The following 2003 essay was written by Christopher Bedford and Marianne Berardi. The essay is re-keyed and reprinted with permission of the authors and Cleveland Artists Foundation and is presented without illustrations. The essay is adopted from the catalogue for the exhibition "Drawn to Perfection: Jean and Paul Ulen and the Slade School Legacy in Cleveland," curated by Marianne Berardi, Christopher Bedford, and George Fitzpatrick. The exhibition runs from December 20, 2003 through February 28, 2004 at the CAF, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44107. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact Cleveland Artists Foundation directly through either this phone number or web address:
Drawn to Perfection: Jean and Paul Ulen and the Slade School Legacy in Cleveland
By Christopher Bedford and Marianne Berardi
Of the many celebrated figures whose works fall under the collective banner of "Cleveland School," almost all honed the tools of their trade in the art schools and academies of Europe. Because many were of German descent, most of the Cleveland-trained artists chose Munich, Düsseldorf, and Vienna over Paris for their "year abroad." Consequently, Cleveland School work of the early twentieth century has a German or Central European flavor, and frequently a strongly modernist character.
There was, however, a concurrent and opposing school of thought active in Cleveland, which exerted a considerable influence on many artists in the region and beyond. Jean and Paul Ulen, two leading Cleveland art instructors from the 1920's through the 1960's, developed this alternative to the deep-rooted Cleveland School aesthetic by looking to England for their inspiration. Rejecting the influence of European-derived modernism in favor of a return to the studious realism of the Old Masters, the Ulens emulated those figures celebrated for their line, such as Ingres, the artists of the early Renaissance, and most directly, contemporary British draftsmen still laboring under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites. How and why the Ulens' cool, meticulous brand of realism succeeded in influencing generations of Cleveland artists is a remarkable story of dogged persistence, and unwavering belief in the rightness of their artistic choices and the high purpose of their calling. The impact they made, especially in the wake of modernism and the persistent influence of moody romanticism, becomes all the more moving and unexpected given their quite ordinary platform-a pair of classrooms in a technical high school on the west side of Cleveland.
Jean Ulen (December 19, 1900 - January 8, 1988), born Margaret Jean Grigor, was raised in Cleveland, and graduated from Cleveland Heights High School. The only child of wealthy, well-educated parents of Bohemian and Scottish ancestry, she grew up in an environment of fine things-rooms furnished with the late Victorian Rorimer-Brooks furniture held in high esteem in Cleveland, and most specifically a large library of books that stimulated her lifelong passion for reading.
Margaret Jean Grigor attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1918 to 1922. She apparently dropped "Margaret" during her second year of art school, referring to herself thereafter as "Jean." Her transcript reveals that she was a B student, with the exception of A level proficiency in a few key areas including Mechanical Drawing, Perspectival Drawing, Life Drawing, and notably, Portraiture. She graduated with a degree in "Pictorial Art," although her transcript reveals that she focused on coursework associated with an "Illustration" major during her third year. In May 1922, Jean was awarded the coveted Frederick Gottwald Traveling Scholarship, which enabled her to study abroad in England.
Paul Veronese Ulen (July 7, 1894 - March 7, 1976), seven years her senior, was born in the small south-central Ohio town of Frankfort and raised in Dayton. In contrast with Jean's upbringing, Paul Ulen's was far less privileged. His father was a railroadman who died when Paul was in his early twenties. His mother, Eleanor Buckley, worked for years as a postmistress to supplement the family income, while Paul and his brother Harold worked odd jobs. Following his graduation from Stivers High School in Dayton, where he was awarded athletic honors in football, baseball and basketball, he played two years of professional football for the Dayton Oakwoods, one of the old professional leagues predating the inauguration of the NFL. He recalled to his son Ian with considerable pride that he once played against Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs. At the end of his football career, Paul worked for five years as a commercial artist with various Dayton firms, including the Dayton Daily News, and then attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1916 to 1920.
Like Jean, Paul Ulen graduated from the Cleveland School with a degree in Pictorial Art, but was on average an A student across the board. Both Jean and Paul studied primarily with Frederick Gottwald, Henry Keller and Frank Wilcox. Both studied art history all four years with Henry Turner Bailey, the Boston-born director of the school, to whom Jean wrote extensive and revealing letters from Paris and London during her 1922-23 scholarship year abroad.
Jean and Paul married in December of 1921 and would remain dedicated partners for the rest of their lives. The month they were married Paul began teaching at West Technical High School on Cleveland's west side where, at the time, the school was becoming one of the largest high schools in Ohio.
The Cleveland School Efforts
Not many works from Jean and Paul Ulens' days at the Cleveland School of Art survive. A few exceptions, fortunately preserved in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Artists Foundation, provide a valuable look at the Ulens' starting point as draftsmen. Their works share the bold graphic emphasis typically found in the work of many Cleveland School artists, notably that of Henry Keller, Frank Wilcox and Paul Travis. Rendered with soft, blunt sticks of graphite, they express shape and gesture primarily through roughly blocked in areas of light and shade.
In May of 1922, twenty-two-year-old Jean Ulen received the prestigious Gottwald Traveling Scholarship award based on the strength of two portraits in oil painted from life. The two small bust-length likenesses of a man and a woman are sensitive character studies of different personality and physical types. Despite her success with this genre of portrait painting, it appears that Jean Ulen never returned to this specific style of oil portraiture. Oddly, Jean Ulen's work as a painter in oil seems to have peaked at this very early stage of her career.
Uninterested in modernist discourse, by the time of their graduation, the Ulens sought out a program of study abroad that focused on their primary areas of artistic strength and interest-precise draftsmanship, life drawing, and portrait painting. One natural option lay in the art schools of England, where drawing was the primary if not exclusive emphasis.
The Gottwald Scholarship: The First Trip to England (1922-23)
Jean Ulen began her English art training at the Royal Academy, London, the most august academic institution in Britain for the study of art and a school with notoriously stringent admittance policies. She trained there for three months (October through December 1922) while Paul took classes at the Slade School through the generosity of his mother-in-law, who also incurred the lion's share of the couple's expenses while they lived abroad.
In her first letter to the director of the Cleveland School of Art, Henry Turner Bailey, written within a few weeks of their arrival on October 18, 1922, Jean provides an extensive account of the Royal Academy experience where there was little direction:
The life drawings Jean Ulen produced at the Royal Academy are literally worlds apart from those she produced at the Cleveland School of Art. Being required to use hard pencil, which does not smudge easily, there was no opportunity for "fudging" weak areas of the drawing as was the case with charcoal. Additionally, modeling form convincingly from light to dark required a painstaking build-up of short, delicate, and nearly imperceptible parallel strokes of the pencil. This time investment in slow rendering underscored the aesthetic prejudice, promoted at the Academy, that hard-won exquisiteness was superior to rapidly dashed-off expressions of bravura. Jean mastered this new medium within only a few weeks.
Paul Ulen wrote a letter to Bailey a month afterward, explaining his and Jean's activities from his vantage point. Paul wrote profusely of his admiration for the Slade's Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks (1862-1937), an accomplished draftsman and friend of John Singer Sargent. Ulen made special mention of the seriousness of purpose Tonks instilled in his students, which later served as an important model for Paul Ulen himself:
By the beginning of January 1923, Jean Ulen shifted to the Slade. In a letter to her father, Jean gave a personal account of her switch:
The Slade School
Much was at stake for the English art establishment in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The French willingness to forge new aesthetic paths had rightfully earned them a position in the forefront of the European avant-garde. The new persona of art was thus tied closely to a national identity. The English response to this climate of change was retroactive and defensive. Students at the Slade (established in 1871) were encouraged to return to the Old Masters, notably Titian, Velazquez, Michelangelo and Watteau. Life drawing was the central, if not singular facet of this regressive resistance, a point succinctly captured by the first Slade professor, Sir Edward Poynter:
The third head of the Slade School, Frederick Brown, was responsible for recruiting Henry Tonks, who was working as a demonstrator in anatomy at a London hospital. Advancing to the position of Professorship in 1919 following the war, Tonks presided over the school with an uncompromising sense of traditionalism, a domineering air and a damning turn of phrase. Contradictory character that he was, Tonks, with his cool blue eyes "sometimes half-hooded like a vulture's" also had an intensely generous way of engaging and encouraging a student when he sensed an aspiration to achieve.
By the time the Ulens arrived to study with him at the Slade, Tonks had established himself firmly as an anti-modernist, and had filled the teaching ranks with many of his former pupils who embraced his own values.
Tonks' Method and the Ulens' Slade Drawings
Tonks' drawings focus upon the play of light on surface, and particularly on the ways that light illuminates the highpoints of protruding muscles or skeleton. Through very delicate and slightly smudged parallel hatching, and in a middle rather than a deep tone, Tonks rendered the hollows around the highlights that together create the pictorial illusion of volumetric form. As a complement to the tonal areas, Tonks' drawings possess passages of very free and broken line, which creates a lively visual vibration in the contours.
Once identified, the specifics of Tonks' method can be clearly seen in many of the drawings Jean and Paul Ulen produced at the Slade, and evidence of his doctrine also helps to distinguish Jean's earliest Slade works from her earlier Royal Academy efforts. When Jean's manner of using graphite loosened up under Tonks' supervision, she began creating figure studies and portrait heads which display a more pronounced parallel hatching, so silvery and atmospheric that her marks simulate silverpoint.
Tonks' admonishment to "keep the drawing open" and to avoid deadening the drawing by bringing it up to a uniform level of finish is felt quite keenly in many of Paul's life drawings from this period, which are among the most sensitive of his career. His back view of a man in a loincloth possesses a marvelous lightness of touch while at the same time carefully describing anatomical structure and the play of light on skin.
At the Slade School, Jean and Paul produced work that sometimes became virtually indistinguishable. At no other point in their careers did their drawings so closely resemble one another. There are, however, a few clues to identifying their respective hands, which holds true not only for their Slade work but for their subsequent efforts as well. Jean tended to work with smaller strokes of the pencil than Paul, to use a much sharper and harder pencil for her contours, and to draw on a slightly smaller scale. Additionally, Jean was more skillful in rendering foreshortened limbs, feet and hands, in drawing the nose in a full frontal position, and in creating hands with a graceful gesture, such as in her portrait of young woman with a hand on her breast.
During her 1922-23 scholarship year abroad, Jean approached Henry Tonks in the hope of being able to paint twice a week. However, as she reported in a letter to Henry Bailey of February 23, 1923, Tonks dissuaded her with the argument "that considering the limited time which I [Jean] have it would do me more good to draw from life every day." Jean, and certainly Paul to a more extreme degree, apparently never reached that point at which they mastered life drawing sufficiently and could move on to painting. For Jean, the promising trajectory as an oil painter hinted at in her competition portraits was thwarted by the endless pursuit of perfection in line.
The Second Slade School Experience (1927-28)
After an interlude of four years, Jean and Paul Ulen returned to the Slade to continue their training under Henry Tonks as well as to study painting. During this second tenure, their friendship with Tonks deepened into a true affection on both sides, which lasted until Tonks' death a decade later. On one occasion, Tonks asked the Ulens to stop by his office so that he could give them "a souvenir of the Slade." Inside a small package were the brushes John Singer Sargent had used while studying at the Slade.
Tonks also invited the Ulens to his home in June 1928. In an excited letter to her parents, Jean announced, "We are looked upon with added respect at school now for we seem to be the only people that Tonks has invited to dinner alone! Great honor, what?" Over the course of seven dense pages, Jean recounted in lively detail the highlights of the visit to Tonks' Chelsea apartment "on a short street called The Vale." As they climbed the narrow stair to Tonks' third floor studio, they marveled at the walls crowded with pictures "all the way up." Jean remarked that as they climbed higher, the works became more valuable-to Tonks. Among his dearest possessions were original drawings by Rowlandson, Rubens ("the fat backs of two women"), a Menzel, an Augustus John, and several Sargents including "one of Tonks in uniform looking very bored."
At the conclusion of the 1927-28 academic year, Paul Ulen won "Second Prize in Painting from the Life" as well as a first prize in figure drawing. While she earned nothing for her painted efforts, Jean secured second prize in figure drawing and also second prize in "Drawings of Head from Life." Although none of these prize-winning efforts can be securely identified, it seems quite plausible that two particularly fine small-scale heads from this period in the collection of the Cleveland Artists Foundation earned her second prize in portraiture.
Although they had visited Paris twice, and toured around England during their first year at the Slade, Jean and Paul traveled more widely during their second visit. They took a walking trip through Belgium and visited Italy, Germany and Bohemia. Upon the advice of Henry Tonks, they also explored certain picturesque locations in England. The quaint town of Corfe in Dorset, with its ruined castle surmounting the city, and the twisted narrow streets below, captivated Jean. She produced a watercolor that became the design for a prize-winning etching and aquatint of 1930, which she exhibited that year in the May Show at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Ulens became aware of contemporary British printmaking during their second Slade experience, a fact documented by a group of twelve etchings, drypoints, wood engravings and aquatints they purchased at that time. These provided Jean and Paul with inspiration for their own printmaking efforts, which they concentrated on for roughly a decade following their return to Cleveland (1930-c. 1941). Paul made occasional etchings, primarily of blowsy burlesque performers resembling figures by the American artist Reginald Marsh. Jean's printmaking was more varied in subject and technique. She produced figurative wood engravings in the manner of Eric Gill, portrait etchings rendered in the stipple technique of Alphonse Legros, and landscapes composed of flat planes of aquatint reminiscent of William Nicholson's bold woodblock designs.
Following their return to Cleveland in August 1928, Paul and Jean periodically sent their work-both photographs of paintings and actual drawings-to Tonks to critique. The exchange evolved into a lively personal correspondence between Jean and Tonks, which became increasingly tender and intimate as the letter writing progressed over the course of three years.
In 1938, the Ulens began working together at West Technical High School on the west side of Cleveland, which they transformed into a mini-Slade. It quickly earned the reputation as the foremost "drawing academy" in the city. Year after year, the Ulens' students swept all the top prizes ("Golden Keys") for drawing at the National Scholastic Art competitions. The Ulens themselves won numerous awards for drawing in the annual Cleveland May Shows throughout the 30's and 40's, and occasionally for their prints and paintings.
Because they had only a fairly small studio in their Lakewood home, the Ulens produced the vast majority of their drawings from life in these classrooms. This practice remained consistent throughout the years that the couple taught in side-by-side classrooms. Paul taught for 40 years in Room 312, and Jean for 10 of her 25 years at West Tech in Room 314.
Teaching Art in Cleveland: The Ulens' Mini-Slade
At West Tech, Paul showed unabashed preference for his male students, grouping them into teams upon whom he lavished special instruction. He extended special privileges to his male students, such as dinner at his home, which he did not make available to his female students.
Paul Ulen's drawings of young men from his West Tech years are generally more sensitively rendered than his drawings of women. While he often heroicized his male subjects as the result of his investment in them, Paul tended nearly the opposite with his female sitters. His subjects-often the working-class teenagers from his classes and housewives who modeled for extra money-are frequently awkward, unsophisticated, cheaply dressed, homely, and self-consciousness. Paul did not try to suppress these qualities. In this way, his work betrays his awareness of and affinity with a number of the key contemporary American figurative artists of the time, including Douglas Gorsline, Leon Kroll, Paul Cadmus, and Isabel Bishop.
While Tonks and his like-minded colleagues held the French modernist Cézanne responsible for the deluge of early twentieth century European "isms," the Ulens' found a comparably iconic figure against whom to rail in the person of Jackson Pollock. While Cleveland artist George Fitzpatrick was at West Tech in the late 1950's, he once ventured to express his admiration for Pollock to Paul Ulen, illustrating his enthusiasm through reference to Frank O'Hara's new book on Pollock's paintings. Upon hearing that Fitzpatrick viewed Pollock as the greatest artistic visionary since Giotto, Ulen reputedly dismissed Pollock's work as "crap" and threw the publication out the nearest window. In this debate, Jean was not a silent partner. She proudly displayed a large poster she had hand lettered which read: "Abstract Art: A product of the untalented-sold by the unprincipled-to the utterly bewildered. By Al Capp."
True to their anti-modernist beliefs, in their own work, the Ulens persisted in the manner and aesthetic championed by the Slade School. The Ulens' West Tech drawings often depict the same subjects using the same medium, yet the sensitive nuances of Jean's touch and the range of emotional expression (a quality traceable to her two competition portraits) render her work easily distinguishable from that of her husband. The qualities differentiating their work can be illustrated well through a comparison of two heads of the same woman, one by Paul and one by Jean, in the Cleveland Artists Foundation collection. Of the two portraits, both rendered in terracotta pencil, the work by Jean is far more sensitive to the play of light on the face and hair, which creates both greater visual interest and a more expressive face. Aside from the technical aspects of Jean's draftsmanship that distinguish her drawings from Paul's, there is also a distinct element of self-containment in her subjects that differentiates her figure drawings from those of her husband. Rather than sitting idly in a chair or reclining languidly on a model stand, Jean's figures were permitted to look down or away, or become involved in an activity, a choice that results in an impression of personal agency lacking in Paul's subjects. This strategy seems to have relaxed Jean's models, so that rather than posing with a veneer of unease or blankness, they reveal more personality, and appear more graceful.
The deep significance that drawing acquired for Jean and Paul over their many years together never dissipated. As a practice, drawing resonated with their youthful experiences in London, their encounters with the most esteemed of instructors, their trips across Europe together, their dedication to their West Tech students, and most significantly and profoundly with their indissoluble partnership, the common thread that endured each of these experiences. When Paul died Jean became a shadow of her former self, retreating into a very private life and drawing very little. It is revealing that in the wake of her husband's death, Jean opted to catalog his work rather than her own.
While Paul was the standard bearer for the great Henry Tonks, Jean was the true Slade acolyte. Though many of her works remained unsigned and uninventoried, the graceful, silvery finesse of her pencil serves as an infallible identifier of her hand.
In their classrooms at West Technical High School, Jean
and Paul Ulen rigorously trained a great many students to draw well, a marketable
skill which underlay a variety of practical careers in commercial advertising,
illustration, poster and graphic design. When they retired together from
West Tech in 1963, the Ulens had seen their students win over 280 scholarships
to art schools and hundreds of National Scholastic Art awards. As George
Fitzpatrick recalls, "They were so proud to have taught 'the poor kids'
the craft of art." The Ulens had a deep attachment to the idea that
teaching art was ennobling, both because art itself was noble, and because
teaching it was a vehicle for changing lives.
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