No. 67 Dudley Crafts Watson
Dudley Crafts Watson began lecturing on art to preserve his integrity as an artist. Rather than paint pot boilers, he decided early in his career he would talk about art for a living. He made a great discovery while at Lake Geneva, Wis., with his growing young family that women’s clubs were willing to pay $5 to $10 — or sometimes as high as $25 — to hear him talk.
From that beginning he has developed into the most widely known art lecturer in America. Perhaps more women have seen his smiling face than that of any other artist living, and particularly of late, he has found the percentage of men in his audiences gradually and steadily increasing. He regards that as “a good sign” for the future of art in America.
During A Century of Progress, Mr. Watson, as the Art Institute’s official lecturer, spoke 28 times a week in Fullerton Hall. When the milling of excited crowds was at its height in the museum’s galleries, Fullerton Hall was filled daily to capacity with scores and hundreds unable to get in.
In normal times, he speaks to as many as a thousand people a week at the Art Institute, where he is official lecturer; to pupils of 83 high schools in and out of Chicago, which he visits once a year; and to scores of women’s clubs, where his popularity has increased enormously since his humble beginnings at Lake Geneva.
Then, too, annually he conducts art parties on tours of Europe and through Mexico – Europe usually in the summer and Mexico in the winter. He shows these parties all the wonders of all the cities they visit, keeping up a rapid-fire of informal art instruction.
But what about himself as artist though all this? Well, sometimes even art tourists sleep or decide to go off for a few hours on their own to see something other than “art.”
In these intervals, Mr. Watson sometimes sketches with his pencils and crayons, working rapidly, catching “notes” of places that interest him.
At other times, in these same intervals, he devotes his quick, alert trained mind to “research,” sometimes for future lectures on things that are not in Baedeker. Last summer in London, he explored thoroughly the unfamiliar nooks and corners of the National Gallery. On a summer before, after showing tourists the wonders of the Louvre and the Luxembourg, he went off by himself exploring scores of small museums of Paris.
Eventually, he tells his tourists about what he finds. He has an innate urge to share whatever knowledge he has with others.
Another valuable habit Mr. Watson has contracted and built up, permitting him to indulge his urge to create art as well as talk about it, is to sketch from the window of a moving train – the slow trains of Mexico or his beloved Spain, or the sixty-miles-an-hour fliers on American or European deluxe lines. He catches a glimpse of something that charms him, makes a rapid pictorial note and then proceeds to compose his picture in crayon or water color. Most of his Mexican sketches on view at Paul Theobald’s gallery in the Monroe building were done that way.
As for oils, Mr. Watson hasn’t done any since he left the Art Institute of Chicago years ago, after his days as student and young instructor. He hopes some time to have leisure to paint in oil – a hope he shatters for next minute by fresh enthusiasm for some new lecture topic.
For instance, Dudley Crafts Watson is convinced that the New Deal art projects are worthwhile. He admits that much that the artist have painted and are painting is rubbish. But he is sure that something tremendously important has been accomplished in building up the morale of the artists. The artists employed on the projects, he finds, are not only eating three times a day but have lost the haunted look of the outcast. They are growing more and more convinced that what they are called upon to do is important, and the grade of their work, he discovers, is gradually improving. He finds among them, too, a growing feeling of cooperation instead of bickering that too often hurts them as both artists and people. If their output now isn’t’ dazzling, he believes that in the projects, nevertheless, are the seeds of the American art renaissance. He is taking an alert and observing interest in what these artist are doing, not only in Chicago but in other centers he visits on his lecture tours.
Mr. Watson is a native of Wisconsin, born at Lake Geneva April 28, 1885. His mother was a concert pianist, whose ancestors “for fifteen generations back,” says Mr. Watson (with the naïve exaggeration that adds spice to his lectures) were Congregational ministers. His father was a hotelkeeper from a line of hotelkeepers.
From his mother, says Mr. Watson, he got his love of traveling about: from her ancestors, his love of talking and from his father, his love of reaching a good hotel at night after a long day’s travel.
As a child, Dudley Crafts Watson, with his six brothers and his father and mother, lived on a farm, despite the string of inns his father operated in Wisconsin and Illinois. Hotels were all right for the guests, but a farm, out in the open, was better for a thriving family.
Dudley was taught piano by his mother, who wanted him to be a professional player, carrying on her own glory. He does this, to a certain extent now by giving some of his lecturers with a background of music. His father thought he had better be an engineer and sent him for a period to the Armor Institute of Technology.
Instead of either career, he became an actor, starting on a tour with a repertory company, playing character parts. The tour took him to St. Louis, where the World’s Fair of 1903 was in progress and where he got his first glimpse of the French Impressionist painters. Their dazzling colors so fascinated him that he made up his mind he didn’t want to act, after all, but to paint.
Returning to Chicago, he entered the school of the Art Institute where he worked day and night with the energy that has since made him so popular as a lecturer and tourists’ guide. After only two years as a student, he was made an instructor in the institute and remained in that capacity for another three years, during which he got married and made his first tour of Spain – even yet his favorite European country.
The spot he loves best there is Monsalvat, the mountain monastery, outside Barcelona, reputed to hide somewhere in its recesses the Holy Grail and exhibiting as its chief visible treasure the “Black Virgin, a very ancient, age-worn image in wood, said to be likeness from life of the Holy Virgin carved by no less of a hand than that of the artist apostle St. Luke.
After teaching his three years, Mr. Watson resigned, taking his wife and two infants to Lake Geneva, determined to make a career for himself as a painter.
However, people didn’t rush to buy his work. But the women’s club began to find him out as a talker. After a while, the Milwaukee Art Institute discovered him and invited him to come there as director. He went for three years and stayed thirteen.
He supplemented his income by writing art criticism for the Milwaukee News, and later not only art but drama criticism for the Milwaukee Sentinel. His career as drama critic came to a sudden stop when he printed one morning a review of a show that was supposed to have opened the night before in one of the Milwaukee theatres, but had been unable to arrive because of a railroad wreck. The front page of the paper told all about the wreck. On the fifth page was Mr. Watson’s flattering account of the Milwaukee opening of the show. He hadn’t “faked” the critcism, however – he had seen the show in New York, and didn’t think it necessary to see it again.
However, if he lost prestige as a drama critic, his art integrity remained intact. From Milwaukee he had been traveling in an ever wider and wider radius as a lecturer. The Art Institute of Chicago, his old employer, sought his services again, this time as a lecturer, both resident and extension. He resigned from the Milwaukee Institute and has been in Chicago ever since.
The Milwaukee museum has in its permanent collection a painting of his that is, to him, rich in sentiment, “Monsalvat.” If a Spanish gypsy he met in the neighborhood of the monastery is not mistaken, Mr. Watson is even better acquainted with Spain than his seven remembered visits would indicate. The gypsy, for a cup of coffee and a silver dime, swore she met him in Hispania 400 years ago.