Tunis Ponsen

by Susan S. Weininger



The most interesting work of his later period include several still life paintings and a group of arrangements of objects in his studio that form an integrated whole. The Arrangement on a Marble Counter (cat. #41), The Japanese Vase (cat. #43) and Still Life with Sansevieria (cat. #44) are probably the earlier works. In the Arrangement on a Marble Counter, Ponsen incorporates personal allusions, in the form of earlier paintings, Angenita with Doll (cat. #42) and the study for Barges on the Seine (cat. #21). The very loosely rendered image of the artist's beloved niece linked with a reference to his European trip are combined with a group of still life objects -- bottles, fruit, books -- that do not have personal associations.

The Japanese Vase and Still Life both include books open to reproductions of works by artists Ponsen presumably admired, including Van Gogh and Cézanne. While the influence of Van Gogh is reflected in some of his work (see Apple Tree, cat. #37), Cézanne's work does not seem to have had a direct effect. Ponsen certainly was familiar with the post-impressionists, already well represented in the Art Institute collection; he also attended exhibitions of modern European art.[35] A measure of the limited influence of the more modernist artists on his work is seen in these skillful and interesting, but conventional, still lifes.

The second group of arrangements, brilliantly colored views of his home-studio, are probably ten to twenty years later and evidence Ponsen's more successful late formal experiments. Red Drop Leaf Table with Bottles (cat. #45), Room with Red Drop Leaf Table (cat. #46), and An Open Door (cat. #47) show us more about Ponsen's life than any of the more guarded and conventional still lifes of an earlier period. Showing the viewer his present working space with examples of his own work from various periods on the walls, they serve as a summation of his artistic activity. We see his simple furnishings: his chest of drawers through an open door; the brilliant red drop leaf table with the remains of a meal. The slight spatial distortions, the dazzling color, and the material simplicity bring to mind Van Gogh's Bedroom at Arles, a mainstay of the Birch Bartlett Collection donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926.

Ponsen had an active artistic life, during which he exhibited with a number of predominantly conservative artists' organizations like the South Side Art Association, the Chicago Galleries Association, the All Illinois Society of the Fine Arts and a number of other artists' exhibition groups on a regular basis. He was selected regularly for the juried Annuals at the Art Institute of Chicago, certainly the most prestigious venue for any Chicago artist. He was also a member of the oldest artists' organization in town, the Chicago Society of Artists, a group that bridged the gap between modernists and conservatives.[36] He was invited to become a member of the Renaissance Society, an exhibition group that counted among its members artists who took a wide variety of approaches. He held classes in his studio most of his life, taught on a part-time basis at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and in the last decades of his life, taught very successful classes at several community arts centers.[37]

His personal life is a bit more elusive. He lived outside the major artists' enclaves for most of his life, in the neighborhood just north of the artist-heavy Hyde Park and far from the other major concentration of artists on the near north side of the city. By the time he moved to the house on Harper Avenue in 1952, the artist's colony on nearby 57th Street, active since the period immediately following the end of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, was only a decade away from destruction.[38]

Ponsen never had his own family, and if he had any long-term relationships of a romantic nature after the 1920s, they were kept quite secret. He was very close to his sister, brother-in-law and niece, admitting in a rare written display of emotion to depression at the death of his sister. In a letter of June 9, 1967 to Mrs. Berg in Muskegon, Ponsen responds to her sympathy note of several months earlier: "Since my sister passed away, I seem to have lost interest in things...I have to try to get out of this depressive mood."[39] When he moved into the large house on Harper Avenue, he rented rooms to students, establishing a surrogate family; when a student moved on, he would often give him or her a painting.[40]

According to his niece, he always travelled with friends. He had a close relationship with Ethel Crouch Brown, another Hyde Park painter whose family summered in western Michigan and with whom he often painted there.[41] His address book included the names of artists as diverse as Emil Armin, Ruth van Sickle Ford, Richard Chase, Gus Dalstrom, and Beatrice Levy, attesting to his status in both the traditional and modernist art worlds. He left little in the way of personal information -- no journals, diaries, and few personal letters survive. What does survive indicates that Ponsen was a decent, kind human being, earning his popularity with his amateur students through an always respectful critique of their work.[42]

Ponsen's last decade included two solo exhibitions -- the first, at the Chicago Public Library in 1961 and the final one, in 1967, at the Hackley Gallery. His skill as an artist and lack of rigidity allowed him to bridge the gap between traditional and modern, although on balance his work came down firmly in the former camp. He led a life free of drama, firm in the belief that what he saw was more important than what he felt. What we do know about Ponsen helps us to understand the distance he places between himself and some of his subjects and the idiosyncratic viewpoint he establishes for others. While these devices allow Ponsen to remain objective and unassuming, the viewer is given a window into the feelings of an artist who prided himself on painting what he saw.


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