ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 19 Wellington Jarard Reynolds
One day in youth, vacationing from his art studies in Munich, Wellington J. Reynolds picked up in the catacombs of Rome a fragment of old plaster, whose rich surface, ornamented with traces of an old painting, fascinated him. He slipped it into his pocket to study it at more leisure when he got outside. He took it back to Munich with him. The more he looked at it, the richer grew the impression. He tried to duplicate the evanescent colors, wrought by both the decay of the centuries and the skill of the unknown old mural painter. He would try for a time, then give up in despair.
Eventually, after hundreds of subtle mixtures of pigment, he arrived at an approximation that gave him a measure of gratification. He painted an “Ave Maria” and submitted it to the Paris salon of 1925. The salon judges awarded him the silver medal, supreme and rare honor for a “foreigner,” for the French get the gold medals — as well as most of the silver ones. The judges not only gave him the medal, but commented on his unique an original decorative technique.
Thousands of art students who “have had their drawing of the head and the figure” for the last eighteen years under the quiet, white-bearded instructor of the Art Institute of Chicago realize that here is one of the “conscript fathers.”
Reynolds dates back to the days when Munich, instead of Paris, was the Mecca for American art students seeking their training in Europe. To Munich he went in 1886, remaining for eight years. He was fortunate in being a young man of means, born (1866) of a comparatively well-to-do family of farmers, centering at New Lennox, Ill., now a suburb of Chicago. The original Reynolds in the neighborhood entered land there in 1831. He was an Englishman, and tradition has it that he was a relative of Sir Joshua.
The lure of Munich, by the time Wellington Reynolds had had a year’s training at the Art Institute of Chicago, had already been established definitely for Americans by Duveneck, Chase, Shirlaw, and Currier. They had founded the American Club in Munich, and this club was one of the international high spots of the “bohemia” of the sown.
Munich, as Wellington Reynolds remembers it, was the garden spot of the earth. It is to him, in memory, almost a “happy hunting ground” to be revisited “sometime.” He hasn’t been back since he left in 1894, but it hasn’t changed — he tries to make himself quite sure.
In 1886, it was still a quaint, medieval German town, Mecca not only of painters but of musicians, poets, novelists, scientists — anybody who eagerly had something to say to the world and was anxious to arrive at the best mode of expression. The “art population” was fully 5,000 — artists with studios, not counting hundreds of students who lived from hand to mouth. Reynolds was equipped with a studio and living quarters.
The artists were there for good time, but for a good time developing their talents. The Royal Academy, supported by the government, was independent. It liked fees well enough but was in a position to reject fees when students proved unsatisfactory. Reynolds was one of 33 to be accepted out of 350 applicants at his particular period.
Not only was the academy independent, but the instructors were autocrats individually. They were the leading artists of their day in Germany, and they saw no reason for expending any of their precious talents on dolts. So an artist who got into the academy had no assurance of staying in.
Instruction was from 7:00 in the morning until noon, then two hours for dinner — no stinting here. Munich had the greatest beer gardens of Germany and the most lavish and abundant of restaurants — painting again from 2:00 to 4:00, then sometimes evening classes. But in addition to beer and sausages, the Munich gardens had music — the great orchestras of Europe, they boasted. Reynolds heard Strauss concerts for seven and one-half cents.
It was by methods such as these that Munich bid against Paris for popular favor, winning out over a considerable period. Many early Chicagoans are of Munich breed: Adam Emory Albright and Oliver Dennett Grover among them.
Reynolds had quite made up his mind to live and die in Munich. But changes in fortune back home caused him reluctantly to remove to Paris, to whose superiority in “the big league” even Munich couldn’t shut its eyes.
An instance happened just before Reynolds changed. A group of artists had been inviting distinguished new foreigners to show their work in Munich — Whistler, for one. But it wasn’t until there was a one-man show of Besnard that anything cataclysmic happened. Besnard came about 1892, with bright colors new to Munich. They excited the art town — the turmoil mounted and, before anybody quite realized it, the famous Munich “Secession” was on. Reynolds has to this day, in his studio in the Tree Building, a chair he got from the first “Secession” show — for the “radical” wave hit the furniture designers as well as the artists.
In Paris Reynolds, though he had tasted the wind of “Secession,” entered the Julien Academy, with Constant and Laurens as his mentors. He observed the raging of the “independents” — he still observes the foaming and charging of the “moderns.” But he tells his students to stick to academic fundamentals until they have mastered them — then if they want to go modern, that is their business. He has no objection to “modernism” but he has a veteran’s withering and understanding contempt for four-flushers who seek to get by with empty mannerisms.
In Paris, too, Reynolds went to work, his American income having dwindled. He was married to a miniature painter of skill. This painter also knew the social ins and outs of the Americans in Paris. She organized for Reynolds a class of Southern American girls of aristocratic families, whose parents feared to trust them in the unconstrained “bohemia” of Paris.
After a period of this sort of work, Reynolds returned to Chicago. He became an instructor in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Another member of the faculty was the late John Norton.
Here, Reynolds had some students who later won considerable distinction — Eugene Savage, for one, and Ezra Winters, and the popular modern illustrator known as “Eric.”
Savage he recalls as a tireless worker — so tireless as to wear out people around him. He would go to bed at 8:00 and then get up so early in the morning that he had to wait restlessly around for it to get light enough to paint — like the farmer who has to sit on the fence with his milk pail until the dawn wakes up the cows.
Reynolds left the Chicago Academy at invitation of Director French to teach in the school at the Art Institute, where he has been ever since, conducting, in addition, classes of his own.
The paintings of Reynolds are seldom seen in Chicago, though he is a regular exhibitor, on invitation, in the Paris Salon. Rejection, two or three times, by Art Institute juries of pictures the Salon had invited embittered him a bit.
“The reason why Paris is the art center of the world,” he told me, “is no mystery. It is simply that Paris makes you welcome!”