1937 Painters and Sculptors of Modern America - by Monroe Wheeler I was completely absorbed with the business of drawing from the first minute I was able to hold a pencil. It is impossible for me to figure back accurately to any specific date when I first began to draw, because actually there has been no time within my memory when I did not have the urge to create. I can remember as a young child being intensely interested in drawing, almost to the exclusion of everything else. That interest has continued uninterruptedly.
So far as I know, or the family records show, there was absolutely nothing in my background to account for my overwhelming desire to draw. I was born in New York City, a novel fact in itself, in 1901. My parents were not artists. They were not even interested in the arts. Toward my efforts their attitude was one of amused tolerance. Yet I cannot honestly say that I did not receive encouragement.
When I was nine years old my fatherís business interests took us to various parts of Canada. I spent the following five years getting used to one school only to find myself moved on to another. This successive uprooting did not stop me from giving my spare time to drawing and painting. We finally returned to the United States and went to live in San Francisco. The city of hills with its ever changing outlooks enchanted me. While there I attended classes at the California School of Fine Arts. Of my experiences in that particular school I have no vivid memories. Two years later the family moved again and eventually settled in Chicago. It was there that I got my real start.
I was sent to high school and believe that I was the most impatient girl in the school. For me the one problem was to see how quickly I could get through in order to be eligible to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago. As if it were yesterday I can distinctly recall how much I regretted, as hours lost, the terms spent in high school while waiting to go to art school. The following three years spent at the Institute were easily the most important years of my early training. At that time the school was staffed by a group of brilliant and unusual men, among them the late John Norton. His principles and theories of drawing I have found to be so valuable that they are not only of great assistance to me at the present time but I feel certain that I can depend on them at all times in the future. John Norton taught me to look, to see-really to use my eyes. He showed me the vast difference between the actual distortion of reality and the ďprettyĒ distortion of the average point of view. To my mind John Norton was a great teacher.
After my first year at the Institute it was announced that George Bellows would take an advanced class in painting. I shall never forget the excitement that this created. Although I had not progressed to the point where I was eligible for advanced painting I did attend one of his classes during which he delivered a lecture while painting a portrait. I couldnít well forget this experience. The mere fact that he commuted form New York each week impressed the younger students. He had a confidence and facility that dazzled us. For the painters he was an ďall-American.Ē Tall, genial, with a great domed head, he exuded a kind of native quality that particularly appealed to us. Here was perhaps the most famous American painter of that day and we all knew he was a crack baseball player. An irresistible combination.
The one thing I remember about the Art Institute with real gratitude is that the school is part of a large museum. Each day we were permitted to go from the classroom to the galleries. We were able to see for ourselves the actual application of the things we had been taught. It always has seemed to me that this was an immense advantage. Sometimes students, especially those who have unusual facility, grow over-confident of their own abilities. For this there is no better antidote than a museum with masterpieces of many periods. Great paintings put us in our places. Itís one thing to stand out in a class of students. Itís another thing to stand in front of El Grecoís Assumption of the Virgin. I believe the Chicago Art Institute acquired this a number of years before any other American museum possessed a great painting by the master of Toldeo. The museum contained distinguished Spanish, Flemish, Dutch and other works and was especially rich in nineteenth-century French art. What this abundance and variety of great painting must have meant even to the least imaginative student is only too clear. We were constantly faced with quality which we naturally tried, however humble our means, to emulate.
As for the students, we were all young, eager, ambitious and broke. Most of us had tuition jobs of some sort. My particular job was to put up still lifes. As I look back I now realize that a remarkable spirit existed in the school. Thatís what happens when there are both good teachers and eager students. It is easy to understand why the school has attracted through the years a fair share of the painters who since have won high places in contemporary American painting.
After graduating in 1920 I was faced with the necessity of earning a living. Commercial art seemed to be the answer. I spent the next eleven years as an advertising and fashion artist. This proved to be not only fun but a most instructive experience in many ways. Actually it taught me much in the way of judgment, discipline and facility.
I was married in 1925 to Floyd Davis who at that time was already a well known artist. His unfailing interest and flawless taste have been a continuous source of inspiration. We moved to New York where two children arrived nine and ten years ago. So far they seem to have made no difference in the scheme of things except to contribute the added richness and flavor of living with two very happy children.
In 1932 we decided to go abroad for at least a year. So having unlimited optimism and believing in luck we packed up bag, baggage, nurse and babies and departed. After many months of bowling along the byways of Europe our inadequate Citroen finally earned for us the unusual distinction of being the only Americans ever to back up over the Alps in an automobile. We managed finally to settle down in Cannes for a while. Our house was only a short distance from the house in Se Cannet where Renoir spent the last twenty-five of his life. It was a great thrill to be permitted to visit his house and see his studio. We also had the opportunity to see the private collection of studies and paintings now in the possession of his family.
During this period I painted unceasingly. We returned a year later to New York. To my astonishment I found I had completely lost my knack to turn out commercial work. I suppose I should not have been surprised since my goal had become so different.
I floundered for a couple of months and then went back to school. I decided to try the Art Students League. There I spent several more months studying painting and thoroughly enjoying myself. Following that I spent some time working with George Grosz. His intelligent interest I found most helpful. Then I threw away all leading strings and plunged myself into the strange world of painting.
I find it difficult to talk about the things I want to do because, curiously enough, each subject affects me differently. Of one thing I am absolutely certain: Ewant always to portray the things with which I am familiar. I canít write very well about the things I have done because I feel that I have only just started. Right now all I want to do is to make a fine painting. In this effort I proceed on the following plan. Establishment of the pose is frequently for me the most difficult step in the painting. I have found that is sometimes takes five or six days to get exactly what I want. Being interested in the attempt to paint actions caught at the moment it naturally follows that an excellent and intelligent model is of enormous value. You see, I compose the entire canvas from the pose which is one of the reasons it takes so long.
When it finally has been decided upon I make several drawings-both for my own reference and to make sure that the pose is identical each day. I do very little drawing on the canvas-just a few brush lines. Then as quickly as possible I cover the canvas with approximately correct values of thin turpentine washes. From that point on I use no medium, but apply thin coats of paint one on top of the other with small camelís hair brushes and varnish frequently. This is repeated until the canvas finally is built up to the point where it has acquired the luminous effect which is one of my objectives. These are a few of my problems today. I am sure there will be other problems a year from now.