No. 62 Frederic Milton Grant
The one painter who caught and fixed as a genuine “art expression” the jazz-mad riot of color of A Century of Progress, now a rapidly facing memory, was Frederic M. Grant. Rivals, conservative and radical, caught the surface features and even now and then a subjective “slant,” but Grant, of the conservative camp, if there must be classifications, was the one painter who got under the surface consistently, in a whole series of pictures, conveying the “emotional content” of the exposition along with the ocular.
The whole series was exhibited at the Anderson Galleries while the Fair was still to be seen “in person,” and the comments were not only favorable but intelligent. That was a lot, for it is not usual to differentiate the eternal from the ephemeral while excitement is on. Pictures have to “mellow” — have to be viewed through the perspective of time before their merits can be fixed definitely.
Early in his art career, Grant acquired a great enthusiasm for Monticelli. Without that enthusiasm, his Century of Progress series would have been impossible, though his Fair paintings are not imitative — only reminiscent.
But Monticelli became lost, unfortunately, in the excitement over Claude Monet’s Impressionism and Paul Cezanne’s Expressionism; and Grant became confused in his “values,” just as have so many painters who learned their art on the basis of a technique stamped “sterling,” only to find their achievements, once so eminently respected, now ridiculed and harassed.
Grant had the further “misfortune” to be a decorative painter.” He loves to collect exotic and beautiful objects of art to adorn his studio and his living quarters, and to use as “still life” in his canvases, flattening them out two-dimensionally. In the rage and the roar of the “isms,” which emphasized Cezanne’s “form,” the term “decorative painter” became something approximating a reproach, a little illogically, considering the fact that both Matisse and Gauguin are “decorative,” as were Giotto and the Byzantines, high in the pantheon of the glib spokesmen of modernism.
Grant isn’t the kind to stay long confused. He read extensively the apologists and analyzers of the moderns, from Ella Faure to Ozenfant, compared them with such ancients as Cellini and Vasari, and has about come to the conclusion that a “decorative painter” who admires Monticelli has a right to exist!
Nor is he far out of natural human rights in holding that an attractive an beautiful object is as worthy the skill of a painter as one that is shabby, commonplace and drab.
“Can’t an artist be slowed to have an interest in the thing itself that he is painting?” he asks, and then hastily exposes the danger of an unqualified affirmative. “But please don’t think I’m sentimental!” He has read and reasoned himself out of many inhibitions, but bugbears are still prowling about.
Grant is from the farmer folk of Iowa, born 1886 in the town of Sibley. His mother was a woman of considerable culture, particularly in music, and Grant, at 9, was composing music, sentimental songs. writing the dots and clefs as neatly as a printed page. In his studio is a piano that shares his affections with his easel.
After high school, he went to Fargo, N.D., to study architecture, preferring the profession to farming. He stayed two years, long enough to discover he didn’t want to build grain elevators. He then came to Chicago to study drawing and painting at the Art Institute.
Before long, he was thrown on his own resources to live. He turned to commercial art, doing everything from a painting of a washing machine to an etching illustrating one of Carrie Jacobs Bond’s songs. He still had an idea, gradually vanishing, that he’d like to write songs himself.
Getting together $200 by his work, he decided to go to Italy to study painting. In the summer class at Venice, conducted by the American Chase. He sailed steerage.
He was agreeably surprised to find Chase in Venice no hard, set taskmaster. Chase told his students to paint Venice, but not the paintings that had been done year after year for centuries and centuries. He ordered them to look around, to find a fresh viewpoint., One day, at noon, Grant gazing on a sunny corner, high up, of the Doge’s palace, saw a pattern of shadows made by a sudden flight of pigeons. Whipping out his sketching pencil, he recorded the pattern hurriedly. This sketch, converted into oils, won for him not only Chase’s approval but the prize Chase gave each summer for the best work any of this students accomplished.
Proud and confident, though with little money left, Grant gathered together the sketches he had made during the summer, and set out for Paris to continue his studies, if possible, through the winter. He arrived in the art capital of the world with $5 in his pocket. Instead of going to some little Bohemian lodging on Montparnasse, where that sum would have kept him quite a while, he struck boldly for the most fashionable pension he could find in the Latin quarter.
There was a piano in the dining room. Near the close of dinner, Grant spread his Venetian sketches out on the piano, and then proceeded to play. The guests gathered around. Though naturally bashful, Grant explained boldly and simply to them his circumstances and offered his sketches for whatever they would bring. Several of the guests, among whom were Russian refugees of quality, bought his things at prices ranging from $20 to $40. This sale enabled him to stay on and study, and to continue at the pension where he made some pleasing friendships, particularly among the Russians, girls and men.
One of these, a young Russian of wealth and leisure, was Sergei de Vesetitchsky-Bondarivitch. It is a name Grant learned to pronounce and rattle off nonchalantly. In Chicago, not so very long ago, Grant found himself in a futile argument in a telephone booth with the exchange girl, who couldn’t return a nickel that had failed to do full service, but who would take up the matter with the proper authorities and see that his nickel was mailed to him.
“What name, please?” she asked briskly.
“Sergei de Vesetitchsky-Bondarivitch, he replied.
She asked him to spell it, which he did with ease and rapidity.
Oh,” said the girl vaguely.
He never did get his nickel back.
Through his Russian friends, particularly two young ladies, one of whom was studying painting and the other opera, Grant found himself mingling with some interesting exclusive circles in “bohemia.” He treasures those memories even more than memories of hours he spent in the atelier of Richard Miller, noted for the elaborate arrangements of his models, one of the “sights” of the quarter — though from Miller, he learned much of the ornate and the exotic which he has put into his subsequent paintings.
From this final sojourn in Europe, Grant returned to Chicago, reaching the Michigan Central Station with exactly 20 cents in his pocket. But his experiences abroad had enormously increased his confidence in his destiny. Through painting and teaching, he has become rated one of the successes among Chicago artists.
Accumulating some more money — considerably more than the $200 with which he first voyaged steerage to Naples — Grant about five or six years ago made a tour of the world — China, Japan, Bali (particularly Bali, Java, the Malay states, up through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, Alexandria, Cairo — sketching all the way.
His sketches are neat little watercolors, “notes” of what he sees, but very full notes, some of which he later converts into large oil paintings in his studio at his leisure. It was a series of such sketches he made of A Century of Progress for the paintings later shown at Anderson’s.