Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed
and reprinted on September 22, 2006 in Resource Library with permission
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Charles Vickery: Maritime painter
by David L. Wilson, Jr.
Maritime images continue to inspire all that see them. In a way such paintings, when done well, have the magical ability to transport us to "being there" stimulating a sense of emotional connection and feeling. Few if any could be stated to paint marine works as well as those painted by acclaimed seascape artist Charles Vickery. Although Vickery died at the age of 85 in 1998 [a], his artistic legacy lives on. While anyone that hears Vickery's name is to say that it is synonymous with his skills at capturing the virtual essence, the very soul of water through the medium of paint. The only thing that could be more astounding to those curious about his life and his work is when they discover that although he painted water he lived in a town so far from it.
Charles Vickery, known for his ability to paint water, lived in the Midwest town of Western Springs, a town without water. Vickery was born in the Southwestern town of Hinsdale Illinois in 1913, and as a child, moved to White Bear Lake, Minnesota. His skills and potential as an artist were noticed early on. Vickery continued to develop his young talent, at an early age. Vickery returned to the small southwestern town to attend high school. A graduate from Lyons Township High school in LaGrange Illinois, many of his accomplished works now hang in their meeting rooms, considered too valuable to be on display to the general public. Vickery went on to study art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the American Academy of Fine Art. He often said that his greatest instructor was Lake Michigan. Vickery sketched and painted at the Chicago lakefront, Indiana dunes, Oak brook [Graw Mill], and along the Eastern seaboard among others.
Although he maintained a private life, with few close friends, he was never without being the consummate art teacher. Always inspiring the art curious student, he remained an eager instructor. And, Vickery delighted us with a rare sense of humor throughout his life, even to sketching on parking tickets.
There was an intensely serious side to him as well. Vickery was intent on capturing the very elements that fundamentally provide the contextual purpose of the piece. Vickery focused strongly on the elements of nature. The sun, wind, light and water: each contributing to overall thematic justification of the piece; he mastered each in turn. This passion to unlock the relationship in the elements found him sleeping in lakefront tents, traveling aboard a freighter to Turkey, and weekly visits to Lake Michigan. Living so far inland, in Western Springs Illinois; a landlocked small suburban town in the heartland of the United States [b], Vickery made each visit to water a rededication of his deep connection.
Vickery's understanding of elemental relationships went far beyond those of his inspirations. Vickery referred to his inspirations as the "Old pros" Winslow Homer, Montague Dawson, and Fredrick Waugh. They were the first artists to transition out of the "Brown gravy school" of painting. That's what Vickery referred to 19th century marine painting; the works that painted water of one color and lacking in depth. Vickery's inspirations "broke the tyranny" conveying color and depth in their work. Although Vickery set out to learn their technique; studying their use of color, he later ultimately surpassed them.
To this regard, the painting of a ship on the sea is not a painting of a ship on the sea. What we are experiencing is the contextual relationship of the ship against, in response to, the elements. Should there be a port, we notice the people or the lack of them; only by capturing the elements surrounding the image can we discern the time of day and emotionally find justification in the context of the composition. In other words, it is what is unseen that Vickery captures that makes feel the way we do about what is seen. This brings to mind a quote by Andre Gide, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." Surely this rings true with what Vickery 'captures' for we, the viewer do not see the wind, Vickery captures its affect and effect "The wind can create sudden drama" stated Vickery. We notice the sky, but Vickery understood, teaching us "The rougher the water gets the more independent the sky becomes". Vickery knew that ocean water behaves differently than lake water; we don't see "wrong" water in his paintings, or paintings of water with a boat or ship 'pinned' on them.
Vickery felt that painting nature needed to be done by working directly with it, he said, "Going to the source" was required. Photographs give a false interpretation as to how the eye sees light. A photo often makes the dark areas of water appear flat; without depth. And, bright areas become equally uninteresting, visually. The artist develops an intimate relationship between self-understanding and the subject matter as they go to the source.
Vickery often commented, saying about the relationship between light and water, that the light would hit the moving water and refract accordingly. And that much of the color of the sky would influence the color of the water. He realized the limitations of paint when considering the range of light, and became excited about the creative possibilities; pushing paint further, and grateful for developing even greater theoretical knowledge.
The business side of the artist:
Vickery opened his first shop in Western Springs in 1937. Born in 1913, he was 24 years old. Not too bad even by today's standards. The Great depression triggered in 1929 by the stock market crash made it understandable that he subsidized his shop income with money from working factory jobs and even as a surveyors assistant. Times were tough; sometimes Vickery traded art for food, or sold works cheaply. Somewhere along the way he worked for a mirror company. There he painted works and signed them under the assumed name "Reynolds" [c]. In the 40's and early 50's Vickery did a number of church murals [d], and religious paintings before returning to marine painting. The hard times would eventually change for his belief and conviction in the pursuit of art as a successful business ultimately won out. In 1951 noted art critic Eleanor Jewitt, of the Chicago Tribune, recognized his ability remarking that he was "one of the great painters of this age" even going as far as to call him a bright Homer [e]. Vickery maintained membership with the Oil Painters of America and the American Society of Marine Artists.
[a] Vickery died at the LaGrange Memorial Hospital September 22, 1998 of Heart failure, he was 85 years old.
[b] Vickery lived in landlocked Western Springs some 74 years.
[c] Vickery was later rewarded, as an accomplished artist seeing one of his earlier "Reynolds" pieces in an Oak Park Illinois art gallery.
[d] Vickery's church paintings were done in Iowa between 1940's and 50's
[e] Vickery's painting was at the Chicago Galleries Association 33N. Michigan Ave. Chicago Illinois when art critic Eleanor Jewitt saw it.
There are two religious paintings made later in Vickery's career: "Jesus Walking on the Sea", and "No Greater Love" c1974.
His works are in the Clipper Ship Gallery in LaGrange Illinois and the Brigantine Gallery in LaGrange Park Illinois.
His one noted patriotic work was that of the American flag. He painted a small and one larger version in mirror image.
Chicago Tribune, September 25 1998
Brigantine Gallery in LaGrange Park Illinois
Clipper Ship Gallery in LaGrange Illinois
About the Author:
David L. Wilson, Jr. is a classically trained artist, and
author of the book Open Your Heart With Art: Mastering Life through Love
of Everyday Creativity published by the Dream Time Publishing company,
due in stores January 2007. For information contact Dreamtimepublishing
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