No. 42 Allen Erskine Philbrick
“And did you once see Shelley plain?” Allen Philbrick saw both Winslow Homer and Bouguereau! “And did he stop and speak to you?” The recluse of Prout’s Neck spoke to him, all right, but only to tell him to “go ‘way!” Bouguereau he saw afar off — already a revered, legendary figure at Julien’s in Paris — a little old, feeble man, with straggly beard and hair, still proud and aristocratic, living in memories back in the Second Empire, when he was czar of the Salon, keeping out such upstart fellows as Cezanne and Van Gogh.
Philbrick, a veteran of the teaching staff of the Art Institute of Chicago, serving almost since the dawn of this century, paints vacation times, on the coast of Maine, ancestral soil on his father’s side. He first went there in 1908, both to get married and to paint the scenery around Newcastle on the Damariscotta River.
Developing a lively curiosity to see his great neighbor, Winslow Homer, several miles down the coast and hearing of his eccentricities, he thought to play safe by getting a letter of introduction from the hermit’s Chicago dealer, William V. O’Brien.
Thus armed, he hired a cab in Portland to take him out to Prout’s Neck, some ten miles distant. The old cab driver — they were talkative citizenry before gasoline was substituted for hoses — shook his head dubiously when Philbrick told him his destination.
He had driven a lot of people out to see the recluse, but Homer always refused to receive them. All except one — and the cabbie winked — a liquor salesman who had been let into the hermit’s cottage and had stayed for three days and nights — and Maine, you know, had been dry since the Civil War.
That didn’t daunt the young and enthusiastic Philbrick. He had a letter from the Chicago man who had put money into Homer’s pockets. The cabman didn’t argue the point.
He drove up to the cottage of the hermit and, sure enough — the cabman caught his breath — there was Homer, out in the front yard, all dressed up in his Sunday clothes, wearing a flower in his buttonhole. “Go ‘way,” said the apparition in annoyance as the cab stopped. “But, Mr. Homer, said Philbrick. “I have a letter for you.”
Homer took it, tore it open, glanced it through. “Go ‘way, go ‘way,” he repeated. “I can’t see anybody today. Don’t you see, I’m busy cleaning house?” Thereupon he retired inside, Sunday clothes, boutonniere and all, to resume his “house cleaning.” Philbrick then kicked himself for not having substituted a bootlegger’s kit for his letter of introduction.
A few months later, Homer died, but Philbrick has a memory picture of him just as he has of the patron saint of Julien’s.
Philbrick was at Julien’s on a traveling scholarship from the Art Institute of Chicago. Commuting from his home in Elgin, the young student had made such rapid progress in his drawing that, in his second year at the school, he had been appointed an instructor in the Saturday classes. On graduation, he was presented a scholarship which kept him in Europe for two and a half years — in Italy, particularly Florence and Venice; on the island of Capri, where he had a studio; in Spain; and in Paris.
His sojourn in Capri had no inspiration from the song that has come so near wrecking the lovely island — that song was, in those days, still in the womb of time. He went there on suggestion of his favorite teacher at the Art Institute, Frederick Richardson, who had himself painted there.
Richardson, as Philbrick remembers, was “the outlet against the academic” in the school of the Institute. The great clatter and din of “modernism” had not begun to be heard in those sacred halls. But even so, the students felt the deadly oppressiveness of the ages. Richardson snipped red tape wherever he could.
John Norton was a fellow student of Philbrick’s under Richardson. Richardson became an artist on the staff of The Chicago Daily News. Norton, long years afterward, painted the murals in the present Daily News building.
In Paris, at the time, something new was beginning to stir. A crazy fellow named Cezanne was being touted by still crazier fellows with outlandish names like Matisse and Picasso. The students at Julien’s grinned. They were not annoyed, as Philbrick remembers. They sometimes when “slumming” to the vision of the “independents” but what they saw wasn’t “art” — just childish scrawling. It was not until 1913, at the Armory Show at the Art Institute of Chicago that these scrawling came back into the consciousness of Philbrick who, like the other Julienians, had forgotten them. By that time, he had matured. The things looked better. He discussed them with his friends, Walter Pach, one of the organizers of the show, and Christian Brinton, one of its “literary prophets. But to this day, Philbrick isn’t convinced that the new is superior to the old.
During his stay in Europe on the scholarship, Philbrick also spent a summer in Spain, mostly in a house high on the hills overlooking Granada and the Alhambra. It was the day when Sargent, following Whistler, regarded Velasquez as little less than a god, and when El Greco was being rediscovered. Philbrick examined Velasquez — and Titian — in Madrid, and made a pilgrimage to Toledo to see the masterpieces of the Greek.
Upon his return from Europe in 1908, Philbrick rejoined the teaching staff of the Art Institute, where he had been a student instructor, and he has been there ever since, conducting classes in drawing, in artistic anatomy, and in etching.
It was the summer of that year also that he took for wife Edit Kellogg, professional pianist, who had been touring as accompanist to Mme. Blauvelt, a concert singer. Their children have grown up to be Allen Kellogg Philbrick, director of the Flint (Mich.) Institute of Art, himself an artist, and Jane Philbrick, graduate of Wellesley and now a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has been attracting attention with her watercolors.
Philbrick’s sojourn abroad on an Institute scholarship was not his first trip across the Atlantic. As a student on summer vacation (1901), he took passage on a cattle boat for England to witness the coronation of King Edward VII. The skipper of the cattle boat got drunk — or so it was alleged in admiralty court — and grounded his ship off Labrador. He stuck there so tight and so long that Philbrick grew nervous and restless, sure that he would miss the coronation. But Prince Edward accommodatingly fell ill, postponing the ceremonies, and Philbrick got to London the very day he was crowned.
On coming back to America, Philbrick was summoned to Canada as a witness in Admiralty court. When the judge found he was from Chicago and a student at the Art Institute, he asked him more questions about the museum and its school than about the grounded cattle boat and the drunken skipper. His honor was particularly impressed by the size of the school — even then it had 3,000 students.
When Philbrick started for Maine in 1908 on his first summer’s sketching trip, he intended to go to Camden where his father was born. This elder Philbrick is still alive, past fourscore, and attending daily to business. But the young artist, pausing at Newcastle, a few miles short of his destination, was so charmed by the scenery along the Damariscotta that he set up his easel there, and it is to Newcastle he has been going of summers since.
Newcastle is 17 miles from the ocean but the Damariscotta is a tidal river, and the salt water rolls in twice daily.
The summers he doesn’t go to Maine — they have totaled 13 — Philbrick paints in the pine woods of Michigan between White Lake and Lake Michigan.
It is in Michigan, too, that he does most of his etching. He started to teach etching about 1910, first substituting for Charles Francis Brown and then becoming his successor when Brown had to retire on account of illness. Philbrick’s first etching was of his small daughter, and he bit the plate so deep that she emerged looking like a pickaninny.
As a portrait painter, Philbrick has executed a number of commissions. One was a series of leaders of the South for a concern in Houston, Tex. He painted an inevitable Lincoln, Kentucky-born even though president of the blue-coated warriors. Sam Houston and Stephen Austin were among the Texas heroes he celebrated.
For the state of Iowa, on another commission, he painted Senator Brookhart, War Governor Harding, and Chief Young Bear, among others. The Indian chief donned full regalia, surprising Philbrick, who expected a lot of gaudy feathers. His “headdress” was a scalp-lock.
Philbrick was born in Utica, N.Y. (birth town of Arthur B. Davies), Nov. 19, 1879, but he didn’t tarry there long. At the age of 1, his parents brought him to Chicago and, in Chicago, Racine, Elgin, and Winnetka, he has resided ever since. His mother was a Philadelphian.
Murals are among his activities.