By Carter B. Horsley
Eilshemius (1846-1941), who often spelt his last name, Elshemus,
has had a devoted but small following among some famous artists
and important American art collectors, but his eccentric oeuvre
has not achieved wide popularity in part because of the proliferation
of his paintings of voluptuous nudes in bucolic settings, which
are often clumsy and ungainly and were a bit too risqué
for his period.
are amusing but slight and the best of these predominantly green
and yellow paintings often have them floating in air, an image
first employed by Arthur B. Davies a few years before Eilshemius
started painting them.
of the nudes have a poetic, mystical and sensual appeal, it is
Eilshemius's landscapes and allegorical images that are the strongest
and most interesting. Very much influenced by the dark, brooding
marines famously depicted by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Eilshemius
could be quite bold in his palette and very painterly. His "The
Flying Dutchman," for example, is a copy of a subject done
by Ryder and it is richly black. His "Zeppelin in Flames
Over New Jersey" (oil on cardboard, 18 ½ by 15 ½
inches, 1937, collection of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton),
is a very focused abstraction of the famous Hindenberg disaster.
Some of his night cityscapes have a comforting and wonderful light.
but fine exhibition brings together most of Eilshemius's masterpieces
and is the first major show on him in a generation.
catalogue, entitled "Louis Michel Eilshemius, An Independent
Spirit," correctly emphasizes the influence of Corot, the
Barbizon painter, on Eilshemius as witnessed by some of his very
lyrical and impressive landscapes, it is really with Ryder that
he should be compared. Ryder's intensity and abstraction have
greatly influenced many American artists such as Marsden Hartley
and Ryder is the first great "modern" American artist.
Eilshemius, of course, is not as consistent as Ryder and his vision
was not as original, yet his visionary work is complex and interesting
and quite powerful. Indeed, Eilshemius is his own worst enemy
as his best works have long been in public collections and those
that have appeared on the auction market are generally inferior
nudes in sylvan settings. Furthermore, his eccentric persona did
not serve him well. At his best, however, Eilshemius can be inspired
and quite striking and could well be compared a bit to William
Blake, the famous English mystic artist. One of his interesting
characteristics was that he often painted sinuous and irregular
"frames" on his canvases, one of the few artists to
recognize the importance of "framing" their work to
their own satisfaction.
In her foreword
to the exhibition's catalogue, Annette Blaugrund, the director
of the National Academy of Art, notes that the artist was elected
an honorary member of the academy in 2001: "Organized in
response to the widespread appreciation for the work of Louis
Eilshemius among current Academicians, his exhibition is both
fitting and meaningful, for it commemorates the sixtieth anniversary
of the artist's death in December 1941. Eilshemius desperately
wanted to be associated with the Academy and now, at long last,
such as Roy R. Neuberger, Joseph Hirshhorn, Chester dale, and
Duncan Phillips, among others, brought and championed Eilshemius's
work in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, almost every major museum
has at least one Eilshemius in its collection. Although his wok
is infrequently exhibited, interest in this neglected artist recurs
periodically. The Museum of Modern Art recently exhibited two
of his paintings (2000). Among artists, then and now, his work
remains appealing for its acquired naïve style, its tonal
palette, and to some extent because he symbolizes the essence
of an outsider and hereby endures as an American original,"
Ms. Blaugrund wrote.
In his essay,"
Against the Grain: The Paintings of Louis Michel Eilshemius"
in the 63-page, hard-cover $29.95 catalogue, which has 18 excellent
color plates, Steven Harvey provides the following commentary
on the artist:
he is known at all now, it is mostly as a legendary bohemian figure
of early twentieth-century New York. He referred to himself as
the Mahatma, the Supreme Spirit of the Spheres.Eilshemius was
multifaceted, describing himself as a painter-poet-musician. He
wrote and published his poetry and prose, composed music and painted.
In his later years he promoted quasi-scientific discoveries in
pamphlets, including his `patented' self-painted frames. In one
he proclaimed himself an `Educator, Ex-actor, Amateur All-around
Doctor, Mesmerist-Prophet and Mystic, Reader of Hands and Faces,
Linguist of 5 languages,' a 'Spirit-Painter Supreme,' as well
as the 'most wonderful and diverse painter of nude groups in the
world,' whose middle name is 'variety.' While all of this adds
up to a picture of a vivid and grandiloquent eccentric, it also
has served to obscure his painting. Eilshemius was an extraordinary
and innovative painter who always possessed his own voice. The
combination of his eccentric personalityand the often-shocking
subject matter of his paintings have led art historians and critics
to categorize him as a primitive. He was actually, however, an
academically trained and sophisticated painter, who is part of
a lineage of modern art that begins with Corot and continues from
Derain and Balthus to many contemporary painters.The teacher who
helped him the most was the American Barbizon painter Robert C.
Minor, who guided him to the French landscape tradition. Eilshemius
came from a wealthy, cultivated, first generation family of French-Swiss
and Dutch-German lineage.He brought a European sensuality to his
work that was missing from American art of the period. His formal
and imaginative originality relate his work to the progressive
American artists of the period notably George Inness, Ralph Albert
Blakelock, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. American painting of the
mid-nineteenth century was primarily about empirical observation,
anecdote, sentiment and effect. Eilshemius's understated and plain-spoken
approach to landscape went against the grain of the American work
ethic in art, which demanded finish, exactitude, and virtuosity.
Though born into comfortable circumstances, Eilshemius's personal
life was difficult filled with loss and artistic rejection. He
lost three of his five siblings early in life. For the greater
part of his career, he was unable to interest others in his work.
His response to rejection was a defensive antagonism that led
him to attack most other forms of both traditional and modernist
recounts the artist's preoccupation with extraordinary acts of
"Will," and his "metaphysical conception of the
artist as one who channels the images from his inner eye onto
paper instantly." Eilshemius, he wrote, would write 50 sonnets
in a few hours, a 102-page comedy in 26 hours and paintings in
15 minutes. We find our way to Eilshemius through his imperfections.
They are like the dropped stitch in the Navajo rug that forestalls
hubris. But Eilshemius's work cannot win us over solely on its
awkwardness; he matches this with grace."
example of the artist's grace, Mr. Harvey cites his 1896 painting
of "Village Near Delaware Water Gap," shown above, which
is in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art at
the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
bucolic idylls of the Delaware Water Gap are followed three years
later," Mr. Harvey observed, "by one of Eilshemius's
most arresting images, Afternoon Wind of
1899.Over a Barbizon-style landscape, six porcelain-white nude
woman float, hover, or vault through midair. They do not really
fly but simply pose in midair, relaxing in zero gravity. Afternoon
Wind has the power of a child's dream of being able to fly:
it happens as if by magic. The women are like currents of wind
circulating through the valley.Paul Karlstrom has indicated some
sources for paintings of women flying, notably Arthur B. Davies
and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Yet, both of these painters displayed
an essentially neo-classical vision of the figure, whereas Eilshemius's
flying women are strangely contemporary. The straightforward manner
in which he presents his vision was also entirely different from
the florid literary symbolist painting of the period. Afternoon
Wind is a protosurrealist image. Eilshemius employs an almost
illustrative technique to render inexplicable events.As is the
case with much of his work, the magic comes as much from his complex
organization of forms here comprised of graceful arching diagonals
- as from the unpredictable image."
Mr. Harvey notes that a similar composition of 1908, "The
Dream" (collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College,
State University of New York), is "a softer, more mellifluous
painting" in which "the women are featureless: reflecting
Eilshemius's idea that `You cannot get motion if you put in every
little detail of the body.'"
In a letter
about a review of a show of Benjamin Kopman by Henry McBride,
an influential art critic of the period, Eilshemius wrote that
he was flattered that the critic put his name alongside Kopman's
and William Blake because "I am a visionary when the mood
dictates and have painted a number of subjects out of the airone
very mystical: `Demon of the Rocks' and others."
Mr. Harvey observes, bears a resemblance to the artist's face,
and looks "strangelypathetic." "With the demon's
'cowardly lion' expression," he continued, "it is also
like a comic opera version of one of Albert Ryder's wilder motifs,
such as The RaceTrack. Eilshemius was aware of and interested
in Ryder's work. In a letter published in the Sun, he recalled
visiting, in 1907 Ryder's studio on Fifteenth Street in New York.Eilshemius
wrote: "I asked him how long it took him to paint one of
his canvases. "You see it is best to take ten years to execute
one subject." I laughed and told him I could do the trick
in a few hours. "You must be the devil,' he shouted. Well,
when I got back to my studio on Twenty-Third Street, I painted
two paintings in one hour for each. Quite some energy! Selah!'
If the recollection is accurate, then Eilshemius painted Macbeth
and the Witches and The Flying Dutchmanafter seeing
Ryder's paintings in his apartment. This supports the importance
Eilshemius placed on memory as a tool for the artist. In Ryder's
Flying Dutchman, the individual parts of the composition
are subordinated within the whole swirling rhythmic mass. Eilshemius
is like an opera director, allowing each element to standout distinctly,
like props on a stage."
observes that both Ryder and Eilshemius loved moonlight, adding
that many of Eilshemius's "greatest New York City paintings
most majestic image may be New York Rooftops of 1908 [shown
at the top of this article]. Eilshemius's black shapes catch the
generalization of form of city architecture after dusk.The space
is exactly right - exactly articulated. Ralph Albert Blakelock,
Eilshemius's contemporary, with whom he is sometimes compared,
painted the shacks and shanties of New York in the 1870s; Ryder
also drank in inspiration from the city; but in 1908, Eilshemius
fashioned a singular tenebrous poetry out of the New York skyline,
far removed from these two artists and from the proletarian hubbub
of the Ashcan school as well.
fine New York scene by Eilshemius is "Autumn Evening, Park
Avenue," a 1915 oil on canvas, 26 ¼ by 36 inches that
is in the Roy R. Neuberger Collection and is shown above.
provides the following commentary on this work, describing it
as "a harmony of black, warm orange-brown, and gray, with
the majesty of a mournful threnody of Beethoven":
picture is achieved by almost impossible means. In this exemplary
late period work, Eilshemius summarily indicates big mute building
shapes with diluted oil paint on paperboard. The paint is so thinned
out that the color of the support becomes a large part of the
overall color. The warm color of the board infuses the night sky
with orange glowing through the thin washes of white and gray
clouds. A row of three slender trees snakes and curls upward like
beanstalks. On the horizon there is a far off sparkle of the lights
at the end of Park Avenue, muted in the soft gray atmosphere of
night. It is a metropolitan vision at once barren, tough and yet
strangely comforting. The ambivalence that Eilshemius felt in
regard to New York as home is evident it his vision of the city.
The isolation he personally felt is represented in his view of
the city as a sparkling metropolis, largely uninhabited place
for solitary evening walks."
Mr. Harvey argues, displayed a postimpressionist approach in paintings
such as "Spanish Street Scene, Malaga" of 1909, before
Stuart Davis painted van Gogh-like scenes in 1916 or Marsden Hartley
processed Cézanne in the 1920s." He provides the following
interesting quotation from an article by noted critic Clement
Greenberg that discussed an exhibition that focused specially
on Eilshemius's paintings from 1909:
though it might appear, no better selection of Eilshemius's work
than his production of 1909 could have been made as a starting
point for the re-evaluation of his art.The year marks a critical
station in the artist's career. The simplification of his later
or what I choose to call 'deranged' period, with its yellows,
acid greens, oranges, tans and pinks, begins to emerge even as
the comparative academicism of his earlier period reaches its
fruition. We see that Eilshemius was a thin but very intense talent."
The Society of Independent Artists held a huge art show with more
than 2,000 works by 1,200 artists. Eilshemius had two paintings
in the show, one of which, "Rose-Marie Calling (Supplication),"
was singled out, along with "The Clare Twins" by Dorothy
Rice," by Marcel Duchamps for praise. Duchamps's "Fountain,"
a urinal, had been rejected for exhibition in this show, creating
a great controversy. Duchamps's praise of the Eilshemius painting
was considered by some to be a joke and part of Duchamps's assault
on convention, but Duchamps subsequently attempted to arrange
an exhibition for Eilshemius in Paris, and the second issue of
the New York Dada magazine, TheBlind Man, contained a report
by poet Mina Loy of a visit to Eilshemius's studio in which Loy
Rousseau of the French spirit painted in France, does Eilshemius
of the American spirit paint in America, with the childlike self-faith
of a Blake. His is so virginally the way a picture must be painted
by one unsullied by any preconception of how pictures are painted,
so direct a presentation of his cerebral vision, that between
his idea and the setting forth of his idea, the question of method
never intrudes. The complicated mechanism that obtains in other
artists a prolonged psychological engineering of a work of art,
is waived; his pictures, if one may say so, are instantaneous
photographs of his mind at any given moment of inspiration."
Katherine Dreier, at Duchamps's suggestion, gave Eilshemius the
inaugural one-man show at her new Museum of Modern Art at the
Societe Anonyme on East 47th Street. The show, however, was not
well received by most critics. One of the paintings included was
"The Prodigy," a 1917 work that Mr. Harvey wrote may
have been much admired by Bathus as its "schematic furniture,
the abstract mood of the young girl, her odd expression, the curious
and extreme curve of her neck, and its dry earthy palette all
evoke the private worlds of young girls described in so many of
Balthus's paintings." Mr. Harvey added that "Duchamp
reported told the New York art dealer Gertrude Stein that when
Picasso first saw Balthus's work, he said, 'You must have been
looking at Eilshemius.'"
Eilshemius gave up painting.
Dreier gave Eilshemius a second show that was more successful
and led to his association with Valentine Dudensing's art gallery.
A 1932 show at the Dudensing Gallery was successful enough that
Dudensing arranged another show that year at the Durand-Ruel Gallery
in Paris. Eilshemius was compared with Douanier Rousseau and Dudensing
quoted Matisse as stating that Eilshemius was a "real painter,"
Mr. Harvey wrote. Eilshemius, however, was injured in an automobile
accident that year and his family money ran out. Artists such
as Milton Avery, David Burliuk and Louise Nevelson would visit
him in his 57th Street home, but he was removed from his home
against his wishes in 1941 and taken to Bellevue Hospital where
he died of pnuemonia.
a younger generation there are a surprising number of Eilshemus
fans, including the artist Ed Rusha who explains Eilshemius's
appeal to him in terms of complete originality. 'I look at Eilshemius's
art and I see pictures that can almost exclusively be identified
as his alone, unrestrained by any obvious influences. His work
is often uncomfortable to look at and not meant to soothe the
eye or mind. In this respect he is a complete original,'"
wrote Paul Karlstrom in his catalogue essay, "Eilshemius
Redux." Mr. Karlstrom was the curator of a major 1978 exhibition
on Eilshemius at the Hirshhorn Museum and wrote an essay for that
catalogue called "Eilshemius and Modernism."
some as a transitional artist between the academic 19th Century
and modern 20th Century, Eilshemius was neither a primitive nor
"folk" artist, but an individual of considerable, albeit
not great, talent obsessed with his personal, often, lusty visions.
Despite the pathos of his frustration-filled life, he managed
to pour his enormous energies into producing a large oeuvre that
has, as this exhibition demonstrates, many extremely fine paintings.
or not he was sexually repressed, his spirit was fertile and his
fervor was special.