ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 43 Marie E. Blanke
Marie Blanke, ear to the ground (no indignity intended – she can use a stethoscope if she wants to), hears distinct murmurs of an upward trend in art appreciation in the masses of America. It is with this appreciation, which it becomes pronounced enough and widely enough spread, that will bring on an American art renaissance, she believes – not some “passing of a miracle.
Marie Blanke should know as well as, or better than, anybody else in Chicago whereof she speaks. For, since the first decade of this century, she has been a teacher of art, particularly design, at the Lewis Institute – that big school on the west side whose low-fee system and all-inclusive invitation to an education draws students heavily from “the masses” not only of America but foreign countries.
There was, for instance, not long ago a Chinese girl in one of her classes. The little oriental, prettier than most, was fitting herself to open a beauty shop in Canton or Hong Kong on American lines, learning how to furnish and decorate her shop as well as the mysteries of lipstick, rouge and mascara.
Not only that, but Miss Blanke has been secretary, since its organization in 1923, of the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors. Consequently, she is as close to the “producing end” of the “art game” as to the “receiving end.”
At the Lewis Institute occasionally, a student develops ambitions to become an easel artist. But, for the most part, Miss Blanke is brought in contact with young men and women in other departments of the college who intend to do nothing with art professionally, but want it as a fillip to their general education.
Girls who are applying themselves seriously to “home economics” learning to be good and serviceable wives, are getting a mastering of “art” so that they can make a prettier dress, decorate more attractively a birthday cake.
Boys in the manual-training departments, becoming handy with tools for the knocking together of useful machines are applying themselves to the study of “design” to make their machines sightly as well.
Students of law, medicine, science and the substantial subjects, wherein “art” would seem to have no “useful” function, are taking courses for it, nevertheless, in the interest of a rounded out culture.
These tendencies, Miss Blanke finds, become ever more and more pronounced, year after year, semester after semester. When American becomes widely “to know,” then artists will arise to gratify and intelligent demand.
As a painter, Miss Blanke finds herself more or less doomed to flowers. She paints flowers people want to buy, and, being thrifty, she’s not adverse to selling. However, she paints flowers as she pleases. Her idea of horror is to be doomed to painting to specifications – to painting portraits, for example, having to consult the wishes, whims, eccentricities and tastes, good or bad, of not only the model but all of his relatives, friends and business associates.
Her idea of a good time is to steal away to some fresh, unexplored beauty spot and sketch the landscape, preferably with figures.
Last summer, on vacation in Florida, she encountered one day three little Negro boys lazily fishing. When she set up her easel, they became alert, left their poles and lines and came over to her. She had rapidly sketched in the figures and now struck a bargain with them. If they would sit for her she would give them a nickel a piece. The eagerness of their acceptance convinced her she was paying above the wage scale of models in that vicinity. But they must sit one at a time, so as to be still and not distract each other.
Model One did his job in a professional style and got his wages; Model Two, ditto. Then she was ready for Model Three. He had on his hat, struck his pose and she began.
But suddenly in the Florida serenity, there was a commotion. Another pickaninny appeared and tried to oust Number Three. It developed that Boy One, finding Boy Three lazily asleep, had stolen his hat and had come back. Miss Blanke had started painting him without detecting the deception. After some wrangling, she agreed to pay the false Number Three another nickel to buy off the other boy.
Her picture is called “Sam, Bub and Ruben” and the extra “kick” in it, which spectators seem to get, she attributes to the excitement of her experience with timely racketeering.
Marie Elsa Blanke is as German as her second name indicates. Her father was Judge George F. Blanke, late of the Superior Court of Illinois. He came to Chicago from his native Hanover before the civil war and, as a young man, “read law” – equivalent. In those days to going to law school, Miss Blanke’s mother was of German extraction, though born in America.
Judge Blanke had some talent as an artist, which remained undeveloped. Marie Elsa drew, in limitation. Then in Lake View High School, she was awarded, in competition, a Chicago Woman’s Club scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago, and her fate was sealed.
At the Art Institute she came under the spell of Fred Richardson, who must have been a sort of superman as an instructor. Miss Blanke speaks of him with the same bated breath I noted in interviewing Allen Philbrick, her fellow student. Other of Richardson’s disciples who have sung his praises are Katherine Merrill, etcher; Scott Williams, illustrator; the late John Norton and Harry Engle. Engle parked his easel to sell the pictures of fellow painters and is now director of the Chicago Galleries Association.
Richardson stressed “pattern” and “design” (now too much degenerated into “patter”) in an age when pictures had only to tell stories. When “modernism” came to America in the Armory show in New York and at the Art Institute of Chicago, Richardson’s students knew better what it was driving at than their fellows. Miss Blanke confesses she “straddled the fence” at the Armory show and has since neither accepted nor rejected “modernism” completely.
By the time of the Armory show, Miss Blanke was already established in the art department at Lewis Institute. She had taken a year off to study at Munich, drawn there rather than to Paris by her German blood. She entered a private school, the academy not admitting women. She had a good time and didn’t learn much, she says, from her formal instruction, but she got a “kick” out of “secession,” then new, and out of the marvelously fantastic paintings of Klimpt, then at the height of his fame. “Secession,” a partial parallel and contemporary of French “modernism” also prepared her for the Armory show when it came.
She has made two or three other trips to Germany, both before and after the war – notably to the art colony at Worpswede, near Bremen, on whose canals her father skated as a boy. It’s an old village of red brick houses with thatched-straw roofs and surrounded by fields of heather. Here, as in Florida, in Wisconsin and in Grant’s old home town, Galena, Ill., she indulged her passion for landscape with figures.
Always she comes back to the Lewis Institute. She has a proper amount of “school spirit.” She recalls, with pardonable pride, that Mainbrocher, ace fashion designer in Paris today, was a student some years ago in her classes. He was called Main Brocher then, a resident of Chicago of Paris descent. He was at the institute only a little while, and “I didn’t have anything to do with his present reputation,” she says diffidently.
Another of her students, a girl, is making good as a fashion designer in New York. A third, a man, is an art jeweler. A fourth is Lucy Barton, who did the costumes for the Old Globe theatre productions at A Century of Progress. Marie Blanke would be justified in shouting: “Lewis, Rah! Rah!” but she doesn’t. It isn’t her way.