Extraordinary Eilshemius Finally Getting Elevated

Of the many ironies-some comical, but many truly tragic-that

punctuated the career of the American painter Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941),

whose work is currently the subject of an enchanting exhibition at the National

Academy of Design, the most poignant is the fact that his paintings did not

begin to win the attention and praise they deserved until long after he had

abandoned painting altogether.

That fateful decision was made at the age of 57, when, as Steven

Harvey writes in the catalog of the Academy show, the artist was “exhausted

from exposing his work to rancor and neglect.” For two decades thereafter,

according to Mr. Harvey, “Eilshemius existed in a kind of twilight zone,” and

when he died in 1941, the headline of his obituary in the New York Herald Tribune read: “Eilshemius, 77, Dies in Bellevue,

Penniless, Bitter and Famous.”

Even then, to be sure, Eilshemius was better known as a

“character”-a bohemian figure akin to Joe Gould-than as a serious painter. And he

can scarcely be said to be famous even now. As Mr. Harvey correctly reminds us,

“Eilshemius has almost entirely been written out of the history of American

painting.” In his own lifetime, it was largely owing to the esteem he enjoyed

among other artists-especially Milton Avery and Louise Nevelson-that he was

remembered at all. And it can scarcely be a coincidence that we owe the current

show to two contemporary painters: Paul Resika, who proposed it, and Steven

Harvey, the guest curator of the exhibition, whose essay for its catalog,

“Against the Grain: The Paintings of Louis Michel Eilshemius,” is by far the

best account of the artist’s life and work that we have.

How, then, are we to account

for this sad tale of neglect and misunderstanding, some of it relatively

benign, but much that was openly hostile and condescending? The artist’s

well-known boasts and eccentricities-well-known because he proclaimed them to

the world in his voluminous production of letters, manifestos, poems and other

writings-no doubt put many people off. Moreover, he openly regarded himself as

a genius, and while he wasn’t entirely wrong on that score, announcing it

wasn’t the best way to win friends and influence people in the art world of his

time. (Nowadays, alas, it would be a guarantee of success.) That he appears to

have suffered from manic depression wasn’t a social asset, either.

Yet what finally counted

against Eilshemius was not only the sheer originality of his painting, but the

special character of that pictorial originality. From the outset, there was

just enough of an attachment to academic tradition in his paintings for him to

be mistaken for a failed academician. At the same time, there was also an

element of eccentricity and invention in his work for it to be mistaken as an

example of failed modernism, for there was no modern “school” or style to which

Eilshemius could be seen to have conformed. As a consequence, he was often said

to be some sort of “primitive,” which he certainly wasn’t.

The fact is, Corot was the

painter Eilshemius most frequently emulated, yet he brought to Corot’s purity

of vision a mystical temperament akin to Blake’s in its appetite for the

supernatural. He was thus fated to be one of those artists who was too modern

for the die-hard traditionalists and too respectful of tradition to satisfy the

die-hard modernists. And we aren’t talking here about the very distant past. As

recently as 1970, Sidney Janis made one of the greatest mistakes in his career

as a dealer and connoisseur of modern painting when he organized an exhibition

entitled The High Kitsch of Eilshemius ,

which attempted to identify the artist as a precursor of the then-thriving Pop

Art movement.

Mercifully, and at long last,

the exhibition which Mr. Harvey has given us in Louis M. Eilshemius (1864-1941): An Independent Spirit is

wonderfully free of such absurdities. Every period of Eilshemius’ copious

artistic production is strongly represented in this show, which also includes

some remarkable surprises. Among the latter, for example, is a painting of a

young girl at the piano, The Prodigy

(1917), which there is ample reason to believe exerted a decisive influence on

the young Balthus, who was taken by his mother to see the picture in Paris in

1930 when it belonged to the writer Henri-Pierre Roche, the author of Jules et Jim . Roche had acquired the

painting on the advice of Marcel Duchamp, Eilshemius’ staunchest advocate among

the artists who acclaimed his work. The story goes (as recounted by Mr. Harvey)

that “when Picasso first saw Balthus’ work, he said, ‘You must have been

looking at Eilshemius.'”

Yet the subject of that

painting is like no other in the exhibition. The earliest painting of a female

subject is a realist portrait called Mother

Bereft (circa 1890), in which Eilshemius’ Corotesque golden touch and tonal

command are amply displayed. One of the earliest landscapes, Edge of Woods (1891), is a pure

distillation of Corot. Thereafter, however, a variety of unexpected directions

give us a sense of Eilshemius’ virtuosic range. There is The Flying Dutchman (1908), with its turbulent Wagnerian subject

painted after an encounter with Albert Pinkham Ryder in the latter’s studio.

There are some amazing nocturnes of New York and a series of female nudes

dancing or levitating in pastoral settings. There is even a painting of a

drowning, Tragedy at Sea (1916), in

which a subject out of Winslow Homer is given a sort of Wagnerian gloss.

If only for the peculiar

light that Eilshemius achieves in many of his finest paintings-a sort of bronze

and orange-tinted golden glow that is itself an imaginative invention of the

first order-his work would be impressive for its originality and power. But he

keeps on surprising us in painting after painting which, whatever their

affinities with contemporaries like Ryder or Blakelock, keep their distance

from them-a distance marked spiritually by an unusual combination of mysticism

and sensuality, and aesthetically by that purity of tone that he so much

admired in Corot. In the end, you come to understand the nature of Eilshemius’

grievance with the world of his time. That is, you come to understand that he

was, after all, something of a genius.

Louis M. Eilshemius (1864-1941): An Independent Spirit remains on view at the National Academy of

Design Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Dec. 30.