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 1920 followed by a second in 1924. 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 Eilshemius’s paintings]; 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

Piet Mondrian’s First U.S. Exhibition

“I never took down from our walls any exhibition with more regret than the Mondrian show. Each day the pictures get more interesting and more beautiful.”

In a letter to Katherine Dreier dated February 17, 1942, Valentine Dudensing wrote about closing Piet Mondrian’s first U.S. exhibition. The show, which featured twenty paintings and eight drawings, had opened at the Valentine Gallery on January 19th. Since he arrived in New York sixteen months earlier Mondrian had finished only two paintings. With not enough time to complete more new works, Mondrian reworked and updated eleven existing paintings for the exhibition. Dudensing hung these thirteen paintings in the natural light of his gallery’s front room at 55 East 57th Street. For visitors to be surrounded by the predominantly white paintings with black grid lines syncopated with small blocks of primary colors was awe-inspiring; at least one young artist was struck by the impact of the works. At the time of the show Leland Bell was employed as a security guard at Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Within earshot of the museum’s curator, Baroness Hilla Rebay, Bell was overheard telling a museum visitor: “You want to see real painting, go to the Mondrian show at the Valentine Gallery.” The comment cost Bell his job.

While Valentine Dudensing is responsible for organizing Mondrian’s first solo exhibition, Katherine Dreier deserves credit as the first to identify the artist’s work for inclusion in an important group exhibition in the U.S. One of the founders of the Société Anonyme, an organization that aimed to be the country’s “first ‘experimental museum’ for contemporary art,” Dreier organized the ambitious International Exhibition of Modern Art that opened in November 1926 at the Brooklyn Museum. She chose to show two of Mondrian’s black and white paintings among the over 300 works in the exhibition.

A decade later Valentine Dudensing became Mondrian’s U.S. representative. The artist, who was living in Paris at the time, sent two paintings to the Valentine Gallery in the spring of 1936 just as Cubism and Abstract Art opened at the Museum of Modern Art; Alfred Barr’s groundbreaking exhibition featured nine paintings by the artist. The timing was fortuitous for Dudensing who sold both works and began making arrangements for the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Valentine Gallery.

The exhibition was originally scheduled for May 1937 however after being postponed, the show was canceled. With war looming Mondrian left Paris in the fall of 1938 and moved to London until he was finally able to emigrate to the U.S. in October 1940. Once the artist arrived in New York, Dudensing arranged for a fall 1941 show which was then postponed until January 1942. In the interim Mondrian completed two new paintings: New York City and Boogie-Woogie and reworked eleven that he’d made in Paris and London. By adding more and thinner black lines and blocks of primary color, Mondrian gave the paintings what he called “boogie-woogie” — dynamism inspired by jazz music which he loved and his new life in New York, a city in perpetual motion. In an unprecedented move Mondrian added the year of completion to the original date on the canvas face. This “double-dated” group became known as the “Transatlantic Paintings” and was the subject of an important exhibition organized by the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2001. In addition to these recent paintings, the Valentine Gallery exhibition included seven early paintings from 1906 (the “Naturalistic Period”) and 1910 (the “Transition Period”) along with eight drawings completed between 1912 and 1914.

After the success of this show, Dudensing held two more exhibitions of Mondrian’s paintings at the Valentine Gallery. The first opened in March 1943 and featured six works from 1936 to 1943; the second opened in March 1946 — nearly two years after the artist’s death — and included unfinished works from his studio.

Below is the checklist of the first Mondrian exhibition in the U.S. with links to images. The identifying numbers are from the catalogue raisonné by Robert P. Welsh and Joop M. Joosten. Links to images not in public collections are courtesy of the Mondrian Edition Project on the website RKD: https://rkd.nl.

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Paintings and Drawings by Mondrian

Valentine Gallery, New York, January 19 - February 7, 1942

PAINTINGS:

1) New York City, 1941-1942 (B301; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris)

2) Boogie Woogie, 1941-1942 (B299.319; Current location unknown)

3) 1939-1942 (either this or no. 6 is: B279.308; Tate Gallery, London)

4) 1938-1942 (B285.313; Saint Louis Art Museum)

5) 1939-1942 (B286.314; Current location unknown)

6) 1939-1942 (possibly B279.308 - see no. 3 above; second painting not identified)

7) 1937-1942 (B281.312; Munson-Williams Proctor Institute, Utica, NY)

8) 1930-1942 (B295.315; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX)

9) 1939-1942 (B287.316; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

10) 1939-1942 (B288.317; Private Collection)

11) 1940-1942 (B296.318; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY)

12) 1936-1942 (B280.309-unfinished; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

13) 1935-1942 (Unidentified)

14) 1922-1925 (B133.155; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C)

15) 1915 (B96.305; Current location unknown)

16) Eucalyptus, 1910 (B13-unfinished; Current location unknown)

17) Eucalyptus, 1910 (B22; Fondation Beyeler, Basel)

18) Naturalistic Period, 1906 (one of these is C46; Cleveland Museum of Art)

19) Naturalistic Period, 1906 (one of these is C64; Current location unknown)

20) Naturalistic Period, 1906 (one of these is C66; Current location unknown)

DRAWINGS:

21) Tree, 1914 (B62; Graphische Sammlung des Kunstmuseums, Bern)

22) Building, 1914 (possibly B61; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

23) Pier and Ocean, 1914 (either B68 or B69; both in Private Collections)

24) Pier and Ocean, 1914 (B78; Museum of Modern Art, NY)

25) Ocean, 1914 (B76; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)

26) Scaffold, 1912 (B48; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice)

27) Buildings, 1912 (either B52; Private Collection or B43; Cincinnati Art Museum)

28) Building, 1912 (B71; Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Joseph Stella, "The Only Worthy Artist in America"

By 1924 Valentine Dudensing had been manager of the Dudensing Galleries — his father’s gallery — for four years. During this time he gradually introduced the work of younger artists to the conservative exhibition program which had predominantly featured traditional paintings and watercolors by 19th-century European and American artists since the gallery opened two decades earlier. That October Dudensing included Joseph Stella’s most recent work, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, in a group exhibition of American artists. The dealer was rewarded for his efforts when the painting was reproduced both in The New York Times Magazine (Oct. 12, 1924) and later in color on the cover of International Studio magazine in August 1925.

Joseph Stella, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, 43 3/8 x 32 3/8 inches. Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO. Included in a group exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries in October 1924, Dance of Spring was sold by Valentine Dudensing to New York collector Adolph Lewisohn in April 1926.

This attention was not surprising. By 1924 Stella’s reputation was well established in New York where he first arrived from Italy in 1896. Nostalgic for his home country, he returned to Italy in 1909 for an extended stay. Stella traveled to Paris in 1911 where, dazzled by the innovations of the Fauvists, Cubists, and Futurists, he ended up staying for over a year. There he attended the Futurists’ exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in February 1912 and became friendly with Gino Severini whose dynamic style and large-scale paintings greatly impacted Stella.

Joseph Stella returned to New York in late 1912 just in time to submit paintings to the Armory Show which accepted two of his still-lifes. After a retrospective of 100 works at the Italian National Club in April 1913, Stella gained notoriety and acclaim as his paintings were shown nearly continuously in exhibitions in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, Worcester and Northampton, Massachusetts throughout the war years and into the early 1920s. Endorsed by Katherine Dreier, who showed his work at the Société Anonyme in 1923, and critic Henry McBride, that year Stella was famously deemed by the British painter, Augustus John, to be "the only worthy artist in America."

Joseph Stella,  Tree of My Life , 1919, 83 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches. Private Collection. This painting was sold by Dudensing to Carl Weeks in 1925.

Joseph Stella, Tree of My Life, 1919, 83 1/2 x 75 1/2 inches. Private Collection. This painting was sold by Dudensing to Carl Weeks in 1925.

Capitalizing on the enthusiasm for the Stella included in his group show, Valentine Dudensing organized a solo exhibition which opened at the Dudensing Galleries in April 1925. Though it featured only seven paintings, the show was a remarkable success both for the artist and the dealer. Stella’s fantastic subjects executed in his signature saturated color were dramatically lit with spotlights and glowed against the gallery’s dark wall hangings. Three of the works on view were oversized and startling to gallery-goers who were accustomed to the venue’s typical fare of small- to medium-sized landscapes and figural subjects. At nearly 7 feet tall by over six feet wide, for example, the breathtaking Tree of My Life, 1919, was unlike anything ever shown before at the gallery. Dudensing sold the painting to Carl Weeks, head of the Armand Company, the country’s leading maker of cold cream. The purchase likely inspired the Des Moines-based collector, who met and befriended the artist, to commission another large-scale work, resulting in Apotheosis of the Rose of 1926.

Joseph Stella,  Apotheosis of the Rose , 1926, 84 x 47 inches. Private Collection. Commissioned by Carl Weeks for his new home, Salisbury House, in Des Moines, Iowa, this painting was included in the first solo exhibition of Stella’s work at the Valentine Gallery in April 1926.

Joseph Stella, Apotheosis of the Rose, 1926, 84 x 47 inches. Private Collection. Commissioned by Carl Weeks for his new home, Salisbury House, in Des Moines, Iowa, this painting was included in the first solo exhibition of Stella’s work at the Valentine Gallery in April 1926.

The Dudensing Galleries exhibition of spring 1925 is credited with vaulting Stella’s career to a “new level of eminence” but the artist also deserves credit for playing a role in establishing Valentine Dudensing’s reputation and possibly inspiring him to open his own gallery. Stella’s jewel-like palette reflects the School of Paris paintings that undoubtedly inspired him; likewise, the School of Paris paintings that Dudensing showed for the next two decades were the reason for the Valentine Gallery’s success and renown. The dealer opened the Valentine Gallery ten months later and among his first shows presented Stella’s recent paintings. He organized two more solo exhibitions — November-December 1931 and January 1935 — and included the artist’s work in numerous group shows over the years.

Joseph Stella, Undine (Ondine), 1924-25, 36 x 38 inches. Private Collection. Included in the April 1925 show at the Dudensing Galleries, Undine was sold by Dudensing to Stephen C. Clark probably in the spring of 1926.

Joseph Stella,  The Birth of Venus , 1925, 85 x 53 inches. Current Location Unknown. Included in the April 1925 exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries, this was acquired from the artist by Carl Weeks.

Joseph Stella, The Birth of Venus, 1925, 85 x 53 inches. Current Location Unknown. Included in the April 1925 exhibition at the Dudensing Galleries, this was acquired from the artist by Carl Weeks.