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No. 10 Ralph Elmer Clarkson


In the spacious studio of Ralph Clarkson on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building, a great deal of Chicago’s art history has been written. Up there were founded the Cliff Dwellers, the Cordon and the Municipal Art League. Mr. Clarkson, in the identical quarters he occupies today, was one of the original tenants of the building when it opened in May, 1898. He had come to Chicago only two years before from his native east, as an incidental visitor, having heard in New York of the lusty young city by Lake Michigan and being curious to see for himself the Indians hunting buffalo up and down State Street or lurking in ambush around Marshall Field’s store. He liked Chicago instantly and enthusiastically, and soon Chicago was liking him.


For Mr. Clarkson is of a friendly disposition, argumentative, ready to break lances or cross swords, good-naturedly, with friend or foe in art or literary tilt. His studio in the new Fine Arts Building became a focal point in the cultural life of Chicago. Henry B. Fuller, Harriet Monroe, Hamlin Garlan, Will Payne, Stanley Waterloo, Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler — the visitors became so frequent and were so persistent in returning that a sort of club was founded and named “The Little Room.” It met informally Fridays from 4 to 6.


Mr. Clarkson still has the register of his studio “club,” with the signatures not only of those who came often enough to become members, but of celebrities passing through who dropped in for an afternoon — Richard LeGaillenne, Israel Zangwill, Joaquin Miller, Sol Smith Russell, Olga Nethersole, Robert Burdette, Isadora Duncan, Francis Wilson, Childe Hassam, Mrs. “Jack” Gardner, Helena Modjeska, Carmen, Ben Greet, Edward Bok—the list runs into scores and hundreds.


“The Little Room” eventually grew too big for even the big studio of Ralph Clarkson. It resolved itself into “The Cliff Dwellers” and moved into quarters of its own — now one of the most substantial of Chicago’s old clubs. The “ladies’ auxiliary” became “The Cordon,” extant, too, and still spreading the gospel of culture.


The Municipal Art League, which attended more strictly to the routine business of art and found less time for social amenities, is also still functioning — the organizations that originated in the Clarkson studio were built on rock, apparently, not sand.


Ralph Clarkson (his wife calls him “Raf,” with a long “a” like “Raf” Rackstraw in “Pinafore,” the theatrical sensation when they were married) is a New Englander of no telling how long an ancestry, born Aug. 3, 1861, in Amesbury, Mass. His forbears came from Portsmouth, N.H.


Two or three doors away from the Clarkson home in Amesbury lived John Greenleaf Whittier, an intimate of Ralph’s father. When Ralph came back from three years’ study in the ateliers in Paris, Whittier, then venerable, insisted on his bringing to him his sketches and spreading them out before him. Mr. Clarkson remembers with pleasure the intelligent criticisms the poet offered of his various paintings. Whittier, he relates, was color-blind, but that didn’t destroy his power of linking pictures with appearances of nature.


In Paris, Ralph Clarkson studied (1884-87) at the Julien Academy under Lefebvre and Boulanger. He applied himself diligently to the “academic” way of doing things, but like other of the young students was conscious of the noise the “rebels” were making — Manet, particularly, and Monet and Renoir. He felt no antagonism, he remembers, against Manet’s “Olympia” still, in his student days, the “bête noire” of the “academy,” but he disliked Renoir, except for one or two canvases.


Also, he is still unconvinced of the genius of the painter of “Sunday on Grande Jatte” in the Birch-Bartlett collection. The picture was exhibited in the salon one of those student years (1886) and was all but forgotten by him until it was brought to Chicago and developed into a sensation. He is inclined to believe still sound the criticism Paris journalists offered at the time of its first exhibition — that Seurat was a first-rate craftsman, that his picture was labored and full, but that in time he might develop into a great painter. Seurat, unfortunately, was dead within a very few years, young at his taking off, like Raphael. Mr. Clarkson acknowledges the stately stolidity of “Sunday on Grande Jatte,” but it moves him no more now than it did fifty years ago.


But inspired by Manet and Monet, Ralph Clarkson had his fling at Julien’s. He was interested then (as now) in “temperature” and “luminosity” in painting, and he observed that the impressionists were getting them.


So he stole off to Switzerland, on advice of an English friend, Thompson, painter of sheep, and painted a huge picture in the open air, seven by eleven feet, “The Arrival of News in the Village.” He didn’t use the “divisionist” methods of the impressionists, but he keyed his pigments so high that his picture, when hung in the salon of 1887, was as bright or brighter than theirs.


This painting was spotted by the Chicagoan Mrs. Hallowell, then in Paris to collect an exhibition for her home city, and she invited it, along with several French paintings. Thus, the same year (1887) after the close of the Paris salon, Clarkson’s work was seen for the first time in Chicago, almost a decade before he made his advent in person.


His master Boulanger’s only comment on his “rebellion” was that Clarkson had made his picture much too large.


From the outset, Mr. Clarkson has been a portrait painter and a successful one. On his return from Paris, he established a studio in New York, painting, too, in Connecticut and New Jersey. In 1890 he married and, from 1892 for three years, he and Mrs. Clarkson were abroad in France and Italy. It was shortly after their return to America that they came to Chicago to make their home.


On another trip to Europe in 1900, Mr. Clarkson made an intensive study of Velasquez. He still has hanging on his studio wall in the Fine Arts Building a big copy he made of “Las Meninas.” He trailed Velasquez enthusiastically through all the big galleries of Europe — Madrid, Paris, London, and elsewhere.


Mr. Clarkson’s most widely known painting is “A Daughter of Armenia,” which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. The model was Miss Nouvart Dzeron, who was a student at the time (1912) in the school at the Art Institute, still vividly remembered by artists who were her fellow students. She posed in the costume her grandfather sent over from Armenia. She was a singer and actress as well as a painter, very active and emotionally high strung. Wedding a wealthy Armenian in the cast, after leaving school, she has continued her art career, going not so long ago to China to study the designing of rugs.


Other Clarkson portraits of note are Lorado Taft in the National Academy, New York (Mr. Clarkson is an A.N.A.); John P. Altgeld, once governor of Illinois, in the Chicago Historical Society; Charles S. Deneen and Frank O. Lowden, also ex-governors, in the State House at Springfield; and Jacob M. Dickinson, War Department, Washington.


Though a conservative by conviction, Mr. Clarkson has followed with keen interest all the bizarre developments of modernism. He urged the bringing to Chicago of the Armory Show in 1913, not because he believed in the genius of the painters but because he thought Chicago should know firsthand what was transpiring.


Many and spirited are the arguments he has at the Cliff Dwellers with his old friend, Carter Harrison, once mayor and an enthusiast for the modernists, whom he collects. When these jousts are on, the other Cliff Dwellers forget their own conversations and crowd around the combatants.


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