America's unspoiled wilderness, Stirred by the grandeur of native scenery the artist and his viewers were inspired to an exalted spirituality, , , ,[8]

Even when increasing numbers of American artists went abroad to absorb European teachings late in the 19th century, upon return, their work once again reflected a uniquely American quality:

While the painting techniques of those American Impressionists reveal, in widely varying degrees of adaptation, their gatherings from the European experience, their themes persistently call attention to continuities of much larger range than the decades of Impressionist activity itself. Their localisms are of the moment, of particular places and moments viewed with Impressionist immediacy, , , , They catalogue, as if by Some conditioned seeking out of an American typology, the kinds of subjects that one could also find imbedded in American literature: vignettes drawn from the particularities of an experience of American places, yet rendered typical by their drift into a collective consciousness that has formed out of these fragments an American sense of place. [9]

Aside from all artistic considerations, American landscape painting also reflected a budding nationalism, and a growing native consciousness of the magnificence of the land.

Singer's mature work concentrated almost exclusively on the isolated mountains and fjords of Norway, a country which he adopted almost as a homeland, Therefore the question of characterizing Singer as an American artist based upon an adherence to an American 'sense of place,' is not easily resolved. Singer and his wife left the States with their departure from Monhegan in 1901. He studied abroad, of course, but until 1908, both Singer and his wife returned to the United States almost annually. They would at those times occasionally take up residence in New York City or at Old Lyme, Connecticut. After that, their trips back became less frequent, very often coinciding with Singer's American exhibitions. In addition to an active exhibition schedule in America from 1906 to 1937, his work was shown regularly in the annual Pennsylvania Academy exhibitions, thereby retaining his American audience, with his views first of Holland, and later of Norway.

Those who wrote about Singer even in his own time already reflected a question concerning the 'nationality' of his outlook and art. An unnamed German writer commenting on Singer's 1926 exhibition in that country wrote: "This American born painter, who lives in Norway, is spiritually un-American, indeed his art is even a protest against the rationalist activity of the American spirit."[10] Set against this assessment, however, is another written by Singer's friend from Holland, which appeared in a 1946 issue of Carnegie Magazine:

Singer never became Europeanized. He was and remained an American. He spoke, read and wrote only his native tongue, and kept himself informed of everything that happened in the domain of fine arts in the United States. He had many friends among his American colleagues, helping and supporting them where he thought it necessary, and he never failed a friend in need.[11]
 

V

 

When Singer arrived in Paris to enroll in the Academie Julian, the artistic climate of the city, which his friends and mentors had known during the 1880's, had changed considerably. The same year that Singer arrived, Picasso began his first extended stay in Paris, just to provide an indication of the course that art was about to take in the new century. The "Symbolist movement," with Odilon Redon as one of the principal French leaders, took Impressionist objectivity to task by a return to painting with strong emotional and romantic overtones. This was followed, in turn, by a number of movements in the so-called post-Impressionist mainstream. The artists involved, such as Gauguin and Van Gogh; the "Nabis" led by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard; and the "Fauves," centered around Matisse, Roualt, and Derain, individually or together sought to 'liberate art from its past.'

In contrast to the new radical developments in art, at the other end of the spectrum was the domain of conservative academicians. They endured and continued to dominate the salons and academies, dictating "official" and popular taste, maintaining that Impressionism never did hold much, if any, meaning. As late as 1892, Adolphe Bouguereau, the supreme academic painter and nemesis of the avant-garde, remained one of "France's three or four most famous living artists."[12] Furthermore, Jean-Leon Gerome as late as 1897 threatened to resign from the faculty of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts if the Luxembourg Museum accepted a bequest of Impressionist canvasses: "Does it not contain paintings by M. Monet, by M. Pissarro and others? For the Government to accept such filth there would have to be real moral decadence. . . ."[13] So although Impressionism had been supplanted by successive waves of new artistic movements, and its influence had begun to wane by the 1880's and 1890's, at the turn of the century it still remained a movement that excited questioning and controversy.

The array of activity confronting Singer upon his arrival must have been, indeed, bewildering, particularly to someone who was accustomed to the "gentle Victorian urbanity and optimism"[14] of the art and artists he had known in his own country. What he felt about French academic art is not certain. J. Siedenberg, however, reports at least this much about his attitude concerning modern art: "Moreover, in the domain of painting, he turned away from Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and the like."[15] Aside from his studies at the Academie Julian, Singer worked under the French historical painter, Jean-Paul Laurens. Singer apparently admired Laurens (". . . a man with a sincere honest nature, severe and conscientious both for himself and others"[16]), yet, if anything, the time spent in Lauren's atelier only reinforced Singer's desire to paint landscapes rather than figures.

The Academie Julian provided what must have been an unsettling Parisian experience for Singer. The Academie could not have changed much from the time that Childe Hassam attended in the late 1880's, and as it was described in connection to him:

The Academie Julian was a congeries of studios crowded with students, the walls thick with palette scrapings, hot, airless and extremely noisy. New students were greeted with cries coupled with personal comments calculated to make them blush. To find a place among the closely packed easels and tabourets was not easy. . . . At the Academie there were no rules, and save for a massier in each studio who was expected to prevent flagrant disorder, there was no discipline. Air in the studios was stifling, the noise at times deafening. Sometimes for a few minutes there was silence; then suddenly one of the men would burst into song.[17]

While Hassam adjusted to the lively atmosphere and found the variety and teaching invigorating, Singer, at age 33, may well have reacted to the situation less with enthusiasm than alarm.

Realizing that his goal to become a landscape painter would not be met by remaining in Paris, Singer left after three months. With Anna and his friend, Borgord, he moved to Holland, to the artists' colony located at Laren. There the artists, Mesdag, Anton Mauve, Josef Israels, Johannes Bosboom, the Maris brothers and others offered a setting similar to that of the Barbizon of Corot, Millet, and Daubigny in the previous century. In the more relaxed and contemplative atmosphere, Singer began producing the first paintings that later would be shown in the United States (at the Pennsylvania Academy), and in the annual European salons.

The light and airy characteristics which had found their way into American Impressionism and, subsequently, into Singer's painting did not match the Dutch expectation for a moodier, more sombre kind of visual expression. Singer valued and enjoyed the friendship which he established with Laren's artists, still he remained outside the sphere of their influence and tradition. This, coupled with his desire for a landscape which offered greater scenic variety, led to a sudden decision: at the suggestion of their friend, Martin Borgord, who acted as their companion and guide, in 1904 the Singers left for a visit to Norway. The impression which Norway made upon Singer was immediate and everlasting. "The spreading fields against a backdrop of majestic mountains; the space, solitude and serenity,"[18] all came together at once to form the setting which Singer had been seeking all along.

Singer may have sacrificed a recognized position in American art history by choosing to remain and work in Norway-far from the continuity and collective tradition of art in his native land. There are, nevertheless, factors in Singer's values and principles, seen in his art and personality, which derive more from his American than his European experience. He probably could not have achieved his ambition if he had been born in a country other than this one.

In many ways, Singer perpetuates an American spirit of an earlier time-one which set out to discover frontiers as yet unspoiled. However, in the face of disappearing frontiers on American soil, Singer had to strike out abroad. As early as 1847, the artist, Jasper Cropsey voiced his concern for the relentless retreat of the frontier border, and described a mission for the artist which Singer may have adopted as his own:

The axe of civilization is busy with our old forests. . . . What were once the wild and picturesque haunts of the Red Man, and where wild deer roamed in freedom, are becoming the abodes of commerce and seats of manufactor. . . . Yankee enterprise has little sympathy with the picturesque,and it behooves our artists to rescue from its grasp the little that is left before it is too late.[19]

Singer's attitude about nature and the landscape, as evidenced in both his paintings and the thoughts he expressed, are, in fact, more often reminiscent of the romantic inclination of the Hudson River School than the Impressionists of his own time. From Pittsburgh to Monhegan, from Paris to Holland and, finally, to Norway, Singer's quest for a land he could paint and embrace as his own had been a lengthy one and, at times, tentative. However, the remote and isolated reaches of the Norwegian landscape ultimately provided the means and inspiration to Singer's full realization as an artist.

 

Notes:

1. R. W. P. De Vries, Jr., W. H. Singer. Jr.. N. A., The Man and the Artist (Holland, F. G. Kroonder, 1965), p. 15.

2. Cornelis Veth, The Norwegian Work of W. H. Singer. Jr. (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1923), p. 22

3. Bruce W. Chambers, The World of David Gilmour Blythe, 1815-1865 (Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts/Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980), p. 47.

4. Cornelis Veth, The Norwegian Work of W. H. Singer, Jr. (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1923), p. 22

5. Camille Mauclair, The Painter, W. H. Singer, Jr. (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1937), unpaginated.

6. Camille Mauclair, The Painter, W. H. Singer, Jr., (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1937), unpaginated.

7. George Swetnam, "Artist Fugitive from a Steel Mill," The Pittsburgh Press, Nov. 12, 1967, p. 8.

8. John Lunsford, The Romantic Vision in America (Dallas, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1971), unpaginated.

9. Harold Spencer, Connecticut and American Impressionism (Storrs, The William Benton Museum of Art/The Univ. of Connecticut, 1980), p. 51.

10. J. Siedenberg, The American Painter W. H. Singer, Jr. and His Position in the World of Art (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1923), pp. 46 & 49. Siedenberg quoting from a German review in Stadt Anzeiger Koln.

11. J. Siedenberg, "William H. Singer, Jr.," Carnegie Magazine (Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, June 1946), p. 52.

12. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse, His Art and His Public (New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p. 14.

13. Ibid., p. 16

14. Harold Spencer, Connecticut and American Impressionism (Storrs, The William Benton Museum of Art/The Univ. of Connecticut, 1980), p. 38.

15. ]. Siedenburg, "William H. Singer, Jr.," Carnegie Magazine (Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute,June 1946), p. 52.

16. Camille Mauclair, The Painter, W. H. Singer, Jr. (Amsterdam, Frans Buffa & Sons, 1937), unpaginated

17. William E. Steadman, Childe Hassam, 1859-1935 (Tucson, Univ. of Arizona Museum of Art, 1972), pp. 16-17.

18. R. W. P. De Vries, Jr., W. H. Singer, Jr., N. A, The Man and the Artist, (Holland, F. G. Kroonder, 1965), p. 19.

19. Barbara Novak, "American Landscape: The Nationalist Garden and the Holy Book," Art in America (vol. 60, no. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1972), p. 49. Quoting Jasper F. Cropsey in The Literary World, 1847.

 

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