There can hardly be a sadder story in the annals of 20th-century American art than the career of Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936), a selection of whose paintings are currently on exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. What makes Bruce’s story especially poignant, even tragic, is its bright beginning. Prodigiously talented, deeply serious and highly ambitious, he looked for a time like a man favored by fortune. Admired by important artists on both sides of the Atlantic-William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri in New York, Henri Matisse and Robert and Sonia Delaunay in Paris-he created some of the finest paintings of his generation. Yet in the end he was a broken man, much given to destroying his own work. Hard up for money, and suffering from failing health, a shattered marriage and a loss of confidence in his own vocation, he died a suicide at the age of 55.
Bruce belonged to that brilliant constellation of talents that made up the first generation of American modernist painters in the early decades of the 20th century. Unlike many of the others, however, Bruce, a descendant of the American Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry, produced the bulk of his oeuvre in Paris, where he lived and worked for more than 30 years (1903-1936). While other luminaries of his generation-Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Max Weber-returned to America after their early encounters with the School of Paris, Bruce remained closely tethered to the French avant-garde during the most productive years of his life.
Even as a teenage art student in Richmond, Va., taking night classes at the local Art Club, Bruce was recognized as exceptionally gifted by his teachers, and it was already said of him that “all he lived for was to study art and go to Paris.” By his early 20′s, he had gotten as far as New York, studying with Chase and Henri; his friends at that time included Edward Hopper and Guy Pène du Bois. His first trip to Paris came in the winter of 1903-4, and in the spring of 1904 he exhibited what have been described as three “full-length Whistler-style portraits” in one of the annual Salons.
In the summer of 1905 he was back in the States, where he married a woman who had also been a Chase student, and he was back in Paris with his wife before the end of the year, making copies of Titian portraits in the Louvre. He had apparently not yet taken an interest in the School of Paris modernists; he had gone to Paris to study the Old Masters.
When he did become acquainted with the Paris avant-garde, it was owing to the auspices of Gertrude and Leo Stein. For it was at the Steins’ that Bruce met Matisse, the pivotal event of his career. He promptly began working closely with Sarah Stein on plans to organize the now-celebrated Matisse School. When the school opened in January 1908, Bruce was one of its original members, along with Sarah Stein and Max Weber. For a time the Bruces lived in the building that housed the school, and Bruce himself was in daily contact with Matisse as a student assistant.
Both as a teacher and as a radical modernist himself, Matisse inevitably exerted a profound influence on Bruce’s development. Did Bruce also influence Matisse? It’s sometimes claimed that the abstract, hard-edge-color still lifes in Bruce’s late work did indeed influence Matisse, who is said to have regarded Bruce as the best student he ever had. As William C. Agee writes in the catalog of the current show at Salander-O’Reilly, “Matisse had followed Bruce’s art and may well have been influenced by its structural qualities and color in the Dance mural he did for Albert Barnes in 1931-32.” When we look at those late Bruces today, they may also suggest an influence on Matisse’s late color-cutout compositions.
Be all that as it may, Matisse influenced Bruce’s aesthetic thought in a number of ways, not only through his own teaching and practice but also by instructing him in the importance of Cézanne and Renoir. In painting after painting in the current show, Bruce’s inspired appropriation of Cézanne’s structural color and Renoir’s shimmering delicacy of touch is so brilliant that it instantly transcends mere influence to become something else-the work of a master painter. A “little master,” perhaps, but a master nonetheless. From the sheer painterly poetry of the small painting of his son, Portrait of Roy Bruce (circa 1909), to the series of breathtaking landscapes and still lifes of 1909-12, you can see Bruce working his way through Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse with an authority that’s all the more touching when you’re aware of the crack-up that comes at the end.
Then, at the conclusion of the current show, there are two examples of Bruce’s most radical accomplishment: the abstract-illusionist still lifes that seem to catapult his art into a future he never lived to see. This leap into color abstraction was not as abrupt as it may seem in the current show, for missing here are examples of the more animated color abstractions he produced during the First World War period, when he was closely involved with the so-called Orphic Cubism of the Delaunays.
Bruce has long been recognized by artists, critics and connoisseurs as one of the most accomplished painters of his generation. Even now, however, nearly a century after he succeeded in winning the admiration of the Paris avant-garde, Bruce remains for many people a shadowy figure-yet another of our artists whose work seems destined to be periodically celebrated and then forgotten by a fickle public. As recently as 1979, Bruce’s paintings were the subject of a splendid retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Mr. Agee and Barbara Rose. The catalog they produced for that MoMA exhibition remains the best critical guide to Bruce’s work. Yet I doubt if his name is even known to a large segment of the art public that believes itself to be well-informed.
For lovers of painting, anyway, the current show at Salander-O’Reilly, 20 East 79th Street, is a must. It remains on view through June 28.