Idealism in Albany
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Eugene Speicher, named “America’s greatest living painter” by Esquire, was riding high in 1936. Museums bought up his canvases and celebrities commissioned portraits. But Speicher’s reputation collapsed after World War II, as realism fell out of favor, supplanted by Abstract Expressionism. A retrospective exhibit in Albany, now in its final days, gives Speicher’s work a well-deserved second look.
Speicher studied painting with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri in New York City. Georgia O’Keefe and Edward Hopper were art school friends. Through the Art Students League summer program, Speicher joined a community of painters in Woodstock, New York, including George Bellows and Leon Kroll.
Despite winning early acclaim as a portraitist, by mid-career Speicher limited his lucrative commissions, preferring instead to paint friends or hired models in classical poses. Though examples of both his early and late portraits are here, it is Speicher’s mature work that has more to say.
In “Portrait of a French Girl (Jeanne Balzac),” c. 1924, a seated model stares out at the viewer, head turned in three-quarters view. In this mid-career work, Speicher carves through space like a sculptor, finding a few key areas around the canvas to emphasize— one hand holding a flower, another resting on the model’s lap, a hair clip holding up heavy locks. Back straight, these focal points are carefully arranged around a strong vertical axis created by the model’s upright posture. A luminous blue haze delineates the figure from the background.
In “Girl in a Coral Necklace (Joyce),” 1935, a blonde woman is column-like, centrally positioned on the canvas and painted frontally. The glowering model wearing a coral necklace has one eyebrow raised and a hard-set mouth. She seems to resent the attention of her audience. The red-orange necklace matches the pattern on her dress, touches of warm color in a canvas dominated by blues and greens.
“Untitled (Overlook Mountain from below),” 1912, captures the grandeur of nature, with blue hazed atmosphere shrouding a tree-covered mountainside. Guiding the viewer’s eye over miles of forest, up to the mountain summit and into the clouds, here Speicher updates the Hudson River School tradition, responding to the beauty of the Catskill Mountains just as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church and Asher B. Durand did a hundred years earlier.
Speicher made a number of drawings of generalized, cat-eyed women. These dreamy works on paper look invented. Like “Portrait of a French Girl” and “Girl in a Coral Necklace,” Speicher’s drawings are born of a haunted search to transcend the everyday chaos of events to express ideal beauty.
Unlike his contemporary Thomas Hart Benton, whose maximalist murals are loaded with information, Speicher’s art is restrained, with his motifs limited to portraits, landscapes and traditional still lifes. Speicher merged classical, idealized forms with observed phenomena in figurative canvases that are refreshingly clear. Nevertheless, his artistic achievements are largely overlooked today. Speicher was a burning fuse that never managed to ignite the fireworks.
Along His Own lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher, on view through March 22, 2015, The New York State Museum, 260 Madison Avenue, Albany, 518-474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov
More information about Simon Carr’s work can be found at www.simoncarrstudio.com