1999 Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York, NY, “Quiet Magic: The Still-Life Paintings of Emil Carlsen”, October 28 – December 10
The Still-Life Paintings of Emil Carlsen
by Ulrich W. Hiesinger
…Still Life painting must be of a well understood simplicity, solid, strong, vital, unnecessary details neglected, salient points embellished, made the most of, every touch full of meaning and for the love of beauty.
—Emil Carlsen, 1908
L ATE IN EMIL CARLSEN’S career, when the painter was nearing seventy, he was asked to appraise the artistic achievements of his close friend the painter J. Alden Weir, who had died not long before. In response, Carlsen not only paid tribute to an artist he deeply admired but also revealed an important key to his own artistic philosophy, and, in particular, to his beloved realm of still life painting.
“To analyze a picture by Vermeer, by Metsu, by any of the Dutch wizards of painting, is an easier task [than explaining Weir’s unique quality],” wrote Carlsen. “Those masters’ workmanship is unassailable, perfect, no such painting, as mere painting, has since been done. Their knowledge covered everything that could be learned, every object, in or out of doors, was enveloped in its atmosphere, values were superbly understood, which means that the local color contained in shadow and light was justly observed and rendered, a science many schools have not understood, or have ignored, their painting suffering for this omission. Add to this knowledge—the A B C of Dutch painting—fine color, fine expression of light, chiaroscuro, tonal beauty, and you have a picture of quality.” (1)
Nonetheless, said Carlsen, an artist should aim for something that goes beyond “mere painting,” which may be taken for the simple imitation of things. In Weir’s work he described this ingredient as “a mysterious quality entirely its own, a subtle individuality of an exceedingly fine temperament.” Carlsen remembered the impression made on him by the very first work of Weir’s that he had seen, which was a painting of tea roses: “Before this revelation I, as a student, had tried to
understand the mastery of Dutch art,—here was something finer, more exquisite, nature seen through a nobler temperament.”(2)
The idea that nature consisted of something more than surface appearance, and that the artist’s mission was to interpret nature according to his own “temperament”—a belief popularized by the writings on art of the French author Émile Zola [1840-1902]—had made a deep impression on Carlsen, as on many European-trained American artists in the later nineteenth century. As his tribute to Weir reveals, it was precisely Carlsen’s effort to reconcile the competing demands of nature itself, of historical precedent, and of his own personal vision that presents the leitmotif of his career. “Facts are not facts,” said Carlsen, “but all painting is a translation.”(3)
The modest details that we possess about Carlsen’s career fit the description of the artist’s life as “uneventful” made by the admiring collector Duncan Phillips. In 1931 the writer Eugene Neuhaus added that “Carlsen never was much of a social being in the active sense, and in New York, today he never has been a conspicuous figure in the social life of artists.” (4) In fact, Carlsen did his part in joining a number of artists’ societies and serving on exhibition juries from time to time (5), but his overriding preoccupations remained his work and his family which he cherished privately.
Those who met the artist were invariably impressed by his simplicity, independence, and sense of purpose. Photographs show him to have been a slight figure, with red whiskers and an air of intense alertness. Seeing his dressed habitually in a rumpled tweed suit jacket and with baggy trousers, an artist once remarked that he always looked as if he were ready to jump. (6) To the critic Elizabeth Luther Cary, on the other hand, he gave the “impression of a quiet, serene gentleman, very much an individual, with elusive suggestions of humor in his eyes and in the lines about his mouth, suggestions by no means contradicted by the nature of his work, in which a certain blitheness plays over its sound structure, neither reaching gayety nor sinking into gloom.” (7)
The first twenty years of Carlsen’s career were fairly unsettled, spent in learning and perfecting his craft and enduring cycles of financial crisis that led him to seek his fortune successively in Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco, before permanently settling in New York. He also worked for significant periods in Paris, Denmark, and probably England. His friend and dealer Frederick Newlin Price recounted that it was only late in life that Carlsen was able to rely on painting for support, this despite the fact that many of the works he sent to the exhibition from about 1890 seem to have found buyers. For many years he struggled to sustain himself as an artist, supplementing his income with teaching and various kinds of commercial work. One story in particular reveals the straitened circumstances the artist endured: a visitor in later years mentioned to Carlsen that he had been offered by a dealer a
beautiful still life of his with a bluish vase and a little mannequin in the corner—it was very small, measuring about four by seven inches, and the price was $700. “Oh yes,” said Carlsen, “I used to paint those in the days when we had but 15¢ for our meals and glad to have the 15¢. I used to paint those things for $5.00 a piece and told the people they could come around in the afternoon to call for them.” (8) In his belated recognition Carlsen differed from the majoruty of his closest friends—including Childe Hassam, Julian Alden Weir, John Twatchman, and William Merrit Chase—who numbered among the era’s best known painters and achived success considerably sooner. Largely self-tutored as a painter, Carlsen never relented in his effort to learn and improve, as the progress of his work demonstrates. The fact that he was a serious, disciplined student also appears to have made him a good teacher, whose advice was ardently sought. At the several institutions where he taught and also during later, prosperous years after he gave up formal teaching, he was always ready to freely share his knowledge. (9) His conclusion as to its ultimate value, however, remained modest: “Teaching I have found out can only do one thing: stop a fellow student from making mistakes, besides giving technical help.”(10) Carlsen’s paintings and writings together reveal a thorough knowledge of both his European contemporaries, and the great masters of the past from whose works he studied the art of still life—especially Jean Simeon Chardin [1699-1779] (fig. 3), but also Johannes
Vermeer [1632-1675] (fig. 4), Diego Velazquez [1599-1660], and Rembrandt van Rijn [1606-1669] among others. Carlsen’s seemingly wide travels in America and Europe are only poorly documented, but when given the slightest prompting he spoke with intimate familiarity of collections and artists in France, Germany, Italy, and England.
Carlsen would certainly have concurred with the description of still life set forth by a contemporary critic as “a tremendous test of pure painting.”(11) The artist’s unique position, in fact, lay in his obsession with still life as an independent category of painting which otherwise led a marginal existence in the minds of most artists and critics. Still life for Carlsen focused directly on nature, and in looking beyond the limited appeal of “likeness,” he sought to elevate the genre from a largely technical exercise to a profound aesthetic experience. In this pursuit he was always his own sternest judge and critic, both in the studio and beyond. In the 1920s, once he had achieved fame and prosperity, Carlsen began buying back some of his earlier canvases, in part for sentimental reasons, as when he acquired a portrait of his son Dines as a child, but also for the purposes of retiring from public view and destroying works that he no longer cared to represent him. When once facing the decision of buying one of his older pictures he unsentimentally described it as “a rather large and rather dry canvas, that, altho [sic] it is rather carefully painted, in both conventional in treatment and uninteresting,” adding, however, that “it is good enough to exist.” (12) On occasion the artist bought back three of his early pictures for $1,100, took them home, and cut them up. (13)
Purportedly born in Copenhagen in 1853, Soren Emil Carlsen first studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy before emigrating to America in 1872. (14) Carlsen has already entertained hopes of becoming a painter when he arrived in the United States, having executed some marine sketches in Denmark before emigrating (15). Although New York was Carlsen’s first destination, he left almost immediately for Chicago where he was employed as an architect’s assistant at a salary of $20 a week. He then went into partnership with another painter, operating a school for mechanical drawing; however, this venture ended abruptly when the partner absconded with the cash along with one of Carlsen’s large paintings.
After returning briefly to the architect’s office, Carlsen secured a job in the studio of the Danish painter Laurits Bernhard Holst [1948-1934], where he was engaged in painting ships and figures and laying in canvases for the artist. When Holst returned to Denmark in 1874, he left his studio at the young artist’s disposal. Carlsen also began his teaching career in Chicago, invited by the sculptor Leonard W. Volk
[1828-1895] to act as instructor in what later became the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During that time the artist also reported selling a good number of pictures. “And that,” he said, “was the way I started.”
In 1875 Carlsen returned to Europe to continue his studies, having been urged to do so by painter L. C. Earle [1845-1921], who had himself just returned from abroad. Carlsen went first to Denmark and then to Paris, where he stayed for six months until his money ran out.
Instead of returning to Chicago, Carlsen took up brief residence in New York, where he lived in a boarding house on 23rd street and rented a studio near one occupied by the painter John Francis Murphy [1853-1921] whom Carlsen had befriended in Chicago. In trying to eke out a living he produced and sold, among other work, a few “comic drawings.” He had to rely on money from home for his support (16), however, and it was not long before he decided to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Carlsen moved to Boston in 1876 and lived there for the next eight years. After an initial period of prosperity, his financial situation deteriorated once more and in 1879 he was forced to sell his paintings at public auction, an affair which realized so little that he ended up in debt to the auctioneer. The result was that he gave up his studio and took employment as a commercial designer and engraver. It was at this time he first met the painter Childe Hassam [1859-1935], who was to remain a life-long friend and mentor. Hassam, younger by six years, was then an aspiring illustrator and painter who remembered having worked with Carlsen making architectural designs for the steel engraver John A. Lowell (17). This sort of commercial work paid Carlsen handsomely and, as was his habit during these years, he used such opportunities to recover financially before setting himself up once again in a studio to pursue his painting.
Much is still to be learned about Carlsen’s Boston years, which were critical to his development. The first pictures he sent to exhibitions at the Boston Art Club evidently continued the marine and landscape subjects he had practiced as a youth in Copenhagen and later in Chicago: in 1877 he exhibited In the Kattegat and The Seaweed Cart, in 1881 Seaweed Gathers, and in 1882 a picture titled May Morning (1882). However, in the latter years he also exhibited for the first time a Still Life, which marks his adoption of this new specialty. In 1883 he was listed in the Boston city directory as a painter specializing in stilll life with an address at no. 3 Tremont Row (18). In subsequent exhibitions of 1883 and 1884 at the Boston Art Club, still lifes accounted for four out of five pictures he exhibited (the exception being
Twilight). In 1883 he also sent a still life to the annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia titled Peonies (19).
Although floral paintings were represented in the early 1880s, the bulk of Carlsen’s still lifes seems to have centered on game, fish and household utensils, a category of so-called “kitchen still lifes” produced after the model of the French eighteenth-century painter Jean Simeon Chardin. While it is often presumed that Carlsen’s interest in Chardin first developed during his six-month stay in Paris in the mid-1870s, what little we know if his then predominantly landscape work suggests no such influence (20). Coincidental perhaps, but parallel to Carlsen’s awakening to the French master was the fact that in 1880 an important example of Chardin’s work, Kitchen Table of 175 (fig. 3), was presented to the newly founded Boston Museum of Fine Arts and exhibited there. A second painting by Chardin, Still Life with Tea Pot, Grapes, Chestnuts, and a Pear, was given to the museum in 1883.
In choosing Chardin as his model, Carlsen allied himself with a larger group of mainly European artists who from the mid-nineteenth century had found in the French master’s unaffected examination of everyday objects a prototype for modern realist painting (21). Yet it was Chardin’s painting techniques as much as his subject matter he admired and his own modern sensibilities. Among other European admirers of Chardin were Antoine Vollon [1833-1900], Francois Bonvin [1817-1887], Theodule Ribot [1823-1891], and Joseph Bail [1862-1921].
Carlsen’s study of the seventeenth century was doubtless reinforced by the intense interest in Dutch and Spanish masters—Franz Hals [1580-1666] and Velazquez in particular—shown by members of the controversial Munich School, a group of American led by Frank Duveneck [1848-1919], who enjoyed a considerable vogue in Boston, and by William Merritt Chase [1849-1916]. In fact, still lifes produced by Chase in the late 1870s and early 1880s (fig. 5) offer many parallels to those Carlsen began to produce in Boston shortly thereafter, having in common, apart from their subjects, a style that was more painterly than descriptive, dependent on effects of brushwork and theatrical lighting that cast some objects in shadow. Such similarities underscore the fact that in eschewing the still dominant American tradition of trompe l’oeil still life, with its minute rendering of surface detail, Carlsen chose from the start to align himself with those seeking to establish new ground for American painting as a medium that combined both realism and personal expression.
Carlsen’s still lifes of the early 1880s (figs. 6 and 7, plates 1 and 2) established the themes that were to preoccupy him for the rest of the decade. In them he determined to avoid any self-conscious sense of beauty or formal discipline, hoping instead to instill in his images an apparent randomness whose underlying order is apparent only after close study. One observes in individual works the specific problems he may have posed for himself in terms of settings and compositions, contrasts of value and the like. Often the issue of perspective remained a noticeable and seemingly
unresolved preoccupation, leading him at times to press foreground objects upon the viewer by bringing them to the very edge of the picture plane (plate 2), or distancing them through oblique recession into the background (plate 1).
A common feature of the kitchen still lifes in which he assembled dead game, fish, and vegetables together with large platters and cooking pots of copper or brass, is the suggestion of a chance moment before the preparation of a meal with all its associations of abundance and anticipated pleasure. Their impact this relies in part, through implication, on the suggestion of human activity outside and beyond the scope of the picture itself. This is a significant aspect of Carlsen’s early works, one that recalls his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century models, that is later discarded in favor of subjects meant to survive wholly on their own internal aesthetic merits.
The still lifes produced by Carlsen during his later Boston years were a critical and commercial success. In 1884 his two still lifes at the Boston Art Club exhibition were singled out in the Art Amateur as among the stronger works there (22), and it was reported that he acquired a small clientele of admirers in Boston and beyond. Among those who purchased Carlsen’s still life pictures during his Boston years was noted New York collector Thomas B. Clarke, who purchased in 1883 a sizable work described as “a study, in rich color and bold in handling, of a dead capon, a copper basin, and some kitchen accessories (23).
It was Carlsen’s accomplishments as a painter of floral still lifes, however, that determined the next episode of his career. Based on his skill in flower painting, in 1884 Carlsen received an offer from the New York art dealer T. J. Blakeslee that would guarantee the purchase of one painting a month. A condition was that Carlsen paint in Paris and send his works back to New York in order to meet the appetite of American buyers for works of foreign manufacture. In agreeing, Carlsen was no doubt attracted by the prospect of steady income combined with the opportunity to revisit Paris and continue his studied abroad. While there, he maintained a characteristically modest profile. He is said to have preferred the company of French artists, although a few Americans also numbered among his friends, including H. Siddons Mowbray [1858-1928], Samuel Isham [1855-1914], and Willard L. Metcalf [1858-1925], with whom he shared sketching expeditions in the countryside at Grez (24). His friend Frederick Newlin Price later remarked of Carlsen’s experience abroad:
Living in Paris near the Louvre, where he could admire and study Chardin, Carlsen tells many stories of still life painting—how at times they would eat the fruit, or mortgage themselves deeply to buy the flowers they needed. It was a this time he changed his palette and swung into lighter colors (25).
are characteristically horizontal compositions, dark in tonality, and reveal an effusion of mellowed and burnished tints against shadowy surfaces and backgrounds. Carlsen painted the flowers with an impasto that approaches actual relief so that form is indissolubly united with surface. The delineation and perception of individual blossoms are subordinate to an overall sense of texture and mass, gravity and lushness. This effect is compounded by Carlsen’s tendency to horror vacuii, the filling of available space within the picture plane.
While in Paris, Carlsen painted for dealers other than Blakeslee, and continued to paint still lifes of fish and kitchen settings in addition to flower subjects (26). In 1885 the artists succeeded in having one of his paintings accepted at the Paris Salon—Femme plumant des volailles—which was sold to the American collector George Seney and later owned by the actor/painter Joseph Jefferson. The original sale, Carlsen declared, provided him with “a bank account for one week.” (27) Along with what is presumably Carlsen’s Salon painting (fig. 10), there are several other analogous paintings from the 1880s and 1890s (fig. 9) that reflect the artist’s attempts to enlarge the scope of his still lifes into figured compositions—an area in which his lack of formal training perhaps showed most clearly.
As recounted by Frederick Newlin Price, Carlsen’s arrangement with Blakeslee lasted for approximately two years before the artist tired of the monotony of such work. By sometime in 1885 or 1886 he had canceled his contract and returned home to America (28).
San Francisco 1887-91
Carlsen once again settled in New York, where he remained for about a year, working in a studio later used by his friend J. Alden Weir. There he attracted the attention of Mary Curtis Richardson, a wealthy artist and patron from San Francisco, who offered him the directorship of the San Francisco Art Association School. He took up duties there in 1887 and although a popular teacher and member of several clubs including the Bohemian Club, Carlsen’s tenure in San Francisco proved anything but gratifying. Objecting to the management and funding methods of the school and the full-time commitment that teaching required, Carlsen resigned from the Art Association School by 1889, and subsequently took up teaching at the Art Student’s League where his friend and studio mate Arthur Mathews [1860-1945] also taught at the same time; together they shared a studio at 728 Montgomery Street (29).
While in California, Carlsen made at least one extended trip to the East during the spring of 1889. His unhappiness with San Francisco was apparently well enough known to convince acquaintances that he had returned to New York for good, with
one colleague declaring that Carlsen had been forced to flee “the wrath of the Philistines.” (30) Carlsen remained in New York long enough to paint a couple of pictures—both still lifes—for the exhibition in May of the Society of American Artists, of which he was a member (31). Returning to San Francisco, Carlsen received a commission for decorative work in the residence of William H. Crocker which included designs for the ceilings, walls, and stained glass, as well as advice on the selection of furniture. He was reported to have been working on some portraits, and
planning a local exhibition to be held in a few months time (32). Several months later he was said to have built a beautiful studio at San Rafael which was completed by August (33). This seems to have been intended for outdoor work, for no sooner had it been completed, than Carlsen was reported again at work in setting up the Montgomery Street studio with Mathews opposite the school (34). An article in November 1889 provided a flattering account of his influence as a teacher and painter in the provincial environment of San Francisco, crediting him with an increase in the attendance at art schools and the quality of work achieved there. Carlsen’s reputation as a painter of still life, it was said, “grows in brightness when he is compared with any other American artist.” (35)
An otherwise unrecorded trip to Europe during his San Francisco years is evidenced by a still life of fish inscribed “Paris” and dated 1890 (36). It is a reminder of the frequency with which he must have traveled and how little is still known of these trips.
The record of Carlsen’s San Francisco sojourn resumes in September, 1891 when newspapers reported that he had gone to the countryside earlier that summer but had returned in July. He was presently considering a return to New York (37). Carlsen soon made good on this prediction, bluntly declaring the reason for his departure, “I am going where people buy pictures, where there is an opportunity to exhibit them, and where a name means something. After two years, I find it unpleasant to be a pioneer in a place where the wealthier people get their pictures from Europe and the East, and the class of people that might like to purchase local paintings cannot well afford it (38).
New York 1891 – c.1900
With this disccouraging experience in mind, Carlsen went to New York to stay permanently. The city directories do not record his presence until 1893, when he was living at 106 W. 55th street, a circumstance that may suggest both his transitory lifestyle and the possibility of further trips abroad. During the next decade his residences in New York changed every few years as he moved from place to place. In 1903 he was first listed at 43 E. 59th Street which remained his home until his death (39). In 1896, well into his forties, Carlsen was married to Luella May Ruby (fig. 11), and five years later their son and only child Dines [1901-1966] was born (fig. 12). Like his father, Dines also made his career as a still life painter. There is no evidence to support the oft-repeated statement that Carlsen began teaching at the National Academy of Design upon his return to New York in 1891, or of his continued association there until 1918. Academy records show only that Carlsen taught the Antique Class in 1905-06, and Life- and Still Life classes in 1908-09, dates that
correspond approximately to his election as Associate of the Academy in 1904 and Academician in 1906 (40).
Throughout the 1890s in New York, Carlsen kept himself very busy creating still lifes of unprecedented range and variety. He produced works of modest scale and classic simplicity (plate 8), others with a studied, humorous touch (plate 6), as well as extravagant exhibition pieces instilled with a sense of opulence and even a hint of bombast (fig. 13).
Certain pictures recalled his earlier Boston work in their obvious thematic content, among them Thanksgiving Still Life of 1891 (plate 7), painted either in San Francisco or in New York just before the Thanksgiving holiday. Here the sense of a broader interior space including the delineation of a floor plane recalls his occasional figured compositions. The plain decorated utensils and wooden barrel suggest an earthy, rustic atmosphere—a country kitchen with the homespun simplicity of bygone years, The deliberateness of this nostalgic, old-fashioned ambiance becomes clear when contrasted with other still lifes by Carlsen of about the same date. An example is the composition Cracked Ice (plate 15) which strikes a thoroughly modern note in its theme of a festive social gathering centering on an Oriental punch bowl flanked by cups, carafe and an assortment of liquor bottles. Here the idea of implied human activity intrudes to the point of becoming a distraction from the picture’s formal aesthetic qualities.
The mid-1890s represented a period of experimentation for Carlsen, in which the artist explored a variety of technique and subjects. Among them was a new category of paintings, simplified in composition and realistically painted, that featured colorful fruits (fig. 15; plates 16 and 17). Setting aside Chardin, these seem to
represent Carlsen’s attempt to modernize still life formulas made popular in America from the time of the Peale’s and continued in the mid-nineteenth century by such painters as John F. Francis [1808-1886] (fig. 14).
Flowers remain a popular subject with Carlsen during this period, however, with new emphasis on color that suggests the influence of Impressionism. The dark backgrounds of his earlier pictures gave way to greens, yellows, and reds, in particular (plates 5, 12 and 13). Also in these paintings the composition often reveals a greater structural clarity, with the objects and vessels no longer obscured behind blossoms, but given equal attention in the display. In a similar fashion individual blossoms tend to stand out, their buoyant colors made to contrast with equally bright surroundings. Chrysanthemums in a Canton Vase (plate 12) is one of a series of similar pictures from the mid-1890s in which Carlsen experimented with loose, impressionistic brush strokes.
At the same time, Carlsen returned to the example of the old masters with variants of his kitchen table still lifes and in pictures of home and hunt centering on dead birds. These pictures rely for inspiration less on the model of Chardin than on the hunt trophy pictures of other eighteenth-century still life painters such as Jean Baptiste Oudry [1686-1755], Chardin’s greatest rival. Analogous in a general way to Oudry’s still lifes with game, Carlsen treats the birds as aesthetic objects, whether poetic swan or barnyard fowl. Yet sometimes his animals suggest dramatis personae along with poetic allusion, Carlsen adding an occasional whimsical note where fish may express something like peevish indignation (plate 6), or roosters a state somewhere between pathos and absurdity (plate 9).
Certain pictures combined the brighter palette with classical formulas such as in Red Jug and Chicken (plate 10) and Ruby Reflections (plate 14) where vivid reds highlight empty planes of light and shadow as well as the narrow horizontal surface that confine the objects. Carlsen painted a small number of these still lifes in pastel and watercolor, but didn’t pursue them for long, finding them poor mediums to accomplish what he wanted.
In retrospect one can view the varied, experimental nature of Carlsen’s work in the 1890s as the necessary prelude to a final lasting reconciliation with his subject that began to take place around 1900. Although we know that an important transformation in Carlsen’s style took place around the turn of the century, the lack of dated works and documentation in general makes this change difficult to date or to explain.
China and Cherries (plate 16), probably painted between 1895 and 1900, emphasizes a trait that became increasingly important to Carlsen in later years, namely the
display of pure drawn lines and edges, seen in the complex outline of the delftware vase and the great ellipse formed by the rim of the larger of two bowls. Critics have always assumed that Carlsen’s early architectural training accounted for the precision of his drawing. Yet, if true an inclination long delayed since his paintings until about the turn of the century show little of the intense delight Carlsen finally revealed in rendering pure, crisp lines and the irregular geometric shapes and volumes that filled his later pictures. Carlsen selected his objects to explore every combination of curving shape and surface—circles, ovals, and ellipses.
Future developments were also foreshadowed in the 1890s by a few works of startling simplicity in which the subject is confined to one or two dominating objects (fig. 17). Still Life with Copper Pan of 1901 (plate 19) represents a remarkable fulfillment of this tendency. Here, a single copper pot, painted on a large scale, becomes the central element in the picture, assuming a monumental grandeur that is at once overpowering and mysterious. The focus of the picture is contained in the gleaming reflections on the copper’s mottled surface, juxtaposed to the dark void of the vessel’s bottom. Extremely limited in tone, the whole is even suggestive of a piece of large metal machinery in its color, precision, and sense of latent but
powerful force. Quite unexpectedly Carlsen’s work of representation is thus brought to the verge of abstraction.
Other compositions of this period show a similar economy of means, even among more traditional subjects like that of Blackfish and Clams (plate 20). Although this composition again includes a variety of elements, they are presented in a notably more restrained, compact manner than had been true in previous work. Fish and shellfish are here displayed along a narrow horizontal plane, while above them looms the centerpiece of the composition, a large, cloth-draped basket. White cloths such as this appear repeatedly in Carlsen’s still lifes, providing the artist with opportunities to paint limpid, pliable forms with soft, reflective surfaces.
Chardin’s work—as Carlsen knew—included similar white objects, but the immediate question of accurately rendering a variety of whites in paintings was magnified and fixed as a permanent technical challenge for Carlsen, as for many other artists, by James Abbott McNeill Whistler [1834-1903] who had stunningly proclaimed the theme in The White Girl (Symphony in White, No. 1, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) in 1862. White vases and cloths, onions and garlic became staple elements in Carlsen’s repertoire, all providing an opportunity to express his fascination with color variations in white. At times he keyed his entire compositions to this single
problematic element (fig. 18, plates 22, 37, 38), presenting the central white object as the fixed standard to which everything else is the picture is related. Apropos of this was Carlsen’s acknowledgement that every composition had a main subject or as he said, “the jug or pot that makes the picture.” (41)
Carlsen revealed his interest in the rendering of whites through a bit of advice he gave to a student which touched upon one of his reasons for preferring oil paints to watercolor:
Here I might advise the superiority of oil colors. A white jug or cup treated in oil colors and well painted, can never be equaled in watercolor. Chardin tells the whole story. There have been very few painters of white, Chardin was one of the foremost. I do not believe still life can be done in watercolor. The technical qualities needed to express the air between a white jug and a white background is too much for watercolor on white paper. (42)
By the turn of the century, Carlsen had come to a final judgement on the issue of color in general, renouncing his previous experiments with bright colors and choosing to restrict himself to a limited range of subdued colors that stressed nuance over goldness. If works of the 1880s had sometimes lacked color by default, his mature works were restrained as a matter of choice. According to Carlsen:
…the study of still life should be made interesting from the beginning; the objects selected for their beauty of line and color; and here let me advise the choice of white, grey and clack as much as possible, only fine blacks, fine whites and greys. Some of the best pictures of Chardin, the very greatest still life painter, are limited in their color schemes, but the colors are of the choicest quality. (43)
While the authority Carlsen regularly chose to cite was Chardin, in the matter of his muted color schemes one also has to credit the influence of Whistler. Although Carlsen never mentioned him directly, his consciousness of Whistler as well as a hinted relationship is shown by some of their harmonies of color. Carlsen went so far as to rechristen one of his much earlier works Still Life and Symphony in Copper and Brass (fig. 6) (44) when it appeared in exhibitions in 1908/1909, and later works were given such Whistlerian titles as Arrangement in Gray, Violet and Green, Green and Gray, Green and Purple, Blue and Violet (45), also Blue, White, and Gold, or Blue and Gold (plate 28) and Blue and White (plate 30).
AN ADDED FOCUS
Dines Carlsen posed with his camera, c.1920 (fig. 20). It was most likely Dines, perhaps to provide an analytical aid, who recorded this unique photograph of an Emil Carlsen still life arrangement (fig. 21), which the artist subsequently rendered in paint (fig. 22, location unknown). These images were part of the Carlsen family’s collection of photographs.
The source of much explicit information about Carlsen’s paintings is the essay “On Still-Life Painting,” written by the artist in 1908 (see Appendix I), and marking the climax of his artistic development. It is not the essay per se which determines this, but rather the work which by this date stood behind it. In his essay Carlsen speaks with the confident voice of one who has finally mastered his discipline, setting forth practical advice underlain by profound idealism. Aimed at students engaged in learning the art of painting, “On Still-Life Painting” also stands as an autograph tour of Carlsen’s own working methods.
Through it, one traces in an accurate, if simplified manner, the sequence the artist followed in creating his still-life compositions. The first step involved choosing interesting objects which were required to be “good in color and form.” Before commencing painting, the values had to be decided—the amount of light and shade in the objects and background—and after that, the range of colors which Carlsen preferred to limit.
To the greatest master, as to the beginner, there is one problem to be met in every study, simple or elaborate—that is the study of values. This technical phrase means the amount of light and shadow in the object drawn or painted, and the amount of light and shade against its background, simple enough to understand and solve in a drawing of a white cast against a white background, difficult in objects containing local color.
The values were Carlsen’s key: “If the values are observed the picture will be in harmony,” he said. Objects were first outlined in water-based medium (see below), then the shadows were laid in. He preferred to keep shadows colorful and warm, an indication of the reflected colors contained in them. Next, the background was indicated in a thin wash, after which he proceeded to model the lights, having observed that “the richest color is found where the light melts into the shadow, the tangent between light and shadow.”
Carlsen then proceeded to define the objects, believing that the construction of edges was the most difficult task for even the experienced painter:
In all the finer qualities in painting there is nothing that takes greater study, observation and thought than this studying of the edge, and a good lesson can be learned by studying some great master’s work under a magnifying glass. An apparently hard edge will be lost here and there, found again and always kept soft. Even in a good photograph from some master of finish, Ver Meer of Delft, for example, it is easily seen and learned. To do it is harder—for most artists a lifetime is short enough. (46)
With the foundations of the picture laid, Carlsen then carried it to a careful finish, building and reworking the painted surface repeatedly and meticulously, uncaring of the time and labor it took to realize every nuance of line and surface according to his exact standards. For the viewer, he once said, “there is delight in a picture you can examine closely and find pleasure in seeing technical difficulties overcome.” (47) Elsewhere he confessed his own dedication and delight in the process of meeting these difficulties:
To see all this beauty [of light and contour, and spatial relationship] in a simple study is to know how to commence it thoughtfully and with respect for what can be learned from it, and every moment of the working day will be delightful, however full of disappointments over obstacles to be removed one by one. (48)
In his writings, Carlsen was concerned mainly with general principles: what he failed to address were some of the very personal predilections that he possessed to an extreme degree. The most important of these was his interest in the rendering of surface values and the relationships of surface to modeling. Carlsen acknowledged this matter in part through his focus on values as the key to painting. He observed that masters such as Vollon, Bail, and Chase preferred to emphasize the transient effects of surface highlights—the light which exists, so to speak, as a “suggestion” above and detached from the actual surface itself. By contrast, Chardin (and Carlsen himself) chose to subordinate this “glitter” to the surface: “The polished surface of a copper pot can be painted.” Carlsen said, “but the painter must choose his key and subordinate either surface or high light.”(49) This is consistent with Carlsen’s sense of underlying three-dimensional order, for he understood the surface to be inseparable from the construct of the object itself: obscuring bright highlights would threaten the solidity of the three-dimensional object. One finds, for instance that whatever the color or the texture of his surfaces, whether representing smoothly polished metal, translucent ceramic glazes, or woven cloth, the intricate portrayal of surface is never allowed to interfere with the underlying sense of volume and solidity.
Of course, the juxtaposition of different shapes and their spatial relationships was a fundamental ingredient in all of Carlsen’s still lifes, but the contrasts in surface color, texture, and light that he explored within individual compositions is one of his most extraordinary achievements. These may take the form of subtle, closely related values, as between polished brass and oxidized copper (plate 25), between the dusty hues of blue-black bottles and creamy white glazed porcelains with their time-stained chips and repairs (plate 31); between the textures of organic and inorganic materials such as polished brass, leathery stoneware, linen, garlic (plate 24) or silvery metal, transparent glass and papery shallots (plate 27), or finally between close harmonies of color itself (plate 26).
Carlsen’s triumph in elevating his still lifes to a unique personal idiom is nowhere better illustrated than in the masterful Still Life with Pottery Jars of 1903 (plate 22), a composition whose exquisite control reveals a sense of classical balance and harmony. The dominant note is struck by a stately white ceramic jug, whose smooth spherical surface represents a tour-de-force of textural painting. Arranged around it are objects in ceramic, metal and glass varied in shape and color, and a spare arrangement of grapes, walnuts and lemons, with the latter providing a high note of color. The partially peeled lemon in the foreground its skin trailing downward in an elegant, curving volute, is an obvious historical reference to such familiar objects in Dutch seventeenth-century still life paintings, without in any way being directly imitative, Carlsen’s viewers would have understood the reference, the learned context it provided, as they would have appreciated its central role in the plan of the picture with its calculated contrasts of verticals and horizontals, of curving forms and separate surface textures and colors.
Carlsen’s so-called Study in Grey (plate 26), like Pottery Jars also defines a clear horizontal space between the picture’s frontal plane and background, which is here artfully constructed of wooden planks and molding. Placed alongside a great black iron tripod kettle—one of Carlsen’s favorite objects—is an eccentric brass kettle with complex fittings on its lid and a slender curving spout, together with an earthenware jug, small porcelain bowl, and a linen cloth. The palette is confined in the most deliberate manner to variants of gray along the spectrum of white-black-grey-brown, a color range that produces a certain forlorn quality expressive of a storage shelf.
These two paintings comprise part of a small group of related, and equally beautiful, still lifes in which a relatively large number of objects is disposed horizontally along a shelf whose front edge intersects the picture plane (fig. 24; plates 22 and 26). In these works, the artist crossed a critical line through his capacity to impart to the assembled objects the sense of a world existing unto itself, an independent, artificial domain governed and informed by the aritst’s personal vision.
In such works the viewer is no longer bound by the criteria of verisimilitude, or distracted by implied narrative, but discovers objects of the artist’s invention with pure aesthetic pleasure. Confining himself to a few essential elements having alternately subtle and bold contrasts (plates 25 and 35), and through his carefully selected color schemes, Carlsen succeeds in creating a subjective state, not by the subject he represents, but by the way he composes and paints it. These are the works that in Carlsen’s words, go beyond “mere painting.”
Arthur Edwin Bye, the first American writer to deal seriously with still life painting found in Carlsen’s work a repository of profound experiences and emotions, informed with an abstract viewpoint conducive to contemplation in a way analogous to Perugino or Leonardo da Vinci. In doing so, Bye was among the first to describe those qualities which for many constitute Carlsen’s unique legacy. He wrote:
One cannot help but feel…that the painter experiences in his work emotions of an aesthetic character more profound than those of any of the great masters of still-life painting, from Chase and Vollon, back through Chardin to the Dutchmen. Objects delighted the eyes of these men; their outward semblance, their form, their coloring, their textures, were possibilities for them as elements for design. But objects have a more mystical meaning for Carlsen; they delight his outward eye as they do any painter, but Carlsen has an inward eye, a faculty for discerning all that anyone else every saw, but more—a rhythm and music and poetry, a serenity and dignity and humility which makes his still-life groupings classic. (50)
A later unidentified critic, similarly impressed by the fervor of Carlsen’s vision, stressed the important role that Carlsen’s eloquent harmonies of color had in producing emotional sensations, summing up the artist’s elusive accomplishments in the phrase “quiet magic.” (51) Thereafter, Carlsen’s son Dines, an accomplished painter in his own right, paid an expert’s tribute to his father’s indecipherable subtleties: “I remember that still life of Father’s…the two larger jars in it were iridescent Roman glass, I am quite sure,—you ask how he got those lustrous grays—I wish I knew? And I saw every step of all his work for 30 years! (52)
Increasingly in the still lifes painted by Carlsen after about 1900 the idea of finding beauty in ordinary objects gives way to a highly selective search for articles of extraordinary design and even historical association. His objects may still represent the materials of daily living, but now each is selected for some telling characteristic of shape, construction or surface value. Old copperware and ceramics played a supporting role in Carlsen’s paintings from the beginning, but here the artist develops a positive antiquarian turn, emphasizing the age and condition of such articles as antiques with their own intrinsic aesthetic qualities are savor of the past. Anonymous functional kitchenwares—copper platters and plain earthenware jugs—give way to hand wrought copper and brass tea kettles and chocolate pots, sturdy Leeds tablewares with their creamy surfaces and distinctive shapes, and dainty Oriental porcelains painted and glazed in delicate shades. Some favorite items appear over and over again in his paintings, such as chocolate pots (fig. 27; plates 24 and 42), a painted Chinese tea cup (plates 16, 21, 22 and 28), a time-stained porcelain bowl (fig. 23; plate 26), and what Carlsen called his “Spanish Brazier” (figs. 1, 28, 29), Carlsen embracing the specific identity and craftsmanship of these objects. The man-made object gradually comes to predominate in his still lifes, while natural objects—fish, game, flowers, fruits, etc.—eventually either disappear from his repertory or play very minor roles. An exception is his perennial use of the humble onion or garlic whose usefulness as a point of light and whiteness never diminished.
Carlsen’s stylistic advance was paralleled by discoveries that he made of a technical nature. His reputation for exacting craftsmanship was legendary among fellow artists, and some of his concern for the physical integrity of his work is
illustrated in a second essay he wrote titled “On Tempera” (see Appendix II). In it the artist described his personal investigations into a painting method that would prevent his work from darkening or discoloring with age. He studied the Venetian masters Tintoretto, Titian, and Guardi as well as artists of the early Renaissance to discover why some paintings remained fresh and bright through time while others darkened and faded. He found that works from the early Renaissance had been painted with a tempera (egg yolk) medium which fixed and preserved the colors. Carlsen read the Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari for confirmation of this technique, and mentioned spending a year in copying an early work by Titian (53). The result of his investigations was the adoption of a technique whereby he applied the underpainting of his compositions in egg temera and then finished them in oils. He made a habit of sending to London for the tempera colors and medium that he considered qualitatively best. “There is only one sound way [to paint],” said Carlsen, “the old Italian manner. Paint your picture on a caseine ground in tempera. Thus, when you are perfectly satisfied with drawing and composition, give the canvas or panel a tempera varnish. After that you can glaze as [surely].” (54) The effects of his use of tempera were alluded to in an article of 1932 by Elizabeth Luther Cary: “Although he painted with oil colors, he followed the practice of the Italian masters in eliminating all suggestion of oiliness from his work.” (55) Carlsen also utilized what he considered “the oldest and best Italian method” for preparing his canvases, describing the formula both in his writings and in private correspondence. (56)
From the start of his career, Carlsen always received admiring, though slight, mentions from reviewers of the popular annual exhibitions held in the 1880s and 1890s, held at the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists (57). By the 1890s, the majority of still lifes that Carlsen sent to exhibition had already found owners. However, even now, during the period of artistic maturity, his career prospects as a still life painter remained dim. Duncan Phillips, recalling the unpopularity of still lifes in general, described Carlsen’s difficulty in selling his pictures until his situation became so precarious that friends urged him to abandon still life for the more popular subjects of landscapes and seascapes (58). Carlsen accepted the advice, and in 1904 a writer for the New York Herald stated: “For years [Carlsen] was known as a painter of still life, and excellent as his work was it brought little pecuniary return. Lately he has been turning his attention to landscape work and has utilized his good sense of color to good advantage.” (59) Carlsen’s shift in subject was immediately reflected in the paintings he sent to exhibition, which until then had been nearly all still lifes. In 1903, for example, he sent three paintings to the National Academy of Design annual, two of which were still lifes and one a landscape. When he next exhibited there, in 1905, this number was
reversed, and in the ensuing fifteen years all but two of his twenty-three exhibits at the Academy were either landscapes, marines, or an occasional figure piece.
Carlsen’s shift to outdoor work proved highly successful from a commercial and critical point of view. In 1904 he was named Associate of the National Academy of Design, and his large canvas Connecticut Hilltop won the Shaw prize at the Society of American Artists’ exhibition, the first of several important prizes received that year which otherwise included the Second Inness prize at the Salmagundi Club and a Gold Medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, This was the first major international exhibition that Carlsen entered, having been absent at the Paris Expositions of 1889 and 1900 and the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. Over the next decade Carlsen won an exhibition prize virtually every year—all were for landscapes. A 1905 New York Times profile of the artist revealed that Carlsen’s past summer had been spent in Windham, Connecticut and in Maine painting landscapes, and further described the artist at work exclusively on a number of landscape and marine pictures, some of which had been commissioned: “Speaking of painting in general Mr. Carlsen said that he believed an artist should not confine himself to one line of work absolutely. ‘I do not believe in restricting myself to landscapes, marines, figures, or still lifes. An artist should paint what he pleases, whatever appeals to him. Then he can obtain the best results.” (60)
Thus it was that by virtually ignoring the genre that had established his reputation, and by developing an alternate specialty in landscape and marine painting, Carlsen finally placed his career on solid ground. In 1905 he was able to buy a house in Falls Village, Connecticut, where he subsequently spent spring and summers when not traveling. His regular schedule also included trips of a month or longer each autumn to paint the sea at Ogunquit, Maine (fig. 30).
One result of Carlsen’s new-found success as a landscape and marine painter was a series of one-man shows. The first of these appears to have been held at the Bauer-Folsom Galleries in New York in March and April, 1909, the principal subjects being marines and landscapes painted in Denmark, Venice, and New England. Of sixteen canvases exhibited, only one was a still life (which depicted a Gothic Descent from the Cross in carved wood). (61) Among the purchasers of his marines where the noted collectors George A. Hearn (who bought The Blue of the Ocean and Moonlight at Kattegat), and William T. Evans who purchased The South Strand for the collection he was creating for the National Museum in Washington. (62) That year (1909) Carlsen also exhibited one of his marine paintings (Alta Marea) at the Biennale in Venice, where he had visited the previous year.
Carlsen has another exhibition at the Folsom Galleries in March and April 1910, once more showing landscape views from Denmark, New England, Venice, and England (63). Coinciding with this exhibition was a show held in March at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, where Childe Hassam and Frederick Ballard Williams [1871-1956] also exhibited simultaneously. It was reported that Carlsen sold a number of canvases in Buffalo. (64) A month later, Carlsen exhibited some thirty-five paintings at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. (65)
In ensuing years, Carlsen was represented almost exclusively by the Macbeth Gallery in New York where his paintings were featured in the gallery’s regular group exhibitions as well as in one-man shows. The first of these took place in the spring of 1912, when the artist exhibited fifteen works, all apparently landscape subjects. (66) Shortly afterwards Carlsen undertook trip to Europe, sending back letters from Norway in July, and from Denmark the following November. To judge from his remarks concerning the rainy weather he had experienced, he seems again to have concentrated on landscape work. (67) It was perhaps inevitable that critics found it difficult to separate their judgments of Carlsen’s landscape work from the qualities he exhibited as a painter of still life. Many alluded to the fact that his colors and surface textures in landscapes
and marines took on the qualities of jades, Chinese pottery, and other objects. (68)
Despite Carlsen’s new outdoor specialty, his achievements as a still life painter were not overlooked, as demonstrated by the several still life compositions that were acquired by major public collections; in 1904 Blackfish and Clams (plate 20) entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, while in 1908 the Art Institute of Chicago purchased a Carlsen still life from their annual exhibition. It was also on account of his preeminence as a still life painter that the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts asked Carlsen in 1912 to participate in a teaching program by visiting artists that also included Philip I. Hale [1865-1931] and J. Alden Weir. Carlsen gave weekly criticisms for students during January and February of 1913, and these met with such success that he was asked to continue his visits on a more frequent schedule. His teaching visits to the Academy lasted until 1918 (69); however, in the spring of 1914 Carlsen revealed that ill health the previous winter had led him to consider quitting (70). Poor health remained an issue through 1915, and during the winter of 1916/17 he again reported that he had been ill and thus able to do little or no work (71). By the following summer, however, he had recovered sufficiently to accept a teaching assignment for the following year. (72)
Throughout the 1910s Carlsen managed to turn out a considerable number of still lifes despite poor health and the demands of teaching and outdoor work. In
this he was no doubt encouraged by the proprietors of the Macbeth Gallery who seem to have had ready buyers for his still lifes. These even included fellow artists J. Alden Weir, who is known to have bought through the gallery one of Carlsen’s still life canvases in 1915 (plate 27). This followed by ten years the purchase by William Merritt Chase of Carlsen’s The Sooty Kettle from the National Academy exhibition. Carlsen demonstrably enjoyed his work. In the summer of 1917 he wrote to Macbeth from his home in Falls Village: “So far (have) done little work with the exception of a small and careful still life—rather nice.” (73)
By this time Carlsen was also joined by his son, Dines, who had followed his father’s example and now worked beside him as a still life painter in his own right. Both then and in later uears, Dines painted many of the same objects used by his father (fig. 33). In 1916, at age fifteen, Dines showed his first work at the National Academy of Design, managing both to win a prize for his painting and to sell it. His status as a prodigy allowed him afterwards to sell virtually everything from his easel and to command invitations to the most popular annual exhibitions. Carlsen continued to refer to him as “my little boy,” but seemingly accepted Dines as an equal co-worker. When referring to the amount of work being accomplished on frequent sketching expeditions, Carlsen rarely mentioned Dines by name, but invariably used the word “we.” The working relationship of father and son culminated in a joint exhibition held at the Macbeth Gallery in 1929, at which time Dines had already earned the honor of Associate of the National Academy of Design. (74)
Undoubtedly Carlsen’s most devoted patron through the 1910s was an otherwise unknown collector named Robert Handley, who by the end of the decade had acquired fifteen or more works by the artist, among them seven fine still lifes (these included figs. 34 and 35 and plates 29, 30, 31 and 38). A loan exhibition of Handley’s collection of Carlsen paintings was held at the Macbeth Gallery in December, 1919, at which time one reviewer observed that “this artist is enjoying a distinct vogue at the present time.” (75) After two further solo exhibitions at the Macbeth Gallery in 1921 (76) (figs. 37, 38) and 1923, (77) Carlsen’s status had been elevated to that of “an acknowledged cult.” (78) Also enhancing Carlsen’s reputation was the large retrospective exhibition of his works held in 1923 by the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC, in which seventy-four of his paintings were featured, among them about fifteen still lifes. (79)
The chronology of Carlsen’s still lifes in the decade between 1910 and 1920 is obscured by an exceptional scarcity of dated works, although a terminus ante quem for some paintings is provided by the exhibition at Macbeth in 1919 of Robert Handley’s collection and by illustrations of Carlsen’s work in Edwin Arthur Bye’s book on still life in 1921. The extant dated still lifes provide important benchmarks for Carlsen’s development, but they also underscore the fact that the line of his advance was not necessarily straight. By its very nature, still life summoned in Carlsen the need for variation and change; nonetheless, themes once mastered might be left off and then revisited after a time, resulting in the intermingling of seemingly divergent styles within any given period of time.
The most important addition to Carlsen’s repertoire during these years involved still lifes with explicitly Oriental themes. Although Carlsen had used Oriental objects in earlier paintings as containers for floral arrangements or discrete elements in larger groupings, they now became the central subject, and were rendered with reference to
MACBETH GALLERY HOSTS SMOKER FOR CARLSEN
Oriental stylistic principles of decoration as well (fig. 36; plate 31). According to the artist’s son Dines, many of the Oriental objects owned by Carlsen had been purchased at auction from the sale of William Merritt Chase’s collection. (80)
Blue and Gold (Still Life with Chinese Porcelain) (plate 28) is one of two nearly identical compositions (the other in the San Diego Art Museum) produced in this manner and, with others in the series (plates 29 and 30) is remarkable for the treatment of the background as a golden textured surface suggestive of silk or a screen of gold leaf. In a painting dated 1914 (fig. 39), this general suggestion is converted
into actuality as the background is depicted as an embroidered material of Oriental design. This emphasis on flat, patterned surfaces became increasingly evident in Carlsen’s work. As in other Oriental still lifes, the picture also includes an ancient Roman glass vase. Carlsen evidently enjoyed the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western elements, emblematic of two admired ancient cultures (figs. 34, 39; plates 29, 30), as well as the pictorial possibilities inherent in the iridescent multi-colored surfaces of silk and glass. One also notes the presence of flowers in a number of these paintings, though no longer rendered as bright, living blossoms but as relics shriveled and dried with age. Other pictures featured as their central element open painted fans, both Oriental and Western origin, usually set before light, textured backgrounds stamped and scrumbled over with ornamental designs (plates 31 and 32). The geometric arc of the open fan that insistently stresses the two-dimensionality of the picture plane provides the leitmotif of these compositions, signaling Carlsen’s growing interest in the relationship between illusionistic space and surface.
Oriental themes comprise only one of several new still life categories that centered on foreign works of art or precious objects of vertu. By 1909 Carlsen had borrowed from a friend’s studio an antique wooden relief representing the Decent from the Cross that formed the background in a still life shown at the Bauer-Folsom Galleries. (81) Subsequently, a medieval statue of the Virgin and Child provided the subject for a painting known as The Madonna of the Magnolias (fig. 35). The use of such figural sculptures was matched in his Oriental still lifes by Chinese jade figures of scholars or sages and Japanese netsuke.
From about 1920 until the end of his life, Carlsen used such exotic and rare materials in increasingly elaborate and fanciful combinations. His painting Mandarin Beads of c.1920 (fig. 40), while repeating the same vase and dried flowers arrangements used in earlier compositions, shows a new willingness to test the boundaries between illusionistic representation and decoration. The backgrounds of still other compositions were elaborately filled with a favorite Flemish tapestry that he owned (figs. 1, 41, 42) or with paintings of Eastern origin. As Carlsen’s title for one of these, Picture from Thibet (plate 40), suggests, the still life could at times emerge as the picture of a picture. Such elaborate pictorial still lifes stood in sharp contrast to the spare, discrete compositions of earlier years, which Carlsen continued to produce in decreasing numbers through the 1910s and 1920s (figs. 29, 43, 44; plates 37,38,39, 41).
Not everyone approved of Carlsen’s new tendency towards ornateness. In 1921 a critic from the Tribune, probably Royal Cortissoz, called attention to his departure from the past:
“[Carlsen] came into view as a man with a rare gift for the portrayal of inanimate objects, and, by the same token, the painter of beautiful surfaces,
Inevitably, as he has gone on with still life, he has made his paintings of it more complex in the harmonization of values. “The Picture From Thibet,” with its richly decorative background, is an illustration of his later tendency. The web of rose, ivory and gold in it is a lovely one. Yet we are not sure that Mr. Carlsen us altogether well advised in these more subtle excursions of his. He was nearer to Chardin, in the old days, when his color schemes were simplier and broader; and we think, too, there was a more authoritative touch in his handling of them. The present studies seem a shade overwrought, to be a little too “precious,” and in their extreme refinement to have lost some valuable elements of strength.” (82)
Notwithstanding such reservations, Carlsen’s reputation was at its peak in the 1920s, when Duncan Phillips extolled him as “the ablest, most patient craftsman among contemporary painters…a masterful observer of still life executed with loving care for beauty of texture and weaving of closely related tones. (83) The prices of Carlsen’s canvases rose accordingly, averaging about $3,000, though many went higher, including one that the artist refused to part with for $15,000. (84) Large landscape and marines tended to command higher prices than still lifes, in part because of greater size, but also because, on balance, more of the buying public preferred them. This did not prevent Carlsen, however, from putting a price tag of $7,000 on his Picture From Thibet, Carlsen’s attitude towards the sale of his works showed an independence, even willfulness, that can not have failed to impede him in less prosperous days. The pride that he took in works that pleased him contributed to a reluctance to part with them, even at premium prices (85). As for the idea of promoting his works, Carlsen’s attitude was summed up in the reply that he made to the Macbeth Gallery in 1926 when they proposed that he be included in one of their published Art Portfolios: “I do not wish to join this affair. I don’t think it helps a fellow’s work to have it photographed and broadcast, don’t like the idea a little bit, so please count me out.” (86)
Success seems to have changed Carlsen very little, if at all. As a visitor in 1927 described, he retained his usual modest, unassuming demeanor: “…I was surprised
to see a spry gentleman, who appeared to be about 65 years old, well dressed, but very, very plain, a big blondish beard and wearing glasses, everything pointing to a sturdy personality that has stayed true to itself. You know Emil Carlsen is a big name and I had expected to see quite the contrary. I had expected to see a highbrow, a man well groomed, paying much attention to his exterior, unapproachable, but fame and prosperity have not contaminated this man’s soul…He has retained an exceptionally clear mind. There is nothing affected about him—simple and true—no fringes.” (87)
In the turbulent milieu brought on by the advent of Modernist movements, Carlsen remained an exemplar for critics and collectors who embraced traditional values. A reviewer for the New York Times characterized Carlsen’s paintings as “…definite and fixed in style. They are built upon conviction, tradition, personal taste. One feels that the style never will change, that there is not chance of uncertainty in the conviction and taste of the artist. In this fluent and uncertain period there is a sense of stability and security in such a mental attitude not unwelcome to conservative art lovers.” (88)
Carlsen himself admitted his own confusion over artistic movements that were changing the nature of painting everywhere, and doing so by ignoring principles which he held to be everlasting. Typically, he stayed away from public debate, but in private was frankly critical of work that he considered lax or hypocritical. “After all,” he said, “the so called Modern Art is a misnomer, good painting needs neither apology or explanation, and all the explanation in the world cannot make an ill painted canvas a work of art.” (89) Elsewhere he clearly revealed himself a man loyal to his generation: “It is not pleasant to find fault, but the art of painting is on its decline and there is [sic] very very few painters worth while left us. We had, not so many years ago, a great many fine artists, men like Homer, Weir, Twachtman, Thayer, Eakins, Ryder, and quite a few others. The new, so called modern movement has not yet produced a single truly fine and complete artist. Will it, or will it be all decline, and decadence?” (90)
At the height of his fame, and with his powers little diminished, Carlsen died after a brief illness at his home at 43 East Fifty-ninth Street on January 2, 1932. If judgments had been mixed during Carlsen’s lifetime as to the relative merits of his landscapes and still life paintings, after his death, opinion began to settle decisively in favor of the latter. Three years after he died, the Macbeth Gallery staged a retrospective exhibition comprised entirely of Carlsen’s still life paintings lent from his estate and from public and private collections. Remarkably, it was the first exhibition ever held of his still lifes exclusively. (91) Reviews of the show varied predictably according to the writer’s critical viewpoint. On the one hand, the New York Times reviewer observed that, “the beauty of Carlsen’s work seems to grow with the passing of time,” (92) while the writer for the New York World Telegram conceded only that his pictures were “delicate echoes of an idiom somewhat outmoded.” (93)
The most fitting reply to the question of being “outmoded” had already been penned by Carlsen several years before when, with unruffled confidence, he concluded some advice to a young artist by declaring: “…if a painter has anything to say…he must say it out of himself. Changing his style because there is unrest, is a poor move. The men that have left something worth while have been themselves from beginning to end.” (94)
(1) Emil Carlsen, “Weir the Painter,” in Julian Alden Weir, An Appreciation of his Life and Works, The Phillips Publication, New York, 1922, p.50.
(2) Ibid. p. 52.
(3) Emil Carlsen, “On Still Life Painting.” Palette and Bench 1 (Oct, 1908), p. 6.
(4) Eugene Neuhaus, The History and Ideals of American Art, Stanford and London, 1931, pp. 301-302
(5) Carlsen was a member of the following organizations: Paint and Clay Club, Boston; St. Botolph Club, Boston; Bohemian Club, San Francisco; Society of American Artists; National Academy of Design, Associate (1904), Academician (1906); National Institute of Arts and Letters (1906); Lotos Club; Salmagundi Club; Century Association; American Federation of Arts; Art Club of Philadelphia; Fellowship of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
(6) Worstman-Rowe Galleries, The Art of Emil Carlsen, 1853-1932, San Francisco, 1975, p. 8.
(7) Elizabeth Luther Cary, “Quietness and Slow Time: Carlsen’s Heritage Expressed Itself Tellingly In Beautiful, Accomplished Painting,” New York Times, Jan. 10, 1932, section VIII, p.11.
(8) In a letter from August Bontoux to Claude Buck, a former Carlsen pupil, Jan. 15, 1927, Archives of American Art, reel 2982. This letter describes an encounter with Carlsen by the friend of a former pupil, Claude Buck, and is quoted here at length for the light it sheds on several aspects of Carlsen’s personality:
“Right on time, even a bit early, Mr. Carlsen was announced and I was surprised to see a spry gentlemen, who appeared to be about 65 years old, well dressed, but very, very plain, a big blondish beard and wearing glasses, everything pointing to a sturdy personality that has stayed true to itself. You know Emil Carlsen is a big name and I had expected to see quite the contrary. I had expected to see a highbrow, a man well groomed, paying much attention to his exterior, unapproachable, but fame and prosperity have not contaminated this man’s soul…He has retained an exceptionally clear mind. There is nothing affected about him—simple and true—no fringes.. A man who has gone through as much as he has and remains uncontaminated, certainly again proves that greatness and simplicity come from the same root.
“…During the conversation I mentioned that I did not have an “Emil Carlsen” in my collection, that once in Los Angeles I saw a beautiful little still life—a bluish vase and a little mannequin in the corner—it was very small, measuring about four by seven inches, and the price was $700. “Oh yes,” said Carlsen, “I used to paint those in the days when we had but 15¢ for our meals and glad to have the 15¢. I used to paint those things for $5.00 a piece and told the people they could come around in the afternoon to call for them.” Then he related how recently he refused $15,000 for one of his paintings.
“Speaking about galleries, he believes the Rehn Gallery is the one for us to get in and as I told you I believe Mr. Rehn sufficiently enthusiastic about your work to take you on later in the Fall. Mr. Carlsen mentioned the Ferragil [sic] Galleries, who Mr. Carlsen and somebody else put on the map. He mentioned them as a probable other gallery that could handle your pictures, to he did not like them any more. When I told him they asked us $5,000.00 for a show, he related his own experiences of why he does not like them anymore and that is after having helped them, seeing that they had one of his early paintings, a small portrait of Mr. Carlsen’s boy which Mr. Carlsen would have liked to get back, he had to pay them $3,000.00.
“With regard to Milch Gallery, these people made Mr. Carlsen pay twice for a frame. He once ordered a frame for $80.00 and paid cash for it, because he does not run any accounts anywhere, but pays cash. He was sent a statement at the end of the year and was forced to pay once more. Mr. Carlsen states that the Milch Gallery, if they take our pictures, may take them, but put them on the shelves and they will be buried there forever. Yet, the same, I may leave a few pictures.
“Something else interesting related by Mr. Carlsen, was that not very long ago he came across three of his very early pictures which he did not think so much of—so he bought them back for $1,100.00, took them home and cut them up as he did not care to have them in the market anymore.
“…When I told him that some day when I could afford it, [I] would buy an Emil Carlsen, he told me Yes, you can come around and you won’t pay $3,000 either—I will see that you get a good one and another very interesting touch to this great personality was Mr. Carlsen questions when leaving—”Mrs. Buck is Danish too, isn’t she?”
“Here, Buck, you have a great American painter—a name that has added much lustre to the American art world—that has stayed simple and true to himself—one of the most wholesome characters and fine personalities I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and will not hesitate to send Mr. Carlsen a copy of this letter.”
(9) This fact is clear from Carlsen’s correspondence with several former students (see below notes 42 and 47), and is remarked in a letter written by his son Dines to Helen Elizabeth Keep, Jan. 10, 1932: “I greatly appreciate your letter of condolence; from one who understood Father’s work, and regret that you will never met him, as he always gave his sincere help to those who sought his advice regarding their canvases, his constant effort was to impart as much of his knowledge as he could to the earnest student, never withholding any secret of technique.” Archive of American Art, reel D8.
John Andrew Myers, in charge of the teaching program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, complimented Carlsen on March 26, 1915 with these words: “You are an inspiration to [the students]…You are a teacher by nature and are making just as good pictures by your influence upon others as those even which you paint yourself directly on canvas.” Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
(10) Carlsen to Claude Buck, Mar. 1, 1927, Archives of American Art, reel 2982.
(11) Royal Cortissoz, as quoted in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1935.
(12) Carlsen to the Macbeth Gallery, July 6, 1922, Archives of American Art, reel NMc31.
(13) August Bontoux, to Claude Buck, Jan. 15, 1927 (see n.8)
(14) There is conflicting information regarding Carlsen’s date of birth and early training. Philip Weilbach’s, Nyt dansk kunstnerlexikon, Copenhagen, 2nd ed., 1896-97, vol. 1, p. 147, which is the first biographical source to list Carlsen, gives his birth date as October 19, 1848, and further states that he studied architecture in Copenhagen with Johann Stillman, at the Technical Institute under Ferdinand Vilhelm Jensen, and at the Danish Royal Academy between 1868-1872. These dates have become generally accepted. Confirming the earlier birth date, however, is the account written by an acquaintance of Carlsen’s stating that the artist admitted to being seventy-eight years old in January, 1927. (see n. 8). According to that statement, Carlsen’s birthdate would indeed have occurred in 1848. The artist stopped using his given name Soren in the 1880s.
(15) In F. Newlin Price, “Emil Carlsen—Painter, Teacher,” International Studio, 75 (July 1922), p. 300, Carlsen is said to have made some marine sketches in Denmark—including at Elsinore—before coming to the United States.
(16) Ibid, p. 204.
(17) Hassam recounted: “I worked steadily in the life class. I worked out of doors everywhere that I could. About this time I met Emil Carlsen, who was a young Dane, who had just come to Boston. I met him not long ago, and he told me he remembered me since I was in knickerbockers in Hyde Park. You know, Hyde Park is a suburb of Boston. [Edmund Henry] Garrett [1853-1929] knew Carlsen. Whether I met him with Garrett or not I do not know. Carlsen, among the painters, is the oldest friend I have, who is still living. You see, this young Dane came through Boston to make his way, and he made drawings, I think, for John A. Lowell the steel engraver, and with Carlsen I was making these very careful architectural designs for John A. Lowell, who was identified with the Fine Arts and tried to do something for painting.” from Dewitt Lockman Papers, Interview with Childe Hassam, Jan. 31, 1927, New York Historical Society (microfilm copy in Archives of American Art, reel 503).
(18) King’s Dictionary of Boston, 1883, p. 350.
(19) In the exhibition catalogue Carlsen’s address is given as 27 Tremont Row. The artist waited until 1898 to exhibit there again.
(20) For an early street scene inscribed “Paris ’76”, see, American Art Association, Feb. 15, 1922, no. 10.
(21) For the Chardin revivial, see, Chardin and the Still-Life Tradition in France, by Gabriel P. Weisberg with William S. Talbot, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1979. For Chardin see Pierre Rosenberg, Chardin, 1699-1779, exh. cat., Reunion des Musees Nationaux, Paris, Grand Palais, Paris, Jan. 29-Apr. 30, 1979 (also shown at Cleveland Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
(22) “Beta,” “The Boston Art Club Exhibition,” Art Amateur, 10 (March 1884), p.85
“…but more real interest was taken in two still-life studies by S. E. Carlsen (and works by Mrs. F. C. Houston, Robert Vonnoh, and Mrs. Frank B. Chadwick]…these were the strong works of the collection.”
(23) See, Catalogue of the Private Art Collection of Thomas B. Clarke, Feb. 14-17, 1899. American Art Association, New York, no. 30; see also pp. 30-31.
(24) See, Elizabeth de Veer and Richard Boyle, Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf, New York, 1987, p. 36; see also p. 39, fig. 35 for Metcalf’s watercolor portrait of Carlsen. At least one reminder of this sojourn remains in a painting by Carlsen titled Courtyard at Grez: Inventory of American Paintings, no. 80043579.
(25) Price, op. cit, p. 308.
(26) These include Fisherman’s Table dated “Paris [Nov.] “84” (Doyle’s, Dec. 4, 1991, no. 22) and The Root Cellar incribed “Grez 84” (Christies, Sept. 30, 1988, no. 126).
(27) Price, op. cit, p. 305.
(28) Price’s time frame may be somewhat exaggerated: The painting Still Life with Oriental Vase inscribed “Boston 1884” (Christies’, Dec. 2, 1988, no. 144) demonstrates that Carlsen was still in American during part of that year; his return to New England sometime in summer or autumn of 1885 is suggested by a large landscape inscribed “Cape Ann Sands 1885” (Sotheby’s Dec. 5, 1985, no. 176).
(29) For details of his San Francisco years, see Gene Hailey, ed., California Art Research Project, vol. IV (Jan. 1937), pp. 27-63; 1st Series, Abstracts from Works Progress Administration Projects 2874, San Francisco 1936-37, pp. 27ff. (Archives of American Art, reel NDA/Cal 1).
(30) San Franicisco Chronicle, June 16, 1889, as quoted in Hailey, op. cit., p.35 ff.
(31) Idem. Carlsen is listed as a member of the Society of American Artists in 1889, as he had been in 1888. Thereafter his membership lapsed until it was again resumed in 1902. During the interim Carlsen continued to exhibit regularly in the Society annual exhibitions, an indication that the reason for his absence from the membership rolls was financial.
(32) From an unidentified newspaper article, cited in Hailey, op. cit., p. 40.
(33) San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 11, 1889, and Aug. 26, 1889, as cited in Hailey, op. cit., p. 36.
(34) San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 22, 1889, and Oct. 27, 1889, as quoted in Hailey, op. cit., p. 37.
(35) San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 11, 1889, as quoted in Hailey, op. cit., p. 37.
(36) See illustration in Weisberg, op. cit., p. 59.
(37) San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 27, 1891, as quoted in Hailey, op. cit., p. 38.
(38) Unidentified newspaper article, cited in Hailey, op. cit., pp. 39, 40.
(39) His addresses listed in Trows New York City Directories include the following: in 1893 at 106 W. 55th St.; in 1894-95 at 23 E. 14th Street; 1897-99 at 59 Washington Square South; 1901 at 149 W. 23rd Street, NY; by 1903 he is listed at 43 E. 59th Street.
(40) I am grateful to David Dearinger, curator National Academy of Design, for his information.
(41) Emil Carlsen, “On Still-Life Painting.” Palette and Bench 1 (Oct. 1908), p. 7.
(42) Emil Carlsen to Helen E. Keep, July 3, 1930, Archives of American Art, reel D8.
(43) Carlsen, “On Still-Life Painting,” p. 6.
(44) National Gallery of Art, Washington; see, Franklin Kelly, et. al., American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1996, p. 46. The picture was shown at the Boston Art Club in 1909 and at the Corcoran Gallery in 1908-09.
(45) See, A Special Exhibtions of Works by Emil Carlsen,: Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1923.
(46) Carlsen, “On Still-Life Painting,” p. 7.
(47) Emil Carlsen to Claude Buck, Jan. 16, 1927: In this letter Carlsen also writes, “…so many painters stop when difficulties begin. Technically, a canvas should, in my brief, be carried as far as an artist’s abilities will let him…[a] great many of the so called modern men consider intention everything. I differ with them—the greatest idea is always spoiled if careless in drawing, color, or finish.” Archives of American Art, reel 2982.
(48) Carlsen, “On Still-Life Painting,” p. 8.
(49) Ibid., p. 6.
(50) Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans—or Studies in Still-Life Painting, Princeton, 1921, pp. 214-15.
(51) New York Times, Apr. 26, 1935, art and books section. p. 17: “Like Vilhelm Hammershoi, the nineteenth-century Danish painter with whom, artistically, he is seen to have had much in common, Emil Carlsen could produce wonderful results with such reticent, unassertive colors as gray and cool dun silver, with delicately grayed whites and warm though low-keyed earth browns. The quiet magic thus wrought is unforgettably exemplified by such still lifes as “Iron Kettle”, “White Jug” and another painting…which so subtly enunciates its chord constructed out of the tones of an old kettle, a teapot and some clam shells. With harmonies such as these Carlsen was frequently content, and well content, needing no more stimulus than was here provided; making no more lavish demands upon the extensive color gamut than is at every artist’s beck and call. Indeed there are times, one feels, when enchanted by the inner fires, the all but incalculable irradiating glow buried in these dusty grays and browns, he may have protested with the poet Emily Dickinson, that…the least push of joy/ Breaks up my feet,/ And I tip—drunken. Such is the fervor of this vision as brought to bear upon a play of tones that for many an eye might seem merely drab and achromatized.”
(52) Letter from Dines Carlsen to Helen E. Keep, June 16, 1947, Archives of American Art, reel D8.
(53) Carlsen’s large painting after Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery London, appeared on the market in 1990 (Paris auction by M. Yves de Cagny, Drouot Richelieu, Salle 9, June 25, 1990, No. 36). The date and circumstances under which the painting was produced are unknown, but its existence suggests a rather extended and otherwise unrecorded sojourn in London.
(54) Carlsen to former student Claude Buck, Feb. 14, 1931. Archive of American Art, reel 2982.
(55) Elizabeth Luther Cary, op. cit., p. 11.
(56) Emil Carlsen, “On Tempera,” Palette and Bench, 1, 10 (July 1909), p. 225. In a letter to Claude Buck, Feb. 3, 1930, Carlsen states: “…I nevertheless enclose the very best formula for canvas preparation. It is the oldest and best Italian method and absolutely permanent and sound. When you use it exactly as per formula it is absorbent, when too little zinc white it may crack—but it is well worth taking pains…It holds the color splendidly, and if you have a great deal of drawing to be done on your picture, you can lay it in in tempera or water color. If you can not get the caseine and a high grade of zinc in Chicago, kindly send me word, and I will send you a box full.” Archives of American Art, reel 2983.
(57) A typical example in “Society of American Artists’ Exhibition,” Art Interchange, 40 (May 1898), p. 116: “Also for charming qualities of color and solidity of technique should be named…Emil Carlsen’s superbly handled ‘Still Life.'”
(58) Duncan Phillips, “Emil Carlsen,” International Studio, 61 (June 1917), p. cx.
(59) New York Herald, Apr. 10, 1904, Sect. 3, p. 10.
(60) “Talk of the Studios,” New York Times, Dec. 3, 1905, p. 8.
(61) See, New York Sun, Apr. 3, 1909, p. 6; Independent, Apr. 29, 1909.
(62) See, New York Herald, Apr. 5, 1909, p. 9; also Mar. 30, 1909, p. 9; New York Times, Apr. 11, 1909, Sec. II, p. 2; New York Post, Mar. 30, 1909, p. 7.
(63) See, New York Herald, Mar. 3, 1910, p. 13; New York Post, Mar. 5, 1910, p. 7; New York Sun, Mar. 13, 1910, sec. II, p. 4; International Studio, 40 (Apr. 1910), p. li.
(64) See, Buffalo Evening News, Mar. 18, 1910; Mar. 19, 1910; also, Art News, 9 (Apr. 15, 1911), p. 3.
(65) See, New York Post, Apr. 16, 1910, p. 7. The exhibition was held between Apr. 18-30, 1910.
(66) See, New York Herald, Mar. 13, 1912, p. 9; New York Sun, Mar. 10, 1912, sec. 4, p. 15 where in reference to Carlsen’s reputation as a painter of still life the reviewer refers to him archly as “the Vermeer of Manhattan.”
(67) Carlsen to Macbeth, postcard from Norway postmarked July 7, 1912 furnishes a London address, and letter from Vejle(?) Denmark, Nov. 7, 1912 states, “It has been a very bad and rainy year, but I have some work, some canvases good.” Archives of American Art, reel NMC5.
In 1911 Carlsen was also reported to be planning a summer trip to Denmark: “Ben Foster and Emil Carlsen are enjoying the beauties fo Falls Village, but the latter will spend a part of the summer in his native Denmark.” American Art News, 9 (June 17, 1911), p. 3.
(68) See, for example New York Times Feb. 13, 1919, p. 12, where the reviewer says of his Surf at Skagen, “the color is lovely, like the color in old Chinese pottery;” and the review of his Macbeth exhibition, Sun, Dec. 22, 1919, which includes the following remarks: “In Mr. Carlsen’s still lifes, the objects shown are apt to be quite costly, such as “Roman Glass,” “Jade Bowls,” or fans with mother-of-pearl sticks. Mr. Carlsen has taken such pains in exactly imitating the surfaces of such materials that the manner has become his everything, and even when he now paints the inexpensive waters of the ocean he nevertheless reproduces all the little bits of foam upon the wave with the same fidelity that he bestows upon the delineation of the crackle of an antique porcelain jar.”
(69) The Academy correspondence which records his involvement there begins with a letter of June 10, 1912 from the Academy to Carlsen.
The Academy’s School Circular for 1917 (p. 39) described Carlsen’s role (under the heading “Mr. Carlsen’s Criticisms”): “Mr. Carlsen will give open criticisms, once a month for five or six months, upon all paintings submitted to him, and will talk on subjects of vital interest to art students, and especially upon the technique of oil painting.”
(70) Carlsen to John Frederick Lewis, Academy President, Mar. 28, 1914: “I thank you very much for your appreciative and charming letter. I had thought to stop teaching after this year especially as my health has not been good this winter but I will be very glad to talk the matter over with you before the season is over.” Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
(71) Carlsen to the Pennsylvania Academy School Committee, Dec. 12, 1916: “I am very sorry that I shall not be able to teach at the Academy this year. My health is very poor, and I shall have to stop all work for a time, by doctor’s advice. Last year I felt that teaching was beginning to be too severe a strain in my present condition. I would be absolutely unable to tend to my duties.”
A similar account is given in letters to Acdemy Secretary, John Andrew Myers of Jan. 8, 1917, “…Unfortunately, I have no new canvases, as I have not been able to work very much on account of ill health”, and Feb. 28, 1917, “I am extremely sorry that I shall not be able to give any talks on art this year at the Academy schools. My health is poor, and any exersion [sic] tires me too much. I have had to curtail my work—so I have to deny myself the pleasure of visiting you.” Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Seperately, Carlsen wrote the Macbeth Gallery on Aug. 20, 1915 “I have not done very much work this year—only taken care of my health, but will be at it again in earnest now.” Archives of American Art, reel NMC31.
(72) Carlsen in a telegram of June 25, 1917 to John Andrew Myers states, “Shall be glad to give a few talks next winter as I am in better health.” Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
(73) Carlsen to Macbeth, July 20, 1917. Archives of American Art, reel NMC31.
(74) Paintings by Emil Carlsen, N.A. and Dines Carlsen, A.N.A., Feb. 5-18, 1929, The Macbeth Gallery, New York.
(75) See, New York Herald, Dec. 28, 1919, Sec. II-1, p. 7; also New York World, Dec. 26, 1919, p. 4; New York Tribune, Dec. 21, 1919; Sun, Dec. 22, 1919, Evening Post, Dec. 13, 1919; Philadelphia Record, Dec. 28, 1919; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 7, 1919; American, Dec. 14, 1919.
(76) To mark the opening of this exhibition on February 8, Macbeth held a festive “Smoker” in Carlsen’s honor. See American Art News, 19 (February 12, 1921), p. 1, 7; World, Feb. 13, 1923; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 13, 1921; New York Times, Feb. 20, 1921; New York Tribune, Feb. 15, 1921.
(77) Art News, 21 (March 10, 1923), p. 2; New York Times Mar. 11, 1923, sec. VIII, p. 11; New York Tribune, Mar. 11, 1923; Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 14, 1923; New York Evening Post, Mar. 17, 1923.
(78) New York Herald, Mar. 11, 1923.
(79) Special Exhibition of Paintings by Emil Carlsen, Apr. 3-29, 1923, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
(80) Information provided by Mr. Joseph Fudali, a longtime friend and associate of Dines Carlsen. Of several auctions of Chase’s property, the sale in question was most likely that of 1912 (Valuable Paintings and Watercolors Forming the Private Collection of William Merritt Chase, N.A., American Art Association, New York, March 7-8, 1912).
(81) See, New York Sun, Apr. 3, 1909, p. 6: “There is a wonderful bit of still life at the Bauer-Folsom Galleries, 396 Fifth Avenue, painted by Emil Carlsen and hanging in company with fifteen canvases, records of this Danish American artist’s visit to Denmark, Venice and New England. Mr. Carlsen is best known as a still life painter, but his marines and landscapes are winning honors for him. The picture we allude to is a study of a carved panel. Carlsen has never done anything better in this genre. The modeling of that white mug on the table and its fine whites make one almost think of Chardin. The panel is a representation of a wood piece in the studio of a fellow artist. It is a quaint pieta, and the illusion of its faded hues and textures is excellently maintained…”
(82) New York Tribune, Feb. 15, 1921.
(83) Duncan Phillips, A Collection in the Making, New York and Washington, DC, 1926, p. 42.
(84) August Bontoux, to Claude Buck, Jan. 15, 1927 (see n. 8).
(85) An example of his attitude was shown in regard to his Picture from Thibet, as he wrote to Macbeth on Oct. 27, 1922, “So far as the Tibethean [sic] canvas is concerned at present I shall keep it. I hold it in a high price, as you knowm and am not a bit anxious to sell it, even at that price. It is a picture of a certain kind of finish I shall never attempt again.” Archives of American Art, reel NMC31.
(86) Carlsen to Macbeth, Sept. 3, 1926. Archives of American Art, reel NMC31.
(87) August Bontoux, to Claude Buck, Jan. 15, 1927 (see n. 8).
(88) New York Times, Dec. 28, 1919, Part VIII, p. 6.
(89) Carlsen to Claude Buck, Mar. 25, 1928, Archive of American Art, reel 2982.
(90) Carlsen to Claude Buck, Nov. 2, 1928 from Ogunquit, Maine: “It is a difficult task to write about another man’s work, especially now when all art is so mixed up that a serious student cannot understand what is going on all around him. The prizes given at the Carnegie shows last year and this are difficult to grasp. Matisse, Derain and most of the others are painters of ability, yes, but to one misapplied and mixed with cheap charlatanism. The Corcoran show I have not seen, but the Karfiol canvas is not very original, indifferently composed, and to me made unnecessarily ugly on purpose to seem in the new swim. The Speicher was not a good example of this most serious and able man, and the landscape rather a cheap imitation of how the modern landscape is made where it is saleable. It is not pleasant to find fault…Summing up, giving advice is stupid, every man has to go his own way, and your way so far is sincere, able and with very fine purpose.”
See also Price, op. cit., pp. 307-08, for Carlsen’s critical views regarding a modernist still life he has just seen: “You can call [the artist] a darn fool but that’s no argument. Harmony of angles, ingenuity, invention, is this an artist’s business, and does he paint these devices? Is there a soul that dominates? An ideal that lifts, inspires? I am old fashioned. I cannot believe these men. A tomato thrown at a canvas might do as well. After all, a painting is not good because it is bad—it cannot be simply experimental. It must hold some other quality than a manufactured oddness. Beauty is lovable.”
(91) Art Digest, May 1, 1935, p. 15; New York Times, Apr. 28, 1935, sect. X, p. 7; Art News, May 4, 1935, p. 11; New York Sun, Apr. 24, 1935; New York World Telegram, Apr. 25, 1935; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1935; New York Tribune, Apr. 28, 1935.
(92) New York Times, Apr. 26, 1935, art-books sec., p. 17.
(93) New York World Telegram, Apr. 25, 1935.
(94) Carlsen to Claude Buck, Mar. 25, 1928. Archive of American Art, reel 2982.
WORKS BY EMIL CARLSEN