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Louis Michel Eilshemius

National Academy of Design

September 19 to December 30, 2001

Mystic Eccentric

"Of course I'm no society painter, I'm a bohemian and deal in ideal representations of nature like Turner or great symbolism like Blake."

- Eilshemius

New York Rooftops by Eilshemius

"New York Rooftops," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on masonite, 30 ½ by 25 ½ inches, 1908, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

By Carter B. Horsley

Louis Michel Eilshemius (1846-1941), who often spelt his last name, Elshemus, has had a devoted but small following among some famous artists and important American art collectors, but his eccentric oeuvre has not achieved wide popularity in part because of the proliferation of his paintings of voluptuous nudes in bucolic settings, which are often clumsy and ungainly and were a bit too risqué for his period.

The nudes are amusing but slight and the best of these predominantly green and yellow paintings often have them floating in air, an image first employed by Arthur B. Davies a few years before Eilshemius started painting them.

While some of the nudes have a poetic, mystical and sensual appeal, it is Eilshemius's landscapes and allegorical images that are the strongest and most interesting. Very much influenced by the dark, brooding marines famously depicted by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Eilshemius could be quite bold in his palette and very painterly. His "The Flying Dutchman," for example, is a copy of a subject done by Ryder and it is richly black. His "Zeppelin in Flames Over New Jersey" (oil on cardboard, 18 ½ by 15 ½ inches, 1937, collection of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton), is a very focused abstraction of the famous Hindenberg disaster. Some of his night cityscapes have a comforting and wonderful light.

This small but fine exhibition brings together most of Eilshemius's masterpieces and is the first major show on him in a generation.

While the catalogue, entitled "Louis Michel Eilshemius, An Independent Spirit," correctly emphasizes the influence of Corot, the Barbizon painter, on Eilshemius as witnessed by some of his very lyrical and impressive landscapes, it is really with Ryder that he should be compared. Ryder's intensity and abstraction have greatly influenced many American artists such as Marsden Hartley and Ryder is the first great "modern" American artist. Eilshemius, of course, is not as consistent as Ryder and his vision was not as original, yet his visionary work is complex and interesting and quite powerful. Indeed, Eilshemius is his own worst enemy as his best works have long been in public collections and those that have appeared on the auction market are generally inferior nudes in sylvan settings. Furthermore, his eccentric persona did not serve him well. At his best, however, Eilshemius can be inspired and quite striking and could well be compared a bit to William Blake, the famous English mystic artist. One of his interesting characteristics was that he often painted sinuous and irregular "frames" on his canvases, one of the few artists to recognize the importance of "framing" their work to their own satisfaction.

In her foreword to the exhibition's catalogue, Annette Blaugrund, the director of the National Academy of Art, notes that the artist was elected an honorary member of the academy in 2001: "Organized in response to the widespread appreciation for the work of Louis Eilshemius among current Academicians, his exhibition is both fitting and meaningful, for it commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of the artist's death in December 1941. Eilshemius desperately wanted to be associated with the Academy and now, at long last, he is.

"Collectors such as Roy R. Neuberger, Joseph Hirshhorn, Chester dale, and Duncan Phillips, among others, brought and championed Eilshemius's work in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, almost every major museum has at least one Eilshemius in its collection. Although his wok is infrequently exhibited, interest in this neglected artist recurs periodically. The Museum of Modern Art recently exhibited two of his paintings (2000). Among artists, then and now, his work remains appealing for its acquired naïve style, its tonal palette, and to some extent because he symbolizes the essence of an outsider and hereby endures as an American original," Ms. Blaugrund wrote.

In his essay," Against the Grain: The Paintings of Louis Michel Eilshemius" in the 63-page, hard-cover $29.95 catalogue, which has 18 excellent color plates, Steven Harvey provides the following commentary on the artist:

"If he is known at all now, it is mostly as a legendary bohemian figure of early twentieth-century New York. He referred to himself as the Mahatma, the Supreme Spirit of the Spheres.Eilshemius was multifaceted, describing himself as a painter-poet-musician. He wrote and published his poetry and prose, composed music and painted. In his later years he promoted quasi-scientific discoveries in pamphlets, including his `patented' self-painted frames. In one he proclaimed himself an `Educator, Ex-actor, Amateur All-around Doctor, Mesmerist-Prophet and Mystic, Reader of Hands and Faces, Linguist of 5 languages,' a 'Spirit-Painter Supreme,' as well as the 'most wonderful and diverse painter of nude groups in the world,' whose middle name is 'variety.' While all of this adds up to a picture of a vivid and grandiloquent eccentric, it also has served to obscure his painting. Eilshemius was an extraordinary and innovative painter who always possessed his own voice. The combination of his eccentric personalityand the often-shocking subject matter of his paintings have led art historians and critics to categorize him as a primitive. He was actually, however, an academically trained and sophisticated painter, who is part of a lineage of modern art that begins with Corot and continues from Derain and Balthus to many contemporary painters.The teacher who helped him the most was the American Barbizon painter Robert C. Minor, who guided him to the French landscape tradition. Eilshemius came from a wealthy, cultivated, first generation family of French-Swiss and Dutch-German lineage.He brought a European sensuality to his work that was missing from American art of the period. His formal and imaginative originality relate his work to the progressive American artists of the period notably George Inness, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. American painting of the mid-nineteenth century was primarily about empirical observation, anecdote, sentiment and effect. Eilshemius's understated and plain-spoken approach to landscape went against the grain of the American work ethic in art, which demanded finish, exactitude, and virtuosity. Though born into comfortable circumstances, Eilshemius's personal life was difficult filled with loss and artistic rejection. He lost three of his five siblings early in life. For the greater part of his career, he was unable to interest others in his work. His response to rejection was a defensive antagonism that led him to attack most other forms of both traditional and modernist art."

Mr. Harvey recounts the artist's preoccupation with extraordinary acts of "Will," and his "metaphysical conception of the artist as one who channels the images from his inner eye onto paper instantly." Eilshemius, he wrote, would write 50 sonnets in a few hours, a 102-page comedy in 26 hours and paintings in 15 minutes. We find our way to Eilshemius through his imperfections. They are like the dropped stitch in the Navajo rug that forestalls hubris. But Eilshemius's work cannot win us over solely on its awkwardness; he matches this with grace."

Village near Delaware Water Gap by Eilshemius

"Village Near Delaware Water Gap," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on canvas, 25 by 29 7/8 inches, 1896, collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

As an example of the artist's grace, Mr. Harvey cites his 1896 painting of "Village Near Delaware Water Gap," shown above, which is in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

Afternoon Wind by Eilshemius

"Afternoon Wind," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on canvas, 20 by 36 inches, 1899, The Museum of Modern Art

"The bucolic idylls of the Delaware Water Gap are followed three years later," Mr. Harvey observed, "by one of Eilshemius's most arresting images, Afternoon Wind of 1899.Over a Barbizon-style landscape, six porcelain-white nude woman float, hover, or vault through midair. They do not really fly but simply pose in midair, relaxing in zero gravity. Afternoon Wind has the power of a child's dream of being able to fly: it happens as if by magic. The women are like currents of wind circulating through the valley.Paul Karlstrom has indicated some sources for paintings of women flying, notably Arthur B. Davies and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Yet, both of these painters displayed an essentially neo-classical vision of the figure, whereas Eilshemius's flying women are strangely contemporary. The straightforward manner in which he presents his vision was also entirely different from the florid literary symbolist painting of the period. Afternoon Wind is a protosurrealist image. Eilshemius employs an almost illustrative technique to render inexplicable events.As is the case with much of his work, the magic comes as much from his complex organization of forms here comprised of graceful arching diagonals - as from the unpredictable image."

Mr. Harvey notes that a similar composition of 1908, "The Dream" (collection Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York), is "a softer, more mellifluous painting" in which "the women are featureless: reflecting Eilshemius's idea that `You cannot get motion if you put in every little detail of the body.'"

The Demon of the Rocks by Eilshemius

"The Demon of the Rocks," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on cardboard, 20 by 15 1/8 inches, 1901, The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Fania Marinoff van Vechten in memory of Carl van Vechten.

In a letter about a review of a show of Benjamin Kopman by Henry McBride, an influential art critic of the period, Eilshemius wrote that he was flattered that the critic put his name alongside Kopman's and William Blake because "I am a visionary when the mood dictates and have painted a number of subjects out of the airone very mystical: `Demon of the Rocks' and others."

The demon, Mr. Harvey observes, bears a resemblance to the artist's face, and looks "strangelypathetic." "With the demon's 'cowardly lion' expression," he continued, "it is also like a comic opera version of one of Albert Ryder's wilder motifs, such as The RaceTrack. Eilshemius was aware of and interested in Ryder's work. In a letter published in the Sun, he recalled visiting, in 1907 Ryder's studio on Fifteenth Street in New York.Eilshemius wrote: "I asked him how long it took him to paint one of his canvases. "You see it is best to take ten years to execute one subject." I laughed and told him I could do the trick in a few hours. "You must be the devil,' he shouted. Well, when I got back to my studio on Twenty-Third Street, I painted two paintings in one hour for each. Quite some energy! Selah!' If the recollection is accurate, then Eilshemius painted Macbeth and the Witches and The Flying Dutchmanafter seeing Ryder's paintings in his apartment. This supports the importance Eilshemius placed on memory as a tool for the artist. In Ryder's Flying Dutchman, the individual parts of the composition are subordinated within the whole swirling rhythmic mass. Eilshemius is like an opera director, allowing each element to standout distinctly, like props on a stage."

The Flying Dutchman by Eilshemius

"The Flying Dutchman," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on composition board, 23 ½ by 25 ½ inches, 1908, Whitney Museum of American Art, gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Mr. Harvey observes that both Ryder and Eilshemius loved moonlight, adding that many of Eilshemius's "greatest New York City paintings are nocturnes."

"Eilshemius most majestic image may be New York Rooftops of 1908 [shown at the top of this article]. Eilshemius's black shapes catch the generalization of form of city architecture after dusk.The space is exactly right - exactly articulated. Ralph Albert Blakelock, Eilshemius's contemporary, with whom he is sometimes compared, painted the shacks and shanties of New York in the 1870s; Ryder also drank in inspiration from the city; but in 1908, Eilshemius fashioned a singular tenebrous poetry out of the New York skyline, far removed from these two artists and from the proletarian hubbub of the Ashcan school as well.

Autumn Evening, Park Avenue by Eilshemius

"Autumn Evening, Park Avenue," by Louis Michel Eilshemius, oil on canvas, 26 ¼ by 36 inches, 1915, Roy R. Neuberger Collection

Another fine New York scene by Eilshemius is "Autumn Evening, Park Avenue," a 1915 oil on canvas, 26 ¼ by 36 inches that is in the Roy R. Neuberger Collection and is shown above.

Mr. Harvey provides the following commentary on this work, describing it as "a harmony of black, warm orange-brown, and gray, with the majesty of a mournful threnody of Beethoven":

"The picture is achieved by almost impossible means. In this exemplary late period work, Eilshemius summarily indicates big mute building shapes with diluted oil paint on paperboard. The paint is so thinned out that the color of the support becomes a large part of the overall color. The warm color of the board infuses the night sky with orange glowing through the thin washes of white and gray clouds. A row of three slender trees snakes and curls upward like beanstalks. On the horizon there is a far off sparkle of the lights at the end of Park Avenue, muted in the soft gray atmosphere of night. It is a metropolitan vision at once barren, tough and yet strangely comforting. The ambivalence that Eilshemius felt in regard to New York as home is evident it his vision of the city. The isolation he personally felt is represented in his view of the city as a sparkling metropolis, largely uninhabited place for solitary evening walks."

Eilshemius, Mr. Harvey argues, displayed a postimpressionist approach in paintings such as "Spanish Street Scene, Malaga" of 1909, before Stuart Davis painted van Gogh-like scenes in 1916 or Marsden Hartley processed Cézanne in the 1920s." He provides the following interesting quotation from an article by noted critic Clement Greenberg that discussed an exhibition that focused specially on Eilshemius's paintings from 1909:

"Arbitrary though it might appear, no better selection of Eilshemius's work than his production of 1909 could have been made as a starting point for the re-evaluation of his art.The year marks a critical station in the artist's career. The simplification of his later or what I choose to call 'deranged' period, with its yellows, acid greens, oranges, tans and pinks, begins to emerge even as the comparative academicism of his earlier period reaches its fruition. We see that Eilshemius was a thin but very intense talent."

In 1917, The Society of Independent Artists held a huge art show with more than 2,000 works by 1,200 artists. Eilshemius had two paintings in the show, one of which, "Rose-Marie Calling (Supplication)," was singled out, along with "The Clare Twins" by Dorothy Rice," by Marcel Duchamps for praise. Duchamps's "Fountain," a urinal, had been rejected for exhibition in this show, creating a great controversy. Duchamps's praise of the Eilshemius painting was considered by some to be a joke and part of Duchamps's assault on convention, but Duchamps subsequently attempted to arrange an exhibition for Eilshemius in Paris, and the second issue of the New York Dada magazine, TheBlind Man, contained a report by poet Mina Loy of a visit to Eilshemius's studio in which Loy wrote:

"As Rousseau of the French spirit painted in France, does Eilshemius of the American spirit paint in America, with the childlike self-faith of a Blake. His is so virginally the way a picture must be painted by one unsullied by any preconception of how pictures are painted, so direct a presentation of his cerebral vision, that between his idea and the setting forth of his idea, the question of method never intrudes. The complicated mechanism that obtains in other artists a prolonged psychological engineering of a work of art, is waived; his pictures, if one may say so, are instantaneous photographs of his mind at any given moment of inspiration."

In 1920, Katherine Dreier, at Duchamps's suggestion, gave Eilshemius the inaugural one-man show at her new Museum of Modern Art at the Societe Anonyme on East 47th Street. The show, however, was not well received by most critics. One of the paintings included was "The Prodigy," a 1917 work that Mr. Harvey wrote may have been much admired by Bathus as its "schematic furniture, the abstract mood of the young girl, her odd expression, the curious and extreme curve of her neck, and its dry earthy palette all evoke the private worlds of young girls described in so many of Balthus's paintings." Mr. Harvey added that "Duchamp reported told the New York art dealer Gertrude Stein that when Picasso first saw Balthus's work, he said, 'You must have been looking at Eilshemius.'"

In 1921, Eilshemius gave up painting.

In 1924, Dreier gave Eilshemius a second show that was more successful and led to his association with Valentine Dudensing's art gallery. A 1932 show at the Dudensing Gallery was successful enough that Dudensing arranged another show that year at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris. Eilshemius was compared with Douanier Rousseau and Dudensing quoted Matisse as stating that Eilshemius was a "real painter," Mr. Harvey wrote. Eilshemius, however, was injured in an automobile accident that year and his family money ran out. Artists such as Milton Avery, David Burliuk and Louise Nevelson would visit him in his 57th Street home, but he was removed from his home against his wishes in 1941 and taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died of pnuemonia.

"Among a younger generation there are a surprising number of Eilshemus fans, including the artist Ed Rusha who explains Eilshemius's appeal to him in terms of complete originality. 'I look at Eilshemius's art and I see pictures that can almost exclusively be identified as his alone, unrestrained by any obvious influences. His work is often uncomfortable to look at and not meant to soothe the eye or mind. In this respect he is a complete original,'" wrote Paul Karlstrom in his catalogue essay, "Eilshemius Redux." Mr. Karlstrom was the curator of a major 1978 exhibition on Eilshemius at the Hirshhorn Museum and wrote an essay for that catalogue called "Eilshemius and Modernism."

Seen by some as a transitional artist between the academic 19th Century and modern 20th Century, Eilshemius was neither a primitive nor "folk" artist, but an individual of considerable, albeit not great, talent obsessed with his personal, often, lusty visions. Despite the pathos of his frustration-filled life, he managed to pour his enormous energies into producing a large oeuvre that has, as this exhibition demonstrates, many extremely fine paintings.

Whether or not he was sexually repressed, his spirit was fertile and his fervor was special.

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