ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 52 Joseph Allworth
One day Joseph Allworthy was strolling through the Tate Gallery in London with an artist friend. The friend had a long pointed beard – not one of those silken, flowing beards that adjust themselves gracefully to the laws of gravitation, but a bristling beard that pointed aggressively the way the chin pointed. They paused in front of a picture with a glass over it that caught the light and threw it as a glare into their eyes. The artist friend flopped suddenly to the floor on his back, pointing his beard at the picture, sighting across it with his eyes after the manner of a gunner.
Allworthy disgraced himself with his friend by laughing but soon he was on the floor beside him getting a suburb view of the picture, as if there were no glass, the glare entirely obliterated. Other visitors didn’t seem to mind, and the friends lay there quite a while, their pose forgotten, discussing the painting.
Returning to Chicago, Allworthy was in the Art Institute on day looking at Manet’s “Philosopher.” It’s a favorite of his. The glare annoyed him until, suddenly remembering his experience in London, he set himself down on the floor. Visitors looked at him, frightened – maybe a fugitive from Dunning. A guard walked cautiously up, asked him what he was doing and, on being told he was sitting there looking at the picture, informed him he couldn’t sit there.
Allworthy tried to tell him he was taking up little more room than if he were standing and that the gallery wasn’t so crowded and that the extra space could be spared. The argument made no impression. But he maintained his pose long enough to save his dignity – if dignity can be imagined under the circumstances – and then yielded. Anyhow, his study of the “Philosopher” was all muddled by this time.
That’s Allworthy’s way. Besides being an artist, he is a philosopher.
Paint, as the artist puts it on the canvas, he points out, results physically in only daubs and smears. If anything more significant if to come out, the daubs and smears must link up with past experiences of the artist and of the beholder.
Take Whistler’s “Mother” – it is Allworthy who is talking it, not I.
Most visitors to the Louvre – and to the Art Institute during the first summer of a Century of Progress, saw a fine old lady.
But a few says Allworthy, “saw a nasty old witch!”
“Past experience” says Allworthy, “with old ladies of her type!”
In addition to “past experience” Allworthy must consider “tone, form and color” – all three, all the time.
Luckily for him, he has been considering all his philosophy for so long a time that it has become second nature and it helps now instead of hindering. He has come to know what “daubs” and “smears” from his tubes will do and he makes them do it. He is sure that was the way of Velasquez, his idol.
Allworthy’s “past experience” is pretty much a unified chain as far back as he can remember. He is a third generation of professional painters. His grandfather and three brothers were fresco painters in the great period of building Catholic churches in America. They traveled from city to city adorning the churches as they went up. Allworthy’s father followed the same profession, veering away from the churches at times. He assisted in the adorning of the walls and ceilings of the Congressional Library at Washington.
Allworthy was born in Pittsburg, was taken by the family to Washington, then back to Pittsburg and, at 10, brought to Chicago. Early developing the family urge to paint, he was sent to the Art Institute of Chicago, with Reynolds as his main instructor, and then to Munich to study with Carl Marr.
Scarcely had he arrived in Munich, however, when the World War broke out. After considerable delay and difficulty, he got to England, along with a party of other foreign students. Only a few months ago, he was startled to see in a news reel from India a familiar face – a woman artist, painting under an umbrella in the sun, on the bank of the Ganges. She was his “British wife” – she, an English subject, had no effective passport to get her out of Germany, technically and really at war with England. So Allworthy obliged by taking her out as his newly acquired “wife” on his American passport. They had corresponded for years, in light vein, but had lost track of each other until Allworthy, in a darkened theater in Chicago, rediscovered her in India.
Munich being no longer tenable, Allworthy went to Paris, where he studied and painted for a couple of years and whence he went down into Spain to investigate, first hand, Velasquez, El Greco, god of Cezanne, Picasso and “Moderns,” had supplanted in popularity Velasquez, whom Manet, Whistler and Sargent had revered as master. Allworthy didn’t neglect El Greco – made special trips to Toledo and elsewhere to study his paintings in their natural settings, hanging in gloomy old churches. But he stuck to Velasquez. El Greco he considers too mannered and a bit empty, while Velasquez, in his view, is as natural and eternal as nature itself.
“Velasquez was a royal court painter, whose job was to paint his king and the royal family,” he says. “This royal family didn’t amount to much historically and the only reason they are so well known today is that Velasquez so ably, recorded the light that fell upon them in Spain three centuries ago. These pictures do not astound you by the way they are done – Velasquez, like Manet, who followed him two centuries later, knew nothing of dynamic symmetry, abstraction, Dadaism, surrealism. On the contrary, the Velasquez portraits of Old Spanish royalty are most reserved. But what a revelation they have for him who takes the time to see! Here is magic, if ever there was such a thing. Here is a piece of flat dead case of transformed by the skill of man into the ocular semblance of light and air.”
It is almost an obsession with Allworthy that canvas is dead and that paint is just a viscous fluid of mineral or vegetable matter suspended in lifeless oil, having not even the property of color until it is illuminated and sends waves to hit the retina of a living eye. He would have made a wonderful hermit painter in the days of Fra Angelico or the desert monks – maybe with problems like those that beset St. Francis or St. Anthony Mor; along with his philosophical streak, liberally tinged with melancholy, be has a distinct zest for the world.
Being a philosopher, he is something of an inventor. For example, his studio chair, which runs back and forth on a miniature steel railroad track, bearing him to easel to touch his canvas with a “daub” or “smear” (his own language) and then hauling him far enough back to see what the “light” is going to do to the “daub” and whether the combination is going to translate properly the model. For (another dictum) Allworthy is not interesting in “copying” nature.
Allworthy has visited Europe six times, traveling with equal indifference, steerage or first class, as the state of his pocketbook happens to warrant. Always, he seeks out Velasquez or Manet, whom he considers the great Spaniard’s only approximately great successor. He has looked into the “isms” in both Paris and Munich, and while he admits the right of everybody to his own taste, they are not for him. Tone, form, color, light, past experience – nothing else matters. The “isms” are extraneous.
On a trip to Spain during the World War, the train on which he traveled was filled with Senegalese soldiers in French uniform, traveling from Paris to Marseilles, with whom he struck up a friendship, for he likes the bizarre in humanity however sober he may be in his studio. The soldiers detrained before his stop. When they got off, they lined up along the track and saluted him. That is one of the thrills of his career.
Another European experience he delights to remember was a visit to Windsor Castle with his wife as guest of Hugh Punshon, one of the secretaries of King George V. Mr. Punshon’s living quarters were hung with numerous watercolor sketches made by “official” court artists who had accompanied Edward VII on a state visit to India, a decided and welcome relief from camera records of such journeys.
Allworthy has specialized through his whole career as a portrait painter, with Velasquez and Manet as his mentors but avoiding the Spanish touch of the one or the French touch of the other. Skill of the hand, turned from infancy, and individual vision, both checked and sharpened by this philosophy, produce pictures of his day, not theirs, and his locality, suffused in the glow of a temperament at once sensitive and decided.
“Decided” – for Allworthy is a practical man of affairs, along with poetic temperament. Politics is something vital with him, not abstract theory to be idly argued about. As owner of a home and estate, the “statesmen” are responsible in him. The Art Institute, no holds, is a concern of the taxpayer as well as the artist.
He has a practical wife too, who is something of a musician. They have a grand piano – but that is difficult to reconcile with the theory of their practicality. For they chose the piano, not because of perfect tone, but because it has beautifully carved legs!
Allworthy, devoted to the very serious Velasquez, has his moment of frivolity. For example, in the World’s Fair show at the Art Institute, he had a canvas signed “Allworthy, S.A.N.A.” and so it was solemnly catalogued. The crypt initials, on being interpreted, mean “Self-Appointed National Academy clan!”