ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 49 Anita Venier Alexander
Anita Venier Alexander, base and cynical in matters of art, admits two authentic thrills. The first she experienced in 1927 in Berlin when white-haired, patriarchal Max Liebermann, dean of German painters (if not of painters all over Europe), awarded he — a complete unknown — first prize in a big show of paintings, nationwide. The second, she experienced two years later when the Kaiser Friederich Museum, Berlin, gave her a one-artist show on an equality with Edward Munch, the other invited “foreign” painter.
Otherwise she takes her honors — and her slights — philosophically. One of the most amusing of her slights came immediately on the heels of the Kaiser Friederich museum exhibition. That identical year of 1920 she came to Chicago with her husband, Dr. Franz Alexander, now head of the Institute for Psychoanalysis, then a member of the family of the University of Chicago.
In university circles, there was being promoted a big show of religious paintings by Chicago artists, to be held in the 333 Building downtown. Mrs. Alexander was invited to send in a picture. Convent-bred in her native Italy from the age of 3 to 16, Mrs. Alexander offered a painting of a nun praying before a crucifix. The jury rejected her picture, holding the Christ figure too “fleshly” — a jury apparently unaware that Caravaggio had painted in Italy, Cranach in Germany, and Edouard Manet in France. If you are interested, you will see “fleshly” Christs from all three hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Mrs. Alexander laughed cynically and wrote a flippant letter back to Max Liebermann. Liebermann didn’t think it so funny. He was annoyed and angry — and contemptuous of the jury and of everything American in the way of the “fine arts.”
Liebermann, since dead, had been so totally unaware of Mrs. Alexander’s existence when he gave her the first honors in the 1927 show in Berlin, above 300 competitors, many of them famous, that he thought the painter a man, the canvas being signed with initials, and announced the prize as going to a “Herr.”
When he was confronted by a blue-eyed, yellow-haired Italian girl still in her 20’s, he could hardly believe his eyes — eyes that had found “Convent Room,” a comparatively small canvas, hung high up on the wall, as befitted in the minds of the hanging committee, a picture by a newcomer among a crowd so distinguished.
He too immediate and lively interest in the girl and kept in touch with her until his death.
Mrs. Alexander, who has been running away from it all her life, anxious to stand on her own feet on solid ground instead of on the pedestals of her ancestors, is of the Italian noble family of Venier, which gave to Venice its last Doge.
This Doge Venier, a friend of Titian who painted his portrait, was fair-haired, too. Once, three of four years ago, Mrs. Alexander, showing some friends through the Doge’s palace, was pounced upon by a guard, who said excitedly, “It’s alive!” She was bareheaded and stockingless, informally dressed, as became “an artist.” The guard led her before a huge mural depicting Doge Venier, triumphantly pointed to the Doge and the Doge’s latest descendant, and exclaimed excitedly, “There!” Mrs. Alexander fled and hasn’t been back to the Doge’s palace since.
Anita Venier’s father was Count Venier, heir to Doge Venier’s honors. Her mother is of the even more ancient family of Cherubini of the neighborhood of Padua.
At 3, she was sent to a convent school for aristocratic girls presided over by the Baroness Spaun. The Mother Superior in this school happened to be a painter of quite professional attainment. A number of her religious pictures hang in convents through Italy.
She took a fancy to the Venier girl, and set her mixing paint and otherwise assisting. The mixing of paint was primitive, as professional color grinders would view it. The convent school, though aristocratic, was not wealthy, and paint was classed decidedly as a luxury. So stale coffee grounds were pressed into service as browns for the Mother Superior’s palette. Shoe polish served as black. (There were no finicky inhibitions against these colors that you will find in our Tree Studio building.) Crushed flowers supplied brighter pigments.
Presently, Anita Venier, besides mixing the colors, was applying them, too. She showed such talent that the Mother Superior gave her special instruction and later called in an old painter, Rossini, to teach her. He was the one male allowed in the school, and he could come through only the outer door. Anita Venier called him “the man of the big umbrellas.” He carried one umbrella, which he presently set up in the convent garden as a sunshade. Legs of his easel, bound with the umbrella handle, had appeared to the little girl the handles of other umbrellas.
Rossini had an easel, too, for her — a little easel. She accompanied him reluctantly into the garden, for she was shy and afraid. But he interested her with his paints — the first genuine watercolors she had seen — showed her how to use them, and soon she was painting a tree quite confidently.
When she was 14, she was given a box of colors of her own as a birthday present. At 16, she left the convent school, with memories never to be effaced of the great, solemn, silent empty spaces of the religious halls, and with a smattering of skill derived from the Mother Superior and from Rossini. The coffee-browns of the Mother Superior and her blacks persisted on her palette, in spite of Rossini’s gayer colors, and it was under the Mother Superior’s influence, rather than his, that she painted “Convent Room” which Liebermann singled out for distinguished honors.
These somber colors went into the making, too, of the greater number of canvases that constituted her exhibition at the Kaiser Friederich museum, and the “fleshly” Christ, so blithely rejected from Chicago’s religious show. This phase of Mrs. Alexander’s work is unique, so far as I know, in contemporary art.
Shortly after she left the convent, Anita Venier married Dr. Franz Alexander, professor of bacteriology at the University of Budapest, on professional duty at a hospital near Venice. She accompanied him back to Hungary.
On another leave, he went to Vienna where he studied with Freud, and shifted his allegiance from bacteriology to psychoanalysis. Mrs. Alexander went with him, studying art with various instructors. His professional duties led him to Berlin, back to Budapest, to Berlin again, and finally to America — New York, Chicago, Boston, and back to Chicago.
Mrs. Alexander’s painting instructors, in the various mid-European cities and in Paris, Vienna, and Padua, where she went for brief periods, generally irritated her high-strung nature, until she signed with a Berliner, Arthur Segal, a thorough technician — as she describes him — without much imagination when it came to his own brush, but capable of appreciating the individuality of his students and entering intimately into their psychology. It was on Segal’s insistence, against her own judgment, that she sent to the Berlin exhibition the picture that Liebermann spotted.
Liebermann’s action made Mrs. Alexander a celebrity overnight not only in Berlin, but throughout Germany. The winning of the prize, as is customary in Berlin as well as in Paris and other European centers, gave her pictures entry to the official shows of Berlin and the other German cities, without submission to the juries. (Courbet, winning such a right in Paris in the 1840’s, lived to become a thorn in the flesh of the old salon when his naturalistic paintings and his politics became obnoxious to the dignified powers of art, headed by Bouguereau and Meissonier.) Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, and the rest saw her pictures, along with Berlin.
Kroch’s bookstore gave her her first Chicago show, which produced something of a sensation among connoisseurs, though it made little impression on either “official” lovers of art in Chicago or the rank and file of the public. Marie Sterner exhibited her pictures in New York and the Findlay Galleries in April 1933 gave her her next one-artist Chicago show. She has been exhibiting, too, in the annual members’ spring show at the Arts Club — usually quaint comedy bits — and she is president of the most recent of Chicago’s mart art organization, the Neoterics.
Her comedy phase is a neat and complete contrast with the cloistered gloom of her convent pictures. She loves quaint wooden figures of people and grotesque dolls. These, she brings to life in paint, putting them into landscapes. One of her paintings, for instance, shows a couple of American Indians whose models were dolls from New Mexico, trudging along one of those Italian mountain roads Corot loved to paint. She detests flower pictures, which her convent instructor Rossini used to try to get her to paint, had has little use for “still life” in general. Her galvanized dolls are her idea of “still life.”