No. 5 Frank Charles Peyraud
If you saw the huge cyclorama “The Battle of Gettysburg,” at the 1933 Century of Progress exposition, you saw the beginning of Frank C. Peyraud, dean of Chicago landscape painters. Mr. Peyraud doesn’t know whether any of his paint was in the miles and miles of the battlefield of that particular opus at the World’s Fair, but he worked on about twenty identical “Battles of Gettysburg” that dotted the United States in the great “cyclorama era,” about 1883-84-85. Every big city had to have one, after the huge success of the first, built and painted in Belgium and brought to Chicago about 1833. This one was assembled and erected in the vicinity of State and Van Buren Streets.
The fame of “The Battle of Gettysburg” spread far. The battle was still the most vivid event in the memories of Americans north and south. The exhibitor couldn’t put his version into a can and mail it to Detroit or Kansas City or Omaha, as is possible now with the movie spectacles So it was necessary either to send this Chicago “Battle of Gettysburg” on tour or build duplicates for other cities.
It looked like an endless “run” for Chicago—nobody could imagine anybody losing interest in the greatest of all battles in the history of the world (thought they), even to the third and fourth and the tenth generations. So another one was built and sent to Kansas City. Huge success! Another was called for, and another. The craze exhausted itself only after a score of duplicates—and Frank C. Peyraud, young painter and architect from Switzerland, who could scarcely speak English, was drawing steady and gratifying wages.
So were Arthur B. Davies and Oliver Dennett Grover and Joseph Birren and Warren Davis and John Henry Twachtman and Edgar S. Cameron and Charles A. Corwin.
Twachtman, before he died, became one of the high-powered leaders among American landscape artists; Grover became the recognized leader of Chicago painters; Arthur B. Davies attained international fame as an American “modernist;” Warren Davis became most popular of America’s etchers of the nude; and Joseph Birren was honored through America and abroad as a landscapist. Mr. Corwin, alone of the group, stayed with something similar to the work they were then doing—he is still painting environmental backgrounds for the groups of animals and savage men at Field Museum. Me. Cameron was called upon a year or so ago to “touch up” one of the “Gettysburg” cycloramas still doing duty in Texas. Frank C.. Peyraud—
Well, Frank C. Peyraud developed not only a natural aptitude as a workman on the cycloramas but he became a designer and creator of followers of “Gettysburg.”
On Feb. 15 the Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. On June 1, the Omaha exposition opened. Those were dark days for the promoters of the exposition, what with all the excitement and expense of war in both money and man But a concessioner, familiar with “The Battle of Gettysburg,” had a bright idea— “The Blowing Up of the Maine.” He called in Peyraud, and before long crowds were swarming to the new attraction.
The young Swiss artist did his work so well that a sailor who had actually been on the Maine and was hired as “speiler” in consequence pronounced the counterfeit highly accurate.
Unlike “Gettysburg,” action was introduced into “The Blowing Up of the Maine.” The ship tossed around on the waters of the harbor and finally was, through force of an explosion, depicted hurtling into the air, collapsing and sinking. “The Blowing Up of the Maine” made money amid a general loss by concessions at the exposition.
Peyraud’s “masterpiece,” however, was “Creation,” which the multitudes saw at the St. Louis exposition in 1903. Another of the old “Gettysburg” promoters got a huge plot of ground, 180 feet across, and called in Peyraud. Neither the promoter nor the painter had an idea. “We must create something,” mused Peyraud, now a master of English. “That’s it—I have it!” shouted the promoter excitedly—Creation!”
And “Creation” it was. It covered the famous first seven days of Genesis. As in “The Blowing Up of the Maine,” there was movement here, and this time actual life. Adam and Eve were “played” by two flesh-and-blood children in tights, 4-year-olds, who looked full-grown. The promoter wanted to engage a male and a female giant to make the spectacle of Eden more impressive But Peyraud scaled everything, instead, to the measure of the youngsters. “Creation,” too, was a financial success, as well as an “artistic” hit.
Peyraud’s next achievement of this sort—and his last—was “The Chicago Fire” for White City. Here, he returned to the immovable cyclorama of the Gettysburg days, but solved some of the most difficult problems he ever attacked in perspective in order to give a naturalistic appearance to Chicago’s flame-swept streets.
These problems involved conic sections, and Peyraud had need for all the mathematics he had learned in his native Switzerland and in Paris, where he studied, in youth, to be an architect.
Born in Bulle, Switzerland, in 1858, Francois wanted, at the age of 4, to be a painter, but his father, a practical man, persuaded him to adopt architecture.
Before he left Bulle for Paris, an American tourist had told the boy of the wonders of Chicago. To Chicago he came in 1880, and applied to the architect, W. L. B. Jenney, who was to become immortal as builder of the first skyscraper, for a job. Jenney was kind—he told the young man from Switzerland (French half of the land of the Alps) to learn English and then apply again.
But by the time his English could be made presentable, the “era of cyclorama” had dawned, and Peyraud’s career as an architect had vanished.
“But,” says the veteran, “every landscape painter should study architecture. A landscape should be built up architecturally to something monumental. It is the silhouette of form against the sky that counts. Unless this is interesting, the picture cannot interest, no matter what else you do to it”
At the time of the Columbian exposition, Peyraud worked on the “Spectatorium,” a vast dream that cost millions, but never materialized. It became known as “Mackaye’s Folly,” from its projector, Steele Mackaye, playwright and play producer. Mackaye’s idea was a pageant story of Columbus on the most gigantic scale of any theatrical venture in the history of the world. A part of the staging was to have been the three ships of Columbus, in natural size, afloat on actual water.
Many Chicago businessmen backed the venture, which was just outside the exposition grounds. Edward B. Butler, who became Peyraud’s student and fellow artist, once told him that he put $50,000 himself into the venture. The “Spectatorium” was abandoned when it was found it could not be built in time for the exposition. All the working models were made, and the walls of the giant building were erected.
Edward B. Butler was a highly nervous capitalist. William V. O’Brien, art dealer, advised him “to take up art” to quiet his nerves, and recommended Peyraud as teacher. Butler took the advice. For eighteen years he and Peyraud shared a magnificent studio and went sketching all over America and Europe. Butler became a fair painter, after the landscape style of Peyraud, and gave to the Art Institute its Inness room.
On one of his trips back to Europe, Mr. Peyraud was invited by his native Bulle to settle down in Switzerland and become the “official” painter of his town and canton. But Peyraud had to decline—his “interests” were in Chicago.’
Among the “interests” was his wife, who was Elizabeth Kreyher of Carbondale, Ill. She had made quite a name for herself as a painter of children They met when they worked together on “The Chicago Fire,” she being then a student at the Art Institute
So Bulle had to be content with hanging Peyraud’s “Late Afternoon” in its museum.
Though he has sketched far and wide, seeking “greenery” all over the world, Peyraud is content with “the Chicago scene.” A few trees and a sky is all the landscape painter needs, in his philosophy It’s the “silhouette” that counts—and the “silhouette” is up to the painter.
Only it must be based on nature. Peyraud has little patience with the “moderns,” who evolve something out of their subconscious.
“Maybe what they paint is beautiful, but only the painter himself can understand it. It’s as if I should give you a Russian book. The book may have many [unclear] in it, but if you don’t understand the language, they’re lost on you.