Gerald Leslie Brockhurst
“The Eternal Masquerade,” an exhibition of paintings and prints by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst (1890–1978), appeared at the Georgia Museum of Art earlier this fall. Born in Birmingham, England, and educated at the Birmingham School of Art and the Royal Academy, Brockhurst moved to the United States in 1939. He was one of the most successful portrait painters of the first half of the twentieth century, with a client list that included Mellons, Rothschilds, Vanderbilts, J. Paul Getty and the Duchess of Windsor. Many of these portraits are technically assured, dignified and bland. You miss the battle of wills—or dance of complicity—between artist and subject that enlivens portraits by Whistler and Sargent, along with their daring compositions and bravura brushwork. On other occasions, however, Brockhurst could be an arresting painter. Consider, for example, Jeunesse Dorée (1934), a portrait of his second wife, Dorette Woodward. Purchased out of the Royal Academy salon for the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, near Liverpool, Jeunesse Dorée was a logical choice for a premier collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. The Pre-Raphaelites, and their particular take on medieval and Renaissance art, are the wellsping of Brockhurst’s best work. The hieratically frontal presentation of Dorette, her hypnotic gaze—under Mona Lisa brows—and pale beauty, and the cool, mountainous backdrop all suggest Italian Renaissance conventions. But her hairstyle, red lipstick and sweater are distinctly twentieth-century.
Portrait of Hermione (n.d.), a portrait of Brockhurst’s first wife, Anaïs Folin, follows a similar compositional pattern, and her very different persona alters the mood. With her heavy brows, Louise Brooks bob of dark hair and deeply shadowed face, this attractive young woman seems steeped in twentieth-century angst. The blue-toned palette refers to Memling, in contrast to the warmer, more Italianate color of Jeunesse Dorée. The psychological richness Brockhurst uncovers in his muses is very different from the skillful conventionality of his commercial work. The influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who channeled legends through portraits of the women in his life, is strong here. Understandably, Brockhurst’s paintings received mixed reviews from the critics, but his prints were almost universally praised. Presenting his favorite models in period costumes, he explored themes of role-playing and identity in ways a contemporary conceptualist would find riveting. These etchings are also technically and formally superb. Some—The Black Silk Dress (1927)—are dense with Dutch-style chiaroscuro; others—Deux Landaises (Evening) from 1923—are as daring compositionally as a Degas. The small-format, 130-page catalogue features a highly informative essay by Romita Ray, the Georgia Museum’s curator of prints and drawings. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602. Telephone (706) 542-1511. On the Web at www.art.uga.edu