ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 55 Charles Sneed Williams
Charles Sneed Williams considers himself an itinerant portrait painter, a lineal art descendant of those journeymen of brush and canvas who used to travel up and down and across the colonies and the early United States before art became ART, painting likenesses of serious-minded people contemplating dynasties, portraits to hang for future generations in “ancestral halls.”
Something considerably more than color is lent to this theory by the fact that Mr. Williams has three “permanent addresses,” one in Chicago, one in Louisville, and the third in London. Before the depression tightened its grip on painters in general, Mr. Williams had a fourth studio, in France.
But like art galleries, he has been forced to retrench. On his last visit to Paris, for example, he saw quite a collection of deserted storerooms that once had fine paintings in their windows and important names over their doors — the owners of some of the names having either now sought smaller quarters in lofts or given up salesrooms altogether and gone peddling with their belongings under their arms.
Charles Sneed Williams, however, doesn’t consider the “hard times” an unrelieved tragedy. Struggle hardens the art fiber, he says — and this struggle ought to make it hard as nails.
Portrait painters, particularly, on their itinerant journeys need to sleep in haystacks, take their morning bath behind the thicket in the creek, and have the farmer sic his dogs on them… or civilized equivalents.
The portrait painter is born to sorrow, at best. He is being shoved around constantly by his sitter, or his sitter’s husband or wife, and by all the friends and relatives, each with a better idea than the painter’s — and all their ideas different. Depression woes are just a sort of tightening up of what’s normal. They would be a relief, in fact, providing the painter with an unaccustomed peace, were it not for the little matter of studio rental.
There was Sargent, for example. He had made plenty of money and, about 15 years before his death, he decided to be boss in his own studio. He would paint pictures as he chose. If the sitter didn’t want what he was doing, swish! swipe! Would go Sargent’s brush, and the incident was closed.
“And after that,” says Mr. Williams, “Sargent never painted anything really worthwhile.”
Sargent’s resolution was a matter for comment in the London clubs at the time.
“What does Sargent know of trouble?” a wit remarked. “He never married!”
O Mr. Williams patiently shoulders his burdens of the depression and of his sitters’ criticisms and goes his hopeful way.
Just now, he is at his Chicago address, having had his annual or biennial exhibition at Ackermann’s. In it, he showed portraits he had done here and in Louisville, Mobile, Ala., and California, and landscapes painted a year or two earlier in England, France, and Switzerland.
Simultaneously, giving some further idea of the range of his itinerant habits, he exhibited this January a portrait in the Hoosier salon at Marshall Field’s, Chicago, and another at the Cercle de l’Union Artistique, Paris. He is one of three American artists to be elected to this club during the 55 years of its existence. There are 40 artists, mostly French, in a membership of 1,000. In the Paris exhibition is his portrait of Judge Robert Worth Bingham of Louisville, American ambassador to London.
Mr. Williams’ presence in the Hoosier salon is due to his foresight in being born in Evansville, Ind. — an event that transpired May 24, 1882. With a start like that, in the Ohio River hills, it wasn’t long before he got to Louisville.
As a small boy, he wanted to play the piano and to draw. Both ambitions were frustrated by taunts of his schoolboy playmates who regarded as a “sissy” anybody who didn’t spend his time after school until dark playing “town ball” or “bull pen” or swimming in the Ohio River.
It wasn’t until the last ten or a dozen years, in consequence, that Mr. Williams got far enough along in his musical education to appreciate Bach, now his favorite composer. And from Bach he learns, likewise, that a man doesn’t have to have thrilling adventures like Gauguin’s to be an artist. Bach’s life was uneventful except for long hours at the clavichord. Though he wanders up and down and ‘round and around in his life as an itinerant painter, Mr. Williams never has anything very exciting happen to him, he says in a quiet tome wherein even an amateur psychoanalyst can detect disappointment.
Though his playmates effectually stopped his career as another Paderewski, they couldn’t keep him away from paints and canvas, and Williams presently entered the studio school of Edward Bledermann, then the Cleyre of Louisville. Learning of a contest for scholarships to the Allan-Fraser Art College, Scotland, about 65 miles out of Edinburgh, Williams entered — and won.
It was there, for the next four years, he got his art training. The dominant “influence” at the time in Scotland was Whistler, whose portrait of Carlyle, hanging in Glasgow, was then an object of national pride. The Scots later began to veer back to their great Raeburn.
On graduation, Williams established a studio in Glasgow, and for the next year an a half painted portraits with considerable financial success. The people of Glasgow, he recalls, supported the painters within their mist with the utmost liberality. From the annual Glasgow art shows, they bought a big percentage of the pictures hung, besides giving the artists they liked special commissions.
It was in Glasgow at this period that Williams net the girl who was to become a few years later (1912) his wife. She was Elsie Luke, daughter of William J. Luke, naval director and architect of John Brown & Co., ship builders at Clyde Bank. It was this corporation that built the Aquitania and the Lusitania, and of late the Queen Mary. Mr. Luke, when assistant chief constructor of the British admiralty a few years before, had, in association with Sir Thomas Bell, taken charge of John Brown & Co.
Leaving Glasgow and Miss Luke, Williams returned to Louisville to seek his fortune. One of the first commissions he got back home was to do a portrait of Bishop Charles E. Woodcock of the Episcopal Diocese, centering in Louisville. And one of his latest commissions, only last year, was to paint the same Bishop Woodcock, now venerable and retired — a portrait included in his February show at Ackermann’s.
From Louisville, Williams went down into the aristocratic blue-grass region of Kentucky where he painted rich owners of racing stables and their wives and daughters. It was the start of his “itinerant” career, which brought him a few months later to Chicago for his first sojourn here.
After another few months, he went back to Glasgow to visit Miss Luke, and then to London for his first series of portraits in the British capital. From that day to the present, Louisville, London, and Chicago have been regularly in his itinerary. After his marriage in 1912, he began spending each year more time abroad than in the United States, though of late he has reversed the habit, finding Europe harder hit by the depression, in art circles, than America.
London society extended cordial welcome to the American painter. He executed any number of commissions from court ladies up to the Princess Marie Louise, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and first cousin of the late King George. He found her one of the most amiable of his sitters, and remarked one day at her patience in posing for him three hours and more at a stretch. She replied with a laugh that her job was easy, after what she had been going through all her life listening to public addresses.
Paris, too, made Williams feel at home. Among the most important commissions he executed there was a portrait of the Duchess de la Rochefoucauld, painter, poet and head of the League for Women’s Suffrage in France, whose husband is heir to the name and the glories of the famous old maker of maxims.