Master of His Craft
Eugene Speicher is hardly a household name in the twenty-first century. But eighty years ago, he was a significant presence in the American art world, admired for his mastery of paint and the subject of laudatory exhibition reviews and monographs. In 1936, Esquire magazine called Speicher “America’s greatest living painter.”1 Known for his portraits, landscapes and floral still lifes, Speicher was widely respected for the thoughtful composition of his paintings, his sense of the dignity of his subjects and his astute use of color. Years ago, esteemed art historian Oliver W. Larkin singled out Speicher’s “clean, methodical, and workman like” paintings. He added his approval of the artist’s “orderliness,” adding that his “forceful disposal of his portrait figures and…emphasis on mature human shapes owed a little to Cézanne and Renoir.”2
Based in New York, Speicher hobnobbed with George Bellows, Guy Pène du Bois, Robert Henri and Rockwell Kent. With the onset of more avant-garde movements, including modernism and abstraction, Speicher’s more academic style fell out of favor, and his work disappeared from public view. Fortunately, this year, a wonderfully revelatory exhibition, “Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher,” organized by guest curator Valerie Ann Leeds, opened at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, and is now on view at the New York State Museum, Albany (October 18, 2014–March 22, 2015). It is the first Speicher retrospective in a half century. The catalogue is informative.3
Sara J. Pasti, Director of the Dorsky, acknowledges that Speicher was “an artist who, despite being regarded as an excellent painter and draftsman—a master of his craft—was never considered an innovator.” She adds that, although the artist is long out of style, “the issues of artistic identity and professional success Speicher dealt with remain as relevant in our time as they were in his.” Pasti expressed the hope that the painter’s work would be “appreciated by a new generation of artists and audiences who will find his art and life unexpectedly instructive,” and useful in considering the “development and fate of realist painting in America in the twentieth century.”4
Born in Buffalo, Speicher (1883–1962) began his training at the Fine Art Academy there before entering New York’s Art Students League in 1906, working under William Merritt Chase and Frank Vincent DuMond. He also attended night classes taught by the charismatic rebel Robert Henri. In 1910, he married and traveled abroad, visiting museums and galleries in England, France, Holland, Germany, Spain and Italy. Other tours of Western Europe followed in 1926 and 1929. Although he never took formal classes overseas, Speicher gained a sophisticated familiarity with the history and techniques of Western art during these sojourns. In his “My Credo,” published in 1945, Speicher observed:
I have studied and tried to understand the intention of many masters and have never hesitated to allow myself to be influenced when I thought it would eventually help me to express myself and contribute to what personal quality I may have….Unity in a work of art is one of its most distinguishing qualities, as is style. In a well-organized canvas, parts lose their identity, facts disappear and miracles happen.5
Speicher found early success with his emphatic portraits depicting girls and women in a monumental, yet lyrically expressive style, with hints of Cézanne in the powerfully simplified forms. He first gained public attention in 1908 with his likeness of another student at the Art Students League, Georgia O’Keeffe, a rather somber oval portrait of that future American icon.6 Curator Leeds observes that the O’Keeffe likeness was in a “staid academic style with a dark, naturalistic palette, yet it is sensitively rendered and shows a soft femininity in the young O’Keeffe that is absent from later portraits.”7 The New York Times described the O’Keeffe picture as “the little brown head that gained him [Speicher] his first public recognition,”8
The O’Keeffe portrait and several other likenesses of women earned Speicher awards that enhanced his growing reputation. In 1912, respected art critic Forbes Watson made much of Speicher’s “Americanness”—a label that followed him throughout his career. Watson presciently observed that Speicher was “not a revolutionary,” although he maintained “the individuality and fineness of his own viewpoint.”9 A leading critic of the day, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., was struck by Speicher’s “largeness of drawing, the sense of structure made from the inside out. This is what distinguishes any Speicher on a wall where other paintings hang….[Speicher’s technique] is an assertion of the grandeur and importance of the form—a moral as well as an aesthetic quality, the form being after all a symbol of some inherent human dignity.”10
Speicher’s career was well underway by the time of the Armory Show of 1913. He had seen Cézannes and Matisses at Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, had had several exhibitions, including a medal-winning painting at a National Academy of Design show, and had become an Associate at that prestigious institution. But those experiences and his travels hardly prepared Speicher and other members of the Henri circle for the time bomb that was the Armory Show, which attracted far more public attention than had any previous art exhibition in the United States, and introduced European modernism to America.
Although they occupied only one-third of the space, with 430 works, the European avant-garde on view—Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso—made it clear that most American artists were behind the times. Many of our progressive artists realized how much they trailed the European avant-garde, and tried to assimilate these latest artistic currents emanating from abroad, with varying degrees of success. In retrospect, it is clear that American art would never be the same again. Henri, who had been at best lukewarm about the inclusion of the European modernists in the show, found his artistic beliefs and personal leadership challenged by the stunning display of Cubism and other advanced European styles. Speicher was among the younger men, along with Bellows, Randall Davey and Leon Kroll, who rallied to Henri after 1913. From the late teens to the early twenties, the pseudo-scientific theories of color and composition promulgated by Hardesty Maratta and reinforced by the teachings of Jay Hambridge intrigued Henri and such followers as Speicher, Bellows and John Sloan. To varying degrees, they adapted these theories to their art. For years, the Speichers, along with the Bellowses and Sloans, were regulars at Thursday evenings in Henri’s New York studio, where they played poker and discussed the arts.
When Henri died suddenly in 1929, Speicher helped organize a memorial exhibition of his mentor’s dashing, colorful paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It constituted, observed Henri scholar William Innes Homer, “a posthumous tribute to an elder statesman who had already achieved his goal of influencing American art and artists from the late 1890s to the early 1920s.”11
Inspired by the color-filled work of Matisse and other European progressives at the Armory Show, Speicher discarded his pallid palette in favor of higher keyed and contrasting colors in his portraits, still lifes and landscapes. Salpeter in Esquire wrote: “His interest in color grew with time; he reported that the 1913…Armory Show, made him feel that certain qualities were lacking in his own work. He was conscious of his ignorance of color and…how pallid his could be.” Speicher undertook an intense study of “how the Impressionists used color…[feeling] that there were things he could learn from the plasticity of Cézanne, the drawing of Picasso, the vitality of Renoir.”12
Knowledgeable observers applauded the “unity” of Speicher’s work. One of them, Mather, suggested that Speicher’s pictures followed Henri’s maxims, praising “Speicher’s thoughtful and elaborate organization of the picture, based psychologically upon largeness of intention implying a profound sense of the dignity of the object represented, and technically, upon the avoidance of short cuts or formulas as upon a preference for color over mere colors.”13 Speicher continued to win numerous awards and portrait commissions. Looking back in 1941, museum director Homer St. Gaudens posited that “by 1920, Speicher was first among our native portrait painters.”14
By this time, although remaining connected to the city art scene, Speicher had become a fixture in the Woodstock, New York, art community, painting and socializing in the summer with Bellows, Henri, Kroll and Charles Rosen. Art historian Tom Wolf calls Speicher the “most financially successful artist in the colony,” where he spent seven months of the year and considered his “primary home.”15
The Woodstock art colony was founded just after the turn of the century by a wealthy Englishman, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead. He bought a large plot of land just outside the village—called Byrdcliffe—and built twenty-eight residences and studios where artists and craftspeople “could work in harmony with nature, untroubled by the distractions of the city.”16 Soon, the word was out that Woodstock was a place where artists could work amidst natural surroundings. In 1906, the Art Students League established a summer school dedicated to landscape painting, with able landscapist Birge Harrison as its first teacher. A few years later, Speicher began taking classes at the League. In 1910, he married a recent Vassar graduate, Elsie Wilson, who became his devoted muse, famous for her hospitality.
They lived in a house with a large room for Speicher’s studio on what is now Bellows Lane, named for George Bellows, who built a house adjacent to the Speichers and near another painter, Charles Rosen. The latter famously hosted convivial card games with other artists. They also played tennis and golf and organized a baseball team, of which Bellows was the star, having turned down a career in professional baseball to become a painter. Advised by Henri to work from familiar natural environments, Speicher painted views of the area around Woodstock. He, Bellows and Rosen often piled into Bellows’s convertible roadster and drove around the countryside looking for interesting sites to paint. Speicher’s harmonious, panoramic views of tree-studded landscapes were acutely sensitive to the effects of light. Richly painted in largely subdued colors, they convey the tranquility of the sites.
In Passing Storm (c. 1920), Speicher delineated a darkened mountainside covered with green trees under turbulent skies. Untitled (Woodstock Landscape—Women Weeding) was painted with the free flowing vigor and dashing colors of a Vincent van Gogh landscape. Later on, in Kingston, New York (1935), Speicher conveyed a straightforward streetscape that suggested a quiet place of good living. Speicher’s landscapes were influenced by his study of Cézanne and Renoir.17
Speicher also achieved great success with floral still lifes, which were singled out for critical praise for their strongly brushed, richly colored groupings of blooms. An avid gardener, he drew many subjects from his own plots, which were carefully arranged into various combinations of blooms and colors in round vases. In the exhibition, two stand out: Untitled (Floral Still Life) and the undated Untitled (Peony Still Life), each artfully composed with a vase on a table set against a plain background, the better to emphasize blooms bursting with vivid color.18
Speicher continued to paint portraits in Woodstock, not commissioned likenesses, but pictures of his fellow artists and their children, and interesting members of the community, notably the comely daughters of Bellows and Rosen. “Speicher painted uncommissioned portraits to express his artistic sensibility,” writes Wolf in the exhibition catalogue, “and this locates him as a modern artist, despite his conservative style.”19 In his female nudes, Speicher followed Henri’s advice: “See her in her human dignity, and paint that.”20 Mather said Speicher’s nudes were of “large and noble accent.”21 In Woodstock, Speicher painted portraits of the local blacksmith, a “mountaineer,” an African American woman, and such fellow painters as John Carlson, John Carroll, Kroll and Jonas Lie. They were depicted as men of experience and great character.
A career high point for Speicher was his portrait of fellow Buffalonian and actress Katharine Cornell, a major figure in the theatrical world. Painted in 1925–26, the full-length standing likeness shows her as appropriately regal and assertive in the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. Critically lauded by many and famous because of its celebrity sitter, the Cornell portrait was featured in many exhibitions. Leeds says it “captured her poise, theatricality, and confidence….”22 When the Albright-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo acquired the Cornell likeness, fellow Buffalonian and watercolorist Charles Burchfield applauded the image as “one of the supreme achievements of our era,” adding that it represented an ideal “when the subject, the artist, and his art are in perfect accord.”23
Along with the Cornell portrait, the co-star of the exhibition is a three-quarter seated composition, Portrait of a French Girl (Jeanne Balzac), from c. 1924, depicting an imperiously confident favorite model dressed in black with a red shawl casually draped over her shoulders. In keeping with his Grand Manner aspirations, many of these portraits include contextual backdrops— furniture, room settings and fashionable attire.
Encompassing qualities of balance, beauty and scale, Speicher’s monumental figures were shown in prestigious annual exhibitions, and acquired by museums, contributing to Speicher’s rising profile in the art world. Reviewing a Speicher gallery exhibition in 1929, art critic Margaret Breuning linked Speicher to a “new phase in the development of American art” via his association with Henri and Bellows, and also because “after study and analysis of the modern French masters, Speicher emerged even more assuredly himself, with his art immensely enriched. He showed more reliance, more breadth of conception, more power to express his own artistic convictions after this period of study and assimilation.”24
Mather might well have had Girl in a Coral Necklace (Joyce), 1935, in mind when he observed that Speicher’s “sitters are apart with themselves and lightly linked if at all with the world of everyday action. One knows them in their depths, and not in terms of their superficial behavior. A Speicher girl may or may not overindulge in cigarettes or cocktails. There is nothing in the picture that tells you about it. She will, however, act well in a delicate emergency, or at least Speicher believes she will.”25
Portrait of a Young Girl (Katharine Rosen), from 1923, depicting the daughter of Woodstock painter Rosen, is characteristic of Speicher’s sitters. Mather writes: “He paints the thinking behind the mask, or rather the mask as shaped by the thinking….[His] women…[have a] characteristic withdrawal, as if they were calmly meditating somewhat perplexing alternatives offered by a not wholly friendly world.”26
Speicher’s election as a full Academician by the National Academy and the smashing success of a solo show at his New York dealer, Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, prompted the artist to cut back further on painting portraits, which he described to Henri as “inspiring as a piece of gaspipe.”27 Thereafter, he painted portraits only when he wanted to paint them. Speicher worked slowly and deliberately and often required numerous, lengthy sittings, a deterrent to some models.
Over the years, he shaped his ideas and developed a set of artistic criteria that he formalized in a “Credo,” published as a monograph in 1945. He outlined his methodical and disciplined approach to painting, describing how he first worked from the model, then produced a color sketch, often in pastel, before working on canvas. “For the painting itself,” observes the Dorsky’s Curator of Exhibitions and Programs Daniel Belasco in his catalogue essay, “Speicher appears to have selectively changed details, as they noticeably differ from the preparatory drawings, especially of his female subjects. Speicher added or removed a variety of scarfs, frills, necklaces, and jacket collars to find the best look to frame the sitter’s face.” Drawings document “how Speicher subtly manipulated his portrait subjects.”28
Drawing and draftsmanship were integral to Speicher’s artistic processes; some sketches were finished products, others were studies for final paintings. As Leeds puts it, “his surety of line and his ability at suggesting so much with only the most essential outline reveal his exceptional draftsmanship, which… greatly inform his work in oil.”29
In a catalogue essay, the Dorsky’s Belasco examines how Speicher “developed a contemporary style conversant with Cézanne and Renoir and appropriate for the boardroom and clubhouse a rare type of twentieth-century American realism.” Demonstrating his “representational dexterity,” Belasco notes that Speicher displayed drawings in charcoal, chalk, crayon or graphite in most of his one-man gallery and museum exhibitions “to great acclaim.” Over his career, Speicher created numerous drawings as finished works and as studies for paintings. “On the whole, Speicher’s drawings are a repository of alternatives and variations that enrich our appreciation of his total artistic vision,” says Belasco.30
This welcome exhibition makes clear that Speicher was a gifted painter, artful composer, careful colorist and masterful craftsman. However, it must be acknowledged that his art had its drawbacks. His reputation suffered from the radical change in aesthetics at a crucial time in his career, when he was cutting back on portraiture in favor of still lifes and landscapes that were out of step with prevailing tastes. The reticence and stiff formality of much of his work, especially his portraits, and the dated clothing and sitter types he depicted make his likenesses look static to twenty-first-century eyes.
In the long view, Speicher is part of a continuing body of American painters who have employed more traditional representational disciplines and painting techniques that still convey sensitive and personal points of view. He created solidly wrought compositions that avoided time-worn clichés. The leading Speicher collector, Arthur A. Anderson, observes that Speicher “was not an innovator in the modern sense but stuck to images and processes he thought were important and endured from the old masters.”31
Leeds neatly summarizes the case for the artist’s reputation into posterity: “Speicher’s paintings are part of the American scene and provide a window into a particular era with strong appeal to those who appreciate convention, realistic interpretations and the traditional skills necessary for such painting, as the grounding of Speicher’s work in a strong technical foundation cannot be disputed.”32
2. Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1960), pp. 479, 376.
3. Published by the Dorsky, the 105-page, lavishly illustrated catalogue contains three useful essays, and sells for $20, softcover.
4. Valerie Ann Leeds, Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher (New Paltz, New York: Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, State University of New York at New Paltz, 2014), p. 7.
5. Quoted in American Artist Group, Eugene Speicher (New York: American Artist Group, Monograph Number 7, 1945), no pagination.
6. Years later, O’Keeffe recalled that it did not take Speicher long to do her portrait, “probably because he had it so clear in his mind when he started.” See Georgia O’Keeffe (New York: Viking Press, 1976), n.p.
7. Leeds, op. cit., p. 13.
8. The New York Times (October 26, 1913), quoted in ibid., p. 14.
9. Quoted in Leeds, op. cit., pp. 13–14.
10. Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Eugene Speicher (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, American Artists Series, 1931), p. 9.
12. Salpeter, op. cit., p. 198.
13. Mather, op. cit., p. 8.
14. Homer St. Gaudens, The American Artist and His Times (p. 290), quoted in Leeds, op. cit., p. 14.
15. Leeds, ibid., p. 31.
16. Ibid., p. 31.
17. Mather, writing when Speicher was 48, acknowledged that Speicher’s landscapes were of “uneven quality, [but] the best [are] extraordinarily vigorous and stable.” He added: “He has painted a great landscape or two, and I am confident, can be one of our greater landscape painters if and when he wants to be.” Mather, op. cit., p. 12.
18. New York Evening Post critic Margaret Breuning was enthusiastic about the floral still lifes, writing: “Their enchantments of color are exquisitely orchestrated into melodious harmony. The solidity of their masses of bloom, the suggestion, not only of satin-smooth texture and crisp stems, but of pungent odors, moist petals—all the sensitive allurements of their short-lived beauty—seen rendered with power and reticence combined. It is as though the flowers spoke to you of the joy the artist had in…the marvel of the sudden wealth of color and radiant blooming.” Breuning, quoted in Leeds, op. cit., p. 19.
19. Ibid., p. 36. Arthur A. Anderson, the premier collector of Speicher’s work, owns a lovely, loosely painted portrait of Jean Bellows, George Bellows’s youngest daughter. He recalls: “Jean Bellows mentioned to me she didn’t want to sit still when he [Speicher] painted this and the quickness of this painting, unlike his others, shows this.” Email to the author, August 5, 2014.
20. Paraphrased by Mather, op. cit., p. 7.
22. Leeds, op. cit., p. 15.
23. Ibid., p. 16, quoting Burchfield’s introduction to “Eugene Speicher: A Retrospective Exhibition of Oils and Drawings, 1908–1949” (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1950), p, 9.
24. Breuning, “The Art World: A Notable Exhibition by Eugene Speicher at Rehn Gallery,” quoted in ibid., p. 19.
25. Mather. op. cit., p. 9. Anderson says Girl in a Coral Necklace “shows Speicher in full bloom after having made the transition to paint portraits of ordinary people for no fee as paramount to commissioned portraits for a fee.” Email to author, August 4, 2014.
27. Speicher to Henri, Fall 1926, quoted in Leeds, op. cit., p. 17.
28. Leeds, op. cit., p. 42.
29. Ibid., p. 22.
30. Ibid., p. 39.
31. Email to author, August 5, 2014. Anderson adds: “How he [Speicher] did paint surface was unusual for a portraitist and not dissimilar from the way landscapists and later abstract expressionists focused on surface.” Anderson says this is a reason why it is “worthy for art historians and studio artists to re-examine Eugene Speicher.”
32. Ibid., p. 23.