It is the melancholy fate of certain artists to be remembered by posterity for a single example of their work, and the American painter Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912) is one of them. In many histories of American art, a painting by Anshutz called The Ironworkers’ Noontime (1880) is credited with establishing the American industrial scene as a legitimate subject for fine art. Ironworkers , which is now in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is a kind of group portrait of a dozen or so mill hands, some of them stripped to the waist and exercising their muscular limbs, during a lunch break in the sun, with the mill and its smokestacks in the background. Stylistically, it bears a close resemblance to some of Thomas Eakins’ rowing pictures.
Besides Ironworkers , the only other thing we are usually told about Anshutz is that he succeeded Eakins as professor of painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1886, when a controversy over Eakins’ use of nude models in his classes forced his departure from the Academy. As a consequence of this absurd scandal and its aftermath, the close friendship between the two–Eakins had been something of a mentor and role model for Anshutz–was shattered. They apparently never spoke again.
While Eakins’ oeuvre is well known to us, Anshutz’s is not–except, of course, for Ironworkers . This is one reason why the exhibition called Thomas Anshutz: Painting Arcadia , currently on view at James Graham & Sons, is of considerable interest. As the title of the show suggests, there is not a hint of the American industrial scene to be found in it. For this selection of Anshutz’s work is entirely concentrated on the artist’s depiction of bucolic and domestic subjects–women and children at home and at the beach and plein-air landscapes. There are even a few drawings and watercolors of male nudes, mostly young boys at play on a beach, and some photographs (taken by Anshutz) on which the watercolors are based. Given Eakins’ problem with nude models, it is also worth noting that the two academic drawings of adult male nudes in the show date not from Anshutz’s long residence in Philadelphia, but from his period of study at the Académie Julian in Paris in the early 1890′s. Anshutz was clearly not a man given to rocking any boats.
Yet to judge from this selection of his work, there can be little doubt that Anshutz’s break with Eakins was important in allowing the younger artist to follow a more independent course of his own. Eakins was certainly the greater artist, but there is no denying that he was closed-minded about the changes that were occurring in the art of painting in his own lifetime as a result of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements in France. And while Anshutz was anything but an avant-gardist himself, he was more closely acquainted with those changes and far more responsive to them than Eakins could ever bring himself to be.
He also brought a quite different temperament to his art. He was less of a moralist than Eakins, and more of an aesthete. There is a tenderness and affection in his work, especially in his paintings of children, that is generally absent in Eakins. What is absent from Anshutz, however, is the kind of moral heroism that elevates Eakins’ portraits to a level of expression well beyond Anshutz’s range. You can see the difference in Anshutz’s Portrait of Rebecca Whelan (circa 1910) in the current show. Almost everything in this painting–the geometry of the wall paneling, the pattern of the rug and the sitter’s dress, and the tonal command of the entire composition–is masterly. Yet as a portrait, it lacks the kind of gravity that was Eakins’ forte, which may be why Anshutz was better at painting children, a subject that does not lend itself to the depiction of moral gravity.
There is in Anshutz, however, a painterly freedom, especially in the plein-air oil landscapes, which Eakins never permitted himself, and a lyricism in the watercolors that is similarly alien to Eakins’ sterner temperament. Eakins was no doubt the deeper mind, but Anshutz’s was clearly a happier life, and it shows in the work.
It was not only in his own art, moreover, that Anshutz was more open to the future. His Ironworkers’ Noontime is often said to have influenced the painters of the Ashcan School in the generation following his own–among them, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn and William Glackens, all of whom were Anshutz’s students at the Pennsylvania Academy. So were Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the masters of Precisionism who are said to have been influenced by those smokestacks in the background of Ironworkers’ Noontime . Be that as it may, Anshutz was obviously the kind of teacher who encouraged his students to pursue the kind of artistic independence that he won for himself after his break with Eakins.
But how are we to reconcile Anshutz’s homage to the industrial scene in Ironworkers , his most famous painting, with his much longer preoccupation with Arcadian subjects? It’s been some years since I last saw Ironworkers , but in studying the reproduction of it in the catalog of the current exhibition, I have come away with the impression that we may have been misunderstanding this painting. Thinking about it now in the context of his paintings of women, children and landscapes, it occurs to me that Ironworkers , too, treats its principal subjects–these manly proletarians striking balletic poses in the noonday sun–as an Arcadian idyll.
If we compare Ironworkers with a really horrific painting of the industrial scene like Adolf Menzel’s Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops) (1875), which will be on view at the National Gallery in Washington this summer, Anshutz’s really is an idyll of some kind. We were not to see anything quite like it in American art until the 1930′s, when the vogue of Social Realism and the W.P.A. mural project produced a great many images of noble workers with beautiful physiques. By the 1930′s, of course, the subject had been radically politicized, while Ironworkers seems to be oblivious to politics of any sort. Yet in retrospect, Anshutz may now be seen to have been a forerunner of the movement that succeeded in sentimentalizing the working class.
Yes, it is a melancholy fate for an artist to be remembered for a single example of his work–but now, perhaps, with this exhibition of Painting Arcadia , we have a quite different understanding of Anshutz. The exhibition remains on view at James Graham & Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue at 78th Street, through June 1.
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