“Resurrecting New York Realist Eugene Speicher, Art Star of Bygone Days,” Hudson River Museum & Gallery Guide

by Lynn Woods/Feb. 18, 2014

Like soda fountains, trolley cars and the Third Avenue El, the realist paintings of Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) have been relegated to the dustbin of history. That the Woodstock artist was destined for anonymity would no doubt have surprised his contemporaries, given that in the 1920s through the 1940s, he was one of America’s most celebrated artists, collected by the nation’s leading art museums. He was so successful that even after he decided to eschew commissioned portraits, on which his reputation had been built, in favor of painting who and what he wanted, he made a nice living from his art. Even during the Depression, when most Woodstock artists struggled to survive, he prospered.

Art historian and freelance curator Valerie Ann Leeds, who stumbled upon Speicher while researching his teacher Robert Henri, one of the original eight “Ash Can” painters, thought the artist deserved a second look. “Speicher was such a close friend of Henri and [fellow Woodstock-based artist] George Bellows,” said Leeds, who is based in Stockton, New Jersey, in a recent phone interview. “Knowing how big he was in his day, I thought he warranted more attention.” After joining forces with a collector of Speicher’s work who was also a board member at SUNY New Paltz’s Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, she successfully sold the museum on the idea of a retrospective.

“Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher” opened on February 8—it is on display through July 13—and is the first show of the artist’s work in 51 years. It was the New York art world’s obsession with abstraction in the 1950s, of course, that took down Speicher’s career.  But with the flowering of modernism now as distant in time as Speicher’s floral still lifes, Woodstock landscapes, seated portraits, and breezy, wonderfully assured pencil drawings, visitors can assess his work “fresh.” At the very least, they can become acquainted with an aesthetic that was extremely popular in its day.

Speicher was so prominent that not only did institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art collect him, but they collected him in depth, Leeds said. For example, the Met has five paintings by him (though they are seldom if ever displayed). Unfortunately MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Institute all later de-accessioned him, she added. “Occasionally you’ll see one in a museum. Detroit Institute of Arts for example often has a wonderful Speicher painting on view.”

Speicher, who was born in Buffalo, was one of Henri’s most talented students, earning a bunch of awards starting in the teens from the cultural expositions and prestigious art academies of the time and having his first solo exhibition at M. Knoedler & Company, in New York, in 1920. He and his wife, a Vassar graduate, maintained a home in Woodstock as well as an Upper East Side apartment all their lives. In Woodstock, Speicher was a leading member of a group of artists that coalesced around the Whitney Studio Club, which hosted exhibitions of unknown or struggling artists and morphed into the Whitney Museum of American Art in the early 1930s. Leeds notes in her essay in the exhibition catalog that Speicher was celebrated by art critic Homer St. Gaudens in 1941 as “the first among our native portrait painters.”

Indeed, Speicher’s strengths are perhaps best exhibited at the Dorsky show in several of the monumental , slightly larger than life seated portraits. The warm, harmonious earth tones, pensive figure, and masterful composition of The Mountaineer and Polly, both of which are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are examples of basic figurative painting at its most satisfying. In The Mountaineer, the grizzled but vigorous old man holds a cane on which is balanced his hat, signaling both his active life and presumed retirement, while the attribute of the statuette of an eagle with raised wings on a chest behind him is an elegiac touch. The subtle shadows lend depth. In Polly, the strong vertical of the antique cupboard against the wall on the left anchors the space and creates a contrast with the sinuous curves of the chair and the woman’s slightly akimbo arms, crossed leg, and graceful hands (as well as the curl of hair on her cheek). The flowers on the right side of the painting bracket the figure with another vertical; they also harmonize with the dull reds and pinks of her clothing while the spiky blossoms enliven the somber, dusky space.

The show also includes one of Speicher’s most famous commissions, a standing portrait of actress Katherine Cornell in a flowing red gown depicted as the character of Candida, which she was playing in a Broadway production of the Shaw play. Here the heaviness of his style is less successful; the figure lacks the effervescent light, lustrous textures and uncanny presence of the society portraits by Sargent and Whistler.

Portrait of a French Girl and Portrait of a Young Girl—Speicher’s favorite subjects were women, frequently the daughters and wives of his artist friends—achieve a convincing aplomb: in the first instance a striking, dark-haired woman in black is caught holding a flower in a winsome pose in which her shoulders are pulled back and hips twisted appealingly toward the viewer. In the second example, the depiction of a placid woman in a gray hat and red suit of some soft, fuzzy material is constructed of undulating curves recalling Matisse’s seated women from the same period. The detail of the projecting lace collar brings the composition to life, echoing as it does the collar of the jacket, the necklace, and the hat, while the ribbon-like fingers repeat the undulating pattern of stripes in her skirt.

Speicher’s landscapes are particularly lively. They are more loosely constructed and painted, combining the spontaneity of watercolor with the plasticity and opaque hues of oil.  The eye moves back into space, from the foreground fence post and bush to the house and figures in the middle distance to the muted distant mountains, a motion counteracted by the thickly painted advancing clouds of the sky. In these painterly sketches, you can practically smell the grass, hear the buzz of insects, sense the grand shadows sweeping over the land.

Speicher’s drawings, ranging from the 1909 delicately rendered realistic portrait of his mother to a quick sketch of a woman seated at a table, in which the shaded planes are described as emphatic pencil strokes, also particularly appeal to the contemporary eye. His Study for Lilya, from 1930, in which the beautiful oval face with almond shaped eyes is framed in a draped headscarf, recalls Picasso’s delicate portraits of his ballerina wife, Olga. Speicher’s pencil lines are both spontaneous and precise, and he uses his tones and the white of the paper to great effect in suggesting space in his landscape sketches. Some of the figure drawings, however, have the facileness of illustration.

What seems dated about some of the works are a certain heaviness that makes even the abstracted backgrounds look woolly and a tonal approach that sometimes emphasizes atmosphere over form, resulting in muddied colors with an almost metallic cast. Leeds said Speicher’s “staid quality,” so in contrast to the gestural painterliness of Henri and Bellows, perhaps accounts for his fall from grace.  While the pictures of Henri and Bellows “feel like they were painted a few minutes ago, Speicher was more deliberate,” she said.  The high seriousness of his approach, the academic meticulousness, dates his works to a particular time and place, compared with the universality of Henri’s and Bellows’ hasty brushstrokes. But it’s this evocation that appeals to Leeds, who has a particularly fascination for the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Perhaps time weighed more heavily on people back then; with fewer distractions, the moment took on greater significance, the spaces were more dimly lit, fabrics were bulkier, hairstyles more structured, poses more consciously modern—and the period’s streamlined and Deco styles fabulously sleek and elegant in comparison.

“I’ve just always love the aesthetics of that period,” said Leeds. “It was a time of great change in this country. Particularly in his portraits of women, Speicher shows a slice of time from the period. This show was intended to try to resurrect the conversation about him and changing tastes.”

Not knowing at all how people would react to the work, given its inaccessibility for so long, Leeds said she has been pleasantly surprised. “The response has been really exciting and kind of floored me,” she said. “It’s been enormously positive.”

In October 18, the show will open at the New York State Museum, the third such show curated by the Dorsky to do so (the others were the exhibitions on Eugene Ludens, another Woodstock artist, and designer Russell Wright). Given that the annual number of visitors to the New York State Museum is 750,000, compared with 12,000 to 15,000 at the Dorsky, the partnership results in “tremendous exposure to the artists’ work,” said Sara Pasti, Neil S. Trager director of the Dorsky. “The lion’s share of the work has been done, so it’s a win-win situations for both state institutions, given our limited resources.”

Pasti speculated that Speicher was bypassed by history mainly because “he’s not innovative. It’s the innovative artists who span generations. They have the staying power and the most impact.” Yet she noted as tastes change again, the jury may not be quite out. “Will there be a return to realism? Will students and young artists see the work and be influenced by it?” The Speicher exhibition is a kind of litmus test of our own tastes and tendencies, rejuvenating a dialog that died seemingly a long time ago and revealing a backwater of art history that if nothing else lends depth and dimension to the story we all know.

“Along His Own Lines: A Retrospective of New York Realist Eugene Speicher” is on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art through July 13. From October 18 through March 22, 2015, it will be on display at the New York State Museum. The accompanying catalog has color plates and essays by curator Valerie Ann Leeds, Tom Wolf, and Daniel Belasco.