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The French Experience: Alice Schille's Artistic Legacy

by James M. Keny


After years of dormancy, Alice Schille's paintings are again receiving the national attention they did in the early 1900s. Schille was considered in her day to be one of the best, if not the foremost American woman watercolorist. Independent of her sex, Schille's work was nationally recognized and awarded many prestigious honors, including the gold medal for watercolor at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. Since 1980 Schille's watercolors, pastels, and oils have been placed in private and museum collections in more than thirty states. They have been shown in numerous exhibitions, including The Advent of Modernism at Atlanta's High Museum and American Women Artists, 1830-1930 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Schille's early artistic response to her beloved France and its culture is once again being recognized. In addition, her modern works are now being reassessed and acclaimed for their advanced character, as the revolutionary art that this shy Ohioan assimilated in Paris over fifty years ago has become accepted as a major chapter in art history.

Throughout her long and versatile career, Columbus-born Alice Schille (1869-1955) was always a keen and sensitive observer of people. Whether she was painting a solitary traveler on a country thoroughfare or a cluster of haggling peasants in a village marketplace, a man lost in prayer in a quiet church or two ladies gossiping in a fashionable cafe, she strove to capture the essence of people and their activity. In some instances, even when no human figure is present, an intimate landscape or an animated old home suggests the momentary absence of a person about to walk into view. She found inspiration for these works, most especially, in France and the French. Louise Hengst, a friend and former student, observed at the time of one of Schille's major retrospective exhibitions in 1932: "She has probably painted in France more than any other place, where she loves the country and the people, always finding new charms to captivate her."

Her empathy for the French is explicitly set forth in her letters to her mother from France, written at the onset of World War I. Forced to evacuate the Continent by the dawning conflict, Schille paused to reflect upon her experiences in and impressions of France. Despite her own dwindling finances, closing banks, food shortages, restricted movement, curfews, and restraints on painting because of concerns that she might actually be a spy recording sensitive information, Schille's thoughts were of the French. She ached with sadness as they stoically prepared for war: "The French people are great in this crisis." All night long, on Saturday, August 1, 1914, she had heard the trains rumbling toward the front. "The bravery of the men and especially the women, the dignity of the people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated is admirable." In the same letter, she commented on the "beautiful and entirely French way" in which a public notice freezing food prices ended by expressing the government's trust in the "patriotism and taste" of the citizens of France. In later years she would remember sculptor Auguste Rodin and his lament as the armies marched: "It is the end of civilization." Though Schille's affection for France was enduring -- she returned to the Paris art scene again and again -- she would never again devote herself so intensely to that country. Her post-war interests took her to other countries throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Columbus, Ohio, however, always remained her home.

The third child in a family of six, Alice Schille was born in 1869 into a prosperous Lutheran family in Columbus. Her parents, of German and French descent, owned a.successful soda manufacturing and bottling factory. From her early years, Alice was interested in drawing. Her mother, a strong yet kind and nurturing woman, encouraged her. When Schille's father died after her seventeenth birthday, her mother continued to support this interest while still running a household and the thriving bottling factory. With her mother's approval, in 1891 Alice entered the tiny Columbus Art School, which then operated from the YMCA, for her first classes.

Two years later Alice graduated from the art school as a top student, but undertook an additional year of training to broaden her skills. Early in 1894 she began teaching art at the Ohio Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. While Schille enjoyed teaching, a role she would resume later in her career, the young artist also yearned for an opportunity to further her artistic growth. An entry made later in her diary reveals her determination to achieve more than was possible in Columbus: "With my meager salary, the Emerson McMillin prize of $100 won at the Art School, the ring my grandmother had given me and the returns from two large panels a decorator persuaded me to do. . . I decided to go to New York city to study."

In the autumn of 1897, she left her family's comfortable Victorian home on Bryden Road. Despite "sensational reports in all the newspapers about white slave traffic and young girls disappearing in New York" and armed with instructions from her mother "not to speak to strange men or women on the train or elsewhere," Alice was on her way to enroll in one of the major American art schools of the time, the Art Students League of New York.

On the train Alice "forgot all about mother's warning." A middle-aged woman she met on the trip helped Schille find the elevated train and then guided her to the stop near the school, and "after that, I spoke to anyone who spoke to me, man, woman, or child and found there were many kind people."

Schille immersed herself in her studies. In addition to two academic years at the league, she took classes with the famous artist and teacher, William Merritt Chase, at the New York School of Art. Chase quickly recognized Schille's talent, singled her out for praise, and offered her a scholarship at his summer school in Shinnecock, Long Island. She declined the stipend, saying "I . . . felt too much the responsibility of something for nothing." But, Schille did go to Shinnecock the following summer of 1899, bearing the expenses herself. Undoubtedly, Schille's commitment to art was further strengthened by Chase's example and encouragement. His superior technical ability, open-mindedness toward different styles, decorative sense, and love of color were the foundation of Schille's own style.

After completing her East Coast study, Schille resolved to broaden her training in Europe. At that time, an artist's education was considered incomplete without training in Munich or Paris and visits to the major museums and collections of Europe. In the late summer of 1902, Alice briefly visited family friends in England and then departed for the Continent with a friend and fellow artist, Ella Hergesheimer. By the end of her two-year trip, Europe, and especially France, would become Schille's spiritual home.

After sojourns in the museums of Germany and Holland and in Madrid's famous Prado, in 1903 Schille settled down to learn and to paint in Paris.

Here she enrolled in the Academie Colarossi and polished her skills under the tutelage of several major European painters, including Louis Collin, Gustave Courtois, and Renè Prinet. Her determination was rewarded when the prestigious Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts (The Salon) accepted five of her works for their spring 1904 exhibition. With this recognition began a succession of awards and a series of over two hundred exhibitions at major national and international museums that would keep Alice Schille in the public's eye for the next forty years.


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