Editor's note: The following essay was published, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on May 18, 2005 with the permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

George Biddle, Raphael Soyer, and the Genius with a Thousand Faces

by Andrew Ladis

 

George Biddle was a child of privilege, born in Philadelphia on 24 January 1885. He attended Groton, where he was a classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Harvard, graduating with a law degree in 1911. Although admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, he chose to pursue a different course: a life of making. In the years leading into World War I, from 1911 through 1915, Biddle attended the Académie Julian in Paris and befriended fellow-Philadelphian Mary Cassatt. He also enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, painted with the American expatriate Frederick Frieseke at Giverny, and studied the art of Europe first hand. As Biddle himself put it: "I gobbled up museums, French impressionism, cubism, futurism, the Old Masters; I copied Velásquez in Madrid, Rubens in Munich; I fell under the spell of Mary Cassatt's passion and integrity, and through her eyes I was influenced by Degas. I was desperately in earnest to overcome my late start." After serving as a lieutenant in World War I, Biddle, enjoying the advantage of means, embarked on romantic but purposeful travels that took him as far as Tahiti (1920), where Gauguin had once lived; Mexico (1928), where he joined Diego Rivera on a lengthy sketching trip; and Charleston, South Carolina (1930), where, at the invitation of George and Ira Gershwin, he prepared sketches illustrating the libretto of the first American opera, Porgy and Bess. In a letter dated 9 May 1933, prompted by his commitment to the arts and still fresh from his experience in Mexico, he lobbied his former classmate, now President Franklin Roosevelt, about the value of state-sponsored art and pointed to the New World example of Mexico, whose artists had "produced the greatest national school of mural painting since the Italian Renaissance." That triumph, he instructed Roosevelt, was the happy result of merely allowing artists "to work at plumbers' wages in order to express on the walls of government buildings the social ideals that you are struggling to achieve." Biddle's suggestion eventually led to the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and, later, the Federal Art Project, which in turn was to become the Works Progress Administration. Biddle also worked as artist-correspondent for Life Magazine, covered the Nuremberg trials at the invitation of the U.S. government, taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1937) and at the Otis Art Institute (1941), produced murals in Mexico City (1940) and in Rio de Janeiro (1942), and authored seven books. He died in Croton-on-Hudson, New York on November 6, 1973.

Homage to Raphael Soyer was painted in 1947, the very year that the Philadelphia Museum of Art paid homage to George Biddle with a one-person retrospective. In contrast to the public pomp that accrued to him in that year, Biddle chose to pay tribute to the fourteen-years-younger Soyer with an intimate and introspective portrait that is also a meditation on the quiet, solitary, and unglamorous process of artistic creation. In 1947, the world of art was undergoing a postwar upheaval, and New York stood on the front lines. The old modernist impulse that had governed painting throughout the first half of the century was under siege from a younger generation that rejected the necessity of representation and privileged a creative act that was as much instinctual and visceral as it was cerebral. Abstract Expressionism, in short, challenged the premises of figurative art as it was championed by the likes of Biddle, Raphael Soyer, and the latter's brothers, Isaac and Moses. In 1950, a stoic Biddle recorded in his diary a conversation in which Soyer lamented the current state of the arts. Biddle wrote:

He (Soyer) was very depressed. God knows, I am myself. Both of us feel-most of the finest artists of my generation, modern or traditional, feel-that the present moment is one of chaos, chicanery, and double-talk in the art world. There are no valid critical standards. Perhaps all this is a reflection of the chaos of the world.

Biddle then told Soyer:

I am less pessimistic than you about the future. All this is a passing fad and a passing phase. The sort of art now in vogue has little meaning and that little meaning has never been understood by the public at large. How quickly water runs over the dam. You and I can remember when the Ashcan School was the thing of the moment, and later Cubism and Marcel Duchamp, and still later when Tom Craven was the impresario of the Regionalism of Tom Benton, Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood. That was as recently as 1939.

Then, as if to prove both his own and Biddle's point of view, Soyer asked, "'What has happened to Tom Benton?'" What had happened to Benton and the Regionalists was the advent of Abstract Expressionism, which favored a creative method and a pictorial vision that, for a time, would make the figurative art of Soyer and Biddle seem quaint.

Biddle's penetrating portrait of Soyer is a likeness, not only in the sense of recording his friend's physical appearance and emotional temperament, but also because it is painted in such a way as to evoke Soyer's style, that is, his creative identity. The plaster cast on the table is more than a studio prop or even a sign of Soyer's reverence for the classical tradition, it also stands for the latter's particular way of picture-making, an approach that regarded the past as a tool, as much a part of the creative act as brushes, rags, and the living model. The seemingly casual array of images within the image suggest the time-honored process of invention that Soyer and Biddle endorsed. This incremental, cooly pondered method, then under attack, began by observing nature and the model. The painter made quick sketches, like that pinned to the screen at left, then more finished drawings, not unlike the one tacked to the far wall, and perhaps afterwards oil studies, like the profile of a head. The latter is the image of a bodily fragment projected on a flat surface, a phenomenal reality that is underscored by the painting-within-a-painting's ironic juxtaposition with the painted illusion of a sculpture, itself a fragment, of a full-length figure. Only after such methodical steps, through which the painter arrived at a higher consciousness of the nature and potential of his chosen medium, did an artist like Soyer achieve a consummated picture, like the unframed canvas at his side awaiting both a patron and a wall.

 

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