by Susan S. Weininger
In 1932, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor asked Tunis Ponsen if there was any special message he would like to communicate to the public about his art. According to the writer, he smiled shyly and said, "None. you know, I just paint the thing I see the way I feel it. I have no particular theories. I just try to paint well." In an undated clipping of about the same time, the anonymous critic called The Previewer praises Ponsen's contribution to an exhibition at the Chicago Galleries Association, writing "I found Tunis Ponsen the outstanding Artist (with a capital A) in the show. He says he wants to paint what he sees, and he is modern in the true sense; he paints things without letting textbook rules interfere with his eyes." Ponsen's natural reticence and humility made him even less prone than most artists to articulate his motives or to try to explain his paintings. In the few written comments on his work that survive, however, he reiterated these ideas: he painted what he saw and he did not follow any particular theory. This attitude distinguishes him from the more vocal and rebellious group of modernists working in Chicago during the interwar period. Almost all of them discussed theory, primarily theory derived from the Russian artist-theorist Wassily Kandinsky. They valued internal expression over faithfulness to vision, as did modernists elsewhere. Given his background and training, however, it is not astonishing that Ponsen followed a fairly conservative path. What is surprising is the extent to which he was open to modernist techniques. The particular climate of Chicago's art community provided Ponsen with encouragement and exhibition opportunities as a conservative along with an opportunity to explore modernism. Modernists in Chicago, unlike their New York or European counterparts, were not attracted to abstraction or to extreme experimentation in other styles, making their work much more accessible to even traditionalists. Living in Chicago offered Ponsen the opportunity to explore a variety of approaches rather than remain confined to one style and to integrate modernist techniques when it seemed appropriate to his work. In this respect, his work conforms to J. Z. Jacobson's description of a modern artist as someone who is "genuinely alive, sincere and competent."
Tunis Ponsen was born in the town of Wageningen, the Netherlands, on February 19, 1891, the son of a house painter and his homemaker-seamstress wife. His early interest and achievement in art is substantiated by the diploma he was granted in 1908, certifying him to teach drawing at the elementary school level in the Netherlands. His first teachers, sculptor August Falise and landscape painter turned war cartoonist Louis Raemakers, probably instilled in the young Ponsen the beginnings of the strong habits of traditional training which were reinforced by subsequent teachers.
Ponsen arrived in the United States in 1913 and by 1914 was established in Muskegon, a western Michigan city in an area settled by numerous Dutch immigrants. He went into the decorating business, which he had learned from his father, doing painting and paperhanging. By 1915, he was frequenting the Hackley Art Gallery (now the Muskegon Museum of Art), making the acquaintance of its then director, Mr. Wyer, and eventually enrolling in evening classes taught by Wilbur C. Kensler. Possibly with Kensler's encouragement, Ponsen enrolled in a six-month course in drawing at the School of the Art Institute in 1917. When his studies were completed, he applied for United States citizenship and enlisted in the army. At the end of World War I, he returned to Muskegon, to the decorating business and to the Hackley Art Gallery. It was then that he met Miss Lulu Miller, director of the gallery, who became his mentor, promising him a solo exhibition when his work was good enough. Making good on her promise, before Ponsen's permanent move to Chicago in early 1924, he was featured in a group show in 1921 followed in 1922 and 1923 by one-person exhibitions at the Hackley. The level of success he achieved as an artist in Muskegon is reflected in his numerous local portrait commissions in addition to the successful sales of landscapes, still lifes, and copies after museum pieces that were exhibited in his early shows at the gallery. His lifelong relationship with the gallery culminates with the current show, but includes a retrospective exhibition in 1967 as well as one-person exhibitions in 1925, 1927 and 1931.
Lulu Miller, who not only arranged for his exhibitions in Muskegon, but reviewed them for the local paper, may have offered Ponsen the support he needed to enroll in the School of the Art Institute. When he arrived in Chicago, he took an apartment-studio in the home of Mrs. Joseph Hawley, Miller's sister. By 1934, he felt the need for a larger space and rented a studio around the corner at 1031 E. 45th Street where he also gave classes. He remained in this home, at 4422 S. Oakenwald, until 1952 when he purchased his own house-studio at 5809 Harper in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.
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