“Chef de la Tribu des Serpents, Oregon,” 1862, a watercolor by Alexandre Homo

Alexandre Homo, "Chef de la Tribu des Serpents Oregon tenant un fusil dans un paysage," 1862, watercolor on paper, 14-7/8 x 12-3/8 inches

Alexandre Homo, "Chef de la Tribu des Serpents Oregon tenant un fusil dans un paysage," 1862, watercolor on paper, 14-7/8 x 12-3/8 inches

Lisa N. Peters

For our current exhibition, American Works on Paper, we went to our flat files and discovered many intriguing images that had yet to be researched.  Among them is a watercolor by an artist who signed his name “Alex. Homo” and inscribed the work: Quisap / Chef de la tribu / des Serpents. Oregon. / 62’.  Aside from a few auction records, the only information in our library on the artist was in the Bénézit Dictionary of Artists.  As Bénézit revealed, the artist–as the inscription clued us in–was French.  He was born in Paris in 1840 and studied with Auguste Pequegnot (1819-1878), a Parisian painter of ornamental works, landscapes, and figures, who exhibited at the Paris Salon.

Bénézit indicates that Homo also showed at the Salon, exhibiting there in 1877.  The dictionary further notes that a number of works by Homo belong to the Musée de Bernay, in Normandy, and their Normandy subjects suggest that after he visited America, where our watercolor reveals that he traveled west, Homo settled in Normandy.  We’ve contacted the museum for more information on Homo and will provide it when it is received. According to Bénézit, the artist died in 1889. Read the rest of this entry »

Julius Delbos: “Expert Water-colors”

Julius Delbos - Family at the Seashore, 1940s

Julius Delbos (1879-1970), "Family at the Seashore," 1940s, watercolor on paper, 14 x 16-1/2 inches

Carol Lowrey

Spanierman Gallery’s inventory of American works on paper includes watercolors and drawings by many talented men and women who achieved success and recognition during their own day, but whose careers have yet to be revived by contemporary scholars.  This is certainly the case with Julius Delbos (1879-1970), represented at the gallery by one of his sun-filled beach vignettes.

In the course of my research on Delbos, I discovered that he was born in London, England, the son of a Frenchman from the Basque region who fled his homeland during the reign of Napoleon III.  Little is known about his early life, other than the fact that he studied the piano as a boy and lived in London and Paris prior to his arrival in America in 1920.  He resided in Lakewood, New Jersey, until around 1927, when he settled in New York City.  Delbos taught art, music and French at schools in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Manhattan and spent most of his summers in Edgartown, Massachusetts (and elsewhere on that scenic coast), painting harbor subjects and depictions of outdoor recreation.  He is known to have worked in oil, but watercolor was his forte, as evidenced by his participation in the annual exhibitions of the American Watercolor Society and the New York Water Color Club.  During the 1930s and 1940s, his “expert water-colors” (Howard Devree, “A Round of Galleries: Current Shows,” New York Times, 9 December 1934) were also featured at Manhattan’s Gatterdam Gallery, as well as at Kleeman’s and the venerable Ferargil Galleries.  I think the art dealer Frederic Newlin Price captured the essence of Delbos’s style when he referred to his “country skies and seas of Edgartown and Rockport” as being “personal without any puzzlements” (see Delbos, New York: Ferargil Galleries, 1948): as you can see from Family at the Seashore, Delbos was drawn to the clear colors and simplified shapes of modernism, melding them beautifully with the realist inclinations that were no doubt reinforced by his many years as a teacher of art.  In viewing the piece, one gets a feeling of place, season and time of day, as well as a sense of the intimate bond between the mother and her children.

Julius Delbos lived a long life—teaching, painting, traveling and sometimes regaling his fellow members at the National Arts Club with piano performances.  He died in a New Jersey nursing home at the ripe old age of ninety-one.  A eulogy I found in the Delbos Papers at the Archives of American Art notes that, in addition to being the author of Historical Cambridge: Pencil Sketches by J. M. Delbos (1923), he “interpreted the farm lands in the West; the North East countryside, the water scenes in Etreta [sic], France, Rockport, Massachusetts, and especially Martha’s Vineyard.”  Delbos’s obituary in the New York Times (6 January 1970) identified him, more succinctly, as an “artist who specialized in water-colors”—a fitting description of a painter who obviously took great delight in the fluency, transparency and spontaneity of this challenging yet highly popular medium!

“Dolce Far Niente”: Venetian Watercolors by Francis Hopkinson Smith

Francis Hopkinson Smith, ca. 1903, Library of Congress

Francis Hopkinson Smith, ca. 1903, Library of Congress

Lisa N. Peters

Francis Hopkinson Smith’s life seems to contradict his art.  Clearly a dynamic individual who had unstoppable energy, Smith (1838-1915) was a prominent marine engineer (among other structures, he designed the foundation for the Statue of Liberty), a prolific writer (he published novels, short stories, articles, and travel books), a successful illustrator, a popular lecturer (praised by the editors of the Harvard Crimson, for “his own rare charm of manner and utterance”), a noted “after-dinner raconteur,”a member of many artist groups (including The Tile Club), and an incessant traveler.  As an artist, he was a seemingly inexhaustible fount of creativity.  In a review of a show of Smith’s work at the Noé Galleries in New York in 1906, the critic Arthur Hoeber stated: “one is impressed at the variousness of the man who never repeats himself through the fifty pictures he brought back from his annual summer tour in Europe.”  (The Sketch Book 5, June 1906, 347)

Nonetheless, Smith’s art expresses the joy and satisfaction he received from relaxation, listless wandering, and idling away his time.  He also wrote of seeking just such experiences.  In an article of 1891, he recounted how he had “tried all sort of moving things to paint from, including tartanas in Spain, volantes in Cuba, broad-sailed luggers in Holland, mules in Mexico, and cabs everywhere,” but his favorite of all vessels was the Venetian gondola, where instead of “being shaken” by other passengers who might jostle your “brush hand,” you are provided with “a little boudoir with down cushions, and silk fringes and soft morocco coverings,” and “kept afloat by a long, lithe, swan-like moving boat.”  (Smith, “Espero Gorgoni, Gondolier,” Scribner’s 10, December 1891, 688).  In his book Gondola Days (1897, Houghton, Mifflin) Smith wrote that in strolling through Venice: Read the rest of this entry »

William L. Sonntag Jr.: “He Knew He Had Talent”

William L. Sonntag, Jr. - Country Hillside, ca. 1890

William L. Sonntag, Jr., "Country Hillside," ca. 1890, watercolor and gouache on paper, 14 x 21 in.

Carol Lowrey

Upon moving to New York City in 1894, the novelist Theodore Dreiser spent several years writing freelance articles for popular magazines such as Munsey’s, Ainslee’s, Metropolitan and Demorest’s.  To complement his texts, he commissioned illustrative material from artists whom he eventually befriended, such as the painter-turned-photographer Edwin Scott Bennett and the illustrator P. B. McCord.  Dreiser’s circle of acquaintances from the art world also included the watercolorist and illustrator, William Louis Sonntag, Jr. (1869-1898).

Sonntag was an intriguing––and as it turns out––influential fellow.  Born in New York City, he was the son of William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900), a respected painter of the Hudson River School.  Details about his early life are minimal: he learned the rudiments of art from his father and later enrolled in classes at the National Academy of Design (in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, he chose to bypass study in Europe).  Responding to the late nineteenth century taste for rural landscapes, Sonntag went on to paint delicate watercolors of scenery in upstate New York and New England, among them Country Hillside , in which he combined his interest in outdoor light effects with his love of detail.  On the basis of such paintings, he was elected a member of the prestigious American Water Color Society in 1898.  Read the rest of this entry »

A Gallagher Moment

By Lisa N. Peters

In the middle of our last 8 am (groan) staff meeting, Ira Spanierman, who was conducting the meeting, rose from his chair mid-sentence. Looking toward the wall of the gallery to his left, he seemed elsewhere for a moment, and then said: “THAT is a really beautiful watercolor!” Even though Sears Gallagher’sPine Trees and Coastline, Monhegan, Maine has been in our inventory for a while, and even though hundreds of watercolors have passed through the gallery over the years, this one struck a nerve for Ira. It was as if he was seeing it for the first time and in doing so momentarily left the work day behind to imagine being in this peaceful natural place. Those of us who could crane our necks to see this image felt similarly.

What I think Gallagher caught in this watercolor, and in others, is a sense of places and times when being in nature is comfortable, calming, and pleasurable. Here we can imagine coming out of a thick woods to an open sunlit ledge, with grooves perfect for sitting and relaxing. There is just the right level of warmth: the temperature is not too hot, the sunlight not too bright. Pine trees rising in front of us provide shelter and imply safety from the steep drop to the water’s edge, but instead of blocking our view, their forms are spare and leafy enough that we can see through and around them to the sea. The composition probably prompted Ira’s comment also. The vertical arrangement is a golden section, with the trees measuring approximately double the height of the rocky ridge. The scene’s feeling of harmony evokes the truth of Pythagoras’s “music of the spheres.”
Gallagher’s handling is varied, moving between broad translucent washes and tighter, Impressionist dabs. The seeming effortlessness of his method matches the expression of satisfaction in the outdoor life that I believe was what he was after in his art. (There must have been a reason, after all, that he spent “50 summers” on Monhegan Island.)
It would be interesting to compare one of Gallagher’s Monhegan watercolors with one of Edward Hopper’s, created at the same time, to consider how the artists’ visions of life translated into the way they saw and depicted the world around them. Whereas Hopper’s images so often have a subtle uneasiness, Sears Gallagher’s so often have a subtle sense of ease.

John Whorf Watercolors

By Lisa N. Peters

What strikes me in looking at the watercolors of John Whorf, featured in our current show of five American watercolorists, is a feeling that I’d like to be in the places that Whorf painted and that this might actually be possible!
Although Whorf depicted many of the same types of subjects as those of Winslow Homer and Frank Benson in their own watercolors, what stands out as distinctive in Whorf’s work is the sense that the experiences he shows us are accessible ones. Large expanses often open up before us within his frames, yet there is always a point of reference from which to look out and see through the artist’s eyes.

Rather than statements of artistic dexterity (although he was dexterous) or poetic rumination (and there is certainly poetry in his sensitivity to light in particular), what appears to have interested Whorf time after time were those moments when, in the course of doing something active or sportive in the outdoors, we are struck with a sudden sense of amazement at just how beautiful nature is—it’s as if we hadn’t noticed what is around us because we are too busy, and then there’s a moment where we look up and become aware of our surroundings.

Whorf’s duck hunters (seen above) seem to experience one of these times. Standing at the shore at the crack of dawn, ducks paddling innocently below them, the hunters have lowered their guns to gape at the open sky where the soft-rimmed lavender clouds are set in relief against the crepuscular light. Countering the stillness of the hunters, whose forms seem locked with the land, the clouds sweep upward and away from us, cropped by the edges of the work as if to take us beyond the frame. Often Whorf’s images are like this. They show a view from the shore toward the distance, creating a feeling of anticipation in us as we look outward and ponder where we might travel and what we might experience if we left our safety zones behind.
Whorf may have harbored such thoughts due to his own physical limitations. A result of a childhood injury, one of his legs was shorter than the other, and he was partially incapacitated. His works often evoke a yearning for travel and adventure, perhaps of a kind that were not within his own reach. Geese in Flight (pictured right, top) is another work, where the freedom of the geese taking flight into a shimming sky is contrasted with a strip of land stretching horizontally across the foreground, where we stand. Whorf’s use of watercolor to contrast the translucency of this sort of sky with shapes that are firmly and solidly positioned, such as boats and landforms, is notable. In Winter Landscape with Horse and Sled (right, bottom), Whorf used the white paper for the snow on the ground, while his ability to apply his brush with the certitude for which he was often praised is revealed in the succinct strokes he used to portray the ruts left by the wheels and horses of the carriage ahead of us on the road. The composition radiates from this tiny form, drawing our gaze to the curving lines of bare purple trees across the hills.

It was no doubt the robustness of Whorf’s handling that brought him the admiration of John Singer Sargent. Brought by his sister to Whorf’s first Boston exhibition, held in 1923, Sargent bought one of the young artist’s watercolors. We don’t know which one Sargent purchased, but maybe Sargent not only felt an affinity with his own watercolors in Whorf’s method, but also saw the way that like him, John Whorf was able to quickly seize and express the truth of a certain moment in time.

Dodge Macknight’s Watercolors

During the early twentieth century, Boston was an important center for watercolor painting in the United States. And when we think about the watercolor tradition there, names such as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Frank Benson immediately come to mind. All were masters of this difficult and challenging medium, which was especially popular among artists who loved to work outdoors. This was certainly the case with Dodge Macknight (1860-1950), who is considered by many––including myself––to be the most avant-garde of the Boston watercolorists because of his use of a daring palette. Indeed, of all the Boston watercolorists I’ve done research on at Spanierman Gallery, Macknight has proven to be one of the most interesting to write about, because of the diversity of their subject matter and most importantly, because they are truly dazzling in their coloration. I’m certainly not the only admirer of his work: during his day, Macknight’s aquarelles were acquired by such discerning collectors as Isabella Stewart Gardner (who created a special “Macknight Room” at Fenway Court) and Sarah Choate Sears. Their patronage no doubt inspired other art aficionados to collect his paintings as well––to the extent that by the early 1920s, sales from Macknight’s watercolor shows never dropped below the $10,000 mark!
Macknight began his career as a theatrical and sign painter, after which he studied with the academic painter Fernand Cormon in Paris during the mid-1880s. However, his formal training appears to have had little effect on his art. Instead, his sojourn in the French capital brought him into contact with Vincent van Gogh, a fellow student who shared his interest in modern strategies of color and light. In fact, Macknight’s aesthetic outlook was so like his own that at one point Van Gogh invited him to join him and Paul Gauguin at Arles, declaring that his American friend “paints better than most Yankees do.”

A peripatetic artist, Macknight created watercolors inspired by his travels throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Mexico, the Grand Canyon and his native New England. In the current exhibition, Five American Watercolorists, Macknight’s fluent technique is readily apparent but it’s his use of color that really makes him stand out, especially the way he manipulated it to create light. Take, for example, Jamaica Landscape: Tropical Island (above), with its deep electric purple––one of Macknight’s favorite colors and one that prompted Boston’s conservative critics (who were more attuned to the harmonious chromatic combinations of the impressionists) to dub his works “Macknightamares.” Macknight’s signature purple can also be seen in Haying in the Salt Marshes (shown at right), from 1924, but the dominant tones––the ones that evoke the moist, heat-laden atmosphere, are vivid oranges and yellows. In walking around the exhibit today, I was reminded of a review I found in the February 1, 1930, issue of Art Digest, in which a New York critic is quoted as proclaiming “If [Macknight] has ever seen anything drab and dismal in Morocco, Spain, Cape Cod, Jamaica or New Hampshire . . . he has not set anything of the kind on paper.”

Carol Lowrey

Annie Gooding Sykes

Walking through Five American Watercolorists, I was reminded that watercolor is a surprisingly demanding medium, despite its seemingly effortless—when done well—results.

Although all five artists included in the show handle the medium adeptly, Annie Gooding Sykes is perhaps my favorite. In viewing her striking body of work it becomes apparent she had an exceptional ability to handle the intricacies of the medium.

She was also a remarkable woman.

Even by contemporary standards, she had it all: an extensive education, successful career, supportive husband, and two daughters. She traveled widely (in North America and Europe), was revered by her peers, successfully sold her work, and was a supporter of numerous organizations, many of which promoted the recognition of woman artists. Impressive all the more, Sykes was born in 1855.

Mending Nets (pictured here) is my favorite work in the exhibition. Our research suggests it was painted in Nonquitt, Massachusetts, where the artist’s family had a summer home. The picture shows two groups of figures, yet the composition is dominated far more by the presence of color—or absence there of—than by figural elements. I can’t help but wonder if the muted colors hint at another side to Sykes, one drawn more to soft blues and grays than the heartening reds, yellows and greens so often found in her work.

To my eye, with such a vague foreground, the artist’s position in the scene seems in question—is she on the docks? On a boat? Looking on from a building’s porch? Like the color, the artist seems both present and absent, simultaneously. As a viewer, I find myself feeling similarly—taken in by the scene but aware the moment has come to pass.

As a woman myself, I feel a sort of collective pride when viewing these pictures for Sykes was extremely successful during a period which was incredibly trying for women artists.

It’s been nearly eight decades since her death, yet in Five American Watercolorists Annie Gooding Sykes once again holds her own; she is the only woman represented.

Katherine Bogden 

Hayley Lever as a Watercolorist

Hayley Lever (1876-1958)
Fishing Wharf, Marblehead, MA, ca. 1924
Watercolor on paper, 17 1/2 x 22 in.
Monday, September 28th, marks the birthday of Hayley Lever (1876-1958), an Australian-American artist I had the pleasure of writing about, on behalf of Spanierman Gallery, in 2003. Born in Bowden Tannery, a suburb of Adelaide, he was christened Richard, but as a professional artist he preferred to use his second and last names only. I had conducted research on this talented painter on numerous occasions in the past, but the opportunity to do a book-length publication allowed me to examine all facets of Lever’s oeuvre––from the marines and urban scenes he produced in England and France during the early 1900s to the portrayals of New York City, New Jersey, upstate New York and coastal Massachusetts created after his move to the United States in 1912. His paintings are very personal, reflecting his belief that “art is the re-creation of mood in line, form and color,” but they were informed by styles such as impressionism and post-impressionism, including the bold aesthetic of Vincent van Gogh. In fact, it was Lever’s deft combination of realism, modernism and his own subjective vision that contributed to his popularity with collectors such as Duncan Phillips.

Hayley Lever (1876-1958)
St. Ives, Cornwall
Watercolor on paper
9 1/2 x 13 1/2 in.
Lever was a skilled easel painter who could wield his brush with verve and gusto and he was equally comfortable with pen, ink and graphite. In studying his work, I was especially impressed by his facility with watercolor, a medium he used with regularity throughout his career. His one-man shows at museum venues such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art typically included watercolors, which tells me that he considered them just as important as his oils. Lever was drawn to watercolor’s transparent, light-reflecting quality and its portability––the latter being particularly relevant for an artist who typically spent his summers painting by the sea. Most importantly, though, Lever found watercolor an ideal means of creating a spontaneous work of art; in his words, watercolor was “inspirational, immediate, [and] impressionistic.” His penchant for simplified shapes and the way he would use color to create volume and mass attracted the attention of many contemporary commentators, among them Henry Tyrell, who linked him with a new generation of watercolorists that included progressive painters such as John Marin and Charles Demuth; as Tyrell put it in 1921, Lever was an “eager innovator . . . [whose] aquarelle no less than his oil paintings gains in stirring vitality with each successive season.”

Hayley Lever (1876-1958)
Still Life with Apples on a Chinese Plate, 1930
Watercolor on paper, 14 x 19-1/4
The “vitality” that Tyrell referred to can be seen in the selection of Lever watercolors on display at Spanierman Gallery as part of the exhibition Five American Watercolorists, which runs through October 31st. In addition to depictions of the boats, wharves and coastlines that played such as prominent role in Lever’s art, he is also represented by a Vermont landscape, some early and very evocative views of St. Ives (see above right) and a very sumptuous still life (above left).

Carol Lowrey

For a comprehensive study of Hayley Lever’s life and art, see Carol Lowrey, Hayley Lever (1876-1958), preface by Marte Previti, (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2003).


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