ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 20 Charles Biesel
Though a conservative painter himself — a painter of readily salable marines — Charles Biesel has been actively identified from the outset with Chicago’s radical movement. For the first seven of No-Jury’s years, he was its secretary. He is a charter member of the New York Independents, who antedate our No-Jury, and a close friend and trusted lieutenant of John Sloan. His associates are of the generation of his son Fred, and Fred’s wife, Frances Strain. He is accepted in their circle, not as a veteran, not as “a grand old man,” but as one of themselves, alive and eager as they in progress and new developments.
The World War brought Charles Biesel to Chicago from Newport, R.I. where he had had a studio for 20 years and where he had developed his talents and his fortunes as a successful marine painter.
He came here as a first lieutenant in the Ordnance Reserve Corps, assigned first to duty at the Rock Island Arsenal and later to Headquarters in Chicago as traveling inspector of field artillery and arms manufactured in this district. His duties led him particularly to the steel mills of Northern Indiana, engaged in turning out munitions.
His appointment to this choice job came about through the business of his father, to which Charles was a reluctant apprentice in youth. The elder Biesel, born in Germany of remote Holland ancestry, was a carriage maker and saddler who, in New York and later in Newport, R.I., specialized in the finer products of his trade. He became a maker of riding saddles and polo equipment to the millionaire society leaders and naval officers of fashionable Newport.
Charles Biesel, in his father’s shop and later in his own studio, came in close touch with the naval officers — he numbers Admiral Sims among his close friends. When he joined the colors, on entrance of the United States into the war, already above the age for active combat, his friendships in high places and his knowledge of equipment learned in his father’s shop smoothed his path.
For the period of the war and for a year and ten months after the armistice, Biesel pursued his inspection duties in Chicago. He learned to love a city he had detested on his first visit, and when it came time for him to return to civilian life, he disposed of his home in Newport and settled on 57th Street, where he has been ever since.
During his period in service, he had found time to paint and even to exhibit his paintings. His first Chicago show was held in the old Donlon galleries in the Fine Arts Building. Ships and the sea being poignantly in the public mind, his marines attracted much attention. “Art criticism” was then in its infancy in Chicago. (It stills plays around in rompers.) A bright reporter, Samuel Putnam, covered the show for one of the papers — it was Putnam’s first taste of the heady wine of art. He soon developed into a power in Chicago “art politics.” Another paper sent its aviation editor — aviation at the time, like art, was newfangled.
Not long after the close of the war, Fred Biesel joined his father in Chicago. Fred, at the outset of the European trouble, had enlisted in the British navy. On our entrance into the war, he transferred his allegiance to the United States. Securing his discharge, he came to Chicago to continue at the Art Institute art studies interrupted during the way, which had taken him through the Rhode Island School of Design at Providence.
At the Art Institute, Fred met another student, Frances Strain, and shortly afterward they married. Fred and Frances definitely aligned themselves with the young radicals who clustered about the sculptor, Szukalski, and about such writers as Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, and Ben Hecht. Other artists of the group were Emil Armin and George Josimovich, and a poet and a helper in the making of their manifestos was Sam Putnam. They were assembled in the “colony” along 67th Street. Charles Biesel, war worker, had taken a studio at Cars and Ontario Streets. As soon as he could get a vacancy south (which was a matter of more than a year), he, the conservative with a brush but radical in ideas, moved down among the rebels.
Biesel had nothing to do with the organization of the famous Salon des Refuses of 1921 at the Rothschild store, but he participated in the show. Meeting in the galleries on day Harrison Becker, director of the Marshall Field galleries, which had handled some of his marines, Becker suggested the next “salon” for his own store. Biesel became the liaison officer between Becker and the radical organization, whose chief was Rudolph Weisenborn, and out of their conferences grew No-Jury and the series of annual shows at Field’s.
When No-Jury and Field’s parted company, a picked group whose leader is Charles Biesel was retained for annual shows there. The group was known as “Ten Artists.”
Charles Biesel is a New Yorker by birth, born in 1865. When he was about 11, his saddler father transferred his activities to socially thriving Newport. Charles Biesel was already learning the trade, but not liking it. His mother’s people, also of German birth, had settled in South Carolina. They had there a 1,000-acre ranch not far from Savannah. Charles decided he’d rather be a farmer than a saddle-maker, so he went to South Carolina where, for five years, he tried it.
But farming, in that time, exhausted its charms. He next decided to be an artist. His mother was one, in a way — she did magnificent gold embroidery. Her father in Germany was a maker of stained glass windows. He came to America to pursue his calling but, finding no market, he devoted his talents to the making of artistic window shades and to the acquiring and building up of his Carolina estate.
With this background, Charles Biesel left South Carolina for New York where he got a job and an apprenticeship with the American Lithograph Company. He became both a designer and a practical workman, drawing his designs on the stone and later developing them into the finished product. Calendars, cigar labels, and various other phases of commercial work were assigned him. Here, he remained for nine years, sometimes in New York, sometimes in the company’s plant in Philadelphia.
This training, more arduous and more accurate than the average art school offers, constituted Biesel’s “professional education.” During this period, Biesel married and Fred was born in Philadelphia.
Having acquired a masterly proficiency and an easy facility in drawing and watercolor, Biesel decided to abandon commercial lithography and become an easel artist. So he moved to Newport and opened a studio. His indignation over saddle-making having cooled down a bit, he helped his father, too, in that profitable business.
Newport being a naval town and everybody being sea-conscious, Biesel naturally took to marines. His father’s patrons for polo saddles became his own patrons for marine paintings. The seafaring men took him up. Cat. Sims (later Admiral) became his good friend, and he acquired the liking of Admiral Evans, Admiral Belknap, and others. The navy officially owns four of his paintings.
Biesel also became friendly with the fishermen. He spent his vacations with them. On the last of these, before the outbreak of the war, he sailed for the Grand Banks with a party of sword-fishers. For three weeks, they were out of sight of land, during which they harpooned 87 of these mysterious monsters of the sea, partly fish, partly mammal, partaking of the nature of both the salmon and the shale. These fishing expeditions were productive of a number of Biesel’s most intriguing canvases. Biesel is still a fisherman, but of late years he has been going into the North Wisconsin woods.
His friendship with Admiral Sims led Biesel into his one plunge into politics. Sims as a warm supporter of Theodore Roosevelt in the Bull Moose movement. Biesel was given a place in the retinue of Roosevelt on his Bull Moose train that campaigned for several weeks. It was during this tour (1912) that the artist visited Chicago for the first time. The period of his visit was cold, raw, and windy, and when they were departing Biesel prayed to be preserved forever and forever from Chicago.
Biesel’s studio was an active center of art in Newport. About 1910, he and three other artists organized the Art Association of Newport, which is still flourishing, one of the most vital of New England’s organizations. His associates in the founding were Sargent Kendall, Albert Sterner, and Maude Howe Elliott, daughter of Julia Ward Howe. A “patron” called upon for some heavy financing was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, herself an artist with a Newport studio and later to found the Whitney Museum, New York.