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ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
Frederic A. Tellander (1878-1977)
[Note: This is an autobiography published in "An Autobiographical Sketch," All-Arts Magazine, Vol. II, No. 8, August 1926, pp. 6-9, 28.]
When one is facing the task of giving an account of himself from the first day up to the present, within a limited number of words, he must decide whether that account shall be chronological or whether it shall merely recount the highlights, so to speak—those events which stand out in his experience, sometimes trivial in themselves, but having a great deal of importance in “shaping his destiny.” Undoubtedly, the ‘high-lights’ are more interesting, and easier to read, so I shall try to keep to an account of them with an interlarding of opinions and observations which I hope will not become too tiresome. I was born at Paxton, Ill. A small town a hundred odd miles south of Chicago, on the 4th of November 1878. Sometimes I think that being born on Election Day has something to do with my controversial disposition and a tendency to believe in auguries, against my better judgment. I do feel that one’s very earliest impressions have a great influence in determine the bent of one’s mind. For instance, even admitting a hereditary predisposition, I think that my intense responsiveness to music—my conviction that it is the greatest of the arts—may be traced back to the circumstance of my first great impression. Although only a babe in arms at the time, it remains vividly with me to this day. Being bundled up snugly in my mother’s arms; in a ‘cutter’; falling snow; dusk; sleigh-bells; voices; a great fan-shaped window over wide doors; then the doors opening and a great burst of music and light—that was all, but I’m quite certain that it ‘did things’ to me, and opened up a world of interest and pleasure that has stood me in good stead through many years. That was my first high-light. The next one was more to the point. A jeweler’s catalog sent out, I suppose by some wholesale house, and full of woodcuts of the weird designs of silver table ware, et cetera, such as were so prevalent in the early Eighties. The one that sticks in my mind was a very ornate napkin-ring with a very solemn and wise-looking owl standing at one side to keep it from rolling away. Oh, the romance of that book! What a book it would be that today would give me the thrill, the wonder, and the sense of a world full of marvelous things, that the jeweler’s catalog did. And don’t you believe that the wonderful hours spent pouring over marvelous pictures had some effect in developing a predilection for the Graphic Arts? I do. Later came the period of boats. And what child with a knack for drawing hasn’t been through it? Will I ever forget the thrill of pride at the amazement my uncle showed at the sigh of a great ship—a square-rigger—with all the rope ladders running up the many masts carefully drawn. Of course it was a side-view and the perspective of the sails was a little too much for me, so I left them out. But the point was the impetus his wonder gave my swelling young Ego. I’m sure I determined to do something still more marvelous, something that would ‘knock his eye out’ as we say today. I wonder if we grown-ups often remember how tremendously stimulating to a child, serious interest and approbation are, in ethical matters as well as in creative efforts. Then at school—the rivalry between a nice little girl and myself as to who could copy best the fulsome flourish and intricate scroll of the wonderful ‘birds of paradise’done by some master of penmanship n the old Spencerian copy-books. Who can estimate the power of teacher’s generous praise for the copy of one of those birds that I made, very much enlarged, on the blackboard with white chalk, and the envy of the other pupils, no so fortunately gifted? Those were the halcyon days—days full of unalloyed joy in achievement. I claim your indulgence in my sentimentalizing, because I know you have all felt the same way about some great thing you did when you were a kid, that seemed to set you above the rest of ‘em. Some years later, while a messenger in the local telegraph office, I made many copies of Bradley’s cartoons in the old Inter Ocean. These were pasted up on the walls of the office and got me a lot of attention. Admiring grown-ups would exclaim ‘Boy, you’ve missed your calling,’ or ‘You ought to study art,’ much to my satisfaction but my gallery finally got to be so much of a nuisance that our prosaic ticket agent tore them all down, and cautioned my friend the operator not to put up any more of them. That was the first affront my genius has suffered, and it cut deeply. By this time I was pretty much the town prodigy and interested friends interceded with my grandfather in my behalf so persistently that he finally agreed to ‘send me away to school’ said school being that noted poor boys’ school at Valparaiso, Indiana. I was then seventeen, and believed myself fairly launched on the way to fame and fortune. The Art Department I found interesting. There were about a dozen aspiring hopefuls of ages ranging from seventeen to thirty-five, all in deadly earnest, and making the best of a somewhat doubtful equipment. But the old gentleman in charge, Professor Samuel B. Wright, a pupil of Thomas Eakins, was a sterling instructor, and in the seven months that I was there, gave me a grounding in the fundamentals of drawing and an idea of the right attitude towards Art that I have never forgotten. He was one of my high-lights, and whatever credit is owing to any individual for anything that I have done, or may do in the future, must go to him alone. I shall be everlastingly in debt to him for his confidence and faith that ‘I had it in me,’ and the stimulus, that confidence and faith has been to me all these years. I wish that every youngster trying to be an artist might have the benefit of contact with a man and teacher of his character. Maybe I have seemed to stress these early experiences too strongly, but I firmly believe that they were the most important happenings in my life as far as determining whether or not I was to be an artist, good, bad, or indifferent. Then came the ambition to be a newspaper artist. A try at the big city; a desk, but o salary, at the old Inter Ocean; the bitter days of trying to get a job in an engraving house. But what could I do? I had no samples—no experience, and after three months of trying I had to go back home. Owing to an affection that had troubled me for some years I had long wanted to go to Colorado. Some friends had moved out there some time before and on their assurance that I could surely find something to do I managed to get together enough money to pay my fare out with about five dollars to spare. The same old story. No opening at the newspapers—none at the engraving houses and I had just about decided to go out to Golden as a berry-picker when I heard of an opening in a small engraving house. What a job! I got a job at the munificent salary of five dollars a week, and trying it out for a month I told the proprietor that I couldn’t live on it and would have to go a-ranching if he couldn’t pay me more. So I got six. And after six months, eight. And so things went on for ten years. Ten long years. Maybe they were wasted—maybe not. There were occasional attempts at painting. My first thrill at having a picture hung in a regular exhibition happened in Denver. Some kind reviewer said something nice about it, much to my pleasure. Then came more ambitious attempts, but as is so often the way with them, they were turned down. It seemed hopeless, but I would try again after a period of discouragement. But in spite of rather nice small pictures, it seemed that I could not paint a picture of even moderate size and get anything worthwhile out of it. Many who read this will understand my feelings. I was in a rut, and it all seemed hopeless. I became so irritable and temperamentally impossibly that I was discharged because it was felt that I was really a dangerous person to have around. Well, the die was cast. Again I tried the newspapers, but could find no opening. So getting together what money I could, I came back to Chicago. This time I was more fortunate, and had no trouble in getting work. And so, presently, material problems having been solved, I tried again to paint. This time I did much better and at last succeeded in arranging and completing something that I thought looked like a real picture. I still have it. It looks rather thin, but it marked the beginning of the long, long task of learning to paint well enough, consistently enough, to get ‘recognition.’ The first picture I sent in passed the jury of a Chicago show and was very well received, and Harriet Monroe, at that time reviewing art exhibitions for the Tribune, gave me a most cheering comment. I wonder, sometimes, if our reviewers realize just how much a kind word from them, in print, is appreciated. My impulse was to write a most grateful letter, telling her how much I appreciated her praise of the picture, but I didn’t. Perhaps it is just as well, for it would have been a fulsomely grateful letter. At any rate, it was a tremendous spur to further effort. Again I seemed to be on the verge of ‘arriving,’ but it was many years before I got my first prize award. I don’t think I’d better go into the long series of disappointments, not the least of them being the necessity of admitting after a year or so after pictures had been rejected by seemingly biased juries, that they were right after all, and the things that had seemed good a short year before were really rather bad, and the jury quite justified in turning them down. The joltings one’s self-esteem gets from such experiences are salutary, no doubt, and are good for one in the long run, but what a long run it is! Not for a fortunate few, perhaps, but for the majority of us, hoping and trying, and trying and hoping again, it takes a degree of perseverance that deserves a great deal more sympathy and understanding than it gets, and there seems to be no end to the fight. When I write in that vein, I have in mind the very many ‘men and young men,’ as the advertisements have it, who are struggling along from year to year, each being a record of ’hope deferred.’ If an apathetic public only knew and could appreciate just what the encouragement of these men would mean to the community at large, and to themselves individually, perhaps there would be a different story to tell. But Fortune seems to have ordered things so that any man having the temerity to aspire to produce things of beauty must pay a price—a hard, high price—just for aspiring, with the odds all against him in the matter of whether, even after his sacrifice, he will be able to do anything really good. Pessimistic? No; plain truth. I can’t find words to express my contempt for the disgusting, mawkish and criminally untruthful representation of the artist and the artist’s life that is shown in the movies and popular fiction magazines. They have built up in the public mind an idea of the artist that is grossly wrong. I think these libelous misrepresentations are in a great measure responsible for the artist’s difficulties with the public. Small wonder that the profession requiring a greater degree of sacrifice and a longer ‘period of probation’ that any other, is thought of, when thought of at all, by our public and press with tolerant amusement, and chiefly valuable for the spice it lends to more or less salacious news-items, or as themes for ‘sex’ stories or scenarios. I have found the real artists, and by that I mean the men and women who have tried to live by painting and sculpture, as applied to the creation of beautiful pictures and sculptures, for the esthetic enjoyment of whoever is capable of understanding them, the most sincere, honest and simple-living people alive. They are of our best and consequently most exploited citizenry. Now that I’ve gotten that off my mind, let’s get back to the story. Having in the course of fifteen years acquired recognition to the extent of three awards and six or eight sales at Art Institute exhibitions, as so having reached the conclusion that if I should give all my time to painting I might with some reason expect to earn the equivalent of a living wage through sales of pictures, I determined to sell out, ‘lock, stock and barrel,’ and go to Italy, the idea being that I would be free to give my entire time to painting and be able to live much more reasonably than would be possible here. Then there would be the general advantages of travel and a first-hand acquaintance with all the best in art. After a year and a half of Europe, that is, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England, I have found that, culturally, the experience was valuable. But I also found that for my particular bent in painting, there is much more paintable landscape here at home than I found over there. For one preferring the architectural type of subject, there is a charm of quality, surface and color, not to mention the delightful irregularity of line and of spacing, that cannot be found at home. These things are a joy to the artist. The mechanistic quality of our architectural subjects is very difficult to render with any charm in paint, unless great liberties are taken with the facts. Our most successful painters of this type of subject do just that. As for landscape, I prefer our own. There is a bigness, a freshness, and withal a simple loveliness about it that is very different from the foreign landscape. Among other things, I learned that one must live in and with a country for a long, long time before he can paint it successfully. I found that the novelty and the very unusualness of the landscape impressed me so strongly that it was all but impossible to ‘get into it,’ that the tendency was to put down a superficial record of what I saw, and find that enough. Such a picture will have a certain interest, but it isn’t the sort of thing that you are likely to develop an affection for. It is almost sure to be a case of pictorial reporting. How long it would be before one might paint a foreign landscape with sympathy and understanding I couldn’t guess. All I can say is that I, for one, approach our own landscape with a totally different feeling, and find a much deeper satisfaction in working with it than, I’m sure, would be possible in strange country, with what would be, comparatively, a novel character of contour, surface, architecture and feeling. There are so many points of view, angles, details involved in a discussion along these lines, that for the present we’ll let it rest. And then what has all that to do with the story? As to impressions of Capri, Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, the Lakes, and so on up through Switzerland, back to the Riviera, and through Avignon, Dijon to Pairs—they must wait until another time.
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