Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on December 22, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact Dr. Weininger directly at the Art, History and Philosophy Department at Roosevelt University through either this phone number or web address:
by Susan S. Weininger
Like many other Chicago artists, Tunis Ponsen has been largely overlooked by scholars of 20th century art. With the possible exception of Ivan Albright, until fairly recently it would have been difficult for even those educated in the arts to name a Chicago artist who was active before 1965. During the last decade, however, a series of exhibitions and publications has focused on the unknown artists of the early part of the century and has generated interest in these artists. We can now add William S. Schwartz, Emil Armin, Julia Thecla, Gertrude Abercrombie, Belle Baranceanu, Anthony Angarola, Kathleen Blackshear, Raymond Jonson, Manierre Dawson, Herman Menzel, William Norton, and Archibald J. Motley, Jr. to the ever-increasing group of artists whose work has been exhibited and documented.  These artists are, however, primarily modernists -- artists who participated in the early 20th century struggle to express individual feelings or ideas in their work. One of the few contemporary publications on art, J.Z. Jacobson's 1932 book, Art of Today: 1933, includes many of them.
Ponsen, unlike these self-defined modernists, worked primarily in a traditional manner. In addition, he aligned himself with the more moderate tendency in Chicago by exhibiting in venues that were predominantly conservative, in turn attracting critics, like Eleanor Jewett, who supported this tendency. He exhibited regularly at the Chicago Galleries Association, a moderate group, throughout his career. Because almost no attention has been given to the often very interesting and technically superb work of the more traditional of the early Chicago painters, rediscovering Ponsen is even more important. As we look at his oeuvre, it becomes clear that he does not simply paint beautiful images, although he often does that. His abiding interest and commitment was to paint, like the Impressionists he most certainly admired, what he saw. In the subjects he treated during the course of his almost 50 year career as a painter -- figure studies, portraits, still lifes and landscapes -- he never strayed far from this principle. And it is the landscape, both rural and urban, that provided him with his most powerful inspiration. Beginning with his weekend painting excursions to scenic locations around Muskegon with his early teacher Wilbur Kensler, Ponsen worked outside, trying to capture effects of changing light and atmospheric conditions, often referring to the seasons, weather conditions, or time of day in the titles of his paintings. This is exemplified by one of the earliest landscapes in this exhibition, Gray Day at Provincetown of 1926 (cat. #10), as well as the mid-career Midwest Landscape with Storm (cat. #31) and the late Heavy Snow (cat. # 39), clearly indicating the lifelong importance of these concerns.
Ponsen was not, however, inflexible. Some of his most compelling paintings, like Chicago Silhouettes (cat. #24), or Chicago River Industrial Scene (cat. #25), done in the 1930s, show strong links to Chicago's modernist tradition. A willingness to experiment is evident not only in his later attempts at abstraction (Abstract, cat. #50; Sunbeams through the Clouds, cat. #49) but also in his brilliantly colored views of his studio (for example, An Open Door, cat. #47), probably done in the late 1950s and 1960s. In addition, at the age of about 60, he explored the use of the newly available acrylic paints in works like View of Chicago through Birch Trees (cat. #48).
Tunis Ponsen can be claimed as a Chicago artist, although, like many others, he did not originate in the city. He came to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1924 and, like many others, never left. Chicago was attractive to Ponsen for a number of reasons -- it boasted an excellent art school in relatively close proximity to his adopted home of Muskegon, Michigan and his beloved sister and her family in Benton Harbor, Michigan, it was an art center that nurtured a conservative tradition, an extension of his prior artistic experience; it was a city that was not daunting, but manageable, friendly, midwestern. Even before his formal education was complete, he was gaining a reputation, exhibiting a landscape called Near the Harbor, Gloucester (location unknown) at the prestigious juried Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1927. In the same year, he exhibited for the first time at the juried Exhibition for Michigan Artists at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the juried Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity at the Art Institute. He began to exhibit with the South Side Art Association in 1926. He was able to support himself by selling his work, supplementing his income with part-time teaching, for the rest of his life.
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