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

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

Untitled (A Windy Sky)

Holding her hat to her head in the stiff breeze that sweeps her skirts, a young woman in summer white strides across a field under a slate-gray sky in Lawton Parker’s landscape image. Beyond the figure, a line of tall slender trees screens the view of a distant river bordering a village under a low ridge. These balanced horizontal and vertical elements create a decorative grid-like structure over the loose, rapid brushwork characteristic of plein-air execution, a hallmark of impressionist practice. Setting off the brilliant red detail on the woman’s hat, the intense greens of the rough ground suggest the peculiar bright light that can precede a storm, lending a subtle urgency to the walker’s progress.

This painting depicts a scene in rural France near the village of Giverny, possibly the town of Vernon seen from across the Seine River on the northwest edge of Giverny. Parker’s paintings made there in the summer of 1910 were presented in a well-received solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in early 1912. Included was A Windy Sky, a title that corresponds with the subject of this painting. It represents a departure from the close-up figural compositions that typically occupied Parker and other members of his generation of American painters in Giverny. These featured pretty models, in various states of undress, idly posed in luxuriant gardens or light-filled interiors, as in Parker’s La Paresse. In A Windy Sky both painter and model seem to be taking a respite from their usual work: leaving the confines of studio and garden, the woman moves briskly and unselfconsciously, while the artist indulges in pure landscape painting, quickly capturing Giverny’s rural environs in all their transitory immediacy.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Woman Sewing

In this image, Pauline Palmer melds the pleasing color and soft light effects of modified impressionism with a subject redolent of peaceful domesticity. Seen from slightly above, a woman is seated in front of a closed window, her head barely extending above the sill. The window frames a summer landscape of rising ground yielding to a blue ocean horizon. As she bends her gaze to the crochet needle in her hand, the sitter turns her back to the sunlit scene; she seems equally oblivious of the viewer. Palmer subtly alludes to her anticipation of maternity by showing the young woman working on a small garment of a diaphanous white fabric, while at her side the open workbasket, with its frilled edges and pink-lined interior, evokes a waiting bassinet.

Artists have long posed the model before a window as a vehicle for exploring both the effects of natural light in interior spaces and the interplay of rigid architectural elements with the rounded contours of the human form. Palmer herself painted several images of women before windows or open doors. The theme of a woman engaged in handiwork embodies a timeless feminine ideal of nurturing domesticity, while allowing the viewer to contemplate the female figure as if unseen. During and just after America’s involvement in World War I, images of home life assumed poignant significance in the face of what were perceived as new threats, both internal and external, to the nation’s values and social institutions.

In this image, the plaid window curtains on the many-paned window, the white walls, and the uncarpeted floor suggest the simple interior of a summer cottage. Early in the war years, Palmer began working in picturesque Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular artists’ haunt. Painting the local fisherfolk, quaint village scenes, and her own garden, she found the locale a rich source of subjects in which both she and her public could temporarily escape not only international conflict but also urbanization, the clamor for women’s suffrage, and other manifestations of modernity. This comforting portrayal of idealized domesticity hints little at the artist’s own defiance of conventional female roles in her busy career as a professional painter.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Woman in a Garden)

Pauline Palmer’s image is a study in vivid color contrasts and the play of dappled shadow and bright light. Propping an oriental parasol on one shoulder, the female model wears the loose dress of morning leisure, including a blue kimono with a swirling pattern in gold and a red collar. The table at which she sits, with its silver coffeepot, is set for an alfresco breakfast perhaps to be shared with a companion, as indicated by the empty wicker chair. Behind her, the garden path stretches away toward the sunlit facade of a house with blue-shuttered windows. While Palmer carefully modeled the woman’s face, she captured much of the rest of the scene with the loose brushstrokes characteristic of impressionism; at the upper left in particular, distinct dabs of color suggest a dense screen of lush summer foliage. The shadowing of the foreground and figure in contrast to the bright background emphasizes the picture’s illusion of deeply receding space.

This painting probably dates to or soon after the summer of 1910, when Palmer worked in the international colony of impressionist painters gathered in Giverny, France. She likely went there to join American expatriate artist Richard Emil Miller, with whom she had studied in Paris and would work again in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Between 1909 and the outbreak of World War I, Giverny was dominated by a “third generation” of impressionist painters who included in addition to Miller several figural painters with ties to Chicago, notably Karl Anderson, Karl Buehr, Frederick Frieseke, Lawton Parker, and Louis Ritman. All specialized in images of beautiful women at leisure, frequently picturing them outdoors in the garden settings of the artists’ own rented residences in the village. Kimonos, parasols, and open-air breakfasts are features of many of these portrayals, which also share luscious color, vividly textured brushwork, and themes of languid domesticity.

Several months after Palmer’s stay in the French village, Chicago Tribune art critic Harriet Monroe wrote of the Giverny group and its salutary influence on Chicago painters who had visited there for a season: Palmer, she reported, “said she was learning lessons of inestimable value, and getting rid of faults which had hardened her work for years.”i Of the seven paintings the artist had recently exhibited in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition for Chicago artists, two bore titles indicating a Giverny setting. Another, titled In the Garden, might be this painting. With her work in France and Italy in 1910, Palmer made a decisive shift toward the impressionist mode of heightened color and bright light with which she remains associated.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Harriet Monroe, “Do We Really Underestimate the American Artists?” Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1911.

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