The Spirit of Alleghany

Compressed into a vertical format that accentuates the dramatic contrasts of heights and valleys, Carl Wallin’s composition presents a fantasy landscape in which mountain and rocks, rendered in muted tones of dull browns, subtly reveal themselves to be composed of the forms of human bodies. The steep hills’ rounded contours and the sinuous curves of a river winding through a placid valley below mimic the sensuous figures of the nude or partly draped women who cluster at lower right to comprise a rocky outcropping. Strong outlining of the landscape features and the eccentric interpretation of cloud forms add to the dream-like effect of Wallin’s image, which evokes a natural world animated by living spirits.

This work is probably the painting Wallin exhibited as The Spirit of Alleghany in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1928 annual “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition. The title sheds little light on the locale ostensibly depicted, for Alleghany and its alternate spelling, Allegheny, are names associated with many places, from Alleghany County and the town of Alleghany, in southwestern New York, to the vast Allegheny mountain range, which runs through four eastern states, and western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River. The name’s Native American origin invites romantic associations with Indian creation legends and nature-oriented spirituality. No other potentially site-specific title for a Wallin painting survives, and the artist’s travel to the eastern U.S. is undocumented. The image itself is highly generalized and idealized, forthrightly the product of the artist’s imagination rather than a document of direct experience or a specific locale.

The Spirit of Alleghany is one of many “symbolic representations” Wallin made in which clouds and other natural forms take human shape. i “I call them fantasies,” Wallin explained, “and that is what they are. They are born in my mind.”ii In the 1920s, an era in which many Americans and American artists were captivated by new developments in psychology, alternate modes of spirituality, and mysticism, several Chicago artists experimented with escapist fantasy and the female figure presented in exotic or dream-like settings complemented by a hint of eroticism. These include Claude Buck, Gerald Frank, and Indiana Gyberson, as well as Louis Grell, one of two painters with whom Wallin shared a well-received three-person exhibition at the Chicago Galleries Association in 1935. Wallin’s nature-oriented imagery is distinctive, however. Trained as an artist in his native Sweden, possibly under a decorative painter, his firm outlines and cool, diffused color evoke a Nordic sensibility, while his subject matter may reflect the influence of the nature-worship of Norse paganism. Wallin’s awareness of Sweden’s mythic past may well have been conditioned by the fame of the Vårby Hoard of Viking treasure, which was unearthed in the artist’s hometown in 1871, just a few years before his birth.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Eleanor Jewett, “Art Notes,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 31, 1935.
ii Wallin quoted in “Fantasy Has Its Rewards in Art Show,” Southtown Economist, Feb. 24, 1933.

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

Church Corner

The fancifully tinted steeples of four churches thrust upward toward a brooding sunrise or sunset sky in William S. Schwartz’s Church Corner. Following a conventional landscape format, the composition is organized around a centrally placed road that invites the viewer into the space bounded on either side by the blocky forms of the churches. On the road, various figures in brightly tinted garb are apparently church-bound; several others are silhouetted in an illuminated doorway on the distance. In the foreground, a woman seems held in intent conversation with a man whose taller form mostly obscures her face. Light shines from or is reflected by the windows of the church buildings, yet these structures seem closed and impenetrable, just as the figures mostly turn their backs to the viewer. Schwartz infused an ominous quietude into the scene, an unlikely streetscape where the churches, the only structures visible, impart a subtly menacing presence.

In his early paintings Schwartz draw direct inspiration from boyhood memories of his native Smorgan, a town in rural Russia whose largely Jewish population had long suffered under Cossack persecution. By the late 1920s, established as an artist in Chicago, he adapted the theme of village life to American, especially midwestern, settings at a moment when many artists were to responding to calls to paint the “American scene.” Schwartz made many sketching trips to rural Wisconsin, especially to Baraboo and Briggsville in the Wisconsin Dells. In addition to watercolor portraits of rural character “types,” he painted village scenes such as Church Corner. The figures in these works—described by a contemporary as “highly characteristic of the American small town . . . in their costumes, contours and postures”—are subordinated to picturesque architecture and verdant surroundings that hint at bountiful nature.i

Schwartz’s take on small-town life in his adopted country could be idyllic, reflecting a city-dweller’s idealization. Church Corner, however, evokes the sense of unease the artist may have felt as a Jewish, foreign-born Chicagoan in the American—and uniformly Christian—heartland. In 1940, while sketching in Appleton, Wisconsin, the artist was ordered to leave on suspicion of spying, according to a local newspaper report, which commented that “the crack of the whip Hitler handles in faraway Germany was felt in the Fox river valley.”ii Probably painted within a few years of this incident, Church Corner reflects the somber mood of wartime. Schwartz included the painting in his solo exhibition at the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York in December, 1943, along with another work whose title, Lebensraum, records his defiance of Nazi racist ideology. The dark tone of Schwartz’s show impressed itself on the reviewer for the New York Times, who wrote that the artist “is very earnest and sometimes solemn,” while “there is something apocalyptic (the word springs irresistibly) about his painting.”ii

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Oshkosh Northwestern, quoted in June Provines, “Front Views and Profiles,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 3, 1940.
ii “Briefer Mention,” New York Times, Dec. 12, 1943.

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

Summer Evening

The focus of Frank C. Peyraud’s Summer Evening is a meandering stream that draws the eye from open meadows toward a dense stand of tall trees. Their height accentuated by the low viewpoint and horizon, the trees partly screen a brilliant sunset sky glimpsed in the center of the composition. The flat rural landscape is devoid of animate life, with fence posts in a line at the right the only hint of human activity. While Peyraud’s application of paint in short strokes of color qualified him as an impressionist among Chicago’s conservative art lovers, they simultaneously found reassurance in his solidly representational yet romantic portrayals. One critic lauded his works for their “virility tempered with tenderness.”i

In the late 1920s, his fifth decade as a landscape painter in Chicago, the aging Peyraud was still a prominent exhibiter locally and a regular prizewinner. Combining grandeur and simplicity in a generously sized canvas, Summer Evening seems designed to stand out in a crowded group exhibition. In 1927 Peyraud sent it to the fourth semi-annual members’ exhibition of the Chicago Galleries Association, where it won a purchase prize; it appeared in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Chicago and Vicinity” annual exhibition the following winter and again in the artist’s solo exhibition at the O’Brien Galleries in June 1928. Reviewing the latter show, the Chicago Tribune’s critic noted that among the offerings were landscapes of “the lovely rolling country of the Des Plaines Valley at twilight and by day”—quite possibly referring to Summer Evening.ii The painting was reproduced in the Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World for August 21, 1928.

Peyraud’s typically generic titles and his generalizing interpretations leave few clues as to the specific settings depicted in his landscape paintings. In the 1880s, he began making a name for himself with his poetic interpretations of scenes from around the Chicago region; one such was included in the American section of the art exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was reproduced in a line drawing in the Chicago-based journal The Graphic. Although he traveled nationally and internationally, Peyraud throughout his career returned to local settings, from the central Illinois prairie farmland to the banks of the Des Plaines and Skokie rivers not far from his Highland Park home. As demonstrated in Summer Evening, he favored relatively flat scenery with few features as foils for dramatic skyscapes, particularly those of dawn, sunset, and moonrise. Tall trees often serve as the focus of his compositions, demonstrating the artist’s theory that in a landscape composition, interest depended on “the silhouette of form against the sky.”iii

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Lena M. McCauley, “38 Canvases Show New Ideas in Color,” Chicago Evening Post, Feb. 6, 1917.
ii “This and That about Art and Artists,” Chicago Tribune, Jun. 10, 1928.
iii Peyraud quoted in C. J. Bulliet, “Artists of Chicago Past and Present. No. 5: Frank Charles Peyraud,” Chicago Daily News, Mar. 23, 1935.

Untitled (Woodland Stream)

Samuel Ostrowsky’s image encloses the viewer in a woodland setting as observed from the middle of a sheltered stream fringed with foliage. Although the crowded vertical composition shuts out the horizon, shafts of light penetrate the trees, and a bright sky is reflected on the water’s rippled surface. Ostrowsky’s intimate rendering combines straightforward naturalism with the rapid, broken brushwork typical of impressionism and suggestive of on-site execution.

Ostrowsky probably made the painting, one of his earliest extant works, in the rural Hudson River Valley, where, in the summer of 1916, he painted near the hamlet of Milton, New York, on the river’s western shore. The resulting landscapes were featured in a solo exhibition at a Chicago gallery the following September. This work, whose original title is unknown, may well have been included in that show. In her enthusiastic review in the Fine Arts Journal, Evelyn Marie Stuart compared Ostrowsky to nineteenth-century American landscape painter George Inness, who had preceded him at Milton: “But whereas the latter was essentially a reflective painter, Ostrowsky is an emotional and spontaneous one.”i The comparison was particularly relevant for art-lovers in Chicago in 1916: five years earlier, Edward Burgess Butler had made a well-publicized gift to the Art Institute of his collection of numerous Inness paintings.

Between 1912 and the outbreak of World War I, Ostrowsky was in France, painting rural landscapes while studying at the Académie Julian in Paris. At that early stage of his career he admired the works of French Impressionist masters, whose influence is evident here in his application of paint in distinct small dabs of color. On the other hand, in working in the Hudson River Valley, site of a legendary “school” of American landscape painting, the Jewish, Russian-born Ostrowsky may have sought to associate himself both with a native art tradition and with native scenery at a time when Americans were turning away from the seeming corruption of a Europe engulfed by war.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Evelyn Marie Stuart, “An Atmospherist and His Art,” Fine Arts Journal 34 (Sept. 1916): 418.

Untitled (Woman with Parasol)

Seated on a waterside dock, a young woman smiles out at the viewer in Arvid Nyholm’s Untitled (Woman with Parasol). Her colorful oriental parasol frames her upper body and echoes the bright tints of her face and hair and the deep green bands across the skirt and sleeves of her light-colored dress. Beside her, a broad-brimmed hat, a book, and cut flowers and greenery testify to the pleasurable diversions of a summer’s day. In the distance stretches the glassy surface of a lake, the houses dotting its far shore just visible through a screen of willow fronds sheltering the dock from above. The clapboard structure cut off in the image’s upper right may be a boathouse.

The auburn-haired woman shown here resembles the subject of Nyholm’s Untitled (Woman Playing Piano), painted around the same time. Probably his eldest daughter Agda (or Agate), born around 1897, the same model appears in several earlier paintings by Nyholm. By the early 1920s, however, the artist had turned from his usual format for such works, featuring a close-up focus on the figure in a subdued interior, to introduce greater color and light. As in Untitled (Woman Playing Piano), the composition balances figure and setting. While both are rendered with heightened color, Nyholm treats the figure, especially the face, with more blended brushstrokes and attention to detail than landscape elements such as foliage and water. Like many of his American artistic contemporaries, Nyholm modified his impressionist technique to render the figure in accordance with traditional academic values and practice.

Women engaged in leisure pursuits dominate the subject matter of American figural painting of the early twentieth century. The particular setting of Woman with Parasol, a lakeshore on a sunny summer day, specifically echoes the work of Nyholm’s most influential teacher, Swedish impressionist artist Anders Zorn, who created numerous etched and painted images of women bathing at the water’s edge in the brilliant glare of Scandinavian midsummer. Rather than Zorn’s accustomed nudes, however, Nyholm’s decorous model embodies middle-class gentility, and her welcoming glance toward the viewer evokes the comfortable domesticity of the artist’s family circle.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Woman Playing Piano)

In Untitled (Woman Playing Piano), Arvid Nyholm posed a young woman, seated in profile, absorbed in playing an upright piano in a sun-filled interior. She wears a gown featuring fashionable fly-away panels, their diaphanous lavender fabric emphasizing the brilliant light flooding the room through two windows in the background. The space is comfortably furnished with chairs and a writing desk, and an oriental rug partly covers the polished wood floor. Colorful drapes, vases of flowers and greenery, and art objects above the fireplace complete a setting suggestive of domestic comfort and cultivated ease.

In this image the young woman seems to casually disregard the observer, who is thus invited to feel as much at home in the scene as the artist himself presumably felt. Indeed, this work may portray one of Nyholm’s own daughters. As shown in his Portrait of Miss N., Grete Nyholm was dark-haired, but her older sister Agda (or Agate), who was twenty-five in 1922, may be the auburn-haired beauty seen in both Woman Playing Piano and the nearly contemporary Untitled (Woman with Parasol), as well as other works. Although Nyholm had established a solid reputation for portraiture within a few years of settling in Chicago, the mainstays of his career were domestic genre scenes and figure studies, for which his wife and children frequently modeled. In the early 1920s he shifted from close-up images of individual girls and women engaged in reading, letter-writing, and dressing to scenes in which light-filled settings take on equal importance with the figure. Untitled (Woman Playing Piano) demonstrates Nyholm’s enthusiastic if belated embrace of impressionism’s natural light effects, broken brushwork, and bright color and typifies the emphasis on the theme of domestic leisure in American art at the turn of the twentieth century.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Portrait of Miss N.

The subject of Arvid Nyholm’s Portrait of Miss N. is a pretty young woman who glances appealingly at the viewer, one hand to her bosom and the other holding her place in an illustrated magazine or book. Her gold-toned floral brocade dress and necklace of green beads are stylish complements to the bobbed hair that closely frames her face. A mottled-brown curtain forms a soft backdrop. The slightly elevated perspective on the figure, as if from a standing position, allows a full view of the objects on the chest of drawers that serves as her reading stand, notably a tall blue vase of peony blossoms. In 1911 Chicago Tribune art critic Harriet Monroe had lauded Nyholm for “a fluent style and a convincing intuition of character,” but faulted his “restricted range of color.”I This portrait’s strong, contrasting hues almost seem intended to counter such criticism. Reviewing the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition of 1917, critic Lena McCauley judged Portrait of Miss N. “one of the best [portraits] he has done.”ii

By the mid-1910s Nyholm was well-established as a painter of commissioned likenesses and figural works. The latter included both domestic genre scenes and portrait-like studies of individuals, such as this work. The artist’s wife and their five children frequently served as his models, wearing either traditional Swedish peasant garb or, as here, fashionable contemporary dress. Portrait of Miss N. apparently portrays the artist’s second daughter, Greta, earlier his model for a painting that won the Municipal Art League Prize for Portraiture in the 1915 “Chicago and Vicinity” show. Born in 1899, Greta Nyholm aspired to follow her father into an artistic career. She exhibited alongside him at the Swedish Club in the mid-1920s before becoming a high school art teacher. In Portrait of Miss N., the young woman’s direct, warm gaze hints at her special bond with the painter.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  Harriet Monroe, “Scattered Art Shows for Week; Swedish-American Group Here,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 19, 1911.
ii  Lena M. McCauley, “38 Canvases Show New Ideas in Color,” Chicago Post, Feb. 6, 1917.

The Horse Auction

Walter Krawiec’s The Horse Auction makes the viewer a close-up spectator of a lively scene packed with traders and onlookers as an auctioneer calls the bids on a pair of white horses. The motley assortment of men crowding the foreground includes a bearded figure in a peaked cap, perhaps an immigrant, who turns away from the horses as he holds a whip upright. From the auctioneer’s enclosed platform, two well-dressed men and a girl in blue look on. At the left, more people cram into the space and the heads of several horses are silhouetted against the light from an open door.

With its loose brushwork and casually sketched figures, Krawiec’s image suggests on-the-spot reportage, perhaps reflecting the artist’s long experience as a newspaper cartoonist. He was also deeply familiar with the world of horses and the people who work with them, having become an artist in order to record the animals he had loved from boyhood. In the early 1930s Krawiec made a name for himself as a painter of horses at the circus in particular, and he also painted them at racetracks and polo grounds, on farms, pulling fire engines, and as recreational mounts. The horse auction seems to have been a singular subject, however, for only one known title for a Krawiec painting indicates such a setting: The Horse Auction, a work he exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1941 annual “Chicago and Vicinity” show, is probably identical with this painting.

In the 1940s horse and other livestock auctions still took place at Chicago’s Union Stock Yards, as pictured by Francis Chapin in a painting and related lithograph made in the early 1930s. Krawiec’s auction, however, focuses on horses for show and recreation, as indicated by the beauty of the matched animals and the well-heeled aspect of the observers on the platform. From his childhood in a rural village in Poland to mid-twentieth-century Chicago, Krawiec witnessed the horse’s transition from a commonly seen work animal to a plaything of elite leisure.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD