Study for History of Meharry Medical College

This work is William Edouard Scott’s polished study for a mural painting offering a composite visual history of Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee. The central image is a group portrait of the Meharry brothers, whose modest bequest to the Methodist Church established a school “for the training of Negro youth in medicine” in 1876. The five white men stand before a desk bearing a document that references the Freedman’s Aid Society, founded during the Civil War to create schools for former slaves, and the year 1866, when Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment granting them citizenship. Progressing from the bottom to the top of the composition are other vignettes of the institution’s history. At the lower right Scott shows the incident that inspired the Meharrys’ gift, when a poor black family risked their liberty to aid the young Samuel Meharry, an Ohio farmer then traveling through Kentucky. At the upper left, the school’s founding president, a Northerner, and first professor, a Southerner, together instruct the first students; above, Dr. John James Mullowney lectures to a class in 1921, the year he assumed the presidency of Meharry; and crowning the composition is a view of Meharry’s new building complex in North Nashville, completed in 1931. In interpreting Meharry’s history as an unbroken narrative of white, male leadership, with African Americans as passive generic recipients of their benevolent guidance, Scott closely followed Mullowney’s telling of Meharry’s history.i

The mural, which stands more than seven feet tall, remains at Meharry Medical College, for which it was painted in 1938 on the occasion of Mullowney’s retirement after seventeen years as president. In his autobiography, published in 1940, Mullowney claimed credit for the idea of celebrating the school’s history in an oil painting to be displayed in the lobby of the 1931 building. The selection of Scott for this commission, however, might have come from its donor, a Chicagoan. The inscription at the lower left corner of the study identifies him as Dr. Maurice E. Hebert, a 1923 graduate of Meharry. The first black periodontist in the Chicago area, Hebert perhaps knew Scott by reputation if not personally and may have recommended him for the commission. This study was likely made to send to Meharry for the institution’s—that is, Mullowney’s—approval before Scott began work on the mural itself.

By the 1930s, Scott’s reputation for mural paintings in particular was at its height. Early in his career he had made such works for schools and other institutions—settings that favored idealized historical imagery and encouraged a straightforward, accessible style. Later, Scott painted murals across the US, including for Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition and under the sponsorship of the WPA. He was a natural choice for a celebratory official portrayal of Meharry’s history. Legible and accessible, this mural combines a naturalism grounded in Scott’s academic training with a modernist approach to composition in the use of striking diagonals to separate the various scenes that map out Meharry’s history.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i John J. Mullowney, typescript “A Pictorial History of Meharry Medical College,” May 1938, Meharry Medical College Archives, and Mullowney, American Gives a Chance (Tampa, FL: The Tribune Press, 1940), 90.

Untitled (Three Muses)

Louis Grell’s composition neatly balances the forms of three statuesque women against a backdrop of slender trees and grasses. Contrasting in pose, accoutrements, hair color, and degrees of undress, the women evoke allegorical personifications. The painting’s original title is unknown: it has been called The Three Muses, yet only the central figure can be identified with any of the nine Muses of ancient Greek mythology. She holds a lyre or cithara, an instrument associated with both Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, and Erato, Muse of erotic or love poetry (Terpsichore, Muse of dance and choral music, is also often pictured holding a lyre, but usually seated); the olive branch she lifts delicately in her other hand is a traditional symbol of peace not usually associated with any muse, however. The nude woman on the left, holding a scallop shell from which water flows, may refer to Aphrodite or Venus, goddess of love and fertility; while the notion of plenty is suggested in the dark-haired figure on the right, proffering a blossoming garland and accompanied by a vessel laden with fruit. As graceful as the women is the recumbent antelope at their feet; this animal too cannot be identified with any particular meaning in Western iconography.

Grell’s painting is a reworking of a scene forming part of an elaborate ceiling decoration he created four years earlier in the lobby of the Gateway Theatre (now the Mitchell P. Kobelinski Theater in the Copernicus Center) in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Opened in 1930 to great fanfare, the Gateway was designed by Rapp and Rapp, a Chicago firm renowned for its designs for movie palaces; built across the nation, they were mostly decorated by Grell. The geometric emphasis of the Gateway’s flattened, stylized ornamental decoration exemplifies the Art Deco style. For this composition, Grell made significant changes from the ceiling painting. Here the suggestion of a landscape background has been substituted for an Art Deco-style jagged halo around the figures, and the one on the right holds a garland rather than attributes signifying the performing arts. Yet the sleek, elongated forms of the women and the taut musculature of the antelope, the rigid balancing of forms in the almost-square composition, and the delicate patterning of foliage in the background are among the features that stamp this work with the Art Deco-inflected classicism that was the height of fashion in the early 1930s, an era obsessed with glamor in the midst of economic depression.

How the figures should be interpreted, the reasons for the particular changes from the Gateway Theatre image, and the original use or placement of this painting all are unknown. With its pseudo-allegorical content and facile illustrational style, it may have been intended as a contributing element in a larger coordinated decorative program rather than as a stand-alone work of art. The firmly articulated surfaces and emphatically dimensional modeling of the figures evince Grell’s early training in Germany; the flattened composition and frieze-like arrangement of forms reflect his abundant experience in designing painted decorations for large-scale interiors.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Little Mary

A little girl is shown absorbed in the contents of a large fish bowl in Elanor Colburn’s Little Mary. Light from a window at the upper right illuminates the full glass vessel, which transmits its glow to the girl’s uplifted face. Wearing a pale white-and-blue smock dress with a rounded collar completed with a small bow, the child personifies an ideal of youthful innocence with her rapt gaze, slightly parted lips, and full pink cheeks. Seemingly unaware of the viewer, she enacts the enchantment of discovery and childhood’s inexhaustible appetite for new experiences. In this case, the image hints, curiosity has driven the little girl to scramble onto the seat of the low-backed Windsor chair to reach the perhaps-forbidden object of her fascination, perched high on a stand.

The little girl’s identity is unknown. Inscribed Little Mary, presumably by the artist, on the back of the canvas, Colburn’s painting was probably made on commission for the model’s fond relatives. Colburn had exhibited both portraits and generic images of children, along with mother-and-child works, early in her career. These subjects remained staples of her work despite a radical shift in her painting in the mid-1920s, after the artist relocated from the Chicago area to Southern California. Little Mary manifests a conservative, academic impressionist style consistent with Colburn’s earlier work. Yet other evidence suggests it was painted even as the artist was experimenting with a new artistic approach, one in which she would abandon the conventional representation, hint of narrative, and conventional sentiment shown here for a new focus on the formal design elements of composition and color arrangements. Colburn signed the canvas with the modified spelling of her first name that she adopted in 1927, a date consistent with the style of the child’s dress and hair. Little Mary perhaps demonstrates the artist’s adaptability to the tastes and expectations of patrons, as well as its era’s ideal of childhood as a time of innocence, purity, and boundless expectation.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Navajo Portrait)

A Native American hunter, rifle resting on his shoulder and his hunting dog close by, appears to alertly scan the distance in Frederic Mizen’s generously scaled painting. Thought to represent a member of the Navajo nation, the figure is clothed in a colorful red shirt over fringed animal skin leggings and soft moccasins, while his head and shoulders are swathed in loose white fabric that billows dramatically in the wind. Viewed from slightly below, his form is silhouetted against a fair-weather sky as he commands a vista of a mountainous landscape.

By the 1950s Mizen was termed a “famed specialist” in paintings of the native inhabitants and landscape of the American Southwest.i These were closely related to his work as a commercial artist: not only did many of his published designs, such as magazine covers, originate as paintings, but also he applied to his stand-alone artworks a commercial artist’s attention to detail, solidly representational approach, and sanitized subject-matter. “Mizen’s work is pictorial in the finest sense,” enthused one reviewer: “He employs an almost Kodachromatic palette that bathes his canvases in soft, silvery lights”—a description that fits this painting.ii It may have been among those Mizen exhibited at the O’Brien Galleries in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1956, the year to which it dates.

Mizen belonged to a generation of American artists, many with ties to Chicago, who executed romantic images of the exotic Indian for urbanized Anglo consumers in the first half of the twentieth century. In this work, Mizen, like his mentor Walter Ufer, interpreted the Indian as an inhabitant of the white man’s world, for the hunter’s gun appears to have superseded the traditional knife sheathed at his belt. For all the distinctly indigenous character of Mizen’s image, however, it also draws on a long European tradition of courtly portraiture in which a heroic standing male figure, assuming the character of a hunter, dominates his surroundings, accompanied by a fawning servant, steed, or pet.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Mizen and Vannerson Oils of Indians Are Exhibited,” Arizona Republic, Nov. 18, 1956.
ii “Mizen and Vannerson Oils of Indians Are Exhibited.”

Untitled (The Thoughtful Fisherman)

Its original title unknown, this painting by Edward James Dressler focuses on a fisherman who sits quietly in a modest rowboat as he awaits his catch. With a practical straw sunhat shielding his bearded face, the man props his chin in one hand in a gesture of patient idleness. His craft is anchored among the reeds in a narrow stream bound by a rustic fence at the upper left. The water’s placid surface reflects a high overcast sky that diffuses a cool silvery light over the verdant scene. The stream’s curving banks, the boat, an oar sloping into the water, and the fisherman’s slender pole form a series of contrasting diagonals that play off against the brushy softness of the trees and grasses filling out the idyllic country setting.

During Dressler’s brief career he was highly respected in Chicago as a painter of landscapes in watercolors as well as oils. His work was largely divided between scenes painted on the city’s agrarian outskirts and images of the more spectacular and varied landscapes of Northern California and the Southwest, to which he made several excursions. “A potent charm of his performances is the fact that he rarely vexes by the introduction of figures into his compositions,” according to one reviewer.i This painting is perhaps exceptional in its focus on a figure, yet it is characteristic of Dressler’s work in its cool hues and evocation of saturated atmosphere. When painting near Chicago, another reviewer noted, the artist “awaits the time when soft, friendly clouds obscure the sun, and tells with a vibrating voice of things which to some induce a feeling of gentle melancholy. . . . He delights in moist green meadows, low, flat stretches of prairie, basined with shallow pools wrapt in mysterious silence.”ii These preferences reflected Dressler’s embrace of a current trend in American art in the late 1890s, when many American painters working in northern France and Holland sought to capture the region’s peculiar color and light. Dressler himself never visited Europe, but he would have seen the results in the work of such Chicago contemporaries as Pauline Dohn (Rudolph) and Charles Corwin, among others.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Art,” Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1897; see also “Art,” Chicago Times-Herald, Mar. 19, 1899.
ii Untitled clipping, Chicago Times-Herald, Apr.10, 1898, in AIC Scrapbooks, vol. 9, 154.

Untitled (Cottage Grove Street Car)

In Morris Topchevsky’s tightly framed composition, three figures encased in bulky winter outerwear are packed into a city streetcar. Next to a woman in a fur-trimmed coat, a bespectacled man with lined cheeks gazes out the window at the passing urban scene. The formal attire of another passenger—a Homburg hat and overcoat, a white shirt and a tie showing beneath his chin—contrasts with the object in his hands, apparently the handle of a stout shovel. The three riders seem unconnected from one another and resigned to the boredom of a familiar journey, with the tilted head and anxious expression of the man with the shovel hinting at unknown cares. Topchevsky’s palette evokes the dreary chill of winter in the city. Soft dull browns and greens tie the clothing of the two nearer figures to the wooden framework of the streetcar windows, while the muted gray of the coat worn by the man in the middle echoes the blue-white of the frigid sky beyond, reflected in his glasses.

Painting in Chicago and Mexico, Topchevsky made working-class people the focus of his art throughout his career. In sympathetic images of laborers and strikers he showed black and white workers together, united in a heroic struggle for justice. In addition, he painted scenes of everyday life in Chicago’s African American neighborhood known as Bronzeville, where between the early 1930s and the end of his life he lived and taught at the Abraham Lincoln Center, on Cottage Grove Avenue. Often his images address the precarious existence of black Chicagoans in an era of mass unemployment and Jim Crow segregation. Untitled (Cottage Grove Street Car), however, is uncharacteristically nuanced for Topchevsky. The three passengers are dignified and elegantly dressed, seemingly at home in the modern city. Yet the prominent shovel incongruously held by the well-attired man on the left hints at necessity and the restricted opportunities available to African Americans not only in employment but also in housing, education, entrepreneurship, and other areas.

The heavily outlined, powerfully modeled forms seen here are typical of Topchevsky’s paintings of the early 1940s. Throughout his career the artist worked in a deliberately anti-academic manner influenced by the “naïve” aesthetic of the Mexican social realists and possibly also inspired by traditional Russian peasant arts. This painting is likely the work titled Cottage Grove Street Car included in a memorial exhibition for Topchevsky organized by the American Jewish Arts Club in December 1947. The streetcar, which the artist himself would have ridden frequently, was the subject of an earlier watercolor painting In a Street Car, shown in exhibitions of art created under the auspices of the Federal Art Project held in New York and in Chicago in 1938.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Bon Voyage

In the first decade of the twentieth century Anna L. Stacey painted several half-length images of women or girls against landscape backdrops or framed in doorways or windows, often giving them titles that hint at narrative. As she observed in a 1903 interview, “An attractive, telling title goes a great way toward interesting people in a picture.”i Bon Voyage is one such work: it features a pretty young woman leaning out the open window of what is presumably a railway car to wave a white handkerchief in farewell to an unseen observer. While the painting’s title emphasizes the start of a journey, the image itself focuses on a parting from companions—perhaps a lover—and the implied ending of a seaside vacation. Seen through the train window, the frame of which closely corresponds to the edges of the composition, the landscape backdrop consists of a rising bluff and a glimpse of calm ocean under a fair-weather sky, a background that Stacey used for at least one other painting, In the Doorway (1907; formerly Friedman Collection). Against this sun-drenched landscape the young woman’s face is relatively shadowed and her expression is pensive, with perhaps a hint of melancholy. Broad, fluid brushstrokes enliven her white summer blouse, the blue scarf festooning her broad-brimmed hat, and her fluttering handkerchief.

In 1907, the year Stacey painted Bon Voyage, she and her artist-husband John F. Stacey spent the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which they first visited in 1905. The site of a busy artists’ community, the town and its surroundings provided numerous subjects for artists. Gloucester was also a venerable vacation spot to which most visitors, including the Staceys, traveled by train—like the woman in this image. Gloucester and other northeastern coastal spots attracted the well-to-do Chicagoans among whom both Staceys found patrons, making Bon Voyage something of a nostalgic souvenir of artist’s and patrons’ shared experience. The painting was among a group of Gloucester paintings that Anna exhibited in Chicago in 1908 and that demonstrated, according to one approving critic, that Stacey “paints because she was born that way.”ii This work’s charmingly evocative subject demonstrates the artist’s knack for compositions that made her a favorite among the Chicago clubwomen of her day.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Pictures and Titles,” Chicago Tribune, May 3, 1903.
ii Henry Charles Payne, “Art Exhibit Is Most Worthy,” Chicago Journal, Feb. 4, 1908.

Romance

In Romance George F. Schultz essayed a perennially popular subject in American impressionist painting: the comely young woman in a garden. Here, the standing figure seems absorbed in contemplating luxuriant blossoms whose perfect beauty parallels her own. Her white gown with its blue-violet shadows harmonizes with the flowers and lush foliage that surround her, their cool tones set off by the red scarf falling from her broad sun hat. Oblivious of being observed, the woman seems to inhabit a self-enclosed, protected world of abundance and loveliness in which the viewer is perhaps an intruder. In keeping with the habitual practice of American impressionist painters, Schultz firmly delineated the figure while rendering her surroundings more broadly in active, rapidly applied dashes of paint.

Schultz built a secure reputation as a skilled watercolor painter of landscapes and marines. Around 1910, however, he began painting woodland interiors, and then around 1913 he made several with female figures. This new direction may have been influenced by the popular paintings of, among others, Frederick Frieseke, an American expatriate artist whose lushly colored impressionist paintings of women in gardens were presented in a solo exhibition at the Art Institute in the spring of 1913. Indeed, Schultz’s Romance so closely echoes Frieseke’s Lady in a Garden (circa 1912; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago) as to suggest it was modeled specifically on it. Schultz showed Romance along with two similar paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition in early 1914. In this work, observed critic Harriet Monroe, the artist had achieved an “encouraging success” in “the blending of blue and green in the girl’s sunlit gown and the foliage[,] giving him a fine tonal scheme.”i

Interest in the female figure posed out-of-doors in a garden-like setting was widespread among American painters in the years just before the outbreak of World War I. As Monroe noted, the Art Institute’s 1914 exhibition included several similar images of women that were “decorative” in color as well as subject—among them Karl Buehr’s A Restful Moment. Such paintings are resolutely innocent of narrative, with the invariably young and pretty female figure given little individuality and subject matter subordinated to purely visual effects of vibrant color and brushwork. In relation to the era’s urgent concerns—the struggle for women’s suffrage, mass immigration to the U.S., labor strife, and rising militarism abroad, for example—these images envision an alternative, albeit fictitious, reality of sunny afternoons and leisurely garden strolls. The widespread appeal of this mode evidently enticed Schultz to create the only figural paintings of his career.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  Harriet Monroe, “This Year’s a Young Artists’ Show,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 8, 1914.

Study for The Diving Board

Edgar Rupprecht painted this study in preparation for one of the most important works of his early career, The Diving Board (circa 1922; location unknown). Closely following the composition of this study, the finished painting pictures a scene of casual interaction between a young woman in a rowboat and a swimmer seated on a diving board. The swimmer’s back is to the viewer, a bystander to the conversation who looks down on the figures from the dock glimpsed at lower right. The final work clearly shows the girl’s smiling expression as she looks toward her companion. This emphasis on the figures’ implied interaction is absent in the study: here, her facial features are barely indicated and forms are simplified to broad strokes and strong color contrasts, with the sharply tipped-up perspective enhancing the effect of an abstract composition. The background is a lively pattern of fluid light-blue lines applied over a thin gray wash, capturing the water’s shifting play of broken surface reflections against murky depths. The quickly painted study was probably made on the spot to capture the essentials of color, light, and form.

The Diving Board was shown in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1923 “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition, where it garnered the Marshall F. Holmes Prize of one hundred dollars for a work in “color design.” It was one of two paintings cited by the reviewer for The Catholic World as “happy subjects, happily treated and quite deserving of their awarded prizes.”i The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World reproduced the painting in 1925 and again in 1927, the last when it was part of an exhibition held on Municipal Pier (now Navy Pier), on Chicago’s lakefront, organized by the Commission for the Encouragement of Local Art.

Rupprecht painted The Diving Board in rural Saugatuck, on the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan. There, along with Arthur K. Houlberg, he attended the Summer School of Painting at Saugatuck (now known as Ox-Bow) early in his artistic education. Rupprecht soon became an assistant to its principal teacher, Frederick Fursman, and eventually a leading faculty member at Saugatuck and at the Art Institute, with which the summer school was affiliated. The school was located between the Kalamazoo River and a lagoon near the Lake Michigan shore, offering abundant opportunities for summertime recreation as well as outdoor painting. Rupprecht made at least one other image that celebrates the leisurely vacation atmosphere of Saugatuck, The Summer Visitor (Union League Club of Chicago), which he painted in the wake of the success of The Diving Board, closely following its subject and composition.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Alice G. Hayde, “Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity,” The Catholic World, Feb. 1923.

Untitled (Paris View)

A seated woman is squarely framed by a pair of French windows open to a cityscape in Louis Ritman’s Paris View. The foreshortened casement windows, balcony railing, and distant houses form a rigid rectilinear structure relieved by the curves of the model’s body and her wicker armchair. With her idle hands, face in profile, and downcast or closed eyes, the woman is a static presence subordinated to the composition’s architectonic structure. Ritman’s image is suffused with pastel tints dominated by blues and further unified by the distinctive allover patterning of the surface in a tapestrylike arrangement of dryly brushed discrete patches of paint; in places, the white ground is clearly visible.

The original title of this work is unknown, as is the date it was executed, but Ritman almost certainly painted it during World War I. Except for the autumn and winter of 1914–1915, the artist spent the war years working in Paris, with summers in the Normandy village of Giverny, an international center for impressionist painting. Like Lawton Parker and his other close associates there, Ritman often placed the figure against an open window in his indoor images. In his Giverny paintings, this device allowed a glimpse of a richly colored sunlit garden. Here, however, the backdrop to the figure is apparently the vista of hilly Montparnasse, a neighborhood favored by artists, where Ritman had his studio-residence. With her graceful form and fashionable cropped hairstyle, the seated woman in Paris View appears to be the Frenchwoman now known only as Mimi; Ritman’s favorite model, she also posed for him in Giverny.

During his first years in Giverny, between 1911 and 1914, Ritman followed the example of other American painters working there in focusing on the figure and using a decorative impressionist style to convey the effects of dappled light on brightly colored surfaces. Around 1915, however, his approach shifted as he became increasingly interested in more purely formal concerns of composition and paint application. In this work, lines, planes, and surface pattern take precedence over rich color and the beauty of the female form. The detachment between viewer and model—whose expression, if any, is closed—illustrates the artist’s exploration beyond the impressionism with which he had recently won a place in the Chicago and national art scenes.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD