The New York Times, New York, NY, “A Sad Lack of Vision for a Venerable Club” by William Zimmer, July 13, 1997
A Sad Lack of Vision for a Venerable Club
By William Zimmer
Published: July 13, 1997
THE Thomas J. Walsh Gallery at Fairfield University has missed the chance to enlighten its audience on an underexamined period of American art — from just after the Civil War to the advent of Modernism. The Walsh Gallery (with the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, N.Y.) has organized an exhibition of art by early members of the Salmagundi Club, an important Manhattan haven for artists that began as a sketch club in Greenwich Village in 1871.
But no one attending the exhibition, ”A Fertile Fellowship: The Rich History of the Salmagundi Club,” would guess that the organization had a rich history. The 40 works of art chosen for it are generally as dull as ditchwater. Granted, a certain dullness and loss of ambition characterizes much painting of the Gilded Age. The myth of America as the new Garden of Eden where humanity could make a fresh start, an idea that gave rose to the ambitious Hudson River School, was largely discounted by the end of the Civil War in favor of the less innocent vision of America as a place where enterprising folk could make a lot of money. Nevertheless the period produced many compelling artists, and not a few of them belonged to the Salmagundi Club.
Salmagundi is a culinary term that referred to a ragout or stew in Jacobean England, and to a salad of various ingredients in Colonial America. Fitting, for the organization was part dining club. It has occupied a townhouse on lower Fifth Avenue since 1917. Before that, it rented the former studio and home of the sculptor John Rogers. It used to schedule frequent large functions to honor its artists — among them, William Merritt Chase, George Inness, Thomas Moran, Childe Hassam, Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. A couple of artists now considered eccentrics, Elihu Vedder and Ralph Blakelock, were also members. Other notables identified as lay members (in other words, non-visual artists) include John Philip Sousa and the architect Stanford White.
But none of these eminent artists are to be found in the exhibition. Most of the names of those whose work is included will be completely unfamiliar to most viewers. And what is equally maddening, only scattered dates are provided for the art work. The dearth of genuine inspiration shows up most nakedly among the landscape painters; it looks as if they might have held a contest to see who could produce the most dismal work. Brown tonalities are the rule along with scant vegetation.
John Francis Murphy’s ”Landscape” is typical in its depiction of a truncated and denuded stump alone in the center of the canvas; if a viewer employs the pathetic fallacy, and attributes human emotions to non-human things, this tree might be imploring the gray heavens for some kind of relief.
At the entrance to the show hang five palettes belonging to painters represented in the show. They are arrayed like a phalanx of U.F.O.’s and thus become the most interesting composition in the show. They also serve as a reminder that the Salmagundi Club was a brotherly society of painters. Clubby portraits include those of Carlton Wiggins by Albert Rosenthal and J. Scott Hartley by M. H. Bancroft. One of the most tantalizing pictures in the exhibition is William R. Leigh’s ”Studio.” It has mystery: the occupant has left, and we see only a table, with some feather-like scraps; it looks as though the absent artist may have been plucking a chicken.
Women are omitted altogether as artists and even from the discussion of the club’s history, but are frequently the subject of art. Sometimes they’re allegorical, as in ”The Sound of Music” by Gerald Leake, and in the awkwardly titled ”Study for a Drawing of the U.S. Court House — Cleveland,” by Edwin H. Blashfield; the drawing is of a woman with an anxious expression on her face, a look appropriate for a courthouse.
The printed green dress is the primary allure of Alphaeus Cole’s half-length portrait of his wife, and everything else in Frank H. Desch’s ”Robe de Boudoir (Reflections)” is but a pretext for indulging in a yellow robe with thick, bright spots that indicate flowers. It’s the cheeriest thing in the show, save for ”The Actress,” vivaciously and animatedly painted by Arthur R. Freedlander. The artist obviously knew about the Ash Can School and its mission to portray the bumptious side of life.
In three diverse paintings representational elements are against, or emerge from, dark backgrounds, which seems an especially Spanish influence. Emil Carlsen makes an ordinary copper pan displayed on its side seem monumental, and he obviously delighted in giving it a brassy gleam. The eponymous figures in Ralph Blum’s ”Japanese Soldiers Praying” startle as their white costumes appear out of the darkness. Certainly the most involving painting in the show is the small canvas, ”Alone” by Charles Webster Hawthorne. A man sits at a dinner table set for one and the white tablecloth is almost spectrally bright. The man’s head, shoulder and hand are strangely out of alignment with each other, which hints at a psychologically tense situation on which Henry James could shed light.
”A Fertile Fellowship” is at the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University through Aug. 3.
Photos: Clockwise from above left: ”Landscape,” John Francis Murphy. ”Still Life With Copper Pan,” Emil Carlsen. ”Study,” Edwin H. Blashfield. ”Robe de Boudoir (Reflections),” Frank H. Desch.
WORKS BY EMIL CARLSEN