Distinguished Artist Series
Hovsep Pushman (1877 - 1966): The Armenian Spirit
One is reminded of the constant infusion of fresh inspiration from afar when contemplating the works of Hovsep Pushman, for here are things unique in art history yet glorious with a loveliness that comes from the oldest sources of aestheticism. In these canvases is to be discerned an innate orientalism, expressing itself naively in color, while the occidental point of view is maintained in the modeling. From the lands where beauty first was born comes this rare gift for so combining colors that in itself the scheme awakens emotion. It is the spirit of the East declaring itself that binds and thrills our fancy. Yet back of it all we sense the presence of a kindred spirit, for while the hues are of the orient, the sentiment, emotion and depth of human feeling which characterize the work of Hovsep Pushman are the age-long heritage of the Christian.
Hovsep Pushman's annual exhibitions at the Grand Central Art Galleries, beginning in the late 1920s and continuing until his death in 1966, were always a significant event. Pushman's paintings and prints were displayed at the Galleries in a velvet-draped room with special lighting to enhance the delicate quality of their softly glazed surfaces. They quickly gained favor with the public, with private collectors, and were bought by important museums throughout the United States and Europe.
Pushman's oriental still life painting is inherently linked to the work of the 18th century French still life painter Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin's carefully composed still life kitchen scenes included polished utensils and well worn objects which were rendered through the light and depth of their patterns and subtle relationships, expressing an undeniable spiritual bond between man and matter. Within Pushman's work it must have been remarked by those who study the art of India, China and Persia, that it presents an ever-present combination of the beautiful with the cruel or terrifying. (left: Austere Solitude, American Ambassador's Residence, Peking China, Copyright © Estate of Hovsep Pushman, Courtesy of Cantor Roughton, Exclusive Sales Agents)
Themes of grotesque and frightful beasts or gods are not uncommon here, all executed with a refined color sense and a feeling for line and composition that makes one marvel but the more at the choice of subject. It has remained for an American to preserve all that is lovely and pure in oriental aestheticism and unite it to themes that are oft times as affecting as a prayer and always sympathetic studies of humanity.
In his oriental still life painting, Pushman managed to create an atmosphere of nocturnal and contemplative intimacy through his meticulously arranged objects and their backgrounds. Pushman's concern for the objects in his paintings was of symbolic and religious importance. His oriental male and female figures represent the legends of the ancient East and Far East. They epitomize the experience of life, which implies a longing for the eternal. These small figures included the Sacred horse, the long robed statuette of a woman, a six armed Deity, the Buddha god of peace, the warrior, and the nude female figure which is emerging from her veils that are the Mystery of Life. Other special objects in Pushman's compositions were a 2000 year old iridescent glass pitcher, a lacquered chest, a teakwood box, small carved figures of saints from 13th and 14th century France and ancient Persian plates. The backgrounds usually consisted of rare centuries-old tapestries and textiles.
All these elements were combined in faultless compositions, each a unique statement vitality and meaning. mysterious charm of color is blended and interwoven in intricate and significant schemes. It pervades every one of his works, thrilling us like the play of light in the rainbow, the glitter of a serpent's scales, or the flash and fire of many jewels. He is a master of splendor and romance, a man to whom color is almost a language, at least a means of expression no less definite than the notes of the musical scale. He plays upon our emotions with color in much the same way that a musician does with sound, soothing us with exquisite harmonies, enlivening us with dramatic contrast, or melting us almost to tears with tender passages of tone, shot through with the purple of tragedy.
And of tragedy, what land offers so terrible a record as Armenia? So much has been written about her sorrows, so many tales of horror told, such fearful pictures painted, that we have almost grown hardened to her sufferings. Yet the gentle art of this subdued, retiring man awakens in us a new thrill of sympathy and that through the medium of a technique whose sole concern is beauty. Into the soft black velvety eyes of an Armenian maid or matron he can throw pathos that is heart rending, and this without in any way disturbing the pensive, serene loveliness of the woman herself.
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), one of America's most prominent artist teachers, was noted for his figure and portrait painting and he also painted a number of still-lifes, which included fresh fish and flower pieces. These works combined with the dark palette of the Dutch Masters with the fluent bravura brushwork associated with Diego Rodriguez Velasquez (1590-1630) the 17th century Spanish master, and Chase's contemporaries, Anton Vollon (1833-1900) and Edouard Manet (1832-1883), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who under Oriental influences also stressed color harmonies, which he called 'nocturnes" that were based on the musical scale. Other American artists influenced by Chardin, who continued the still life tradition well into the 20th century were Emil Carlson (1853-1932) his son Dines Carlsen (1891-1968). Both eventually specialized in kitchen scenes and Oriental objects, emphasizing the relationship between form and light. They carefully balanced different shapes and sizes of objects with an open-air atmosphere that cultivated an 'ideal beauty" painted in the high key of brilliant impressionist color and a love for surface texture.
Pushman created poems to accompany many of his paintings or described the significance of their compositional elements. About one of his most beautiful compositions, Sultanabad Plate, painted circa 1940, he wrote: "This painting is composed of objects, which came from the East. A little statue of Mongolian origin, a plate from the Sultanabad district, a little iridescent bottle found in an ancient Syrian tomb, and a Persian vase containing a branch of apple blossoms . . . I have used a background so contrived to supply a foil for the objects placed before them; light streams through the composition binding the sitting statuette with the plate . . . There is an abiding hush in this canvas, the intense stirring stillness of remembered music.
Hovsep Pushman was born May 9, 1877 in the part of Armenia known as Turkish Ermenistan (Armenia). For centuries the land of Pushman's birth has represented the last and farthest outpost of our faith, dark centuries during which its people have died martyrs to untold persecutions sooner than resign that faith. The gentle, the humanizing influence of this faith, can be seen in every canvas in which this artist has applied his skill, for every type he paints is delininated with with supreme sympathy. Here, we realize, is a man who paints what was spoken on the Mount, the gospel of the brotherhood of man and the oneness of his soul with the spirit of the universe.
One is amazed at first to hear this artist dwell upon such a theme as the Pilgrimage to Mecca; recalling all that Mohammedans have resorted to in the martyrdom of Armenia. The ancient admonition to charity and forgiveness and a compassionate spirit have borne their fruits in a genius that sees only the beauty of the pilgrim's unquestioning devotion, the exquisite gravity of the spiritual symbolism of Mecca to one so many generations of whose ancestry have revered it as a shrine. How marvelous a thing is a religion! What a pity, from a Western standpoint, that this same amount of concentration had not been better directed and employed. And yet, this is the standpoint of the East, the mystic, dreamy, devout East, ever seeking wisdom in the recesses of its own soul, rather than attempting to work out the meaning of the world about it.
One wonders if perhaps, after all, the East may be right, if it is only older and wiser than, the West, its conclusion the ultimate destiny of our own thought. However, it seems not so, for with us the welfare of the body is paramount. Progress is a matter of more cleanly surroundings, better shelter, better clothing, better food, better and more amusements and enjoyment for the whole people. Hence it is that our art took its spirit from the Greeks and has always been representative, often illustrative in character. The East is ever decorative or symbolic, and in the works of Pushman we see much of the qualities of both hemispheres. (left: Rayons de Soleil, n.d., oil on canvas, 29 12 x 37 inches, Copyright © Estate of Hovsep Pushman, Courtesy of Cantor Roughton, Exclusive Sales Agents)
Pushman's precocity was noticed early and encouraged by his family. When he was 11 years old, he began his art studies at The Imperial School of Fine Arts in Constantinople. The youngest student ever admitted to the Academy, he won first prize in sculpture and painting. However, continual political persecutions suffered by the Armenians under Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamed, forced the Pushman family ( Hovsep, his parents and siblings) to emigrate to the United States in 1896. They settled in Chicago and became United States citizens.
Pushman entered classes at the Smith Academy, where at the unprecedented age of 17, he also began to teach. Pushman decided to continue his art studies in Paris in 1910 at the Academy Julian under Tony Robert Fleury (1838-1912), Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1834-1912) and Louis Adolphe Dechenaud (1868-1926). It was Dechenaud, a highly respected portrait painter, noted for his rich sense of color, who urged Pushman to absolute self-expression, by drawing on the entire gamut of his oriental heritage. Pushman began exhibiting at the Salon des Artistes Francais in Paris, where he was awarded the Bronze Medal at the Paris Salon in 1914.
The first important United States exhibition of Pushman's works was held at the Milwaukee Art Institute in 1915, followed by an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1916. In 1916, just prior to Pushman's return to Paris, he moved to Riverside California. He and his wife lived at the Mission Inn in Riverside from 1916 to 1919. While in California, he accepted a few rare portrait commissions, one of which still hangs at the Inn. In 1918, Pushman and a group of California painters founded the Laguna Beach Art Association. (right: Pushman and his wife with the Laguna Art Assocaition, 1918, Copyright © Estate of Hovsep Pushman, Courtesy of Cantor Roughton, Exclusive Sales Agents)
Pushman's portraits and figure pieces continued to impress the public and critics alike. Words of praise for the quality of Pushman's work, and especially his color, is exemplified by critic Evelyn Marie Stuart, in the Fine Art Journal. Her article was entitled "Dawn of a Colorist." Following this successful exhibition, Pushman returned to Paris where he maintained a studio throughout his life, continuing to exhibit at the Salon des Artistes Francais and winning a Gold Medal at the Exhibition in 1921. (left: Pushman and his wife, Paris 1912, Gardens of Luxembourg, Copyright © Estate of Hovsep Pushman, Courtesy of Cantor Roughton, Exclusive Sales Agents)
After several years in Paris, Pushman returned again to the United States. This time he settled in New York City, and at the urging of Erwin S. Barrie, Director of Grand Central Art Galleries, joined the Galleries as an Artist Member. The 1932 exhibition of Pushman's paintings and prints created a sensation at Grand Central Art Galleries. All of the 16 paintings were sold out the opening day of the exhibition. The unprecedented phenomenon was followed by critical acclaim and public approval. A commentary in an international art magazine, stated: "At his [Hovsep Pushman] recent exhibition in New York such was the eagerness to secure examples of his work that every single picture was sold on the opening day. One canvas was purchased for a very high sum by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, and cash paid down on the nail. One of the very few occasions when such a thing has taken place .... from what we have seen of his work, the surprising element is that painting of such sound workmanship and excellent quality should have met with immediate and unequivocal success. It may be that the spiritual intention behind the actual painting appealed very strongly to an American public (these pictures are allegories with a mystic significance). The Connoisseur, 1932. (right above: Hovsep Pushman, 1929, "When Evening Comes" on the easel, Copyright © Estate of Hovsep Pushman, Courtesy of Cantor Roughton, Exclusive Sales Agents)
Exhibition followed exhibition, with circuit tours and invitations to all the major cities of the United States. This continuous activity created a broad interest in his work throughout the country among museums and collectors. It also resulted in an interesting turn of events in 1940 involving the purchase of his painting "When Autumn is Here", by the University of Illinois; a work which was subsequently reproduced as a print by The New York Graphic Society through an arrangement with the University of Illinois without the artist's permission. This controversial dispute over an artist's copyright would eventually (after Pushman's death) be ruled in favor of the artist which helped create laws (Pushman's Law) to protect artists in the future from copyright infringement.
From 1934 to 1966, Frost & Reed, Ltd. of Bristol and London became the sole publisher of Pushman's work. Pushman authorized them to reproduce a series of twenty-nine paintings. Prior to printing, he would personally supervise each edition to insure that they met his high standard for quality and color. The oeuvre of oriental still life paintings and prints by Hovsep Pushman is a major contribution to the history of American art and represent an equally significant achievement in the history of the still life genre.
Unfortunately, many details of Pushman's life are unavailable and are closely guarded by the Pushman family. As a result, his oeuvre is relegated to a minor footnote in the most important and comprehensive book on the history of American still life painting: "American Still Life Painting" by William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke, Prager Publishers, 1971. There is, however, a forgotten document that the staff of The Illuminator rescued from obscurity, which describes Pushman's contribution to American art: "Hovsep Pushman, an American artist of Armenian birth, is an excellent craftsman and he finds in objects of the East models of form and color which he paints with rare fidelity. No American painter has equaled him in the skill and beauty with which he portrays these striking types." Immigrant Gifts to American Life, The Illuminator, Allen E. Eaten, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1932.
Pushman continued to paint in his studio in the Carnegie Hall Building until just a few months prior to his death in 1966.
Essay excerpts and images courtesy of Lawrence J. Cantor
of Cantor Roughton Galleries, Dallas, TX and Los Angeles, CA. Cantor Roughton
Galleries wish to acknowledge essay sources including Fine Arts Journal,
September, 1919 and The Illuminator, Winter Edition, 1978/79. For
further information on this artist Mr. Cantor may be reached at 214-871-1096
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