by Susan S. Weininger
In contrast to Buehr and Oberteuffer, who must have applauded the development of Ponsen's skills as a still life and figure painter, Leon Kroll encouraged experimentation, freedom and a modernist's distrust of artistic dogma. Kroll's memoirs describe his stay in Chicago during the 1924-25 academic year as a difficult one for him. According to his rendition, he chafed at the strict rules imposed on him by the dean of the School, insisting on running his classroom in the way he desired. Kroll initiated a showdown with the dean, enlisting the support of the trustees of the Art Institute and winning the right to run his classes without interference. Kroll was a New York based artist associated with the Ashcan School of urban realists, a friend of George Bellows and John Sloan. Although he painted many images of the urban scene in the first decades of the century, much of the work he produced in Chicago was figural: "I painted people out there. I painted my wife quite a bit, and models." Ponsen must have seen the exhibitions of Kroll and Bellows at the Art Institute in 1924, but evidence of their influence appears in a peripheral fashion, if at all, at this time. Both Bellows and Kroll did figure studies. The loose brushstrokes and dark palette that Bellows employed in many of his portraits may be linked to Ponsen's figure studies, but in 1924 the latter had not yet shown an interest in the urban scenes for which Bellows and Kroll were so well known. For the moment, Ponsen was concerned with much more traditional images.
Beginning in 1919, Bellows, Randall Davey and Kroll had visiting professorships at the School of the Art Institute. This was enormously important for the young modernists in Chicago who responded to the belief in freedom and pursuit of individual expression preached by the older New York artists. The freedom to experiment and follow internal dictates was like a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of the School. Although the modernists and traditionalists were often at odds with one another in Chicago, they shared the conservative training of the School of the Art Institute and the generally conservative aura of the artistic community. This, and the fact that Chicago artists were operating away from the center of the art world (New York and Europe), allowed more crossover between the groups than one might see elsewhere. Ponsen was an artist who produced, exhibited and sold both traditional Impressionist-derived landscapes and powerful, simplified urban visions at the same time. He is never formally associated with the modernist group, however.
Ponsen made the first of a number of trips to the Atlantic coast, historically a favorite location of American landscapists, in 1926. He travelled to Provincetown where he studied with Richard Miller and Charles Hawthorne at the latter's well-known studio. Gray Day at Provincetown (cat. #10), one of a number of plein-air paintings characterized by the technique of painting in rapid, broken brushstrokes that Ponsen was to use extensively for the rest of his career, was painted during that summer.
As Ponsen began to develop as a landscapist, he continued to work on the figure, a subject which diminished in importance as his interest in the landscape expanded. Hawthorne was well-known for his character studies of fishermen, so it is not surprising that photographs belonging to Ponsen show the beach and the long pier that appear in Gray Day with the student artists assembled to work on studies from a figure posed on the beach (fig. 7). Ponsen's interest in Hawthornesque figure studies manifests itself in Muskegon, where he had copied the work of Gerrit Beneker in the Gallery before 1922, when one was displayed.
The concept for, if not the direct inspiration of, the Portrait of a Man in a Black Hat (cat. #7) may be one of these outdoor sessions, in which the students had the opportunity to study the figure in the outdoor light. The Man in a Black Hat seems to be a study for the expanded Seated Old Man with Cane (cat. #8). Distinguished from the more formal portraiture of his conservative contemporaries by its simple wainscoted architectural background which stops at the sitter's waist thus silhouetting his upper body against the light background, he is linked to them by the retention of the clear three-dimensional quality, conventional color and detailed representation of facial features. Like Hawthorne and Beneker, who concentrated on fishermen, his is a sensitive study of a working-class person.
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