And I made an invisible duplicate on my Formica tabletop of a painting by Rabo Karabekian, entitled The Temptation of St. Anthony. My duplicate was a miniature of the real thing, and mine was not in color, but I had captured the picture’s form and the spirit, too. This is what I drew.
The original was twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high. The field was Hawaiian Avocado, a green wall paint manufactured by the O’Hare Paint and Varnish Company in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. The vertical stripe was day-glo orange reflecting tape. This was the most expensive piece of art, not counting buildings and tombstones, and not counting the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the old Nigger high school.
It was a scandal what the painting cost. It was the first purchase for the memorial collection of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts. Fred T. Barry, the Chairman of the Board of Barrytron, Ltd., had coughed up fifty thousand dollars of his own for the picture.
Midland city was outraged. So was I.
“You don’t think much of Mary Alice Miller?” she said. “Well we don’t think much of your painting. I’ve seen better pictures done by a five year-old.”
Karabekian slid off his bar stool so he could face all those enemies standing up. He certainly surprised me. I expected him to retreat in a hail of olives, maraschino cherries and lemon rinds. But he was majestic up there. “Listen—” he said so calmly, “I have read the editorials against my painting in your wonderful newspaper. I have read every word of the hate mail you have been thoughtful enough to send to New York.”
“The painting did not exist until I made it.” Karabekian went on. “Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the five-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find.
“I now give you my work of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal–the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us–in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
“I have just heard from this cocktail waitress here, this vertical band of light, a story about her husband and an idiot who was about to be executed at Shepherdstown. Very well—let a five-year-old paint a sacred interpretation of that encounter. Let that five-year-old strip away the idiocy, the bars, the waiting electric chair, the uniform of the guard, the gun of the guard, the bones and meat of the guard. What is that perfect picture which any five-year-old can paint? Two unwavering bands of light.”
Ecstasy bloomed on the barbaric face of Rabo Karabekian. “Citizens of Midland City, I salute you,” he said. “ You have given a home to a masterpiece!”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr, 1922-2007 Breakfast of Champions, or, Goodbye, Blue Monday, 1973. Chapter 19
Image: Rabo Karabekian: The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1950. Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint, and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. $50,000
Plot: Kurt Vonnegut introduces the character Rabo Karabekian, whose painting has been purchased for the Midland City Art Gallery for $50,000. “ I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.” Accused of making a painting that a five year-old could have created Karabekian has to defend the position of the artist. The character of Rabo Karabekian was developed in Vonnegut’s novel, Bluebeard published in 1988. The painting relates visually to the abstract field paintings of Barnett Newman.
‘Tell me Chuck, if you ever saw that guy again, do you think you would recognise him?’
‘The Guy who bought the pitcher?’
Chuck nodded positively. ‘Oh yeah, I’d know him. I don’t forget faces.’
‘If ever you see him in here again, try to get his name, will you?’
‘Sure, Kent. Be glad to. Anything wrong?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m just curious.’
Chuck looked sorrowful. ‘The boss was a damn fool to sell that pitcher. It bought a lot of guys in here. I used to look at it myself.’ He swivelled his head and gazed up at a huge sepia print of a redwood tree that hung above the bar. The tree had a tunnel chopped in its base, and an old-fashioned automobile was driving through. ‘That goddam thing!’ he sneered in disgust.
‘I’d give a lot to know who bought it,’ the young man said.
Chuck turned to Dan.’Jesus, it was a lovely thing! Pitcher of a dame. Nothin’ on. What hips! Whew! And a pair of tomatoes that would make your mouth water.’ He poised his fat hands over his chest to indicate size. ‘Used to hang right up there over the bar.’
‘I just want to know who got it,’ the young man repeated doggedly.
Chuck’s shoulders heaved with laughter. ‘Guys used to sneak in here to eye it.’ He leaned on the bar and imitated a man sneaking a look. ‘They pretended they wasn’t even interested. Just drinkin’ their liquor. Soon as they thought nobody was watching’ them up goes their eyes.’ He rolled his eyes lasciviously.
The Bishop Gallery had a large store front on Sutter Street, with a few paintings displayed in the windows. Dan paused to study one of them, but couldn’t make head or tail of what he saw. An enormous eye, divorced from its socket, was lying off to one side. A card on the little rack on the painting read: ‘ Existophrenic Landscape by Arnold Winckleman’. Dan gave it up and entered.
Robert Finnegan. Pen name of Paul William Ryan,1906-1947, who also wrote as Mike Quin. The Bandaged Nude, 1952. Chapter 1 and 10
Image: Ralph Burke Tyree, 1921-1979
Plot: Dan Banion is a Philip Marlowe style crime reporter investigating the murder of artist Kenton Kipper, and a sub-plot of someone buying, stealing and destroying Kipper’s paintings that touches the art world, and underworld of the post-1945 environs of San Francisco.
The old Art Institute, which preceded the present impressive structure, was located at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, and presented an atmosphere of distinction which was not present in most of the structures representing the public taste of the period. It was a large six storey building of brown stone, and contained a number of studios for painters, sculptors, and music teachers, besides the exhibition rooms and the rooms for the classes. There were both day and evening classes, and even at that time a large number of students. The western soul, to a certain extent, was fired by the wonder of art. There was so little of it in the life of the people—the fame of those who could accomplish things in this field and live in a more refined atmosphere was great. To go to Paris! To be a student in any one of the great ateliers of that city! Or of Munich or Rome, to know the character of the artistic treasures of Europe—the life of the Art quarter—that was something. There was what might have been termed a wild desire in the breast of many an untutored boy and girl to get out of the ranks of the commonplace; to assume the character and thehabiliments of the artistic temperament as they were then supposed to be; to have a refined, semi-languorous, semi-indifferent manner; to live in a studio, to have a certain freedom in morals and temperament not accorded to the ordinary person—these were the great things to do and be. Of course, art composition was a part of this. You were supposed ultimately to paint great pictures or do noble sculptures, but in the meanwhile you could and should live the life of the artist. And that was beautiful and wonderful and free.
Eugene had long had some sense of this. He was aware that there were studios in Chicago; that certain men were supposed to be doing good work—he saw it in the papers. There were mentions now and then of exhibitions, mostly free, which the public attended but sparingly. Once there was an exhibition of some of the war pictures of Verestchagin, a great Russian painter who had come West for some purpose. Eugene saw them one Sunday afternoon, and was enthralled by the magnificence of their grasp of the elements of battle; the wonder of color; the truth of character; the dramatic quality; the sense of force and danger and horror and suffering which was somehow around and in and through everything that was shown. This man had virility and insight; stupendous imagination and temperament. Eugene stood and stared, wondering how such things could be done. Ever afterward the name of Verestchagin was like a great call to his imagination; that was the kind of an artist to be if you were going to be one.
Another picture came there once, which appealed to another side of his nature, although primarily the basis of its appeal was artistic. It was a great, warm tinted nude by Bouguereau, a French artist who was startling his day with his daring portrayal of the nude. The types he depicted were not namby-pamby little slim-bodied women with spindling qualities of strength and passion, but great, full-blown women whose voluptuous contour of neck and arms and torso and hip and thigh was enough to set the blood of youth at fever heat. The man obviously understood and had passion, love of form, love of desire, love of beauty. He painted with a sense of the bridal bed in the background; of motherhood and of fat, growing babies, joyously nursed. These women stood up big in their sense of beauty and magnetism, the soft lure of desire in their eyes, their full lips parted, their cheeks flushed with the blood of health. As such they were anathema to the conservative and puritanical in mind, the religious in temperament, thecautious in training or taste. The very bringing of this picture to Chicago as a product for sale was enough to create a furore of objection. Such pictures should not be painted, was the cry of the press; or if painted, not exhibited. Bouguereau was conceived of by many as one of those dastards of art who were endeavoring to corrupt by their talent the morals of the world; there was a cry raised that the thing should be suppressed; and as is always the case in all such outbursts of special class opposition, the interest of the general public was aroused.
Eugene was one of those who noted the discussion. He had never seen a picture by Bouguereau or, indeed, an original nude by any other artist. Being usually at liberty after three o’clock, he was free to visit some of these things, and having found it possible to do his work in good clothes he had come to wear his best suit every day. He was a fairly presentable youth with a solemn mien, and his request to be shown anything in any art store would have aroused no surprise. He looked as though he belonged to the intellectual and artistic classes.
Not being sure of what reception would be accorded one so young—he was now nearing twenty—he nevertheless ventured to stop at the gallery where the Bouguereau was being exhibited and ask to see it. The attendant in charge eyed him curiously, but led him back to a room hung in dark red, and turning on a burst of incandescent bulbs set in the ceiling of a red plush hung cabinet, pulled back the curtain revealing the picture. Eugene had never seen such a figure and face. It was a dream of beauty—his ideal come to life. He studied the face and neck, the soft mass of brown, sensuous hair massed at the back of the head, the flowerlike lips and soft cheeks. He marveled at the suggestion of the breasts and the abdomen, that potentiality of motherhood that is so firing to the male. He could have stood there hours dreaming, luxuriating, but the attendant who had left him alone with it for a few minutes returned.
“What is the price of this?” Eugene asked.
“Ten thousand dollars,” was the reply.
He smiled solemnly. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he said, and turned to go. The attendant put out the light.
This picture, like those of Verestchagin, made a sharp impression on him. Curiously he had no longing to paint anything of this kind. He only rejoiced to look at it. It spoke to him of his present ideal of womanhood—physical beauty, and he longed with all his heart to find a creature like that who would look on him with favor.
There were other exhibitions—one containing a genuine Rembrandt—whichimpressed him, but none like these that had definitely stirred him. His interest in art was becoming eager. He wanted to find out all about it—to do something himself. One day he ventured to call at the Art Institute building and consult the secretary, who explained to him what the charges were. He learned from her, for she was a woman of a practical, clerical turn, that the classes ran from October to May, that he could enter a life or antique class or both, though the antique alone was advisable for the time, and a class in illustration, where costumes of different periods were presented on different models. He found that each class had an instructor of supposed note, whom it was not necessary for him to see. Each class had a monitor and each student was supposed to work faithfully for his own benefit. Eugene did not get to see the class rooms, but he gained a sense of the art of it all, nevertheless, for the halls and offices were decorated in an artistic way, and there were many plaster casts of arms, legs, busts, and thighs and heads. It was as though one stood in an open doorway and looked out upon a new world. The one thing that gratified him was that he could study pen and ink or brush in the illustration class, and that he could also join a sketch class from five to six every afternoon without extra charges if he preferred to devote his evening hours to studying drawing in the life class. He was a little astonished to learn from a printed prospectus given him that the life class meant nude models to work from—both men and women. He was surely approaching a different world now. It seemed necessary and natural enough, and yet there was an aloof atmosphere about it, something that suggested the inner precincts of a shrine, to which only talent was admitted. Was he talented? Wait! He would show the world, even if he was a raw country boy.
The classes which he decided to enter were first a life class which convened Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at seven in one of the study rooms and remained in session until ten o’clock, and second a sketch class which met from five to six every afternoon. Eugene felt that he knew little or nothing about figure and anatomy and had better work at that. Costume and illustration would have to wait, and as for the landscapes, or rather city-scapes, of which he was so fond, he could afford to defer those until he learned something of the fundamentals of art.
Heretofore he had rarely attempted the drawing of a face or figure except in miniature and as details of a larger scene. Now he was confronted with the necessity of sketching in charcoalthe head or body of a living person, and it frightened him a little. He knew that he would be in a class with fifteen or twenty other male students. They would be able to see and comment on what he was doing. Twice a week an instructor would come around and pass upon his work. There were honors for those who did the best work during any one month, he learned from the prospectus, namely: first choice of seats around the model at the beginning of each new pose. The class instructors must be of considerable significance in the American art world, he thought, for they were N. A.’s, and that meant National Academicians. He little knew with what contempt this honor was received in some quarters, or he would not have attached so much significance to it.
One Monday evening in October, armed with the several sheets of paper which he had been told to purchase by his all-informing prospectus, he began his work. He was a little nervous at sight of the brightly lighted halls and class rooms, and the moving crowd of young men and women did not tend to allay his fears. He was struck at once with the quality of gaiety, determination and easy grace which marked the different members of this company. The boys struck him as interesting, virile, in many cases good looking; the girls as graceful, rather dashing and confident. One or two whom he noted were beautiful in a dark way. This was a wonderful world.
The rooms too, were exceptional. They were old enough in use to be almost completely covered, as to the walls, with the accumulation of paint scraped from the palettes. There were no easels or other paraphernalia, but simply chairs and little stools—the former, as Eugene learned, to be turned upside down for easels, the latter for the students to sit on. In the center of the room was a platform, the height of an ordinary table, for the model to pose on, and in one corner a screen which constituted a dressing room. There were no pictures or statuary—just the bare walls—but curiously, in one corner, a piano. Out in the halls and in the general lounging center were pictures of nude figures or parts of figures posed in all sorts of ways which Eugene, in his raw, youthful way, thought suggestive. He secretly rejoiced to look at them but he felt that he must not say anything about what he thought. An art student, he felt sure, must appear to be indifferent to such suggestion—to be above such desire. They were here to work, not to dream of women.
When the time came for the classes to assemble there was a scurrying to and fro, conferring between different students, andthen the men found themselves in one set of rooms and the women in another. Eugene saw a young girl in his room, sitting up near the screen, idly gazing about. She was pretty, of a slightly Irish cast of countenance, with black hair and black eyes. She wore a cap that was an imitation of the Polish national head-dress, and a red cape. Eugene assumed her to be the class model and secretly wondered if he was really to see her in the nude. In a few minutes all the students were gathered, and then there was a stir as there strolled in a rather vigorous and picturesque man of thirty-six or thereabouts, who sauntered to the front of the room and called the class to order. He was clad in a shabby suit of grey tweed and crowned with a little brown hat, shoved rakishly over one ear, which he did not trouble to take off. He wore a soft blue hickory shirt without collar or tie, and looked immensely self-sufficient. He was tall and lean and raw-boned, with a face which was long and narrow; his eyes were large and wide set, his mouth big and firm in its lines; he had big hands and feet, and an almost rolling gait. Eugene assumed instinctively that this was Mr. Temple Boyle, N. A., the class instructor, and he imagined there would be an opening address of some kind. But the instructor merely announced that Mr. William Ray had been appointed monitor and that he hoped that there would be no disorder or wasting of time. There would be regular criticism days by him—Wednesdays and Fridays. He hoped that each pupil would be able to show marked improvement. The class would now begin work. Then he strolled out.
Eugene soon learned from one of the students that this really was Mr. Boyle. The young Irish girl had gone behind the screen. Eugene could see partially, from where he was sitting, that she was disrobing. It shocked him a little, but he kept his courage and his countenance because of the presence of so many others. He turned a chair upside down as he saw the others do, and sat down on a stool. His charcoal was lying in a little box beside him. He straightened his paper on its board and fidgeted, keeping as still as he could. Some of the students were talking. Suddenly he saw the girl divest herself of a thin, gauze shirt, and the next moment she came out, naked and composed, to step upon the platform and stand perfectly erect, her arms by her side, her head thrown back. Eugene tingled and blushed and was almost afraid to look directly at her. Then he took a stick of charcoal and began sketching feebly, attempting to convey something of this personality and this pose to paper. It seemed a wonderful thing for him to bedoing—to be in this room, to see this girl posing so; in short, to be an art student. So this was what it was, a world absolutely different from anything he had ever known. And he was self-called to be a member of it.
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book I. Chapter VI.
Book I. Chapter XVI
The art world of New York is peculiar. It was then and for some time after, broken up into cliques with scarcely any unity. There was a world of sculptors, for instance, in which some thirty or forty sculptors had part—but they knew each other slightly, criticised each other severely and retired for the most part into a background of relatives and friends. There was a painting world, as distinguished from an illustrating world, in which perhaps a thousand alleged artists, perhaps more, took part. Most of these were men and women who had some ability—enough to have their pictures hung at the National Academy of Design exhibition—to sell some pictures, get some decorative work to do, paint some portraits. There were studio buildings scattered about various portions of the city; in Washington Square; in Ninth and Tenth Streets; in odd places, such as Macdougal Alley and occasional cross streets from Washington Square to Fifty-ninth Street, which were filled with painters, illustrators, sculptors and craftsmen in art generally. This painting world had more unity than the world of sculptors and, in a way, included the latter. There were several art clubs—the Salmagundi, the Kit-Kat and the Lotus—and there were a number of exhibitions, ink, water color, oil, with their reception nights where artists could meet and exchange the courtesies and friendship of their world. In addition to this there were little communal groups such as those who resided in the Tenth Street studios; the Twenty-third Street Y. M. C. A.; the Van Dyck studios, and so on. It was possible to find little crowds, now and then, that harmonized well enough for a time and to get into a group, if, to use a colloquialism, one belonged. If you did not, art life in New York might be a very dreary thing and one might go a long time without finding just the particular crowd with which to associate.
Beside the painting world there was the illustrating world, made up of beginners and those who had established themselves firmly in editorial favor. These were not necessarily a part of the painting or sculpture worlds and yet, in spirit, were allied to them, had their clubs also, and their studios were in the various neighborhoods where the painters and sculptors were. The only difference was that in the case of the embryo illustrators they were to be found living three or four in one studio, partlybecause of the saving in expense, but also because of the love of companionship and because they could hearten and correct one another in their work. A number of such interesting groups were in existence when Eugene arrived, but of course he did not know of them.
It takes time for the beginner to get a hearing anywhere. We all have to serve an apprenticeship, whatever field we enter. Eugene had talent and determination, but no experience, no savoir faire, no circle of friends and acquaintances. The whole city was strange and cold, and if he had not immediately fallen desperately in love with it as a spectacle he would have been unconscionably lonely and unhappy. As it was the great fresh squares, such as Washington, Union and Madison; the great streets, such as Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue; the great spectacles, such as the Bowery at night, the East River, the water front, the Battery, all fascinated him with an unchanging glamor.
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book I. Chapter XVI
Book 2. Chapter V
The hope of fame—what hours of speculation, what pulses of enthusiasm, what fevers of effort, are based on that peculiarly subtle illusion! It is yet the lure, the ignis fatuus of almost every breathing heart. In the young particularly it burns with the sweetness and perfume of spring fires. Then most of all does there seem substantial reality in the shadow of fame—those deep, beautiful illusions which tremendous figures throw over the world. Attainable, it seems, must be the peace and plenty and sweet content of fame—that glamour of achievement that never was on sea or land. Fame partakes of the beauty and freshness of the morning. It has in it the odour of the rose, the feel of rich satin, the color of the cheeks of youth. If we could but be famous when we dream of fame, and not when locks are tinged with grey, faces seamed with the lines that speak of past struggles, and eyes wearied with the tensity, the longings and the despairs of years! To bestride the world in the morning of life, to walk amid the plaudits and the huzzahs when love and faith are young; to feel youth and the world’s affection when youth and health are sweet—what dream is that, of pure sunlight and moonlight compounded. A sun-kissed breath of mist in the sky; the reflection of moonlight upon water; the remembrance of dreams to the waking mind—of such is fame in our youth, and never afterward.
By such an illusion was Eugene’s mind possessed. He had no conception of what life would bring him for his efforts. He thought if he could have his pictures hung in a Fifth Avenue gallery much as he had seen Bouguereau’s “Venus” in Chicago, with people coming as he had come on that occasion—it would be of great comfort and satisfaction to him. If he could paint something which would be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in New York he would then be somewhat of a classic figure, ranking with Corot and Daubigny and Rousseau of the French or with Turner and Watts and Millais of the English, the leading artistic figures of his pantheon. These men seemed to have something which he did not have, he thought, a greater breadth of technique, a finer comprehension of color and character, a feeling for the subtleties at the back of life which somehow showed through what they did. Larger experience, larger vision, larger feeling—these things seemed to be imminentin the great pictures exhibited here, and it made him a little uncertain of himself. Only the criticism in the Evening Sun fortified him against all thought of failure. He was an artist.
He gathered up the various oils he had done—there were some twenty-six all told now, scenes of the rivers, the streets, the night life, and so forth—and went over them carefully, touching up details which in the beginning he had merely sketched or indicated, adding to the force of a spot of color here, modifying a tone or shade there, and finally, after much brooding over the possible result, set forth to find a gallery which would give them place and commercial approval.
Eugene’s feeling was that they were a little raw and sketchy—that they might not have sufficient human appeal, seeing that they dealt with factory architecture at times, scows, tugs, engines, the elevated roads in raw reds, yellows and blacks; but MacHugh, Dula, Smite, Miss Finch, Christina, the Evening Sun, Norma Whitmore, all had praised them, or some of them. Was not the world much more interested in the form and spirit of classic beauty such as that represented by Sir John Millais? Would it not prefer Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel” to any street scene ever painted? He could never be sure. In the very hour of his triumph when the Sun had just praised his picture, there lurked the spectre of possible intrinsic weakness. Did the world wish this sort of thing? Would it ever buy of him? Was he of any real value?
“No, artist heart!” one might have answered, “of no more value than any other worker of existence and no less. The sunlight on the corn, the color of dawn in the maid’s cheek, the moonlight on the water—these are of value and of no value according to the soul to whom is the appeal. Fear not. Of dreams and the beauty of dreams is the world compounded.”
Kellner and Son, purveyors of artistic treasures by both past and present masters, with offices in Fifth Avenue near Twenty-eighth Street, was the one truly significant firm of art-dealers in the city. The pictures in the windows of Kellner and Son, the exhibitions in their very exclusive show rooms, the general approval which their discriminating taste evoked, had attracted the attention of artists and the lay public for fully thirty years. Eugene had followed their shows with interest ever since he had been in New York. He had seen, every now and then, a most astonishing picture of one school or another displayed in their imposing shop window, and had heard artists comment from time to time on other things there with considerable enthusiasm. The first important picture of theimpressionistic school—a heavy spring rain in a grove of silver poplars by Winthrop—had been shown in the window of this firm, fascinating Eugene with its technique. He had encountered here collections of Aubrey Beardsley’s decadent drawings, of Helleu’s silverpoints, of Rodin’s astonishing sculptures and Thaulow’s solid Scandinavian eclecticism. This house appeared to have capable artistic connections all over the world, for the latest art force in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, or Sweden, was quite as likely to find its timely expression here as the more accredited work of England, Germany or France. Kellner and Son were art connoisseurs in the best sense of the word, and although the German founder of the house had died many years before, its management and taste had never deteriorated.
Eugene did not know at this time how very difficult it was to obtain an exhibition under Kellner’s auspices, they being over-crowded with offers of art material and appeals for display from celebrated artists who were quite willing and able to pay for the space and time they occupied. A fixed charge was made, never deviated from except in rare instances where the talent of the artist, his poverty, and the advisability of the exhibition were extreme. Two hundred dollars was considered little enough for the use of one of their show rooms for ten days.
Eugene had no such sum to spare, but one day in January, without any real knowledge as to what the conditions were, he carried four of the reproductions which had been made from time to time in Truth to the office of Mr. Kellner, certain that he had something to show. Miss Whitmore had indicated to him that Eberhard Zang wanted him to come and see him, but he thought if he was going anywhere he would prefer to go to Kellner and Son. He wanted to explain to Mr. Kellner, if there were such a person, that he had many more paintings which he considered even better—more expressive of his growing understanding of American life and of himself and his technique. He went in timidly, albeit with quite an air, for this adventure disturbed him much.
The American manager of Kellner and Son, M. Anatole Charles, was a Frenchman by birth and training, familiar with the spirit and history of French art, and with the drift and tendency of art in various other sections of the world. He had been sent here by the home office in Berlin not only because of his very thorough training in English art ways, and because of his ability to select that type of picture which would attract attention and bring credit and prosperity to the house here and abroad; but also because of his ability to make friends amongthe rich and powerful wherever he was, and to sell one type of important picture after another—having some knack or magnetic capacity for attracting to him those who cared for good art and were willing to pay for it. His specialties, of course, were the canvases of the eminently successful artists in various parts of the world—the living successful. He knew by experience what sold—here, in France, in England, in Germany. He was convinced that there was practically nothing of value in American art as yet—certainly not from the commercial point of view, and very little from the artistic. Beyond a few canvases by Inness, Homer, Sargent, Abbey, Whistler, men who were more foreign, or rather universal, than American in their attitude, he considered that the American art spirit was as yet young and raw and crude. “They do not seem to be grown up as yet over here,” he said to his intimate friends. “They paint little things in a forceful way, but they do not seem as yet to see things as a whole. I miss that sense of the universe in miniature which we find in the canvases of so many of the great Europeans. They are better illustrators than artists over here—why I don’t know.”
M. Anatole Charles spoke English almost more than perfectly. He was an example of your true man of the world—polished, dignified, immaculately dressed, conservative in thought and of few words in expression. Critics and art enthusiasts were constantly running to him with this and that suggestion in regard to this and that artist, but he only lifted his sophisticated eyebrows, curled his superior mustachios, pulled at his highly artistic goatee, and exclaimed: “Ah!” or “So?” He asserted always that he was most anxious to find talent—profitable talent—though on occasion (and he would demonstrate that by an outward wave of his hands and a shrug of his shoulders), the house of Kellner and Son was not averse to doing what it could for art—and that for art’s sake without any thought of profit whatsoever. “Where are your artists?” he would ask. “I look and look. Whistler, Abbey, Inness, Sargent—ah—they are old, where are the new ones?”
“Well, this one”—the critic would probably persist.
“Well, well, I go. I shall look. But I have little hope—very, very little hope.”
He was constantly appearing under such pressure, at this studio and that—examining, criticising. Alas, he selected the work of but few artists for purposes of public exhibition and usually charged them well for it.
It was this man, polished, artistically superb in his way, whomEugene was destined to meet this morning. When he entered the sumptuously furnished office of M. Charles the latter arose. He was seated at a little rosewood desk lighted by a lamp with green silk shade. One glance told him that Eugene was an artist—very likely of ability, more than likely of a sensitive, high-strung nature. He had long since learned that politeness and savoir faire cost nothing. It was the first essential so far as the good will of an artist was concerned. Eugene’s card and message brought by a uniformed attendant had indicated the nature of his business. As he approached, M. Charles’ raised eyebrows indicated that he would be very pleased to know what he could do for Mr. Witla.
“I should like to show you several reproductions of pictures of mine,” began Eugene in his most courageous manner. “I have been working on a number with a view to making a show and I thought that possibly you might be interested in looking at them with a view to displaying them for me. I have twenty-six all told and—”
“Ah! that is a difficult thing to suggest,” replied M. Charles cautiously. “We have a great many exhibitions scheduled now—enough to carry us through two years if we considered nothing more. Obligations to artists with whom we have dealt in the past take up a great deal of our time. Contracts, which our Berlin and Paris branches enter into, sometimes crowd out our local shows entirely. Of course, we are always anxious to make interesting exhibitions if opportunity should permit. You know our charges?”
“No,” said Eugene, surprised that there should be any.
“Two hundred dollars for two weeks. We do not take exhibitions for less than that time.”
Eugene’s countenance fell. He had expected quite a different reception. Nevertheless, since he had brought them, he untied the tape of the portfolio in which the prints were laid.
M. Charles looked at them curiously. He was much impressed with the picture of the East Side Crowd at first, but looking at one of Fifth Avenue in a snow storm, the battered, shabby bus pulled by a team of lean, unkempt, bony horses, he paused, struck by its force. He liked the delineation of swirling, wind-driven snow. The emptiness of this thoroughfare, usually so crowded, the buttoned, huddled, hunched, withdrawn look of those who traveled it, the exceptional details of piles of snow sifted on to window sills and ledges and into doorways and on to the windows of the bus itself, attracted his attention.
“An effective detail,” he said to Eugene, as one critic mightsay to another, pointing to a line of white snow on the window of one side of the bus. Another dash of snow on a man’s hat rim took his eye also. “I can feel the wind,” he added.
M. Charles passed on in silence to the steaming tug coming up the East River in the dark hauling two great freight barges. He was saying to himself that after all Eugene’s art was that of merely seizing upon the obviously dramatic. It wasn’t so much the art of color composition and life analysis as it was stage craft. The man before him had the ability to see the dramatic side of life. Still—
He turned to the last reproduction which was that of Greeley Square in a drizzling rain. Eugene by some mystery of his art had caught the exact texture of seeping water on gray stones in the glare of various electric lights. He had caught the values of various kinds of lights, those in cabs, those in cable cars, those in shop windows, those in the street lamp—relieving by them the black shadows of the crowds and of the sky. The color work here was unmistakably good.
“How large are the originals of these?” he asked thoughtfully.
“Nearly all of them thirty by forty.”
Eugene could not tell by his manner whether he were merely curious or interested.
“All of them done in oil, I fancy.”
“They are not bad, I must say,” he observed cautiously. “A little persistently dramatic but—”
“These reproductions—” began Eugene, hoping by criticising the press work to interest him in the superior quality of the originals.
“Yes, I see,” M. Charles interrupted, knowing full well what was coming. “They are very bad. Still they show well enough what the originals are like. Where is your studio?”
“61 Washington Square.”
“As I say,” went on M. Charles, noting the address on Eugene’s card, “the opportunity for exhibition purposes is very limited and our charge is rather high. We have so many things we would like to exhibit—so many things we must exhibit. It is hard to say when the situation would permit—If you are interested I might come and see them sometime.”
Eugene looked perturbed. Two hundred dollars! Two hundred dollars! Could he afford it? It would mean so much to him. And yet the man was not at all anxious to rent him the show room even at this price.
“I will come,” said M. Charles, seeing his mood, “if you wish. That is what you want me to do. We have to be careful of what we exhibit here. It isn’t as if it were an ordinary show room. I will drop you a card some day when occasion offers, if you wish, and you can let me know whether the time I suggest is all right. I am rather anxious to see these scenes of yours. They are very good of their kind. It may be—one never can tell—an opportunity might offer—a week or ten days, somewhere in between other things.”
Eugene sighed inwardly. So this was how these things were done. It wasn’t very flattering. Still, he must have an exhibition. He could afford two hundred if he had to. An exhibition elsewhere would not be so valuable. He had expected to make a better impression than this.
“I wish you would come,” he said at last meditatively. “I think I should like the space if I can get it. I would like to know what you think.”
M. Charles raised his eyebrows.
“Very well,” he said, “I will communicate with you.”
Eugene went out.
What a poor thing this exhibiting business was, he thought. Here he had been dreaming of an exhibition at Kellners which should be brought about without charge to him because they were tremendously impressed with his work. Now they did not even want his pictures—would charge him two hundred dollars to show them. It was a great come down—very discouraging.
Still he went home thinking it would do him some good. The critics would discuss his work just as they did that of other artists. They would have to see what he could do should it be that at last this thing which he had dreamed of and so deliberately planned had come true. He had thought of an exhibition at Kellner’s as the last joyous thing to be attained in the world of rising art and now it looked as though he was near it. It might actually be coming to pass. This man wanted to see the rest of his work. He was not opposed to looking at them. What a triumph even that was!
Theodore Dreiser, 1871 – 1945 The “Genius”, 1915. Book 2. Chapter V
Image: Everett Shinn, 1876-1953 Strongman, Clown and Dancer