ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 71 Carl Newland Werntz
For the last four years, Carl N. Werntz, proprietor of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and his wife Milicent have been exploring islands and continental regions in the remotest vastnesses of the globe, mostly south of the equator — places that make Tahiti, even in the early days of Gauguin’s visit, look a lot like Main Street. They were so interested, they forgot to come home for either version of A Century of Progress, though since early manhood and womanhood they had been attending World’s Fairs wherever staged, eve on the lookout for new art ideas.
Mr. Wentz carries with him a conte pencil and an 11” x 14” tablet of paper. He used to drag along a trunkful of paints and canvases, but quickly cured himself of the habit when he found that a folding easel scared aboriginals into their huts.
Even with his pencil and pad, he has to use caution.
“A New Guinea experience included a marvelously tattooed Papuan girl,” he told me once, “upon a wobbly platform of a house built on stilts above the sea. Knowing she would run away into that maze of dark interiors if I appeared to notice her, I selected a picturesque, though somewhat missionized, boy from the crowd and sketched him first. These “educated” fellows are less shy of the white man’s magic.
“The maiden watched sullenly from a safe distance as I felt around the tablet, slowly, before making a mark. When an eye appeared from the strange marks I was making, she was interested but tried not to show it.
When the excited laughter and conversation from the audience, clothed only in beads and feathered headdresses, indicated that my sketch was finished — you know the Whistler wisecrack: ‘One man to do the picture, a second to kill him before he carries it too far’ — the tattooed beauty was still there.
“Through signs, I got an old woman to ask the young aristocrat to pose. She indicated willingness by sitting motionless, so in a few minutes her tattooed elegance was added to my collection. The girl never moved a muscle when I showed her the sketch, was deaf to the audience’s acclaim, and took a small present without a sound. Every sketch of an aboriginal embodies some such experience.”
His sketches. Running literally into the thousands, have been exhibited of late in one-man shows in the Trocadero Museum and at the Bernheim-Jeune Galleries in Paris; at Walker’s Gallery, London; the Municipal Art Gallery, Durban, East Africa; the Philippine Travel Society, Manila; and at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. And now Director Robert B. Harshe has selected a small group of them for exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in the summer shows opening there next Thursday. The foreign press has been amazed at the extent as well as the excellence of his sketches of strange peoples and their stranger abodes.
Mr. Werntz and his ever-faithful wife and partner began their world travels years ago in search of fresh ideas for their Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
Their pilgrimages began in the days when Whistler’s appropriations of ideas from the Japanese were still a novel sensation in the art world. Off to Japan they went to study firsthand the brush manipulations of the masters of elegance in line and color, submitting to the instruction of Seito Mizuno and Kaho Kawikita, the recognized leaders in Tokyo. In addition, Mrs. Werntz went thoroughly into the matter of Japanese flower arrangement.
These ideas they brought back to Chicago, incorporating them in the curriculum of their school.
When “modernism” began to create a stir in Europe in the first decade of the present century, Mr. and Mrs. Werntz packed their grips and sailed for France, Germany, Italy, and Austria. In Rome, Mr. Werntz became a pupil of Onorato Carlandi and was in on the origin of “Futurism.” Balla was there painting his “now family many-legged poodle.”
“When modern art began chasing its own tail, as Mr. Werntz picturesquely expresses the decadence of the movement, of which I have treated of late (amid lamentations of some of my friends) in “The Significant Moderns” and “long-dead artists, unheralded schools and movements were called upon to aid in furnishing new ideas,” the Wentz’ started on their recent jaunt, four years along the equator, mostly to the south of the line, from which they returned to Chicago only for a few days last November, and then plunged again into Guatemala. Last I heard of them, they were in London, looking at the big summer show there of the Surrealists.
They explored Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Abyssinia, India, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, examining the archaeological discoveries; saw frescoes in Ajanta and Ellora; visited museums and art schools in Ceylon, Siam, Dutch East Indies, Tunis, Marrakesh, Australia, New Zealand; hunted out the little-known arts and crafts of the Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians, Zulus, and Pygmies, Dusans, Ainus, and the headhunters of Formosa; and examined anew the arts of Bali, Borneo, and the Caribbean.
Mr. Werntz has succeeded even in getting a pencil sketch of a Formosan headhunter without adding his own head to his model’s collection. He is so much of the will-o’-the-wisp of late that I haven’t been able to get his story of this achievement, which must rank in interest with his conquest of the tattooed Papuan duchess.
Mr. Werntz insists he is still in pursuit of ideas for his Chicago academy, but I imagine that, after some 30 years spent in establishing that great art school, he is taking a day off now and then to play. He and Mrs. Werntz, in raincoats and galoshes, or shorts and jerseys, at home equally on the Normandie and on a sailing ship through the Sulu Sea to Borneo, are letting Hugh Newman, able director of the academy, shift sometimes for himself.
Mr. Werntz was born July 9, 1874, at Sterling, Ill. His first adventure in art followed the carving of his initials on his desk in the Sterling public schools. His teacher confiscated the knife but gave it back to him in exchange for a drawing of the knife that he made.
At about the same time, he drew a picture of a tree with colored chalk, making the leaves green. A professional artist, upon beholding it, showed him, to his amazement, how to make the tree look better on paper using some red and purple along with the green. “This seems to me today the most useful and illuminating single art experience of my life,” the mature Werntz tells me.
Largely in the interest of his education, his parents moved from Sterling to Evanston. In due time, he came under the tutelage of such Chicago art instructors of that day as Charles Boutwood, Vanderpoel, N.H. Carpenter, Caroline Wade, and Frederick Freer.
Presently he got a job with the Chicago Record, where he illustrated George Ade’s famous “Stories of the Streets,” a most vivid newspaper series. John McCutcheon was cartoonist, and when McCutcheon went to Cuba to do some firsthand impressions of the Spanish-American War, Wentz substituted as resident cartoonist. The ideas, he modestly admits, were usually supplied him by George Ade or his editor, Charles H. Dennis.
After a while, he took a studio in the Fine Arts building with the etcher, Otto Schneider. Neighboring studios were occupied by Ralph Clarkson, who is still there in his identical original quarters, and Oliver Dennett Grover, since dead. Out of friendly discussions of art, Wentz founded in his studio (and Schneider’s) the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, with Clarkson and Grover as painting instructors. Presently, the “faculty” was enlarged by Lawton Parker, a Paris salon gold medalist, and a little later by Wellington J. Reynolds, who had also won his spurs in Paris, and Reynolds’ wife, Virginia Reynolds, miniaturist.
With the advent next of W.P. Henderson, the “academy” entered upon a new phase. Henderson had copied Velasquez in the Prado and was “sold on” Whistler and Manet, then rank heretics in the eyes of established Americans. It was largely Henderson’s outlook and enthusiasm that stirred the young director of the academy to be on the lookout thenceforth for new and progressive ideas.
Since those first days in his studio, some 30,000 students have enrolled their names on the books of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.