The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts

New York, NY



Louis M. Eilshemius (1864 - 1941): An Independent Spirit

September 19 - December 30, 2001


An eccentric bohemian and self-proclaimed "Mightiest Man and Wonder of the Worlds," Louis Michel Eilshemius was a painter, a poet, a composer,.and a prodigious correspondent. Championed by Marcel Duchamp, Eilshemius attracted the support of numerous artists and collectors including Louise Bourgeois, Katherine Dreier, Gaston Lachaise, Joseph Stella, and Alfred Stieglitz. For over a half-century, his work has been housed in the collections of Joseph Hirshhorn, Duncan Phillips, Roy Neuberger, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, yet his independent vision has been curatorially and critically assessed only intermittingly during this period. According to National Academy Director, Dr. Annette Blaugrund, "Eilshemius presents a compelling story of a man who, although neglected during most of his career, was embraced by artists of the 30s and 40s. Encouraged by the artists of the National Academy of Design, we are pleased to present Eilshemius' work in an environment, which is currently receptive to figurative art." (left: Louis M. Eilshemius, Figures in Landscape, 1906, oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 35 3/4 inches, Coll: WMAA)

Representing the first comprehensive analysis of Eilshemius in over twenty years, the exhibition will contain over forty-five of his major paintings on loan from The Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Neuberger Museum, The Phillips Collection, and private collections. Exciting new findings unraveling this largely elusive legacy include a.rediscovery of the remarkable painting The Prodigy (1917), as well as a previously unpublished lecture given by the artist at the Société Anonyme, which will be published in the accompanying catalogue.

Primitive or sophisticate, daring visionary or academic disciple, Louis Eilshemius remains a painter of inherent contradictions. Guest Curator, Steven Harvey, seeks to position Eilshemius as part of the modem art tradition that began with Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, and continued in the twentieth century with André Derain and Balthus. Early on, Eilshemius began emulating Corot's mastery of underlying tonal structure in his landscape painting. His formal and evocative compositions have also been linked to the work of progressive American painters of the period - notably George Inness, Ralph Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder. While nineteenth-century American painting was grounded in observation, sentiment, and effect, Harvey maintains that, "Eilshemius' plainspoken approach to the landscape went against the grain of American stylistic conventions, which demanded finish, exactitude, and virtuosity."

Born to a wealthy, cultivated, Dutch/Swiss immigrant family, Eilshemius was educated in Munich and Dresden, attended Cornell University and the Arts Students League, and later studied with the American Barbizon painter Robert C. Minor. In 1886, he traveled to Paris and studied at the Académie Julian. While in Paris, the National Academy of Design accepted his Evening, Milford, Pa. for its 1887 autumn exhibition. The Academy also exhibited his Delaware Water Gap Village (ca.1886) in 1888; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts accepted one of his Delaware landscapes in 1890 and in 1891. Reminiscent of the clear light and blond palette of Corot's Italian landscapes, Eilshemius' Delaware Water Gap paintings were among his four works accepted into academic exhibitions. Executed shortly thereafter, paintings such as Afternoon Wind (1899), a proto-surrealist image featuring six maidens suspended in mid-air above a valley, demonstrate a conscious divergence from other forms of traditional nineteenth-century landscape painting, foreshadowing a radical change in his style that would happen around 1910. (left: Louis M. Eilshemius, East Side, New York, ca. 1908, oil on paperboard, 15 x 13 5/8 inches, Coll: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

After his initial showing at the National Academy of Design before 1900, Eilshemius began his life-long struggle for recognition within the established art community, but to no avail. Though openly critical of a membership that chose to exclude him, he yearned to be a National Academician (N.A.) He even began signing his correspondences with a fictitious "M.A." (Master of Art) after his name, in lieu of N.A. A family inheritance enabled him to travel extensively across America, to Europe and to North Africa. In 1901, his journey brought him as far as the South Seas and he found in Samoa a source of inspiration for what would later become his most influential body of work.

Academically trained, Eilshemius underwent a dramatic shift in both style and subject matter by mid career. He moved away from Corot's tonalism towards a freer style of landscape painting punctuated with abstract renderings of rocks and trees - a metaphysical approach to depicting nature which he would later describe as "soul painting." The year 1910 served as a turning point in his development as a painter, for he began to infuse his work - often of nudes in the landscape - with radical, willful distortions of the figure, which led to mischaracterizations of him as a primitive. He also incorporated standard modernist devices of severe simplification of form, elimination of details, flattened space, and arbitrary color into his highly personal, and intuitive style of painting. Despite these modernist strains, what is most fascinating about his approach, according to catalogue essayist Paul Karlstrom, "is the psychological dimension... Focus on the interior self, sexual obsession and neurosis are qualities of modernity that fully infuse the art of Louis Eilshemius."

In the immediate years following the 1913 Armory Show, from which his work was excluded, Eilshemius painted many of his largest and most ambitious paintings including Man on Horseback, Near Los Angeles (1916), Autumn Evening, Park Avenue (1915), Tragedy (Found Drowned) (1916), and Self-Portrait (1915). An urban nocturne rendered in a harmony of black, warm orange-brown and gray tones, Autumn Evening, Park Avenue is a vision at once desolate, and yet strangely compelling. Undeterred by his inability to interest others in his work, he deemed this particular group of later works his 'masterpieces,' and continued to attack both traditionalist and modernist art in favor of his own in his numerous correspondences with the city press.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp declared Eilshemius' Rose-Marie Calling (Supplication) (1916) among the best offerings at The Independent's Exhibition. He found the painting, "naturalistic in appearance and treatment... a purely poetic brushstroke far remote fi·om any theory or ism." Such praise baffled both colleagues and friends including art critic, Henry McBride, who considered the work "a dingy, countrified Venus." For Duchamp, what may have begun as an act of provocation, became a profound understanding of the complexity of Eilshemius's painting, as both a departure from any formal aesthetic principles and as a defense of traditional subject matter.

Duchamp remained Eilshemius' steadfast supporter and convinced the collector Katherine Dreier to give the fifty-six year old artist his first one-person show at the newly established Société Anonyme in 1920. Sixteen paintings from his later years, including The Prodigy (1917), were exhibited; and yet reaction to the exhibition was extremely negative. Four years later, a second solo show at the Société, featuring the artist's Samoan paintings of 1907-1908, (an earlier trip to Samoa in 1901 had served as a source of inspiration) finally attracted some critical approbation. Henry McBride experienced a conversion, and stated so in his review for the Evening Sun, "There are the stir of perfumed air and the excitement of romance in each of these panels. It seems incredible that they should have reposed here in this town all these years unrecognized by expert opinion." Such unprecedented praise came too late. By then, embittered by the lack of popular reception to his work and immobilized in a traffic accident, Eilshemius had already given up painting. Sadly, the artist died of pneumonia, penniless and alone, at Bellevue Hospital.

During a lecture given at the Société Anonyme twenty years earlier, Eilshemius had stated that a real artist might not be appreciated at once, but later on. Sixty years after his death and after a lifetime struggle for recognition, the Academy will acknowledge Eilshemius' enigmatic vision.

Guest curator Stephen Harvey, an artist in his own right, has studied Eilshemius' life and work for a number of years. The exhibition is organized by the National Academy of Design under the supervision of Isabelle Dervaux, Curator of Contemporary Art.

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