Sunday, June 2, 2013

Romance in Art

Not many of us will come to know “The Romance of an Art Career” as did Joseph Cummings Chase (1878-1965), who wrote the book on it in 1928.  Chase was an indefatigable, multifaceted artist who was quite a schmoozer in his day, hobnobbing with scads of personages in the fields of politics, entertainment and finance in the early years of the 20th Century.

He began his career as a teenager sketching portraits at political conventions for a newspaper, and then worked as an illustrator for magazines and book publishers.  He taught art and design in colleges and wrote and lectured about it at every opportunity, it seems.  He also created the concept of dramatic retail window displays for fashionable stores like Saks Fifth Avenue.   But above all, Chase was a prominent and prolific portrait painter and sketcher, with a gift for getting a likeness, who estimated he had already painted or sketched about 6,000 portraits at the time “Romance” was published.  

Joseph Cummings Chase, “Henry Morgenthau,” 
Oil on artist board, 1918, National Portrait Gallery
In Chase’s art world, there are no long-haired, lank-limbed aesthetes consulting their muses for inspiration.  Uh-uh!  You have to work like you are on some artistic chain gang from Dante’s “Inferno,” with no relief in sight.  Chase wrote that he had, on several occasions, painted three oil portraits in one day, each of them from a three-hour sitting.  And the last one he painted, at the point of total exhaustion, usually turned out to be the best one, which he could only ascertain on the morning after.  That’s not the half of it.

In a chapter sarcastically titled, “The Artist Works When He Feels Like It,” he describes several instances of extreme deadline pressures he and others have had to work under.  His biggest challenge was a commission in 1927 to paint nine oil portraits in five days of the principal cast members of a new Broadway musical, “Golden Dawn,” for the lobby of the newly constructed Hammerstein Theater, which is now the “Ed Sullivan Theater,” where the David Letterman show is taped.  The musical, produced by Arthur Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein I, had been out of town in Philadelphia, so Chase painted three cast members there on a Friday and Saturday in their tiny backstage dressing rooms.  Back in New York he had to set up painting paraphernalia in three different locations to paint the rest of the cast.   He just managed to get all the portraits framed and hung in the lobby an hour before the Wednesday evening premiere, which he sat through in his sweaty work attire at the command of Hammerstein.  As a prelude to describing this incredible feat, Chase said he almost had to turn down the job because he had been working “19 or 20 hours a day” for three weeks on a 55-foot long mural that had to be finished on the day he would start this new assignment.   

All this talk of hard work might have been a subtle hint to dissuade young people from entering the profession, since he believed the art schools were already filled to overflowing with untalented students who were looking for an easy route to success.   They only enrolled at their mothers’ urging because the kids weren’t fit to do anything else.  Chase wrote that thousands of art students “will never surmount the early obstacles, and only hundreds of them will find a better than average living in this art game." 

So he proceeds to offer some practical career advice for beginning artists in a chapter titled “What Is This Art Game?”  He lists the various career options in the following order:  design, illustration, advertising art, landscape painting, and portrait painting.  Chase was big on the attributes of decorative design in paintings, textiles, costumes, labels, posters and such, and wrote a textbook on the subject that was published in 1915 when he was an instructor at the City College of New York and at the Cooper Union College for Women.

Ernest Blumenschein, “Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 1925
Chase has some valuable comments on color in a chapter titled “Why All This Confusion About Color?”  He begins with an interesting anecdote about the time he was painting alongside the wonderful Taos painter Ernest Blumenschein at the Académie Julian in Paris.  Blumenschein was returning to the school to refresh his skills upon deciding to leave the illustration field “to be a real painter.”  His painting was proceeding rapidly, but “Blumy,” was cursing and groaning.  “The dreadful thing about it is that I have been working in black and white so long I can’t paint in color,” he told Chase.  “I have been exaggerating the dark and light so long, for the purposes of reproduction, that I just can’t see anything any other way.”  But Chase said Blumy persisted, “and the rich, clean color of his canvases has long since become notable.”

Chase was an advocate of the simple red-yellow-blue palette to mix any colors you want, and his choices were rose-madder, lemon-yellow and French ultramarine light.  He writes that white with a tint of lemon-yellow is lighter than white paint because white paint reflects only fifty to sixty percent of the light that strikes it, while a tint of lemon yellow reflects seventy-one percent.  And he explains why green is the only color that will darken the shadows and folds in a red dress without changing the quality of the red to something other than red.  Chase discusses a few other color matters and wonders “why these things were never told me by my instructors in art school in New York, in Philadelphia and in Paris.  He said art school instructors teach many things to be grateful for, but speak usually in generalities concerning “feeling, atmosphere and beauty,” and make few “statements of fact.”  I wish that Chase, himself, who was dean of the Hunter College Art Department in the 1930s, had been a little more precise about that red and green business.  It’s hard to get those deeper red accents to look great, in my experience, anyway, and I paint very few pictures that feature a strong red, other than the occasional tomato

Joseph Cummings Chase, Ruth Draper, Actress
Chase didn’t appreciate the public’s attitude about artists, summarizing it in this manner:  “The artist, then, is a person who seldom does a day’s work, who can always be picked out because of his effeminate build and his queer tie, and who is just the slave of the successful advertising mogul.  But no!  In reality the artist who has earned a reputation and has arrived is one who has acquired the habit of hard work, whose union hours are ten or twelve, or even more.   There are many whose last vacation was so many years ago that it is entirely forgotten.”

“Romance” is full of interesting anecdotes and observations about the art of portrait painting as it was practiced in his day.  No photographs, please.  A photograph “gives only one impression of the subject.  A portrait may give many, hence the possibility of revealing much more of the person.”  And only one of 12 photographs may produce a good likeness, he says.  An oil portrait painted from life over an extended period allows the painter to observe and capture the “characteristics and personal attributes” of the sitter that set him apart from his fellows.  He agreed with Sargent that a little bit of a caricature of certain features makes for a better likeness than a photograph or slavish photographic rendering.  I couldn’t agree more.  I used to draw at the League sketch classes years ago alongside a very good caricature artist.  One day after finishing a 20-minute sketch of the model he proclaimed, “That’s the way he really looks.”   I thought so, too.

In Chase’s view, getting a likeness is a gift that few students in art schools possess, and “among artists in general, there are not many whose batting average in this respect of getting likenesses is over .300.”  He could be talking about today’s “practicing” portrait artists and students when he states:  “If portraits were just a matter of photographic exactness, the only requirement would be an ability to draw accurately; but accuracy of drawing is at best a matter of mathematics, which might produce a work very much akin to a death mask, and bear as little resemblance.” 

His affinity for capturing a likeness came in handy during World War I when, under the most trying of circumstances, he painted 142 portraits of soldiers and senior commanders, including Sergeant York, General Pershing and Marshal Foch.  He painted military figures from World War II and Korea, as well.  Some of the other prominent personalities he painted during his long career included Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Will Rogers, Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith, Rin Tin Tin and the tennis star Helen Wills, who wanted to pursue an art career herself and asked him a lot of questions about the business.  Many of his portraits appeared as illustrations in two other books he wrote, “My Friends Look Better Than Ever” (1950) and “Face Value” (1962).  A number of his portrait sketches are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Chase chatted comfortably with his important sitters while painting them, and lived to write about those chats.  He tells of bantering one day with William Jennings Bryan, who was pestering him to do his portrait.  It was in the spring of 1920 and Chase was scheduled to do a portrait of then Senator Harding in Washington.  Bryan, whom Chase had sketched at several Democratic National Conventions, came up to the table where Chase was with friends and said, “Hello, Chase, what are you doing here,”  “I came down to make a painting of the next President of the United States,” Chase replied.  “When do you want me to pose for it?” said Bryan.   Everybody laughed, including Chase, who replied, “Not this time.”  “Why not?”   “Well, said Chase, “I think the trouble may have something to do with your politics.  What are you now, anyhow?”  The good-natured banter went on a bit longer and Bryan finally got Chase to agree to paint his portrait, which was commenced at 7 a.m. sharp in Chase’s hotel room the very next morning.

Chase, who was born at Kents Hill, Maine and resided in Milwaukee from 1955 until his death in 1965, studied art at Pratt Institute and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before studying under Jean Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian. 

He seems to have loved talking and writing about painting almost as much as he loved painting.  His books have already been mentioned, and several articles written by him are referenced on the Internet.  I came across an old newspaper clipping from The St. Petersburg Times dated December 13, 1928, which I have attached here in an effort to flesh out his career.  It’s an interesting flashback to a far different world, and worth a read.  At the end of the article, mention is made of the Jack Shilkret Orchestra, a terrific novelty ensemble in the Roaring 20’s.   Here’s a link to an entertaining YouTube video featuring one of their big hit records:
Joseph Cummings Chase, “Red Cross Nurse,1922,OSAntiques
Despite all the work he produced in his lifetime, I couldn’t find many images on the Internet that would give a fair assessment of his long and successful painting career.  I did find an image of a painting of a WWI Red Cross nurse that is pretty good.  It’s for sale on the art marketing website Etsy for $1,200.

Pardon me for thinking this way, but perhaps we would know a bit more about Chase today if he had used a little less perspiration and a little more inspiration to produce his paintings.   But what the heck, he was much celebrated during his lifetime, greatly in demand for the very accomplished portraits he loved to paint, and far too busy to worry about posterity.  

This Anglo-Saxon artist did concede, a bit grudgingly, I feel,  the role of emotion in the creation of art.  He wrote that artists can "enjoy" and "be happier than other people" at the risk of encountering "the dark side of the picture... But no art worker with the soul of an artist ever wishes that he had chosen another career.”