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George J. Stengel 1866 - 1937: New Hope Impressions

by Thomas C. Folk

 

This publication and exhibition examines the accomplishments and art of George Stengel, a Pennsylvania Impressionist. These works have been largely out of the public eye for the last eighty years. Although many of his canvases were exhibited in the 1920's, never before have a group of his New Hope scenes been exhibited together. Stengel studied in Paris when the Impressionist style was becoming adopted by American painters, some who would go on to become important artists. His natural ability as an artist enabled him to rise from the ranks of a child laborer in a sweatshop in a textile mill to the mill's chief designer. Stengel's carpet designs became a part of the décor in homes across America, and beyond. Following his career in the textile industry, he produced a significant body of paintings of New Hope and its surrounding countryside in the Impressionist style.[1]

Stengel was born in Newark, New Jersey on September 26, 1866 to Henry and Eliza Steurer Stengel. He had three sisters and a brother. When he was three years old, the family moved to Yonkers. He lived with his family there, first at Lamartine Terrace, and much later on Warburton Avenue. As a child, Stengel attended Public School #2 in Yonkers where his teachers first recognized his talent in art. In fact, some of his earliest paintings were hung in the school library. At fourteen, he found employment at the Alexander Smith and Son Carpet Company, also in that city. Stengel must have started there as a laborer. Factories, which were really sweat shops, did employ children at that time. In 1941, John Masefield published a novel, titled "In the Mill", where he discusses his late nineteenth century experiences as a young man in Smith carpet factory. He does not mention Stengel in the book, but he obviously must have been familiar with him. And certainly, Stengel must have been very familiar with the factory that Masefield describes, as follows:

Went up the wooden steps and through some big green doors into a deafening, roaring, clanging clack in which one had to shout to make oneself heard. We were on the lower weaving floor, where I suppose more than a hundred power-looms were in full work. All the floor on each side of the gangway was filled with looms, nearly all in action. The shuttles were stabbing and clacking, the belts were humming, the swords were coming back with a bang, and the appalling ceiling of advancing spools shook and jerked overhead. The air was already filled with wool-dust, and sweepers were moving along the gangway with their great brooms to sweep away the coloured dust. From the constant sweeping away of the wool dust (if not from the lanoline) the floors of all the gangways were very slippery. Having learned this in my first minute, I had not to be reminded later. A good many electric lights were burning, for the weavers, men and women, needed all the lights they could get. We went through part of this floor, then up more stairs, to a floor where the noise was even greater; then up more stairs, to a floor where the noise changed suddenly to something much less but quicker in tempo. [2]

The Smith Carpet Company had been founded by Alexander Smith. Born in 1818, who started the company in 1845 in the Bronx. Employing hundreds of hand weavers, the firm moved to Yonkers in 1865. The company became known for their "Axminster carpet" (Stengel would later become known as an Axminster specialist). Named after a town in England, Smith's version had a hand-crafted look, although the carpets were actually machine made. [3] As part of the Industrial Revolution which swept England and the United States in the nineteenth century, factories were producing items which appeared luxurious at first glance, in hopes of elevating middle class taste, by making their carpets more affordable. In the end, as is the case today, no machine made rug can compare to the labor intensive ones made by hand.

While working at the carpet mill during the day, Stengel began to study art at the Art Students League in New York City during the evening. Starting in January of 1886, Stengel attended a life class there.[4] It is not possible to know who his instructor was, as League records often lack precise information. Life class must have been quite a challenge for the young artist, for studying the male and female nude from life is very difficult without having mastered the basics. But the Smith Company must have been impressed with Stengel's early work, as they financed a period of study in Paris, at the acclaimed Academie Julian, a favorite art school for American Students.

There were several non-profit, student run art schools in Paris, but the Academie Julian, founded in 1868, was the largest of these. By the 1870's Julian's began to successfully compete with the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the most prestigious art school in the world. As with the Ecole, teams of art teachers would critique the student's work. Stengel was fortunate to study there with the famous pair of instructors, Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre,[5] for a two year period in 1886 through 1888. The pair were major French academic painters, with expert draftsmanship and the most sophisticated painting techniques. Boulanger was known for his classical historical scenes which often featured nude figures, while Lefebvre was aclaimed for his exotic female figures, some of which were also depicted in the nude. Stengel he must have benefited from his teachers technical training. Childe Hassam, who would go on to become a leading American Impressionist, studied at the Academie Julian for the same two year period that Stengel was there, and with Boulanger and Lefebvre. Since both Stengel and Hassam were Americans, it seems likely that they would come to know each other. Other students at the Academie were from throughout Europe, as well as the United States, exposing Stengel to a variety of international styles.

Not only were art students receiving the finest academic training, but in the late nineteenth century, Paris was the cultural center of the world. The French Impressionists were seen as revolutionary painters at time, and for American art students, their true heroes were often Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. The French Impressionists were well known to American art students and Paris was a magnet for them. As the astute writer and social critic, Henry James remarked in 1887, "It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when today we look for 'American art' we find it mainly it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it".[6]

Upon his return from Paris, having refined his artistic skills through academic training, Stengel was immediately promoted to designer at the Smith Carpet Mill. He worked closely with chief carpet designer, Henry Woodbridge Parton (the younger brother of noted Hudson River School artist, Arthur Parton). Like Stengel, Parton had also studied in Paris. Parton's was noted for his floral carpet designs- and he specialized in depictions of roses. Stengel's twelve gouache and eight pencil drawings in the collection of the Hudson River Museum give insight into his style and the variety of his designs.. The studies show an interest in Persian designs as well as a taste for variations on French Abusson rugs. Certainly, Stengel would most likely have seen spectacular French carpets during his stay in Paris. In 1913, Stengel became the Smith mill's chief designer after Parton retired from the company, creating designs that were mass produced, and distributed throughout the world.

After World War I, the technology of the textile industry had changed greatly. Novelist John Masefield described the changes that Stengel saw at the Smith mill:

A few moths ago, I visited the mill. I went up the stairs so well-known to me, and trod the familiar floors. The place was then still in use for the making of carpets, but the system had changed beyond all belief. I dare say that process after process had been made more simple or avoided by one clever device after another. The mill which had roared and clanged with deafening din was no so quiet that one could talk in the weaving rooms. The hundreds of workers were no longer there, and yet the place was busy, even very busy. The looms had changed. I did not recognize any part of the machinery in use. I went to a big strange machine which was making carpet. I was in the section where I had often talked to a weaver called Dunk. The weaver told me that this was the kind of loom they used now, It was probably a much better machine than any I had seen or helped to work; it did not make a noise. [7]

Stengel exhibited "A Summer Morning" at the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York City in 1891. The National Academy was founded in 1825 by the prominent painters Samuel F. B. Morse, Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole to "promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition." Although "A Summer Morning" is Stengel's first documented painting, it is presently unlocated. However, the title suggests that it was a landscape painting, and landscape painting would become his major focus. This showing represents his first major recognition in American Art, and it was quite an accomplishment as he had only taken his first evening art class five years before. In 1897, Stengel showed "Winter Day" (location unknown) at the Salmagundi Club, in New York City, which would later become a major exhibition place for him.

Stengel returned to the art classes of the Art Students League in January of 1900. He studied there with George Bridgman, taking both his evening painting class, as well as his evening life drawing class. As far as anatomy was concerned, Bridgman's teaching methods were considered radical.[8] Yet, he was one of the League's most popular teachers.

By the teens, Stengel began to focus more on painting as a career, and became more active in art circles, although he continued to work as a designer at the mill until 1921. Stengel co-founded the Yonkers Art Association in 1916, with the noted American sculptor, Isadore Konti. Stengel served on the executive committee, and became vice president in 1932. The Association held annual juried art exhibitions from 1916 through 1921, at the Yonkers Public Library, and in 1922 and 1923, at the Young Women's Christian Association. The Yonkers Art Association was looking for a more permanent exhibition place. The members of the Association were instrumental in convincing the city of Yonkers to use the beautiful Glenview Mansion as a museum. The newly organized Hudson River Museum opened its doors in December of 1924 with the ninth annual exhibition of the Association. Although the Yonkers Art Association no longer exists, the museum is thriving, and is an important part of Stengel's legacy.

Always an organizer, Stengel also founded the short-lived Yonkers School of Design. Classes were held on the top floor at 2 Manor House Square, which was leased from the First National Bank. No tuition was charged, and Frank Allen would be the principle instructor. The first class of 25 students met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. Stengel said that the "aim of the school is to give an opportunity to young men of the city to learn all classes of designing".[9] Since the school was non-profit, many people felt that the Smith mill was supporting the school as a humanist and cultural enterprise, a claim that Stengel denied.

During the teens, Stengel began to exhibit more often, which indicates that he was creating a larger body of work than before. In particular, he became a frequent exhibitor at the Salmagundi Club, in New York City, showing there from 1912 to 1934. Some of his paintings from the teens depict Hudson River views, and others were probably local Yonkers landscapes.

In 1921, at the age of 55, Stengel retired from the mill and began a fully committed career in painting. He and his wife, Grace Varian, moved to 34 Main Street in Ridgefield, Connecticut, known as the "Hoyt Place". Stengel remodeled the house and transformed the barn in the rear of the house, into a large artist's studio. For about two additional years, Stengel created other designs for W. and J. Sloane, an elegant furniture company.

During the decade of the 1920's, Stengel created his finest Impressionist canvases, as he reached artistic maturity, and the climax of his artistic career as a painter. By 1919, the artist was creating scenes of New Hope, Pennsylvania. New Hope was known for its school of landscape painting, known as The Pennsylvania Impressionists, independently founded by William Lathrop and Edward Redfield. Lathrop's summer teaching near his home and property near the picturesque Delaware Canal attracted many summer art students to the area, some of whom would subsequently settle there. The most famous painter was Edward Redfield, whose broadly painted winter snow scenes were thought by critics to be patriotically American. Later arrivals were Daniel Garber, Robert Spencer, Rae Sloan Bredin and John Folinsbee. All of these artists (except, ironically, for Lathrop himself) would have some influence on Stengel's Pennsylvania landscapes. The focus of Stengel's landscapes was often the Delaware River, as can be seen in "The Picnic," "Along the River," and "Across the River." An equally important topic was the Delaware Canal and its canal boats, as can be seen in "Along the Canal", "Along the Towpath" and "Tying Up" The canal paralleled the river for 60 miles, and its mule drawn boats were commanded by colorful and bawdy men, who managed to struggle through their tedious jobs by stopping occasionally at very available bars and brothels which were conveniently located at such oasises as New Hope. These men often sang and the mules' bells jingled as they worked their way up and down the canal, creating an atmospheric music, which contrasted to the visual splendor of these waterways. Old farm and mill buildings, poetic quarries, and grey tenements and factories added to the character of this area. In 1916, Belle Vansant wrote:

Scarcely a hundred yards to the west of the river, which is not very navigable, and parallel with it runs an old canal... Along the towpath lives a distinct population in old houses in faded colors. Barges drawn by unhurryable mules pass continually.... Many streams tumble into the Delaware, on whose banks stand old stone and timbered mills, which have outlived their commercial value, but have become the joy of artists." [10]

Some Impressionist painters who came to the area in the twenties, such as John Wells James and Richard Wedderspoon, were, like Stengel, part time visitors. James and Wedderspoon only spent summers in the area. [11] Although Stengel produced a significant body of paintings in the New Hope area, the is no documentation to indicate what may have drawn him to the area. Perhaps, during the 1920's, he visited with friends or relatives in Bucks County or stayed at one of the many inns in the area with his wife on holidays or vacations. Unless new information comes to light, we can only speculate.

But, what is remarkable about Stengel is the quality of his work, which is classically Impressionist, with its vivid pastel tonality, blurred figures and softened contours. Other New Hope artists from the 1920's, such as George Sotter and Fern Coppedge, for example, have been treated by recent writers as being Impressionist.[12] George Sotter's nighttime scenes of houses in the snow are realist, if not illustrative, and most of Coppedge's local scenes are painted in a Fauvist style, and, in fact, their work can not even be considered Post Impressionist. The beauty and quality of Stengel's Impressionist scenes make them a significant contribution to the art of New Hope during the 1920's.

Stengel began to show his paintings both locally and nationally. He became involved in art organizations in New York City and Connecticut, becoming a member of such groups as the Salmagundi Club, Allied Artists of America, and the Guild of American Painters in New York City, as well as the Silvermine Guild of Artists in Connecticut. All of these organizations provided him with places to exhibit his work. He also showed at the largest art organizations in the country, including the National Academy of Design in New York City; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia; and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC.

During the twenties Stengel showed his work at Babcock Galleries in New York City, with the Guild of American Painters. Other artists in this group included John Costigan and Peter Bela Mayer. Stengel also exhibited at the Shortridge Gallery in St. Louis.

Although New Hope was the focus of Stengel's art in the early twenties, other locations began to interest him. During the summers from the mid to late twenties, Stengel also spent time on Monhegan Island, Maine. Monhegan is 12 miles from the coast and is often approached by boats from Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. It is still a very rugged place, where fishermen's shanties have long been converted into artist's studios. Initially, in the 1890's, it was visited by Hudson River School painters, Alfred T. Bricher and William T. Richards. In June of 1903, the Pennsylvania Impressionist, Edward Redfield, and the important Ashcan artist, Robert Henri, visited the island. Redfield established a residence at Booth Bay Harbor; and, Redfield and Henri sailed about neighboring islands in search of subject matter. [13] Henri was so taken with the beauty of Monhegan that he too, considered setting up a studio there. The studio never materialized but Henri's admiration for Monhegan Island was transmitted to Rockwell Kent and George Bellows, who painted some of their finest works there.

One of Stengel's Monhegan marine paintings, "Fishing Fleet" (1927, Hudson River Museum), was reproduced on the cover of Literary Digest in August, 20, 1927. It depicts a fleet that has out ridden a storm and is returning home. "Fishing Fleet" related to a poem in that issue by Harry Kemp titled "In Harbor," which reads: "Trampling under the hissing foam, They have all safely ridden home!" [14] Apparently, this painting was one of the artist's favorites.

Since Stengel was painting on Monhegan, during summers when Redfield was there, it is possible that the two artists became acquainted. He apparently became close friends with the California plein air painter, William Ritschel, who was also painting on Monhegan. It was probably Ritschel, who resided in Carmel, and who convinced Stengel to return there to paint. Stengel had apparently been there before, in 1914, but no paintings are known from that trip.

Stengel and his wife spent February through April of 1928 in Carmel California. Although much had changed in 14 years, he commented: "... we still have the cypresses, the rocks, the sunset, and the ocean." [15] Apparently, the couple flew to California directly from their home in Connecticut. The rented a picturesque bungalow in Carmel on the Pacific Ocean. In the "Carmel Pine Cone," a local newspaper, Stengel expressed his feelings about the differences between California and Maine coastlines. He stated:

The waters of the Pacific are much bluer on account of the clearer skies, but the rocks are also decidedly different in both color and formation. Here they are of volcanic formation and much more varied in color while in Maine they are of solid gray granite of huge size and shape, with headlands rising 100 to 150 feet in height. The surf there is so rapid in its rise and fall that it is almost unpaintable while here the waves come in, roll on roll, rising and falling with a regular cadence, and dash on rocks with a vivid spray. .. The Maine coast is perhaps more rugged and offers a picture more somber than the coast here, although the green meadows there run right down to the rocks. Wild flowers grow in profusion, and the tall pines, stately hemlocks, and blue spruces offer landscape possibilities for the painter as well. [16]

Stengel's California paintings do not relate stylistically to either his New Hope or Monhegan paintings. Usually, they are scenes of water and rocks, much indebted to the style of William Ritshel, which is more plein air than Impressionist; and, which is also typical of California landscape painting. California plein air (outdoor) painting is more broadly executed, not as sensitive or subtle as an east coast Impressionist painting and is usually lacking softened contours. The colors too are bright, but not as brilliant. Stengel's finest California landscape, and his favorite, is "Cypress Trees, Monterey" (Hudson River Museum), where the artist depicts the well-known "Lone Cypress," more technically known as Monterey Cypress Marcocarpa. Such trees only live in Carmel and Monterey in rocky groves, where it is cool and humid. The trees in the Pacific local become flat topped as a result of strong winds.

On his return, Stengel mounted a local exhibition of his California paintings at his studio in Ridgefield in 1928. It was mostly an exhibition of 42 sketches, and five large canvases. Then, in 1929, Babcock Galleries on 57th Street in New York City mounted a solo exhibition of Stengel's paintings. The exhibition consisted of 29 oil paintings which mostly depicted Monhegan and California scenes and lasted from January 2nd to the 15th. This exhibit must have been the high point of his painting career. A critic in the World wrote:

George J. Stengel has made the long stride from Monterey to Monhegan and gives a striking report of sea scenes on the two coasts as observed by the same person, in an exhibition of recent paintings in the Babcock Galleries. One who courts the desert sun may find it suffused in the Pacific, when that expanse is on good behavior. Many will find the changing lights of the Atlantic colder and more susceptible to color moods, but fondly inviting. The contrasting scenes offset each other well. [17]The 1920's witnessed a burst of creative energy in Stengel, but the thirties represented a gradual decline. In 1931, Stengel produced a series of paintings in Mexico. He was probably intrigued by the success of the Mexican Muralists, and especially the art of Diego Rivera. He had a showing of these works at his studio in Ridgefield in April of 1931. And the Guild of American Painters exhibited the finest two paintings in this series, "Indian Devotion" (location unknown) and "A Religious Fiesta" (location unknown), on April 4th through the 15th ,1933, at Cronyn and Lowndes Galleries on East 57th Street. Apparently, the Guild was no longer using Babcock Galleries. These paintings, influenced by the depictions of peasant life in Mexican art, are not Impressionist but show a strong sensitivity to their subject of impoverished Indians. Some, such as "Indian Devotion" have a sense of religious piety. It was painted at the Monastery at Chirobusco. Stengel had a strong religious outlook and served as a vestryman of St. Stephen's Protestant Episcopal Church in Ridgefield. One of Stengel's Mexican paintings hangs in the President's Palace in Chapultepec.

Stengel did not paint or exhibit much after 1933, and slowly dropped out of the art world during his last four years. He was apparently suffering from a "prolonged illness." Shortly before he died, he and his wife donated three of his favorite paintings to the Hudson River Museum, including "New England Quarry," "Monterey Cypress" and "Incoming Fog." [18]

Stengel died on November 31, 1937, leaving behind his wife, who would move back to Yonkers. On October 10 through November 1, 1942, The Yonkers Art Association presented a memorial retrospective of Stengel's work at the Hudson River Museum. Stengel's body of work is amazing for the quality and quantity he produced in about a twenty year period toward the end of his life; achieving the dream of a career in the fine arts following a successful career in design.

 

NOTES:

1. I am greatly indebted to Laura Vookles, curator of the Hudson River Museum, for sharing archival material, and some of her original research regarding the carpet industry in Yonkers. The primary source of information for this essay is George J. Stengel, scrapbook c. 1920-1937, collection of the Hudson River Museum, gift of Grace Varian Stengel (43.73).

2. John Masefield, "In The Mill' (New York: 1941), pp. 6-7

3. See Laura Vookles, "Art of the Loom- Alexander Smith Carpet Designs by George Stengel", The Hudson Valley Antiquer ,vol. 4, no. 11 (August 1996). Vookles also curated an exhibition at the Hudson River Museum with the same title, May 24- September 1, 1996, no catalogue available.

4. A card in the archives of the Art Students League, reads "1885-1886, G.J. Stengel, Yonkers, 1886, January 1886, Evening Life Drawing (no instructor listed). I am grateful to Lauren Nuzzi, Art Students League, for sharing this information with me.

5. See H. Barbara Weinberg, "Cosmopolitan Attitudes: The Coming Age of American Art", in Annette Blaugrund, "Paris 1889, American Artists at the Universal Exposition", (New York: 1989), pp. 46-47.

6. Henry James, "John S. Sargent," in "The Painter's Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts by Henry James", ed. John L. Sweeny (London:1956), p. 216; reprint of essay published in "Picture and Text", 1893, that being an emendation of an essay thar first appeared in "Harper's Magazine" October 1887.

7. John Masefield, "In the Mill" (New York: 1941), pp. 132-133.

8. There are two cards in the archives of the Art Students League which show that Stengel studied with Bridgman. One reads "January 15, 1900, one month, Evening Painting, George Bridgman", and the other card reads, "January 17, 1900, one month, Evening Life Drawing, George Bridgman". Bridgman was the author of several of several painting and drawing manuals, many of which are still used today.

9. "Inaugurate Design School Here on Monday Night Next", unidentified, undated newspaper clipping, George J. Stengel, scrapbook ca. 1920-1937, collection of the Hudson River Museum.

10. "Belle Vansant, "Ideal and the Idyllic Meet in New Hope", unidentified newspaper article, n. p. Copy in the collection of the author. For the New Hope art colony and the Pennsylvania Impressionists, see Thomas C. Folk, "The Pennsylvania Impressionists" (Cranbury: 1997).

11. James was the president of a drug company in Brooklyn. He purchased a summer home in the vicinity of New Hope. Since Stengel and James were frequent exhibitors at the Salmagundi Club, it is tempting to speculate that they might have known each other. Wedderspoon was also part time resident, since from 1923 to 1946, he was professor of painting at Syracuse University, and only painted in the New Hope area in the summer.

12. See Brian Petersen, "Pennsylvania Impressionism" (Doylestown and Philadelphia: 2002). More than one third of the paintings in this book can not be considered Impressionist.

13. For Henri, see William Inness Homer, "Robert Henri and His Circle (Ithica, New York and London: 1969). For Redfield, see Thomas Folk, "Edward Redfield, First Master of Twentieth Century Landscape"(Allentown Art Museum: 1988).

14. "Literary Digest", v. 94, 20 August 1927.

15. "After Fourteen Years, Artist Finds Many Changes in Carmel', Artists and Writers and Such," "Carmel Pine Cone," no author, or date, from Stengel's scrapbook, Hudson River Museum.

16. Ibid.

17. "Paintings Contrast East and West Coast", World, 12 January 1929, Stengel scrapbook.

18. "Stengel Paintings Given to Museum, Three of his Canvases Now on View There", probably Ridgefield Press, Stengel scrapbook.



About the author

Thomas Folk is regarded as the leading authority on the Pennsylvania impressionists and published a book on that subject in 1997. He organized a dozen museum exhibitions of paintings by New hope Impressionists and modernists. Currently, he is working on a catalogue raisonne on the most well-known of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, Edward Redfield.

Folk has published many articles on twentieth century American ceramicists and is in the process of developing a book and exhibition on the work of the Art Deco sculptor and ceramicist, Waylande Gregory. Having earned a Ph.D. in art history, with the noted American art specialist, William Gerdts, he is now a professor at St. Peter's College in Jersey City.

Folk is a member of the Appraiser's Association of America and specializes in appraising American paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. He relishes the never-ending challenge he finds in American Art, as each day reals yet another artist or an undiscovered masterpiece.

Folk is the curator of George J. Stengel (1886-1937): New Hope Impressions.

 

About the exhibition

George J. Stengel (1886-1937): New Hope Impressions is on exhibit at the Youngstown facility of the Butler Institute of American Art April 4, 2008 Through May 30, 2008. It was exhibited previously at the Salmagundi Club, New York City, February 4 through March 1, 2008. This exhibition was curated by Thomas C. Folk with assistance from Gary Erbe. A fully-illustrated 77-page catalogue accompanies the exhibition. (right: front cover, New Hope Impressions, George J. Stengel 1866 - 1937. Photo courtesy Thomas C. Folk)

 

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