Monday, August 3, 2009

The Commonwealth Avenue years

Tea Leaves, 1909
Oil on canvas 36 1/8 x 28 3/4 in. (91.6 x 71.9 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC.

Gift of George A. Hearn, 1910 (10.64.8)
George A. Hearn, New York, 1909–1910

I will continue with the personal history for another day, you all seemed to tolerate it well. Maybe about Tuesday I can get photoshop loaded and go back to the critiques. I do have some fine images for that.

Besides the Paxton paintings in that store room there were also a number of portfolios of drawings. We looked through all of those too. In return for my help there that day, I was given a drawing. It was a figure and it was signed and dated. Several years later I sold it to a friend so I could buy groceries. I sold it for a hundred dollars.

Since Paxton was unknown to the public, the Vose gallery chose a group of drawings of hands and did an exhibition of those down in their lower level gallery. I believe that much of their inventory at that time was Hudson river school and other 19th century paintings. Hassam and the few other top tier American impressionists were known then, but Paxton and the second tier were pretty much unknown. The drawings of hands must have been well received because shortly after that they did a major Paxton show. I remember standing in the Vose galleries marveling at the big interiors with figures.

I had a number of other similar incidents happen at about that time. One day a week I was working at the Guild of Boston Artists. That is a historic Boston art institution with a small and carefully selected artist membership. The Boston painters like Paxton had formed the organization in nineteen fourteen. I was what you would call an intern today, although no one called me that at the time. I worked there one day a week, mostly carrying stuff around and acting as a go-fer. Often because Newbury street parking was so horrendous, I was asked to run to the curb out front and unload and bring in paintings from idling trucks or cars, double parked very briefly out front. When the Boston Police showed up they had to move, so it was up to me to get paintings out of the cars and into the Guild quickly. I got to meet many artist members very briefly and receive for the Guild the work of many of its members, some living and some dead.

On one such occasion the estate of A. Lasselle Ripley was delivered out front and I carried it up the several flights of steps to a storage room several floors up in the historic building. There were a lot of those and not all were signed. I had the opportunity to see one in a collectors home years later and remark on it as being a Ripley. Its owner was surprised as it was unsigned. I was able to tell them I had "handled" the estate.

I was also shown a metal paintbox there which I was told had been Winslow Homers watercolor kit. I looked at the tubes inside and marveled at the thought of its being in my hands. I don't know what ever happened to it, and I don't believe the Guild has it now, and I may be the only person who remembers it being there. I was young then and very few of the present living members were there at that time. I have had the opportunity to paw through a number of old paintboxes over the years and get a look at these time capsules filled with art materials from Americas golden age of painting.

Another event I remember was being invited to go with a group of Gammell and Hensche students to visit Caproni and Sons. In the 19th century it was common to manufacture excellent plaster copies of historic sculpture. Not only were they used to teach drawing, but museums displayed them. The Caproni and Sons firm was located on Washington ave. under the elevated tracks . I think it might have changed hands about that time and I believe it closed shortly after this. However I was able to see the big iron molds that into which the liquid plaster was poured to make the sculptural copies . Today most casts are made in soft rubber molds giving an insensitive copy of the original. These iron molds were extremely accurate and we each bought casts to take back to our studios to draw. I remember many of us bought a flayed figure called an ercoche used to teach anatomy. There was also a nice Houdon head of Voltaire that I bought.Those workshops were another oddly preserved set from the 19th century.

Several small events that I hardly noted at the time were to influence my direction later. the first was being invited by my roommate, David Curtis to visit his home in Gloucester Massachusetts. It was the first time that I saw Cape Ann which would later be a home to me for a number of years. The second event was a show of paintings at Doll and Richards gallery, now closed, but then the oldest gallery in America. It was the retrospective exhibition of the work of Aldro T. Hibbard. I had seen a reproduction or two of his work and heard Ives Gammell speak well of him, but seeing a whole room full of them was really impressive. He became and stayed one of my heroes. It is another of those cases where a small event can have a big influence on your life. I could have walked by that gallery without seeing that show and I would probably never have ended up in Rockport, his home, for so many years.

I was living in the apartment on Commonwealth ave, I had a lot of art books and a clock radio, a few pieces of old furniture that came with the apartment , and a dreadful dog I got at the pound and named Rotor. There were a lot of break ins in the building and several other apartments had been burglarized. One day I returned to the apartment to find the front door kicked down, there was a New York city police lock on the door. That is a lock that has a steel bar that descends from the lockplate ( spell check just suggested copulate) at a 45 degree angle to the floor inside. I don't think you can force one open, so the burglars beat the door to pieces and then reached in and unlocked it. After all their effort I would have enjoyed seeing their faces when they did get in. There was absolutely nothing there to steal.The clock radio evidently had too much paint on it to steal. It was one of those that had the flaps that dropped from a rotating spindle to show the time digitally in that time before LCDs . There was nothing in the refrigerator, no TV, only Rotor. I wish they had stolen the dog.

I used to paint in Fenway park often, the big landscaped park next to the Red Sox Fenway stadium. I would carry my French easel there as it was one of the few places where I could paint the natural environment in downtown Boston. There was a small stream that ran through it that had reeds along it and a marsh that could have been far from the city. I was painting out there one day up at the end by the Gardner museum and a street gang slowly surrounded me at my easel. They were real interested in what I was doing and peppered me with questions. It was a relief though, when they went on their way.

I remember also from this era a trip to the Boston Museum with Ives Gammell. He knew that collection very well. He would walk us through the museum and exclaim on the various pieces, often noting what he believed to be changes in them caused by improper restorations over the recent years. He would point at a picture and exclaim loudly how it had been skinned, which means abrading away the delicate glazes in zealous overcleaning.. I am not expert enough to know if he was right or not. I remember standing in front of a small head by Dennis Miller Bunker and hearing Gammell explain why it was such a good piece of worksmanship. He was at that time the only one who had done research on and preserved some knowledge of Bunker. When the Boston Museum many years later staged a Bunker exhibition they began with Ives writings, which were the only scholarship available. Ives was a remarkable guy.

Of course when Ives walked us through the museum his loud commentary drew a crowd of bewildered onlookers who at first reacted with annoyance at his disregard for their contemplative quiet. But when they heard his authoritative explanations of the paintings, they would listen, sometimes following a room behind trying not to look as if they were listening in as Ives lectured his little group of four or five students. The guards scowled at him though. One thing he ranted and raved about, was in retrospect, prescient. The Boston Museum had begun to charge admission. Ives was furious, donors, like his own wealthy parents had given the money to build the museum and its collection, in order that it would be available to all. Ives felt that charging admission was a violation of their wishes and akin to charging people to go to the library. He probably knew that the admission fee would be raised until it was a big investment for the average Joe to walk a family of four through there, particularly if there was a special exhibition for which a second fee was charged.

I also remember going up the many flights of steps to the top floor of the Boston Public Library to see the murals there by John Singer Sargent.I think I went there with Gammell, but I am not sure. Forgotten at that time, Sargent had worked years to create them. They are more valued today. In those days Sargent was only being rehabilitated. it is hard to imagine that as recently as the nineteen sixties he had been dismissed as old fashioned, and an artist of empty technique, by a society that preferred Maurice Utrillo. There were only a few Sargents around I could see, but the daughters of Edmund Boit was hung on a stairway in the Boston Museum. Of course there was also the enormous and magnificent El Jaleo and a few others over at the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum.

Here is a shot of the Sargent murals which are now drawing visitors to what was once a forgotten corner of Boston history. The murals are a history of religion and full of religious symbols from the middle east. The back wall called the frieze of the prophets was much reproduced and admired when first hung the murals. here that is.....

and here is another portion of the murals, The Israelites oppressed.

Gammell who was so irate at the neglect of the forgotten murals would be pleased to know they are increasingly valued and visited today. My kids when showing their friends from away around Boston, always proudly include the Sargent murals in the tour.

A woman I had known years before in Minnesota came to visit me one week, bringing with her a friend named Bonney who I was quite taken with. She was a witty, hip and pale blonde built like Jean Harlow. We began a telephone and letter writing romance after she left again for Minnesota, and I began to feel that I was living an altogether too austere a life far from where I had been raised. This lead me to a decision, that looking back, was probably not a good one, at least from an artistic standpoint. I decided to return to Minnesota.

reproductions from artrenewal .org


willek said...

These stories are terrific, Stape. I feel as though I was a kid again listeneing to bedtime stories. I spent a lot of time in Boston during the Sixties and know many of the places you mention. During that time a bunch of us were bird hunters and trout fishermen. We went to Aiden Ripley's studio in Lexington to pick out etchings to give each other as wedding presents as we progressed to a more responsible married life. His studio was very impressive with a vaulted cceiling and huge windows. Quite a sportsman himself, He had a huge gun collection which represented each kind of ignition system. At one point I bought a drypoint of pointers with quail along a fenceline. He took the print from a folio and brought it to his desk where he touched up the quail with a charcoal pencil, then he signed it. That kind of shook me as I thought it wassomething that was not done. But I liked that he touched it himself. That picture is in front of me right now. Last year I delivered a carving to a lady who had a Ripley and a Hibbard in her house. They were both spectacular. But the Ripley surprised me as it had no sporting connection. It was woods in the winter. I took a quick picture of it. It was winter woods. One of the best I have seen.

Unknown said...

Wow, the last time I was in Boston I had no idea the Sargent murals existed. I need to go back!

armandcabrera said...


These are great stories. I am surprised Gammell went for the Sargents over the Abbeys in the same building. The Quest for the Holy Grail is a spectacular mural.
Do you remember his opinion on Abbey? said...

I finished my work for today. I didn't think I'd have time to read never mind write. I grew up in E.Boston and my introduction to art started at the free MFA. My mother received a scholarship to the school which she could never accept due to family obligations.I spent many many Sundays with my father at the the BPL. He was studying, I was suppose to be studying but I mostly wandered around on my own. I still wander in there about once a month as I pass by on my way to my Boston studio.

They (60's and 70's and a bit of 80's)were gritty times. I was stoned by a gang near the Muddy River, Fenway, in broad daylight. Didn't even think to report it because it was just the way it was on the street, even the streets at home if you were a stranger.No wonder I like happy art.

Unknown said...

Wow.. I agree with Willek.. these are great stories. I'm soaking it all up.
Stape, you are a walking art historian.

"sidemat" as opposed to topmat or bottommat.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wish I could have gone with you to me Ripley. He is way underated.He built a trade, like Benson selling art to sportsmen. But I have seen other things I liked more.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy: They arent well known. I always like to tell people about them. I guess that the mural style of that era seems dated to people who actually prefer Jeff Koons. Also they have a religous theme. Although they are really great colors and designs and would be fun for any art lover to see. I vote them the most important mural decorations in America.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I believe Ives was very fond of Abbey. I think I remember him talking about them and it might have been there in the catalog room in front of them.His youthful drawings that he showed me once reminded me of Abbey.
I am not surprised that Ives preferred the Sargents, Ives fairly idolized Sargent.
Because I work all the time I am giving a cursory answer to your question.There are a lot of Gammell writings out there and the opinion is probably oin writing. Someone will be the Gammell scholar someday, but I can't do it. We function in limited time.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Boston was a rough town and not the high tech boom town it would become in just a few years. In the 60's and 70's Boston was kind of a depressed backwater, although it did have its great schools.
I remember being over at a friends house on the park and watching the police ring the whole park with squad cars with their lights facing in. A armed robber had hidden in the muddy river and they were trying to find him. I think I remember them shooting at him.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I am glad youall are enjoying these autobiographical posts. It has been part of my intention on this blog to tell these stories and record my peculiar history.I hoped that the diversion from the practical tutorial aspect of my blog would be well received. Either way until later in the week I am having to do posts that don't require photoshop.
sidemat= Bostonian pronunciation of assignment, as in, "youa sidemat izta finij youa homewoek". said...

Oh yes, it all sounds too familiar, Stape. Maybe that's why you decided to return to Minnesota for a while. Not a bad idea. It got so bad that I learned to smell a murder as soon as I got into my neighborhood. Seven or eight of them I knew personally. Some Mafia, some motor cycle gangs, some passion related, some drug related, all bad. I feel a happy painting coming on. (Smile)

mendacious_valkyrie said...

Ohhhh....I remember those years!