The Eilshemius Phenomenon

 
Supplication.jpg

Louis Eilshemius, Supplication (Rose Marie Calling), 1916; private collection.

Eilshemius’s submission to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition attracted the attention of Marcel Duchamp who declared it to be one of the best paintings in the show. The painting was the centerpiece of a 1933 exhibition at the Valentine Gallery.

 

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Valentine Dudensing’s true love was the School of Paris and yet, during the two decades that the Valentine Gallery was in business, he sold more paintings and drawings by Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941) than any other artist. Dudensing may have first learned about the eccentric American artist when Marcel Duchamp singled out Supplication (Rose Marie Calling), the painting that Eilshemius submitted to the first Society of Independent Artists exhibition that opened in New York in April 1917. (This non-juried show was the same one that famously rejected Duchamp’s pseudonymously-signed urinal entitled Fountain.) Eilshemius confidently valued his painting at $15,000 making it the most expensive work in the show. Was Duchamp’s praise an ironic response to the high value, a glaring juxtaposition to the awkwardly painted nude? Even if his acclaim was in jest it was often repeated and served to bolster Eilshemius’s reputation for years to come.

Katherine Dreier, an organizer of the Independents show with Duchamp, gave Eilshemius his first solo exhibition at the Société Anonyme in 1922. At the time Valentine Dudensing was a salesman at the Dudensing Galleries, his father’s gallery, in New York. If he hadn’t noticed Eilshemius’s work in 1917, he noticed it now. He later wrote: “The New York art world was surprised and stirred [by the Eilshemius show]; many new converts were made.” Dudensing was one of them and he subsequently arranged for an exhibition of Eilshemius’s paintings to open at the Valentine Gallery in the fall of 1926. He made a few sales to his top collectors but the reviews were harsh. While the paintings were described by at least one critic as “poetic,” so, too, were they called “lamentably amateurish.” Dudensing did not organize a follow-up show.

The Depression brought significant changes to the New York art market. During the late 1920s, increasing interest in the work of the School of Paris painters resulted in new galleries opening and existing galleries adding modern art to their programs. From his comfortable advantage in the field, Dudensing watched the competition grow and presciently noted in his letters to Pierre Matisse, his Paris-based partner, that the lesser quality works being imported were going to harm the market. Indeed, a backlash followed. Critics noted the increased number of mediocre paintings arriving from Paris and began calling for dealers to support American artists instead. This call grew louder with the onset of the Depression and by the fall of 1931 the term, “The American Wave,” began appearing in the press and referred to a resurgent interest in art that was fundamentally American. Writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Helen Appleton Read declared that “The Paris label has ceased to be a mark of artistic sophistication. To proclaim derivation from the Ecole Paris is to stamp one’s self as definitely prewar and out of touch with the main current of American art.”*

In late 1931 Valentine Dudensing saw an opportunity in the market shift toward American art. Louis Eilshemius, who was 67 years old and had stopped painting a decade earlier, was a prolific artist who had made few sales. He reportedly kept over 5,000 works in his Fifty-seventh street townhouse conveniently located down the street from the Valentine Gallery. Dudensing signed an exclusive contract with Eilshemius and, in a stroke of marketing genius, billed him “An Authentic American Artist.” Dudensing’s campaign began in February 1932 when he presented over three decades’ worth of paintings divided into two groupings that he labelled himself; the two-part exhibition opened with twenty-four examples from the "Period of Searching and Concentration, 1889-1910 'Romantic Drama'" followed in March with eighteen paintings from the “Period of Creation and Freedom, 1911-1920 'Lyrical Poetry.'" By April Dudensing sold two works to museums: the Cleveland Museum bought Samoa, 1907, and Lillian Henkel Haass bought Coast Scene, 1908, as a gift for the Detroit Institute of Arts (see images of these and other works below). With Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s 1926 purchase of The Flying Dutchman, 1908, on display in her recently-opened museum and Duncan Phillips’s 1927 purchase of a Samoa painting for his public collection, Dudensing could now list the museums that owned Eilshemius’s paintings, affirmation of the artist’s reputation for prospective buyers that were considering the artist’s work. The dealer also announced his ambitious plans for Eilshemius exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, and London to take place during the summer of 1932. Ultimately only the Paris show materialized though it was impressive and considered a major success: forty-five paintings were shown at the prestigious Galerie Durand-Ruel for two weeks in June. Henri Matisse reportedly visited the exhibition and became an admirer and, in a major coup, the Louvre purchased the 1918 painting, The Gossips. As a result, Dudensing could also claim the French seal of approval: “I know many serious Parisians who agree with me that Eilshemius is always a poet who had dreams and who painted them with a lyrical charm.”

At a time of economic misery, Eilshemius’s pastoral landscapes and charming figurative vignettes offered an escape unlike the gritty paintings of the Social Realists. The artist’s stylistic range appealed to a broad clientele and with access to his extensive inventory, Dudensing could reach all level of collectors. An exhibition of watercolors he organized in May 1934 attracted many first-time art buyers who seized the opportunity to take home a piece by an artist who was represented in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection. The watercolors were priced at $50 and $75 and, with the endorsement of the New York Times critic who called them “serious works of art,” the show was “literally strewn with the red stars of purchase.”**

Though Louis Eilshemius’s name has been lost to history, Valentine Dudensing was responsible for elevating the artist’s reputation to the forefront of the American art market. Between 1932 and 1945 the prestigious Valentine Gallery presented eleven solo exhibitions of his paintings and, in addition to the Metropolitan, Whitney, Phillips, and Cleveland, he also sold works to the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; and the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts. Leading collectors of modern art bought Eilshemius’s paintings as well, including Stephen C. Clark, George Gershwin, Chester Dale, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., Adelaide Milton de Groot, Robert H. Tannahill, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Victor Ganz, who went on to form one of the most important Picasso collections in the country, made his first art purchase—a watercolor by Eilshemius—in 1934 when he was 21-years-old. Joseph Hirshhorn and Roy Neuberger were among the most avid collectors; the latter gave a number of Eilshemius works to museums across the country.

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*“In the Galleries: Wide Variety of Group Shows Offered by Dealers –French Art at Kraushaar’s—American Scenes and Subjects at Rehns’s” (October 4, 1931), p. E5.

**Edward Alden Jewell, “Louis Eilshemius” (May 4, 1934), p. L19.

The Flying Dutchman , 1908, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

The Flying Dutchman, 1908, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Samoa , 1907, Cleveland Museum of Art

Samoa, 1907, Cleveland Museum of Art

Samoa , 1907, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Samoa, 1907, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

The Gossips , 1918, Louvre Museum, Paris. Now housed at Blérancourt, French-American Museum of Blérancourt Castle, France

The Gossips, 1918, Louvre Museum, Paris. Now housed at Blérancourt, French-American Museum of Blérancourt Castle, France

The Rejected Suitor , 1915, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

The Rejected Suitor, 1915, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

 
Delaware Water Gap , c. 1895-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1932

Delaware Water Gap, c. 1895-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1932

Adirondacks: Bridge for Fishing , 1897, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Adirondacks: Bridge for Fishing, 1897, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Springtime , c. 1901, watercolor, Worcester Art Museum

Springtime, c. 1901, watercolor, Worcester Art Museum

Selling Men on Modern Art

In the early decades of the twentieth-century, women dominated the modern art market in the U.S. For example, of the group of twenty-three individuals who financially backed the Armory Show of 1913, eighteen were women. Typically those who ventured into collecting modern art had traveled to Europe and spent time studying art or art history in Paris. Because of the dearth of modern art museums in the U.S., these women made it their mission to educate the public about the latest artistic developments. They opened galleries, founded museums and art clubs, organized exhibitions and lectures, hosted salons, served as advisors to collectors, and, as fundraisers, welcomed tour groups to see the art in their homes.

Valentine Dudensing was well aware that women were intrepid collectors of modern art. When he opened the Valentine Gallery in February 1926 the first seven sales he recorded in his ledger were to women. Seizing an opportunity, Dudensing alerted the press that he would begin using his gallery for bi-weekly art appreciation classes for men. "When men come into a gallery unaccompanied by their wives and express themselves freely they often have interesting ideas," Dudensing stated. He planned to help men gain confidence in their taste for modern art by showing them what to look for when judging the quality of a painting.

While no accounts of Dudensing's classes are known to exist, several prominent male collectors have credited Dudensing with selling them their first significant work of art. Joseph Pulitzer Jr. (1913-1993), the grandson of the newspaper magnate, is one of them. Pulitzer was a senior at Harvard in late 1935 when he came in to the Valentine Gallery, was inspired by a painting by Amedeo Modigliani and made his first major art purchase, Elvira Resting at a Table of 1919; the painting first hung in his room on campus. Pulitzer later gave it to the Saint Louis Art Museum. William Paley (1901-1990) first saw Cézanne's work in France in 1933 and was determined to buy an important painting by the artist. It took two years before he found what he wanted and from Dudensing bought L'Estaque, 1879-1883. In 1959, he gave the landscape to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Stephen Clark was introduced to Henri Matisse's paintings at the Valentine Gallery shortly after the gallery opened. He bought his first Matisse from Dudensing in 1926 and went on to buy twelve major works from the dealer over the years.*

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*For more on Stephen Clark's collection of Matisse paintings, see my post of November 5, 2016, "The Matisse Connection."  

The Washington Post ( March 21, 1926), AF11

The Washington Post (March 21, 1926), AF11

The Matisse Connection

Valentine Dudensing knew that if he wanted to sell contemporary European art in New York he would need an agent in Paris who could source artwork for him. It was serendipitous then that he met Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), the younger son of the artist, who was looking for opportunities to launch his career as an art dealer. Dudensing recognized that Matisse could offer access to the artists, dealers, and collectors of Paris and, most importantly, to Henri Matisse himself. In the fall of 1925 the two began discussing a partnership that would last for five years.

Henri Matisse's work had been introduced to the U.S. in the Armory Show of 1913 and in subsequent solo exhibitions in New York at Montross Gallery (1915) and at Brummer Gallery and Fearon Galleries (both in 1924). The retrospective exhibition that Pierre Matisse arranged for the Valentine Gallery for the month of January 1927 -- the first major Matisse show since 1924 and the first retrospective of the artist's work held in the U.S. -- was a welcome opportunity to see the artist's latest stylistic developments in context with his earlier work. Visitors crowded the gallery for the month-long show before it traveled to the Arts Club of Chicago for ten days. 

The exhibition featured nineteen paintings from 1890-1926 and included such highlights as:

  • Still Life, 1899 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • Woman on a High Stool, 1914 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • Marguerite au chat noir, 1910 (Musée national d'art moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris)

  • The Moroccans, 1915-16 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • White Plumes, 1919 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN)

  • The Moorish Screen, 1921 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA)

  • Young Woman in Pink, 1923 (de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA)

  • Figure décorative sur fond ornemental, 1925-26 (Musée national d'art moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris)

1927 became an important year for Matisse whose acceptance in the U.S. was confirmed when he won first prize for a still life submitted to the Carnegie International. With this award, Matisse became the first modern artist recognized by this venerable survey exhibition which began in 1896 and was held each fall at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Two years later, Pierre Matisse arranged a second solo exhibition -- this time of his father's recent paintings from 1923 to 1929 -- that opened at the Valentine Gallery in December 1929 and ran through early January 1930. 

Of the seventeen canvases included, at least seven are in U.S. museums today:

As Dudensing predicted, in addition to drawing crowds, Matisse's paintings attracted a number of well-known collectors and helped establish the Valentine Gallery's reputation as a leading source for the finest examples of modern art in New York. Dudensing's promotion of the artist arguably had the greatest impact on Stephen C. Clark (1882-1960), an important New York collector who in 1939 became Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Modern Art. Clark bought his first Matisse painting from the Valentine Gallery in March 1926 and over the next six years acquired twelve more paintings from the gallery. By 1930 he had converted the grand room on the top floor of his East 70th Street townhouse (now The Explorer's Club) into a "Matisse Room" that was decorated to match the brilliant colors and patterns in the paintings that hung on the walls.

Despite the fact that Clark had a change of heart and sold or gave away all of his Matisses by 1954, at least four paintings that he had acquired from the Valentine Gallery are now in U.S. museums: Coffee, 1916 (Detroit Institute of Arts, MI); White Plumes, 1919 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN); The Three O'Clock Sitting, 1924 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and Seated Odalisque, 1926 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).