Charles Courtney Curran

by James Lancel McElhinney

Charles Courtney Curran (1861–1942) was a highly regarded and successful painter. He was active in the New York art scene and maintained close ties with artists living in Europe, like his friend John Singer Sargent. Curran was a resident of the Cragsmore Colony, located near Ellenville in Ulster County, New York. From 1911 to 1913, he published art lessons in print for the magazine Palette and Bench. In his day, Curran’s work was considered exceptional. Today, it has been assigned to indifferent respectability on the margins of American art. Curran’s work is found in the collections of numerous major regional museums but has yet to inspire serious contemporary scholarship.

THE LIFE OF CHARLES COURTNEY CURRAN

Charles Courtney Curran was born on February 13, 1861, in Hartford, Kentucky. Curran learned the rudiments of painting and drawing from his father. He received his formal training from the Cincinnati School of Design and the School of the National Academy of Design in New York City, where he worked under Walter Satterlee (1844–1908), who had studied in Paris with Leon Bonnat. Curran also took classes at the Art Students League of New York, where he would have come into contact with artists such as Walter Shirlaw and fellow Midwesterner William Merritt Chase, who had studied with Piloty and Kalbach in Munich. They represented a competing approach to Paris-trained instructors such as Frank Waller, H. Siddons Mowbray and Kenyon Cox. Curran’s early portraits are influenced by Munich-style realism, but his more ambitious efforts indicate a preference for Paris-based models. In 1888, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design and joined the growing number of American artists living abroad. In Paris, he studied at the Académie Julian under Benjamin Constant and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He may also have taken classes at the Académie Colarossi with Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, whom Curran later declared was “my master” to writer Theodore Dreiser. Curran has been labeled an American Impressionist by some late twentieth-century scholars, despite the fact that he never embraced Impressionist techniques. Curran’s style morphs from Munich-style realism and the neoclassicism of Waterhouse, Leighton and Alma-Tadema to the naturalism of Lepage and the polished realism of Tissot, all with a uniquely American flavor.

Curran returned to the United States in the 1890s but would make numerous transatlantic journeys throughout his long career. In 1900, he received an honorable mention, served as a member of the staff of the United States Director of Fine Arts at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and produced fourteen views of the Jungfrau. In 1904, Curran became a full member of the National Academy of Design. He won first prize at the Corcoran exhibition in 1905 and, the following year, received the Shaw Prize from the Society of American Artists. Curran’s work was awarded medals at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. 

In 1903, Curran and his wife, Grace, visited Cragsmoor, a remote residential development on the crest of the Shawangunk Ridge south of the resort hotels at Lakes Minnewaska and Mohonk. The location had become a magnet for artists shortly after the Civil War—one of a number of ex-urban destinations for creative people orbiting New York. The Currans returned to summer at Cragsmoor several times before making it their second home. In 1910, he built a new studio, where he developed his signature style. When Curran arrived at Cragsmoor, it was not as an art colony pioneer. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, steam powered mass transit had made previously remote stretches of the Hudson River Valley accessible to artists and tourism. American painters such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand drew inspiration from the Hudson Highlands and the Catskills. Cole settled in the Village of Catskill. His student Frederic Church built his palatial Olana directly across the river from Cole’s house.

In 1885, Augustus Saint-Gaudens helped establish an artists’ colony at Cornish, New Hampshire, that grew to include Kenyon Cox, Thomas Dewing, John White Alexander and Maxfield Parrish. Daniel Chester French made several visits to Cornish but settled instead at Lenox in the Berkshires. William Merritt Chase found motifs in the Shinnecock Hills that lured artists to western Long Island. Taos and Santa Fe became magnets for artists and writers from Ernest Blumenschein and Maynard Dixon to D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe.

It is noteworthy that the formation of artistic colonies in the United States coincided precisely with Frederick Law Olmsted’s development of inner-city parks for New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn; the dedication of the first national and military parks; the birth of the environmental movement through the influence of George Perkins Marsh, John Burroughs and John Muir, and the establishment of summer camps by youth organizations such as the YMCA and Boys Club. Throughout the twentieth century, Maine attracted resident artists to Penobscot Bay. The Wyeth family divided their time between the Brandywine Valley, Pennsylvania and Monhegan Island, Maine. Artists began arriving at Old Lyme, Connecticut, when a summer art school was established there in 1894 by Joseph Boston. Closer to New York City, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Julian Weir and Theodore Robinson formed a circle of American Impressionists at Cos Cob in Fairfield County. Painter Charles Hawthorne attracted students to Provincetown. Over the years, both he and, later, Hans Hoffmann operated schools that helped define several generations of American painters. Edward Hopper and his wife, Jo, summered in nearby Truro. Not all of these colonies grew up along rivers and shorelines. 

Located ninety miles northwest of Manhattan on a ridge atop a high escarpment above Ellenville in Ulster County, New York, is the small community of Cragsmoor. The settlement attracted artists such as Eliza Pratt Greatorex and Edward Lamson Henry during the late 1860s. Greatorex also visited the Fountain Colony in Manitou Springs, Colorado, in 1872 and considered settling there before joining the Gilded Age exodus of American artists to Europe. Her Cragsmoor home was later purchased by George Inness, Jr. Curran was past fifty when he visited Cragsmoor in 1903 and nearing sixty when he built a second home and studio there. He and Grace threw themselves into the life of the community and collaborated on the magazine Palette and Bench. Curran’s signature works were inspired by the location: pretty women in white summer dresses perched upon cliff-tops above scenic Rondout Valley. While the peripatetic Curran was never a moving force behind the formation of Cragsmoor or any other colony, as a case study, he demonstrates the benefits of settling in a nurturing environment.

Nurturing the creative spirit argues the point that salubrious recreation improves us, an argument that supports back-to-nature movements, the development of state and national park systems, historic preservation, summer camps, the scouting movement and the formation of artistic retreats supported by philanthropy: the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, the Millais Colony in Austerlitz, New York, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Chautauqua Institute in western New York State, the Vermont Studio Center and the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico.

CURRAN'S PAINTINGS

Curran’s A Breezy Day (1887, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) suggests the influence of Chase, Twatchtman and Duveneck. Curran’s 1888 Lotus Lilies (Terra Foundation) presages his later works at the Cragsmoor colony, pairing women and flowers. Two beautiful young women beneath a green parasol drift in a rowboat amid yellow lotus blossoms. By nineteenth-century standards, the scene is charged with eroticism. Full, plastic forms are realized with linear insistence, inviting comparison with his friend Sargent or Tissot. Curran’s mastery of light has led some art historians, including William Gerdts, to classify him as an American Impressionist. Others, such as Barbara Novak, question its existence as a verifiable movement. In terms of studio practice alone, Curran’s work differs from Impressionism in too many ways for him to be closely identified with it. French Impressionism dissolves form with light by using optical mixtures of color in patterns of opaque brushstrokes distributed evenly across the surface. Curran’s painting method never abandons the use of definitive contours, nor divides color optically. Impressionist color systems are based on pairing complementary colors like orange and blue, based on Chevreul’s 1842 book Of the Law of the Simultaneous Contrast of Color. Curran’s use of color at this point is based on pairing analogous colors like yellow and green, restraining light effects in favor of volumetric plasticity. Curran works within the sound, traditional oil painting practice of building fat over lean, contrasting tonalities via glazes and impastos integrated within a smooth, modulated surface. Bundling the virtuosic and stylistically promiscuous Curran within American Impressionism treads a thornier path than proving that such a movement is more than a commercial brand.

Curran’s The Sirens (1893) is rendered in thin veils of muted silvery color reminiscent of the aestheticism associated with Whistler or Dewing. Odysseus’ ship—or perhaps that of less fortunate wayfarers—is seen at a distance, approaching the rocky shoreline. Scattered along the receding riprap, lounging on rocks, is a collection of sexually alluring young women who beckon love-starved sailors to their doom. It is oddly fitting that among the painting’s previous owners was the architect Stanford White—a connoisseur of art whose delectation of feminine pulchritude cost him his life. The dream-like imagery immediately begs comparison to Symbolists Gustave Moreau, Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger and Franz von Stuck. Curran’s use of space, specifically in locating figures in the terrain, suggests that he is looking at Impressionism as well. The scale of the figures to the rocky beach adheres to a degree of naturalism one finds in Corot’s late bathers or Monet’s pastoral groupings. 

Charles Courtney Curran, At the Scupture Exhibition, 1895, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Set in the American Federation of Art building, now housing the Art Students League of New York at 25 West 57th Street, At the Sculpture Exhibition (1895) combines a sense of naturalism with the latest pictorial devices, such as the radical cropping of the figure-group seated in the front left and the varied use of light between the shadowed foreground and luminous distance—compositional maneuvers commonly found in theater and genre pictures by Degas, Cassatt and Toulouse-Lautrec. Curran explored similar concepts in his 1892 painting In the Window Box, depicting a young lady in a rose-colored dress, backlit by a lace-curtained window as she reclines against large emerald green cushions, reading a book. The emphasis on light as a subject suggests ties to Impressionism and perhaps even later artists such as Vuillard, but Curran insists on well-defined forms rendered in saturated colors that celebrate a visual harmony between physical surfaces like satin, flesh and the varnished frame of an elaborate chair. Curran was not a linear thinker; he was enormously facile, a stylistic acrobat. His 1898 painting The Peris was inspired by Thomas Moore’s 1827 poem Lalla Rookh. In the fable, mythical feminine genies are banished from Heaven until they return with the most precious jewel in Creation—a tear shed by a repentant sinner. The picture is organized within a rectangle of similar proportions to many Japanese screen-paintings. Painted in the same year as Gustav Klimt’s Moving Water (Budapest Museum of Fine Arts), The Peris represents yet another departure by Curran, courting decorative agendas associated with Art Nouveau, Jugendstijl and the Vienna Secession—although the gambols of Curran’s perfumed garden seem far more chaste than Klimt’s slippery delights.

Charles Courtney  Curran, Betty Newell, 1922  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

In 1903, Curran visited the Cragsmoor colony. The setting atop a long ridge running from the Delaware Water Gap to the Catskills inspired some of Curran’s best-known works, including On the Cliff (1910). Set against the rolling terrain rising up toward the Allegheny Plateau to the west, these tableaux juxtapose the visual rhyming of billowing fabric with cumulus clouds, racing across clear blue skies. These later compositions employ modern pictorial devices, such as cropped volumes and figures located in the extreme foreground to emphasize a sense of abstraction. Arrangements of white, blue and green shapes are punctuated by darker forms representing flesh and foliage. The restless movement of writhing ribbons, flowing hair and drapery in Curran’s paintings captures a sense of instantaneity, like a still lifted from a single frame in a silent movie.

 During the teens and twenties, Curran refined his format, relocating his subjects from the wind-swept rim of a precipice to lush, blooming gardens— again pairing women with flowers. The model for his 1920 Wild Azaleas is his daughter Emily, who appears in many of Curran’s compositions. The bustlength figure is backlit behind a screen of purple blossoms. Shimmering light filters through her hair, delineating the contours of her face. Curran uses her white dress both as a flat shape and as a device to direct light against the surrounding foliage, which is reflected into glowing shadows on the figure. Curran uses the same maneuver in his 1922 portrait of Betty Newell (Metropolitan Museum of Art). His 1922 painting Green Jacket White Pine relocates his subject to a more sylvan setting. The figure is lit from above, suggesting that it might be a studio invention. Perhaps Curran was experimenting with further refinements of his method and exploring more inventive approaches to the portraitwork upon which he relied as demand for his personal artwork declined.

Curran seemed to be indifferent to avant-gardism, which is hardly surprising given that his own work habits included effortless shifts in direction. In this sense, Curran may have regarded himself as progressive—a reformer if not a pioneer. Where he takes exception to modernism is what he regards as its abandonment of beauty in favor of novelty. He does not seem to evince a polemical stance in his meditations on art but is impatient with posturing and politicking by some of his contemporaries. In a letter to a “Mr. Frager” dated August 18, 1939, Curran lays out his artistic credo:

Artists should endeavor to express their ideas in terms easily understandable to others. The Old Masters built up a tradition that there is first of all such a thing as good composition; that good drawing is not necessarily slavish and stupid imitation of nature; that color and tone while being in general founded on the character of nature can be treated in a wide variety of manners; that a full understanding of the qualities and possibilities of the many mediums at the disposal of the artist is of utmost importance; that technical skill must be at the command of the artist and that an understanding of and sympathy with humanity must be his guide as to what beauty is.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2011, Volume 28, Number 1