The history of art, like all history, is full of those who were successful and influential in their day, but whose influence for one reason or another, perhaps no reason that anyone can pinpoint, did not outlive its period. Painter Eugene Edward Speicher (1883 – 1962), the subject of a retrospective at the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, is an example of such an artist. Hailed by Esquire magazine in 1936 as America’s most important living artist with works in the permanent collections of museums, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is now virtually erased from the canon of American art history, while his contemporaries and fellow students, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe, count among those whose art, to this day, is familiar well beyond the ken of art aficionados.
The exhibition, entitled “Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher,” is the first in fifty years — the previous retrospective was held shortly after the artist’s death in 1962. It includes over sixty paintings and drawings and is organized by independent curator and scholar, Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds. It opens on February 5 with a public opening reception on Saturday, February 8th. As part of the opening reception, Leeds will give a gallery talk at 4 p.m. at the museum. For information on additional events happening over the course of the exhibition, scroll to the end of the article.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Speicher studied at the Art Students League in New York City where he soon gained a reputation for portraiture. He shared a teacher and mentor in Robert Henri with Edward Hopper; both artists revered Henri and cited him as a major influence on their approach to subject matter. Speicher shone at the Art Students League – his first triumph was winning the Kelly prize in 1908 for a portrait of fellow student Patsy, a.k.a. Georgia, O’Keeffe.
Like many New York art students of his generation, he found his way to the League’s newly created summer school in Woodstock and, on graduation, he kept a home in the area dividing his time between Woodstock and New York. He became fast friends with George Bellows, Charles Rosen, Leon Kroll and other artists who were either based in Woodstock or were frequent visitors. These artists, especially Bellows and Rosen, their wives and children, became like extended family; they were neighbors, poker-playing buddies, and the children were regular models for portraits.
Early success in the form of prizes and positive reviews ensured portrait commissions making Speicher the most financially successful of the group of friends, able to support himself and his new wife Elsie through his art. Throughout the teens, his portrait painting went from strength to strength and he exhibited at, and was awarded prizes from, the National Academy of Design, the Salmagundi Club, the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and the Carnegie Institute; in 1920 he had his first solo exhibition at the celebrated M. Knoedler & Co. gallery in New York City; he was awarded the prestigious Beck Gold Medal the same year from the Pennsylvania Academy for a portrait of a Russian woman. Years later, in 1941, the art critic, writer, and museum director Homer St. Gaudens wrote that, “By 1920, Speicher was first among our native portrait painters.”
Speicher’s portraits were in demand for good reason, in addition to his keen powers of observation that enabled him to achieve terrific likenesses, the subjects are wholly present and grounded, and the painting is assured. He was a consummate draftsman and drawing was at the heart of his work – each piece was prefaced by a series of drawn studies in crayon or graphite and charcoal, and followed by color studies in pastel. He also made and exhibited a number of stand-alone drawings that are exquisite and, in some cases, surprising, for example: “Untitled” (the head of Leon Kroll).
By the mid-1920s, Speicher’s commissions often came from well-known personalities. One such was a full-length portrait of one of the foremost actresses of the day, Katharine Cornell, costumed for the role of George Bernard Shaw’s “Candida,” which was a huge success. Celebrity commissions such as this were great for stretching his purse, but stifling for his art. By the autumn of 1926, on the heels of a well-received exhibition, Speicher was feeling secure enough as an established artist to consider cutting down on commissions where a flattering likeness was a greater priority than aesthetic and painterly concerns, and which had become onerous to him. “They are as inspiring as a piece of gas pipe,” he said. He wanted that “… the idea of a portrait would be but the initial impetus rather than the final aim.”
Once freed from the necessity of taking on commissions to pay the bills, Speicher dived into two other areas of deep interest for him: still lifes of flowers and landscape painting – the latter usually around the Woodstock and Kingston area. He was a realist but by no means a photo-realist. His paintings retained the influence of impressionism and, particularly in his portraits, of Renoir; over time, his palette tended to be in quite a high key and the painting itself loose with bravura brushstrokes describing the subject. It is clear that his interest in painting flowers allowed him an almost Fauvist freedom. His painting method was alla prima (painting wet over wet paint) inasmuch as he never allowed the paint to dry before painting the next layer.
Yet, despite his yearning to be free of the demands of the paying customer and the need to chase a likeness, his portrait of the Girl in the Coral Necklace, painted in 1935 [the featured illustration for this article above the title], does not differ greatly in approach or technique from the 1923 Portrait of a Young Girl – the model for this, incidentally, was Charles Rosen’s daughter, Katharine. So this was unlikely to have been a commission.
Speicher wasn’t a modernist in any obvious sense of the word, but his approach to painting was. Each canvas is conceived as a carefully thought-out formal composition, and his objectives are articulated in modernistic terms: “An artist is a distinguished shapemaker: shapes in three dimensions, variety in shapes. I believe all art is built on a substructure of abstract design (balance, movement, texture, line, color, volume, etc.) upon which and out of which the original idea flowers.” It is this thinking that separates the straight-up attempt to copy a figure, a still life, or a landscape, from that which perceives these things as vehicles to examine formal art concerns: balance, movement etc. What direction an individual artist takes those formal concerns is a matter of inclination, or taste, or the times. Ellsworth Kelly, best known for his large abstract, monochrome, shaped canvases starts from nature. An exceptional draftsman, Kelly draws from nature every day and these drawings form the basis of his compositions.
Although it might seem from his oeuvre that the American art world-shattering 1913 Armory show went unnoticed by Speicher, this is not the case. The organizers of the exhibition were members of the Group of Eight dubbed the “Ashcan School,” whose unofficial leader was none other than Speicher’s mentor and friend, Robert Henri. The Ashcan School was so called because of the artists’ commitment to portraying scenes of daily life in New York City, often in the poorer neighborhoods. Furthermore, many of his friends and acquaintances from Woodstock, including George Bellows and Bolton Brown*, had work in the show and, like everyone else with an art pulse, he made sure to attend and study what was there. What he found made him question his own approach to painting, and his need to study color. There were three hundred exhibitors in the Armory Show and the European contingent covered the spectrum from Delacroix to Duchamp. However, the artists to whom Speicher looked for ideas were not the modernists and his contemporaries, Duchamp, Picabia, or Matisse, but Cezanne and Renoir.
Although many young American artists wished to emulate the cubism of such paintings as Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for an ambitious artist like Speicher, there can’t have been much incentive to take that route, even if he was interested. Before the Armory Show even opened, journalists were describing the exhibition as an invasion of modern art on America. In The New York Times and Sun, headlines like “It Will Throw a Bomb into Our Art World and a Good Many Leaders Will be Hit.” Afterwards, there was derision especially aimed at the cubists and Matisse. But if there was to be a particularly American modernism, mightn’t it have made sense to go back to Cezanne and kick off from there in an alternative direction? I am not suggesting that this is what was in Speicher’s mind and his subsequent work doesn’t suggest that. It would seem that he viewed the exhibition, took some notes from the previous generation, and then went his own away — along his own lines, to quote the apt title of this retrospective.
So why did Speicher fall into obscurity? Perhaps the answer lies in the catalog of the 1924 18th Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Small Bronzes by American Artists in Buffalo, New York – Speicher’s home town. Among the other artists showing was John Singer Sargent, some years older and working in a not dissimilar style. While Speicher’s contributions were praised, it was Sargent who was singled out as the great American painter. Although Speicher was a worthy contender for the title, and much can be gleaned for the contemporary figurative painter or art student by studying his work, next to Sargent his limitations are evident. Nevertheless, Sargent was still very much a product of the 19th century. But when it came to the quintessential 20th century American realist, that title was taken by Hopper – a slow starter compared to Speicher but one who found a painting idiom that was of its time. And pitiless posterity made its choice.
According to Leeds’ catalog essay, O’Keeffe recalled that, back in the early days of the Art Students League, “a self-assured Speicher, in a grave miscalculation, had ironically taunted her: ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, I’m going to be a great painter, and you will probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.’” In the meantime, many of the foremost museums have deaccessioned (swapped or sold off) his work to lesser museums and private collectors.
In the foreword of the exhibition catalog the Dorsky Museum director, Sara Pasti, on behalf of those who might ask, poses the question of why the museum would host a retrospective of an artist who, although regarded as an excellent painter and draftsman, was never considered an innovator. She responds with the assertion that, in addition to this being the right moment for this artist’s work to be appreciated by a new generation of artists and audiences, through Speicher, “we can reconsider the development and fate of realist painting in the twentieth century.” Perhaps also in the twenty-first century. It is ironic that the home of Speicher’s first solo show, the Knoedler gallery, one of New York’s oldest, closed in ignominy in 2012 having been found to have been involved in selling fake abstract expressionist works for tens of millions of dollars — works that, in some cases, had been authenticated by experts. Perhaps burned art collectors might wonder if they ought to put their money into art that is harder to reproduce and easier to authenticate… Without resorting to irony as an excuse to draw and paint well, à la John Currin, might the time be ripe for realism, indeed for painting, to be readmitted to the fortress of the art world, or is it destined to remain outside the pale for another hundred years? I guess we will have to follow up on this and other thorny questions in 2114.
There is an excellent catalog with this exhibition that I highly recommend with, in addition to fabulous color plates of the artwork, terrific essays by Valerie Ann Leeds, Tom Wolf, and Daniel Belasco.
*Post Script: there is a show of Bolton Brown’s work at the Kleinert/James Art Center in Woodstock that is also worth a look. Brown, a painter and printmaker, is credited with persuading Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, the founder of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, that Woodstock was the right place build it — that exhibition runs through March 2.
*Featured Image: Eugene Speicher, Girl in a Coral Necklace (Joyce), 1935 Oil on canvas 24 x 20 in. Collection of Arthur A. Anderson
The exhibition “Along His Own Lines,” runs from February 5, through July 13, 2014. Other public programs for the exhibition include a panel discussion with curator Dr. Valerie Ann Leeds and catalogue essayists Tom Wolf, professor at Bard College and the leading expert on the Woodstock artist colony, and Daniel Belasco, curator of exhibitions and programs at The Dorsky. The panel discussion will be held at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum on Saturday, April 12, and public gallery talks at The Dorsky on Sunday, May 4, and Sunday, June 1. Following its presentation at The Dorsky, “Along His Own Lines” travels to the New York State Museum in Albany, where it will be on display from October 18 to March 22, 2015.
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
For more information, www.newpaltz.edu/museum or 845 – 257-3844.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company—as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.