Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on July 30, 2008 with permission of the author and the Cape Cod Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:
Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969): A Retrospective
by Elizabeth Ives Hunter
Aiden Lassell Ripley is best known for his sporting work paintings of hunters and game, fly-fishing on pristine rivers, and plantation life in the Deep South during the 1930s and '40s. His reputation is well justified and places him in the company of such luminaries as Frank W. Benson (1862 - 1951) and Ogden Pleissner (1905 - 1983). Like Benson, Ripley's work extends well beyond the fishing-hunting genre although that has been the principal focus of collectors and the press for some time. The full breadth of Ripley's work is examined in the book THE ART OF AIDEN LASSELL RIPLEY by Julie Carlson and Stephen B. O'Brien, Jr. whose publication coincides with this summer's exhibition at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. Taken together, the exhibition and the book will facilitate a re-evaluation of Ripley's reputation as an artist.
Ripley was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a rural town northwest of Boston. His interest in painting and drawing dates from childhood, but his formal art education began at the Fenway School of Illustration in 1914. Ripley joined the army when the Untied States entered World War I in 1917 and served for two years as a musician in General Pershing's marching band. He was mustered out after the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June, 1919. and returned to Boston. Ripley continued his education at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts where he received the Paige Traveling Scholarship which allowed him to travel and study abroad from 1923 - 1925.
The paintings from Ripley's European sojourn show him to be a fine draftsman with a sure-footed command of the techniques needed for success with watercolor. In his self-portrait painted in Bruges, Belgium, he has arranged his composition so that architectural elements of the urban scene lead the viewer's eye to the artist working on a medieval foot bridge -- making the figure the focal point of this complex composition. Ripley's ability as a portraitist is repeatedly demonstrated in his renditions of individuals in Breton costume. These fresh and spontaneous images capture the essence of the sitters and their culture. It is worth contrasting these with his Lady in Green, an oil portrait completed in 1931 that was done in a much more formal style. Here, using the drape behind the sitter and the folds of the model's suit and skirt, Ripley sets up a quiet visual rhythm enhanced by the contrast between warm and cool colors and textures varying from the smoothness of the wall to the richer texture of the wool suit.
Philip Hale (1865 - 1931) was Ripley's teacher at both the Fenway School of Illustration and at the Museum School. Hale taught drawing, the foundation upon which representational painting stands. When Ripley came to the Museum School in 1919/20, the painting department was headed by Frederick Bosley (1881 - 1942) who continued the traditions and teaching methods established by Edmund Tarbell before him. Ripley's link to the great painters of the Boston School is important because their methods of teaching underscore the need to observe the totality of nature at one glance and to insure that each of the parts of a composition be related to and interdependent on the whole visual experience. This summary statement of impressionist principal is critical to the understanding of the Bostonians' art. Ripley absorbed the lesson well as is demonstrated by his Portrait of a Girl. This portrait, done when he was still a student at the Museum School, reveals that the strength of Tarbell's teaching passed on even after he was no longer in charge of the painting department.
Philip Hale had a strong influence on Ripley since he taught both at the Fenway School of Illustration and the Museum School. Hale was both an accomplished painter and a prolific writer and critic. His familiarity with, and admiration of, the work of Carolus-Duran (1837 - 1917) was evident in both his writing and teaching. Sargent had studied with Carolus-Duran in Paris and Hale undoubtedly pointed out the importance of his methods to Ripley.
Boston was the artistic focal point of the nation in the early years of the 20th century. John Singer Sargent was working on his three great mural projects: the Boston Public Library from 1890 - 1919; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1916 - 1925; the Weidner Library at Harvard University, 1921 - 1922. The Guild of Boston Artists was founded in 1914 and its exhibitions, as well as those of the Boston Arts Club and the Saint Botolph Club, drew national attention. The city provided a rich artistic environment for art students and, through his association with Hale, Ripley would have had access to the great painters of the time and also, to numerous examples of their work.
Ripley's watercolors done in Holland and Venice, Italy, remind the viewer of Sargent because they are composed directly in color without a pencil outline of form underneath. One can see Ripley developing a remarkable facility with the brush and this ability to see and record the essence of both landscape and figures with a free, spontaneous style. This technical facility coupled with masterful observation and sensitivity to design served Ripley well in his sporting work.
When Ripley returned from Europe in 1925, he was elected to membership in the Guild of Boston Artists. Frank Benson was president of the Guild at that time, having succeeded Tarbell who retired from office in 1924. Election to the Guild represented an important honor because it signaled acceptance by the most important painters of the day. Ripley's first one-man show at the Guild, in 1926, was a critical and financial success that established his reputation. This success was followed, in 1928, by the Logan Purchase Prize and Medal from the Art Institute of Chicago. The latter was the first of the fifty prizes he would receive throughout his life time.
With the onset of the Depression, the art market contracted dramatically. Commissions for murals and portraits all but evaporated. In 1930, after a successful one-man exhibition of his sporting art in New York, Ripley chose to focus his attention on this aspect of his work because he perceived that there would be a market for these pictures. He loved the outdoors and enjoyed hunting and fishing which made the choice an easy one. The excellence of his work made him successful at the Sporting Gallery and later the Kennedy Gallery in New York, as well as at the Guild of Boston Artists.
In 1934, Ripley completed a mural for the Winchester Public Library which shows the sale of the land, now the town of Winchester, Massachusetts, by the Squaw Sachem to the colonists. The painting was done on canvas in Ripley's Lexington, Massachusetts, studio and then affixed to the library wall. Funding for the mural came from the United States Government's Civil Works Administration's Public Works of Art project. In 1939, Ripley painted a mural for the Lexington post office showing Paul Revere's ride. That commission led to a more complicated mural commission in the 1950s.
Ripley produced a large body of work based on the landscape around his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Boston's urban landscape. He was attracted by the interplay between the solidity of buildings and the patterns of light and shadow they created, interspersed with people, the snap of a clean sheet drying on a clothesline, and the shape of trees and bushes. He painted children sledding on the Boston Common, and people going about their daily chores in both urban and rural settings. These landscapes use both color and design to portray a sense of purpose and motion.
Similarly, his southern landscapes, whether of great plantation houses or much more humble settings, give the viewer a fresh and spontaneous glimpse into both the landscape and the people who inhabit it. Ripley's ability to compose and, by emphasis and subordination of color, direct the viewer is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the two still-lives included in the exhibition. In one, the viewer sees cut flowers resting on a table. The circular shapes of the blooms draw the eye into the painting, and then around and over the arrangement so that it becomes a magnet, constantly drawing attention and inviting exploration. One is aware of the empty green vase in the center of the arrangement but the dominance of that object is softened by the varied tonalities and shapes of the leaves on the stems of the flowers. In his still-life with a black duck and apples, Ripley contrasts texture and color as well as the shape of the duck's wing, to create an arrangement of harmonious rhythm.
Ripley never lost sight of his interest in portraiture, often incorporating portraits of individuals in his sporting scenes. By the late 1930s he was once again receiving some commissions. He was elected president of the Guild of Boston Artists in 1959 and held that position until his death in 1969.
About the author
Elizabeth Ives Hunter is Executive Director at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. The exhibition Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969): A Retrospective is curated by Ms. Hunter.
(above: Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), The Artist (Self Portrait in Bruges), watercolor)
(above: Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), Venice Scene, watercolor)
More images from the exhibition
click here to view additional images from the exhibition
Resource Library editor's note:
The above article was reprinted in Resource Library on July 30, 2008, with permission of the author and the Cape Cod Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on July 29, 2008. Ms. Hunter's article pertains to the exhibition Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969): A Retrospective, which will be on view at the Cape Cod Museum of Art August 2 - October 5, 2008. The article was also submitted by Ms. Hunter to American Art Review for its July - August 2008 issue.
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