top of page

No. 103 Roff Beman


Roff Beman has many reasons for remembering the other World War — the war fought for making the world safe for democracy. For one thing, he is a chronic, nervous invalid dating back to his adventures in France as a member of the American Engineers 311, 86th Blackhawk Division. Skin irritation and melancholia, the latter reflected profoundly in his painting, are results of his war nerves.


Goya El Greco, Courbet, Daumire, Rembrandt — all displaying a strain of melancholy — are his heroes. “In hospitals, I drew portraits of other patients and nurses and doctors,” he remarked of his war experiences.


But before that, the war was furnishing him subjects for his brush. Going over to France, the boat carrying young engineers of his corps was attached by a submarine in the Irish Sea. During the excitement, Roff Beman got out his paints and paid of paper and did two watercolors of the scene. He still has them. Before the submarine could ram his ship, it was forced to dive by shell fire from the convoying flotilla.

In France, being an engineer, Beman saw more than the average soldier. He was moved form place to place. He carried his watercolors with him in his shirt. In barracks, he painted his comrades but not the officers. Evenings around café tables, he’d paint the girls and men in the scenes of night life. Not infrequently he painted French landscapes.

After the armistice, he studied painting for a few months at Isadora Duncan’s art pavilion for American soldiers in Paris. In addition to his preference for the more somber paintings in the Louvre, Beman’s favorite reading in France was Dostievsky.


Beman is of a prominent Chicago family devoted to the arts. His father was S.S. Beman, noted Chicago architect, whose major works were the designing of the town of Pullman, and the plans for the Pullman Building in the Loop.


A brother, Spencer Beman, is currently a Chicago architect. His mother, Mary Miller Beman, was a miniature painter of note. One of his daughters is showing symptoms of becoming a significant painter, and the other a sculptor.


The Beman family is of Flemish origin.


Roff was born Feb 6, 1891, in Hyde Park on Cornell Avenue.


Though he started to paint at 4, the finger of destiny, guided by his father, pointed to a career as architect. After elementary and high school, he went for a year to Armour Tech where he faithfully showed up at his classes in architecture. But at every opportunity, he would sneak away to the Art Institute and study the paintings in the museum.


Besides a townhouse, the Beman’s had a farm at what is now Park Ridge, and Roff as a child spent his school vacation period there, painting.


But, curiously for his age, he took no interest in farm animals. He painted the trees and the fields.


Of late, Beman, after his service in France and after a long devotion to cityscapes from his studio in “Coudich Castle,” 5646 Harper Avenue, has turned again to rusticity.


Down in Indiana at the lower edge of Chicago, there is a straggling colony of artists and literary people — the Hannell's, John Drury, and some others. A picturesque spot is “Brummitt’s Cornfield” — just a Midwest cornfield with as many moods, however, as the hayfield in France where Monet painted his famous 20 “Haystacks,” two of which are in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.


It was “Brummitt’s Cornfield” in the desolation of winter that first drew my enthusiasm for Beman’s paintings. It was exhibited at Marshall Field’s a year of so ago in a show of “Ten Artists.” It was “American scene” of intense and challenging honesty.


Since then, another version of “Brummitt’s Cornfield” has been in an exhibition of WPA paintings at the Federal Art Gallery on Michigan Avenue. Beman (without remotely imitating anything French) shows the skill of a Monet in making his cornfield consistent in the mood in which he sees it.


When Roff was in his teens, the Beman’s bought a farm in Michigan, and for the next 11 years the youthful artists spent all the time there he could spare away form his school studies. Besides painting, he turned naturalist, and cruised the lakes and rivers of Michigan, Wisconsin, northern Indiana, and Illinois in a canoe, studying birds. He covered, in all, some 2,000 miles. Ultimately, he prepared a book of his studies, illustrated with drawings of birds two feet high.


Music, also, loomed large in his cultural life in the Michigan woods. His mother was a skilled pianist, and particularly on stormy nights he loved to accompany her on his violin in big passionate, crashing passages from Mozart, Beethoven, Back, and Handel.


His father, catching from Roff the spirit of the woods, became quite a hunter, and the two grew to be pals along the duck-infested lakes.

Roff’s father died in 1913 and the family went for a time to California, settling in Berkeley.


There, Roff got his first serious and continuous instruction in painting at the San Francisco Institute of Art under Frank Van Sloan, a colleague of George Bellows.


Van Sloan seems to have known how to inspire enthusiasm in his pupils, for Beman worked so hard and concentrated so intensively that he became ill.


He came back to Chicago, where his doctor found him so hear a nervous breaking that he was ordered to quit not only painting but even looking at pictures for two years. This was a prelude to the nervous breakdown that came in France later.


Roff, to regain his health, took to horseback riding intensively. He joined the Illinois cavalry and, besides his routine exercises there, rode daily, winter and summer, in the parks of Chicago.


Recuperating, he entered the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, devoting his time particularly to portraits in charcoal. He drew his friends, but oddly enough, as he remarks, “I never drew my mother and father — I don’t’ know why!”


Maybe a psychoanalyst could link this bit of information together with the information (already conveyed early in this sketch) that Roff, in his barracks days in France, “painted his comrades but not the officers.” The vague suggestion is that Roff Beman doesn’t like being “bossed.” His original way of painting falls into some such psychoanalytic pattern.


During his student interlude at the Art Institute after returning from California, he met and married a fellow student, Blanche Leverett, an actress from the South, descendant from an old-time president of Harvard. They honeymooned in the North Woods, Roff’s old hunting grounds. Shortly afterward, America became involved in the war, and the young bridegroom went to France.


After returning to America, Roff took up architectural illustration, but didn’t like it. He went to live at Coudich Castle, home also of a number of other artists of the South Side colony, notably Emil Armin. Armin has given Beman further instruction in the art of painting.


From the windows of Coudich Castle, in semi-invalid periods, Beman has painted a whole record of a picturesque South Side locality — some 50 oils, in all. Windows, interiors, alleys, doors, porches, his own studio, and the studios of fellow artists are among his subjects. WPA has helped him over hard bumps of late.


Associated with his melancholia, not the result wholly of his nervous breakdown, for he loved solitude as a boy, is a dislike, amounting almost to hatred, of sunlight. He rationalizes this aversion — ”Color,” he says, “is killed by the blinding rays of the sun.”

bottom of page