Sunday, April 17, 2016

De Glehn, not Sargent

Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn (1870-1951), Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, c. 1925, Oil on Canvas, 40 by 30 in., Private Collection
Sisters, 1923, Oil on Canvas, 60.5 by 39 in., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England

Portrait of Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983) (Blue Jacket and Blue Hydrangeas, c. 1912, Oil on Canvas, 36 by 28 in., Private Collection.  Ms. Fontanne was a struggling actress and favorite model for the de Glehns before she moved to America and became a leading lady, often teamed on stage with her husband, Alfred Lunt.

Blue and Gold, 1911, Oil on Canvas, 45 by 32 in., Private Collection
Florence Hooton (1912–1988), 1936, Oil on Canvas, 56.3 by 46.4 in., Royal Academy of Music, London.  Ms. Hooton was a student and professor of the Academy, becoming a leading chamber musician and teacher of many noted British cellists. I hope we all appreciate how hard it is to paint extended bare arms so naturally and accurately as in this beautiful commissioned portrait!
Barbara, c. 1929, Oil on Canvas, 21.5 by 17.5 in., Private Collection
Nude Study (also Barbara?), 1929, Oil on Canvas, 24.1 by 19.5 in., Manchester Art Gallery, England
Under the Willows, 1910, Oil on Canvas, 25 by 30 in., Private Collection
Jane de Glehn by the Stream, Purtud, Val D’Aosta, (Swtzerland), c. 1907, Oil on Canvas, 23 by 30 in., Private Collection
Self-Portrait, c.1944, Oil on Canvas, 35 7/8 by 28 in.,

The astonishing paint handling and drawing skills of John Singer Sargent are the envy of most of us who fall in love with painting directly from nature, with no preliminary sketch on canvas to chart our often wayward course.

Quite a few painters have tried to achieve the same seemingly effortless naturalism Sargent created on canvas. They have failed because they have had nothing to guide them but the finished paintings. Sargent didn’t do much teaching and didn’t like it when he did. And the few things he is quoted as saying about the craft are about as clear as mud when isolated in print or on a computer screen. You must see a painter at work “up close and personal” on a number of occasions to get at least some sense of how it is done if you want to paint like him. There is no other way.

And that’s why Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn (1870-1951), Sargent’s good friend and frequent painting companion, was able to more closely replicate the look of a Sargent painting than all the others, even though that was probably not what he had set out to do.

De Glehn would have had many opportunities to observe Sargent’s brushwork and paint handling technique – the brushes and colors he used, the way he mixed the paint on his palette, and the way he applied the paint. He also would have gained some insight into Sargent’s highly evolved aesthetic proclivities. And who wouldn’t be happy to incorporate some of what he had learned firsthand about Sargent’s technique in his own work, as de Glehn did in the years he worked alongside Sargent.

Although de Glehn is known as a British Impressionist, some of his paintings look very much like Sargent’s portraits and landscapes; so much so that Wikipedia Commons misattributes de Glehn’s profile portrait of his wife to Sargent. The Wikipedia Commons image, from a German source and given the title, Portrait of Jane Emmet de Glehn, is cropped a little above De Glehn’s signature in the lower right corner of the canvas. Sargent had given up such formal portraiture long before de Glehn’s portrait was created circa 1925, the year of Sargent’s death at the age of 69. The portrait was no. 174 in the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London that year, according to notes in a catalog for an exhibit of de Glehn’s work at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York in 1989.

Putting aside this curiosity and moving right along, I remember how happy I was to catch that New York exhibit of 46 oil paintings and 16 watercolors from de Glehn’s estate. Like most admirers of Sargent, I was already well acquainted with Wilfred de Glehn and his wife, Jane Emmet de Glehn, because they were featured prominently in several of Sargent’s most famous outdoor paintings. The de Glehns were said to be Sargent’s closest friends for the last 20 years of his life. The couple lived near Sargent in London and accompanied him on summer holiday painting excursions to the Alps and Italy, which were chronicled by Jane in letters to her family. But until I saw that exhibit, I wasn’t familiar with de Glehn’s own paintings, and I was surprised and very impressed by the high quality of the work and how much his paint surfaces resembled Sargent’s.

Although there are numerous ways to apply paint on canvas to create memorable paintings, I’m especially thrilled by the paint handling technique practiced by Sargent, de Glehn and a few others, which results in a seamless finished work that induces an almost giddy sensation of real life as it appears to the human eye. Of course this is no longer important in our brave new digital world of pixel manipulation. We now prefer slavishly laboring to create unrealistic, high-definition figurative work in a photographic manner, whether from life or photographs, with even the most trivial details in sharp focus. Let me assure you that this tedious approach is a lot easier to follow than learning to create with deep emotion the look of unforced naturalism in your paintings by drawing accurately with a fully loaded brush, as Sargent and de Glehn did.

Many painters today who seek to follow in Sargent’s footsteps quickly realize that they can’t draw the figure well enough in an alla prima manner, so they concentrate on painting landscapes or still lifes, where correct proportions aren’t as critical to the success of the artwork.

I do know of a few terrific painters today who pose clothed or nude models in casual environments to create visually exciting paintings from nature, alla prima, with rapid, fluid brush strokes. While their figures are not as anatomically accurate as those of Sargent and many of his contemporaries, these later artists often choose unconventional poses for their models that are far more challenging to draw with paint. And the contemporary color schemes and settings chosen to accompany their figures are refreshingly personal. The work of these painters unfortunately doesn’t get as much attention in the Realist art world of today as the somewhat cartoonish work of painters who are trying to render like Bouguereau and the other 19th Century Academic masters, in style and subject matter.

De Glehn’s friendship with Sargent began in 1891, when the muralist Edwin Austin Abbey chose him to assist with the first part of Sargent's mural commission for the Boston Public Library, “The Frieze of the Prophets,” which was installed in 1895. The mural project was not completed until 1916, although de Glehn apparently only assisted on the frieze. Like Sargent, de Glehn also spoke French and had a cosmopolitan manner. The two men hit it off right away.

Judging by one of de Glehn’s late self-portraits, he appears to have been the kind of stiff upper lip British gentleman who would make a perfect companion for Sargent, who was described by James Montgomery Flagg as “more English than the English.” Flagg said he worshipped Sargent as a painter. “No painter has ever thrilled me so much,” Flagg wrote in his autobiography, “Roses and Buckshot.” So he was greatly disappointed by Sargent’s “snotty” manner when Flagg met him in London on a “Show Sunday,” when Royal Academicians invited friends to see their work in their studios before the Royal Academy exhibitions. The two men obviously did not hit it off right away.

De Glehn’s self-portrait, created with loose, linear brushstrokes, shows him “dressed in what was quite possibly his working uniform,” according to Messums, the London gallery that handles de Glehn’s estate.

De Glehn’s wife, Jane Erin Emmet (1873-1961), enters Sargent’s world in 1903, when she met de Glehn, who had come to America to assist Sargent and Abbey with the Boston Library murals. De Glehn and Emmet married in 1904 and soon joined Sargent in Venice on what would the first of many painting holidays they enjoyed together and with other artists over the next 10 years, just before the outbreak of WWI, which effectively ended all those idyllic painting sojourns across the continent. It was a childless marriage for the de Glehns, but both probably had so much fun traveling and painting together that having to raise children would have really cramped their style, and certainly would have altered the course of Sargentology.

Jane Emmet might have met Sargent earlier, when she was 17 and in attendance at the big soiree Sargent staged in 1890 in the New York studio of William Merritt Chase to show off Carmencita, the spirited Spanish dancer he eventually persuaded to pose for him. Jane Emmet came from an old New York family that included several women artists, the most famous being Lydia Field Emmet and their cousin, Ellen Emmet Rand, both accomplished portrait artists. Lydia and another older sister, Rosina Sherwood, had helped organize Chase’s summer art school at Shinnecock, Long Island. Another cousin, by the way, was Henry James, also one of Sargent’s great friends. It was a small, small world back then for all sorts of creative types. Now nobody knows anybody in real life. All we do is hunker down in front of our computers, perfecting our digital identities.

Emmet’s engagement to de Glehn some 13 years later caused Sargent to be concerned that his great friendship with de Glehn would now be over; that he would not make friends with Jane and that de Glehn would decide to live in America. But Jane shared Sargent’s love for art and music and determined his friends were “unstodgy,” so Sargent’s fears were unfounded, according to an essay written by Laura Wortley in the catalog for the 1989 de Glehn exhibit at Hirschl & Adler. “She was quickly accepted into a close-knit group of artists whose own lives would greatly affect and influence their own,” Wortley wrote.

Jane Emmet continued to paint during her marriage and after de Glehn’s death, but never anywhere near as prolifically as her husband. Although she produced some excellent landscapes during their travels together, she concentrated on creating sensitive portrait drawings in chalk and charcoal.

In her essay, Wortley chronicles de Glehn’s painting career and the couple’s travels in a manner that quite naturally arouses envy in this aging blogger, incarcerated as he is in an apartment home studio on Manhattan’s fashionable Upper West Side.  She writes:

De Glehn’s life was full of journeys, initially with Sargent, and then, after the First World War, with younger members of his family and friends. Between the wars, it became his habit to spend the first few weeks of each summer with his nephews and nieces in Cornwall before moving on to Italy and the South of France for several months.

Wortley contends it would be wrong to consider de Glehn as merely Sargent’s protégé:

As a landscape and figure painter, de Glehn was affected more by Constable’s atmospheric tonalisn than Sargent’s cosmopolitan Impressionism. Though Sargent’s influence is evident in de Glehn’s early work, particularly his watercolors, ultimately it is more constructive to consider de Glehn’s oeuvre within the broader context of British Impressionism.

Another clear sign of de Glehn’s own artistic personality is his penchant for painting female nudes. He did many such studies over the years. Sargent, on the other hand, painted some male nudes, but his Egyptian Girl, a beautiful full-length academic study from 1891, is the only known female nude that Sargent did in oil. The painting was created in Egypt on his trip there to do research for the Boston murals and was shown at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The painting is on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago from a private collection. As somebody online noted, Sargent’s idol Velazquez also painted only one known female nude in oil, Venus at her Mirror. So make of this what you will, given the rumors of Sargent’s homosexuality. I think such talk is nonsense, but that’s just my guess.

Wilfrid-Gabriel von Glehn was born in South London to Alexander von Glehn, a coffee importer of Baltic descent, and Fanny Monad, who was French. Wilfrid changed his name during the First World War to the more anglicized “de Glehn.” He trained at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington and spent six years at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896 and became a full academician in 1932.

There is much more fascinating information about Wilfrid and Jane Emmet de Glehn on this website: As Ms. Wortley wrote in her catalog essay, de Glehn “is worthy of considerably more attention than he has received until now as a footnote in the Sargent bibliography.”