Tunis Ponsen

by Susan S. Weininger



Ponsen travelled to Belgium and France as well as the Netherlands, but of the 40 paintings he declared when he returned to the United States in 1929, 36 were Dutch scenes. The remaining four were Parisian scenes. Barges on the Seine (cat. #21), Morning on the Seine (cat. #22) and A Street in Paris (cat. #20) were based on sketches done in Paris, if not actually completed on his trip. The fourth Parisian scene, Fishing on the Seine (fig. 12 is the small version of the painting done in Paris on which the prize-winning painting was based) won the Martin Cahn prize at the American Annual at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929 as well as the Dixon prize at the South Side Art Association Spring Exhibition of the same year. One is reminded of the Parisian paintings of Ponsen's countryman, J. B. Jongkind, when looking at Barges on the Seine. In both Ponsen's painting and Jongkind's View of Notre Dame (1864, fig. 13), the industrial life of the city is pictured along the strong diagonal of the Seine River. As in Fishing on the Seine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is silhouetted against the horizon. The use of the strong diagonal of the river as an organizing principle echoes the composition of Windmill near Delft as well as the earlier Gray Day at Provincetown. At the same time one is reminded of the Chicago river scenes which Ponsen begins to paint in the early 1930s. In both the Parisian and Chicago scenes the waterway is the psychological focus of the painting, and the broad, flat, undetailed color areas that are characteristic of paintings like Chicago Silhouettes (cat. #25) appear for the first time in pictures like Barges on the Seine.

The European paintings foreshadow Ponsen's most modern and most emotionally resonant paintings in other ways as well. In his most compelling work, like Chicago Silhouettes, Chicago River Industrial Scene (cat. #25) and Chicago River Scene (cat. #26), he chooses points of view that reveal something beyond "objective" vision. Like the view in Backyards of My Childhood, Ponsen chooses an unusual vantage point. Rather than painting the most characteristic aspect of the scene, as Ponsen often did in his popular seascapes, he shows the viewer the "back side" of the houses in Holland and the skyscrapers in Chicago.

Ponsen's urban vision, while sharing some of the qualities of other Chicagoans who painted the city, is unique. The large, flat, simplified forms of the identifiable skyscrapers towering over the small buildings along the Chicago River reveal his interest both in the commercial and industrial base of the city and the vocabulary of modernism. This connects him with such Chicagoans as Jean Crawford Adams (View from the Auditorium, fig. 14) and Belle Baranceanu (The Factory by the River, fig 15). While Ponsen's paintings share the Precisionist esthetic of Crawford, Raymond Shiva (Chicago, MCMXXIV, fig. 3) or Raymond Jonson (The Night, Chicago, fig. I), he never constructs an unpopulated urban vision. We always see the faceless, universal working class figures, fishermen, or leisure strollers. He distinguishes himself from the conservative artists with whom he often exhibited, like Richard Chase, whose dramatic view of the Chicago skyline, The City at Night (fig. 16), verges on illustration. Perhaps closest to Todros Geller's Michigan Avenue Bridge (fig. 17), whose towering architecture dwarfs the tiny figures peering over the bridge railing, Ponsen's vision is one that is deeply connected to the human realm despite is glorification of the man-made wonders of the modern city. In that sense, his work combines, like so many other Chicagoans, the urban realism of the Ashcan School of the early 20th century with the modernist vision of the Cubist-inspired Precisionists to create a uniquely midwestern image of the city.

Chicago's technological modernity was celebrated in the Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933-34. Ponsen not only was invited to display his work in the exhibition of paintings and sculpture [25] and the exhibition of prints held at the Art Institute in conjunction with the fair, he was inspired to do a series of paintings of the grounds. The futuristic buildings and sleek, machine-inspired design that dominated the fair inspired a number of Chicago artists. In World's Fair, Chicago (fig. 18), Jean Crawford Adams emphasizes the curves of the bandshell and verticals of the flagpoles to create a nearly abstract image conveying the wonders of modern technology. Emil Armin's The Fair and Fishing (fig. 19) shares Ponsen's viewpoint and a more representational quality, but his brilliant color and purposeful primitivizing makes the landscape vibrate with energy. Ponsen's vision of the fair (Chicago World's Fair, cat. #27) relies on conventional representation of space, but shares the modern interest in the life of the city represented in brilliant patches of flat color. Never averse to commercial activity, Ponsen consigned several of his paintings of the fair, Southern Entrance and Illumination, to Groh and Company to sell. References to paintings titled The Fair - Gray Day and Ramp and Rain, both exhibited during and after the fair, indicate Ponsen's high level of interest in the subject.[26]

By the early 1930s, Ponsen had cast his lot with the conservatives, exhibiting with the Chicago Galleries Association and the South Side Art Association. However, the fluidity of the Chicago art community enabled Ponsen to be among the exhibitors at several shows at Increase Robinson's Studio Gallery, one of the few commercial venues for modernists in the early 1930s and to participate in the most egalitarian art event of the period -- the open-air art fair in Grant Park in 1932. According to a newspaper account, "bills to the amount of $250 were thrust into the astonished hands of Tunis Ponsen at the Grant Park Art Fair" by "a stranger [who] admired Ponsen's watercolors and said he'd take the whole lot." The article describing Ponsen's success in selling his entire stock of paintings on the first day of the fair is subtitled "Bohemian Scene Draws Many Visitors Despite Cloudy Skies," conveying the public perception of the fair as one dominated by radicals. In fact, the fair attracted a wide range of artists, many feeling the effects of the Depression. Described by the young artist Gertrude Abercrombie as a site of diversity and community, a place where she "met all kinds of people, classes, colors, creeds, everything.. .and everybody loved each other,"[27] the fair in Chicago attracted artists of all persuasions.

The Chicago paintings, all done in the 1930s, are also clearly allied with the Regionalism that was sweeping the entire country during the Depression era. Ponsen was employed on the government sponsored art programs, although it is not clear how long or how actively. We know one of his works (Winter Scene) was acquired by Libertyville High School from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the shortest-lived and earliest of the government art programs.[28] Ponsen's name also appears on the rolls of artists working on the easel project of the Illinois Art Project (lAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which spanned the years 1935-43.[29] Because Ponsen's self-sufficient nature probably balked at this kind of help from the government, his participation may have been limited. Even though he was enjoying some success as an artist during this period, this program may have been a welcome source of income in needier moments. Letters from a friend in the late 1930s reflect some concern with finances and problems selling paintings; this was undoubtedly alleviated by the mid 1940s.[30]


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