Oliver Dennett Grover (1860–1927)

Oliver Dennett Grover, from a photograph reproduced in Arthur Nicholas Hosking, “Oliver Dennett Grover, Painter,” The Sketch Book 5 (Sept. 1905).

Born in Earlville, Illinois, the son of a lawyer, Oliver Dennett Grover learned the rudiments of painting from portraitist Alden Finney Brooks. He moved with his family to Chicago as a boy and studied at the Chicago Academy of Design (predecessor of the Art Institute of Chicago) while attending secondary school. Following legal studies at the old University of Chicago, Grover used a small bequest to travel to Munich in 1879 to pursue a career in art. There he studied at the Royal Academy and joined the group of young Americans in the circle of the charismatic American artist Frank Duveneck. He traveled with Duveneck to Venice, meeting James McNeill Whistler, who inspired Grover to pursue etching. He then studied further at the Académie Julian in Paris.

By the time he arrived back in Chicago in 1885, Grover had exhibited in prestigious venues in London, Paris, and Munich. Before returning to Italy in 1886, he was hired to teach at the fledgling Art Institute of Chicago. In his hometown, Grover stepped into leadership roles in local artists’ organizations, notably the Chicago Society of Artists. He made his debut as a large-scale painter by contributing to a monumental cyclorama painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, under the direction of French artist Paul Philippoteaux. In 1889–90 he assisted Albert Fleury in painting two murals in the theater of the new Auditorium Building and independently executed two lunette murals for the dining room of the adjacent hotel. Grover established his own decorative and scenic painting firm and worked on mural commissions, including projects for the Merchant Tailors Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the new Central Trust Company (later Chicago National Bank) building, to which Lawrence C. Earle also contributed.

As a member of the informal artists’ gathering known as the Little Room and the Cliff Dwellers club that grew out of it, Grover associated with such members of Chicago’s artistic elite as Ralph Clarkson and Lorado Taft; together, this trio “dominated almost dictatorially” Chicago’s art scene at the turn of the twentieth century, according to critic Clarence Bulliet.[i] One of the most public and prominent artists of his day, Grover received abundant local and national press attention as he showed his work in numerous group and solo exhibitions and received a host of awards and honors, culminating in election to associate membership in the National Academy of Design in New York. In addition to his mural work, Grover established a solid reputation as a painter of society portraits, and he was active as an etcher. As a landscape painter, he was best known for his images of Italy; he traveled widely and later expanded his subjects to include the American West and the Canadian Rockies. At the time of his death, marked by a memorial exhibition at the Art Institute, Grover had come to symbolize embattled conservative artistic values. Yet even Bulliet, an outspoken champion of modernism, recalled him as “a man of fine culture, sensitive, and looking every inch the artist.”

[i] Clarence Bulliet, “Artists of Chicago Past and Present No. 96: Oliver Dennett Grover,” Chicago Daily News, July 22, 1939.

Oliver Dennett Grover, Thy Will Be Done, dated 1892
Oil on canvas, 70¾ by 34 inches

Oliver Dennett Grover, Thy Will Be Done, dated 1892

In Oliver Dennett Grover’s Thy Will Be Done, a young woman dressed in mourning raises one hand to her breast and gazes heavenward. Apparently, the paper she grasps brings news of a devastating loss. Starkly outlined against curtained windows bright with daylight, the life-size figure is dramatically illuminated from the right, leaving the other side of her face in shadow. In this nearly monochromatic painting, light and dark convey the woman’s conflicting emotions of grief and pious resignation. The nature of her loss, perhaps the sudden death of a lover far away, is unspecified, with the focus rather on her spontaneous reaction—a surrender to divine guidance—as a model for the sympathetic viewer. The lesson is couched in contemporary terms, for the woman wears an up-to-date gown and has received the bad news through the modern medium of a telegram, as suggested by the printed envelope on the floor.

Grover may have intended Thy Will Be Done to secure his reputation as a serious figural painter. When he created it in 1892, he had no portrait commissions to his credit and was mainly occupied as the principal in a scenic and decorative painting partnership. Perhaps his most ambitious independent work to date, Thy Will Be Done was a stunning success. It won the first Yerkes Prize offered at the Chicago Society of Artists’ annual exhibition, in 1892, and the following year it was juried into the highly competitive United States section of the fine arts display at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Art Institute of Chicago was rumored to be contemplating purchasing the painting at the time it won the Yerkes Prize; instead, a fairgoer bought it from the artist and it disappeared from Chicago for more than a century.

One of the artist’s contemporaries recognized in Grover’s somber tonal painting an echo of the monochromatic portraits of James McNeill Whistler, such as his full-length standing images of women and his 1871 Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother; the acquisition of the latter by the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 1891 was widely publicized. Grover is said to have been greatly influenced by Whistler, whom he met in Venice in 1880. In contrast to Whistler’s “art for art’s sake” approach, however, Thy Will Be Done affirms moral storytelling as art’s primary function. The critical success of the painting was instrumental in advancing Grover’s career, but it was an anomaly among his easel works, which were confined to straightforward portraits, landscapes, and the sort of undramatic modern genre scenes represented by his Breakfast on the Terrace

Oliver Dennett Grover, Breakfast on the Terrace, dated 1913
Oil on canvas, 22 by 28 inches

Oliver Dennett Grover, Breakfast on the Terrace, dated 1913

Landscape and genre imagery combine in Oliver Dennett Grover's scene of a uniformed maid preparing an al fresco breakfast before a vista typical of the countryside around Florence, Italy. The cloth-draped table is laid for one and bears a tall vase of roses, while on the far right a stand holds a bottle of wine. Behind the pretty young servant, a wrought-iron railing marks the edge of the terrace overlooking the landscape, in which dense greenery gives way to a cluster of stucco houses with tiled roofs set against a steep hillside.

Breakfast on the Terrace testifies to the direction in which Grover’s painting evolved in the two decades after he produced Thy Will Be Done, with its highly finished surface, nearly monochromatic palette, and moralizing overtone. This work’s rapid, evident brushstrokes and lush colors dominated by rich greens and touches of pink are typical of American impressionist painting of the early twentieth century. The theme of the al fresco meal was particularly popular among Grover’s American contemporaries, such as fellow Chicagoans Pauline Palmer and Karl Buehr, working in the art colony in Giverny, France, in the years leading up to World War I. In their paintings of figures out-of-doors, these American impressionists typically posed family members and hired models dressed as women of leisure. Grover’s Breakfast on the Terrace, however, pictures a servant; her severe black-and-white uniform and studious focus on her task contrast with the riot of color in the landscape behind her.

Italy assumed an important role in Grover’s art beginning with his initial visit to Venice and Florence in 1880 as one of the “Duveneck Boys,” a group of Americans studying under Kentucky-born artist Frank Duveneck. Grover’s first solo exhibition, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1904, consisted of paintings of Venice. Florence was his home for much of the time between 1881 and 1883, and he returned there frequently before the outbreak of World War I. Works painted during his stay in Florence in 1912 were featured that December in another Art Institute solo show. In 1913, the year he painted this work, the artist visited Venice well as Florence. Although Grover generally painted Italy in landscapes, marines, and city views in which figures are relatively insignificant, Breakfast on the Terrace captures everyday life as experienced by a prosperous resident or visitor, perhaps the artist himself.