Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Midwestern View: The Artists of the Ste. Genevieve Art Colony

They do things so well here! The Museum of Art and Archaeology, in Pickard Hall on the University of Missouri–Columbia campus, is a perfect gem, and if you’re in Central Missouri, you should visit it regularly. They have a wonderful series of changing exhibits.

Right now, the museum is hosting a special exhibition that my readers might be interested in, as it involves Missouri history, Missouri landscapes, and Missouri art.

The show features about thirty works by several artists, in different styles and media, and of varying subjects; all are connected to an art colony that existed in the 1930s in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Jessie Beard Rickly (Poplar Bluff, Mo., 1895–St. Louis, Mo., 1975). Still Life—Lilies and Fruit, ca. 1930. Watercolor. Lent by John and Susan Horseman.

This annual summertime gathering of artists has been overshadowed by the fame of Thomas Hart Benton and by the war that pulled the curtain on the colony. (For more information on the Ste. Genevieve art colony, look at this book here.)

Indeed, although many of the Ste. Genevieve artists received favorable recognition and led successful lives as artists, hardly any of them became well-known; I know of Frank Nuderscher because he painted the famous “turning bridge” lunette at the state capitol (The Artery of Trade—the Eads Bridge). And there’s a single work in this exhibition by Thomas Hart Benton, who apparently spent one day with the Ste. Genevieve group—but the spotlight is on neither of these men.

If growing skills, expanding artistic vision, networking with other artists, and producing memorable, fine artworks are an indication of an art colony’s success, then I’d say the Ste. Genevieve gatherings hit their target. And because many of the works feature Missouri places, this colony did our state a great service by representing it so soulfully on canvas.

If you go to this exhibit anticipating pictures of “cabins, cattle, and colored people,” you’re in luck, because Regionalism, with a strong social conscience, is well represented in the collection. However, if farmers, erosion, and humble homes are all you are expecting, you will be surprised.

For example, there is a modernist landscape by Joe Jones of the St. Louis waterfront—a composition of cool grays in flat planes with smooth gradients. Other works depict people of the European underground in World War II, a nearly cubistic view of an entry gate to St. Louis’s upscale Westmoreland Place (which somehow reminds me of M. C. Escher’s infinite staircases), a few abstract compositions, and a number of satisfying still lifes.

But face it—the colony’s “Missouriness” is the main reason we’re interested in this group, and much of the collection evokes history, geography, and culture.

Joseph Paul Vorst (Essen, Germany, 1897–St. Louis, Mo., 1947). Sharecroppers’ Revolt, ca. 1940. Oil on panel. Lent by John and Susan Horseman.

A painting by Joseph Paul Vorst, Sharecroppers’ Revolt, depicts jobless tenant farmers trying to keep warm near a pitiful shanty covered by an old quilt. This painting must be related to the 1939 Sharecropper Protest down in the Bootheel; I’m guessing that Vorst must have witnessed that event, where hundreds of cotton laborers, organized by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, lined federal highways to protest their exploitation and misery.

I mean, you can read about the protest, and you can see photographs of it—but Vorst’s oil-on-canvas helps you to feel it.

See what I mean? A time, a place, a culture.

Here’s another one: The Quarry, by Bernard E. Peters. This painting is a landscape; the subject of the painting, a quarry of stark bright limestone with miscellaneous weedy foliage at its base, all gaily reflecting sunshine, occupies the back/upper half of the painting. The front half of the scene is all in cool, shady greens: a small Ozark farmhouse surrounded by small but long-established crop fields, shade trees, and a winding lane.

Bernard E. Peters (St. Louis, Mo., 1893–St. Louis, Mo., 1949). The Quarry. Oil on board. Lent by John and Susan Horseman.

Both halves of the landscape have been modified by humans. One gathers that the quarry, and the broad expanse of cropland beyond it, is new, and the farm old. The quarry and the expansive new field with its precisely parallel rows are newly disrupted lands; the homestead is settled and quiet. The quarry and mechanized agriculture is the future, the little farm the past. Yet the farm also provides a glimpse of the future, perhaps: The yellow-highlighted plants invading the quarry site remind me that nature in these parts tends, eventually, to the wooded, cool, and shady.

Another landscape, by E. Oscar Thalinger, also strongly evokes a particular place and time. In Farm Landscape in Winter, you see what is probably a late February view of a 1930s farm, with a gray sky and damp ground—the kind of gray and dampness we’ve had for weeks—with leafless trees and fields that are muddy but just starting to green up. Next to the humble home and barn, and nearly lost in the surrounding browns and grays, is a woman with a head scarf and her chickens. As I looked at this painting, I said silently to her: “I know what you’re feeling: I want spring to get here, too!”

E. Oscar Thalinger (Alsace-Lorraine, France, 1885–St. Louis, Mo., 1965). Farm Landscape in Winter, ca. 1932. Oil on board. Lent by the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

And although most of the still-lifes in this collection are quite colorful with lovely jewel-like tones, there is a small untitled oil—and early work by Aimee Schweig—that is monochromatically brown. The small scene is of the most humble of subjects: a worn wooden table with a coffee grinder and a few Irish potatoes on it . . . and a little cotton kitchen towel. And that’s it—no vase of pretty flowers, no blue skies, not even a shaft of sunlight to spice it up. The paint isn’t even shiny.

Aimee Schweig (St. Louis, Mo., 1897–St. Louis, Mo., 1987). Still life, n.d. Oil on board. Lent by Terrie Liberman and Martin Schweig.

Still, we can sense in this humble collection of objects a time (the now-antique coffee mill) and a place (a rural kitchen). And via this painting—the fact that it exists at all—we learn something about the painter. The note alongside the work points out that Schweig and others of her generation had been influenced by the comments of artist Charles Hawthorne, who said, “We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, the see the beauty of the commonplace.”

I don’t know about “ugly,” but I do know that Missouri (and all places) can be full of the commonplace. And perhaps that’s why this exhibition is so much fun—like all art, it helps us to see our world with fresh, appreciative eyes. And what a beautiful world it is.

Bernard E. Peters (St. Louis. Mo., 1893–St. Louis, Mo., 1949). Untitled (Landscape), ca. 1930s. Oil on canvas. Lent by John and Susan Horseman.

Exhibition Information

A Midwestern View: The Artists of the Ste. Genevieve Art Colony
January 29–May 15, 2011

Admission is free, free, free!

Museum of Art and Archaeology
University of Missouri–Columbia
1 Pickard Hall
Columbia, MO 65211-1420

Phone: 573-882-3591


Galleries are open
Tuesday through Friday: 9–4
Thursday evenings: until 8 pm
Saturday and Sunday: noon to 4 pm
(Closed Mondays and on University holidays)

The museum (Pickard Hall) is located on MU’s Francis Quadrangle; you can find it at the intersection of S. Ninth St. and University Ave.

My grateful thanks to the Museum of Art and Archaeology for providing me with high-quality jpg’s of the six paintings. I also thank the museum for granting me permission to take additional photos of the exhibition.

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