The French Experience: Alice Schille's Artistic Legacy

by James M. Keny



In the autumn of 1904, Schille returned to America and resumed teaching at the Columbus Art School. Though she sold many of her works, the demand for American painting in the early twentieth century -- even that of respected artists like Schille -- was not substantial enough to support a way of life. Her love of teaching, a strong commitment to her family -- her mother in particular -- and the necessity to earn a living to support her frequent travels made the teaching position in Columbus a logical choice. Schille's Continental success and the happy memories and inspiration of France would never, however, be forgotten. Paris and the surrounding French countryside drew Schille like a magnet. At the end of the academic year, she would often return to her beloved France.

The life she chose was not without its personal sacrifices. While a student in Paris, Alice met a young, handsome man who would become a well-known Philadelphia philanthropist and art collector, Samuel S. White III. In 1904 White was both studying in Paris and modeling for one of Auguste Rodin's major works in bronze, The Athlete. In the years before World War I, White collected many of Schille's finest works, and some believe that he asked her to marry him. Alice, the story goes, declined White's proposal in favor of her career. Although White and his eventual wife, Vera, remained Alice's close friends for the remainder of her life, this decision to forego marriage and a family in favor of untrammeled commitment to her art must have been a painful one.

Schille took full advantage of her independence. During her summer travels, she fraternized with the artists and intellectuals of Paris: Rodin the avant-garde sculptor, revolutionary Cubist painter Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein, the controversial author and perceptive patron of the new group of modern artists that included Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Juan Gris. Years later Alice would recall "an amusing, amazing evening at Gertrude Stein's where she was showing the earliest work of the Cubists -- mostly Picasso. And we saw the first showing of Cezanne's work after his death." The Paris art scene enlivened in Stein's book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Schille told a relative in after years, was "my Paris."

As avant-garde ideas were important to Schille's art and her buoyant outlook on life, so were the common people of France. She lost no time in learning to write and speak fluent French, so that she would be able to share in their life, might enter their world completely. The life-affirming daily rituals of artisans and peasants inspired her respect, and she recorded them with sensitivity. She told an interviewer, in 1942, that she hoped the popularity of the painting she did in France was because viewers "feel in it somewhat the people's love of the soil, their intelligent, sympathetic interest in one's work and their great kindness. My warmest memories are of France."

For thirty-odd summers following 1904, Schille actively studied, assimilated, and distilled the many artistic developments emerging in Paris, from Pointillism to Cubism. She welcomed innovation, she later told a reporter, for "when it comes to working, there is too much of interest to confine myself. There would not be any incentive to work without change." Despite her enthusiasm for and understanding of these new modes of perception, she embraced them only within the context of her primary artistic aim: to sensitively depict the French people in their normal daily activities.

Whether she adopted a realistic, tightly drawn Barbizon style to portray a young peasant mother and children whiling away a rainy day in their cottage, or a much more bold, simplified Post-Impressionistic style to depict a group of women jostling and gossiping in a colorful and busy marketplace, Schille was preoccupied with rendering the positive aspects of life of her favorite subjects -- the French. As she said in the 1940s, "Picasso's original definition of art is my favorite one from among the too many definitions: 'art is a lie that makes us see the truth, at least the truth that is given us to see'." To Schille the accomplishment of that effect was more important than any technique.

Despite her enthusiasm for Europe, and France in particular, Schille never abandoned her provincial hometown, and Columbus, in turn, held Schille in high esteem. During her lifetime Alice's works were the subject of four one-woman shows at the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, where she also was elected to honorary membership. She participated in the annual Columbus Art League exhibitions, where she was awarded several prizes. More than two hundred articles in the local press heralded Schille's accomplishments at home and abroad. She was also respected by the Columbus elite for her talent in portrait painting -- an outlet that supplemented her teaching income.

Unlike many well-known artists, Alice shared her experiences as well as her art with both the public and her students at the Columbus Art School. Her students remember her quiet determination, hardworking dedication, insightfulness, and most of all her kind, open-minded, and supportive method of teaching. One perhaps best expressed this when she recalled that "By her own unflagging devotion to the magic of art she inspired devotion in others . . . She was the kindest of critics, the most generous, the most discerningly sympathetic of friends." France had matured Schille as an artist, and she in turn tried to translate that experience for friends, patrons, and students not able to share in such a hospitable and cultured environment.

In so doing, Alice Schille was one of the first artists to effectively bring many modern artistic concepts directly from France to the Midwest. And she stands out as one of the very few American women painters confident enough to continually master new modes of painting throughout her career. Her individuality, commitment, and innate skill combined with her French-inspired respect for humanity and culture to make her a fine and sensitive artist with a vast aesthetic vocabulary. As such, Schille was a cultural catalyst in Columbus, then a small, pragmatic midwestern community distrustful of modern art.

As an instructor at the Columbus Art School for nearly fifty years and the dean of Columbus artists, Schille helped to broaden the aesthetic tastes of the growing community. Her paintings and her life of teaching are the city's French legacy from the woman a German critic called "this daredevil disciple of art who is interested in anything and afraid of nothing."


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