ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 9 Minnie Harms Neebe
A vast government project for “better housing” on the north side may wipe out before many moons a magic mansion on a mean street. Nobody passing 1320 North Clybourn avenue in one of the poorer Italian quarters of the city would imagine that on the second floor, after you pass through a shabby street door and up a long flight of steps, a habitation is revealed that might make Aladdin or Ali Baba blink. Carl Sandburg betakes himself thither sometimes of an evening when he is in town, to pass a few inspiring hours in an ever-awaiting huge chair. The later George Bellows found inspiration there, too, and so did Leon Kroll and dozens of other celebrities in the art and literary worlds.
Thirteen-twenty Clybourn is the home of the Neebes – Louis Alexander and his wife, Minnie Harms. Both are artists and, what is rarer, both are enthusiastic friends of the artists – an enthusiasm that seems mysteriously inexhaustible, scintillating and self-regenerative, like radium.
Their magic mansion has been in process of building during the instinctive years of their married life. China, India, Mexico, the west of the American Indian, have been ransacked fro curious (art creations, not “tourist stuff”) and here they are arranged in bewildering profusion and confusion, a cross between a Chinese temple and an old curiosity shop. Mysterious lights of green, red, blue – all soft and subdued – gleam out through curious crannies, from bulbs cunningly hidden in an old vase or behind a Chinese god or chow dog.
Too effect, at first startling, is found ultimately soothing. No wonder Carl Sandburg and Leon Kroll go there to meditate!
And to hold converse with the Neebes!
For the magic mansion of the Neebes is something that has grown gradually out of their combined disposition – unforced- a natural growth. Every piece they have collected means something to themselves. They have art creations that Field Museum and the Art Institute might covet, but their value to the Neebes is psychological, not monetary.
The conversation of the Neebes with their guests is of the character of their surroundings. Not “antique,” but calm, philosophical, age old, always new, creative.
“Uncle Louis,” the artists and the writers call them, and “Aunt Minnie.” Young radicals go there bursting with indignation against things as they are, including the critics. They go away with their feelings soothed, but with their enthusiasm unimpaired. The philosophical Chinese gods and the wise, calm Neebes have spoken.
Louis Alexander Neebe is a newspaper lithographer by profession. He paints, too, and he executed, as his master opus, the murals in the Karcher hotel at Waukegan. But he has been “too busy making a living” to devote his main energies in “ethical” art, and so with a few preliminaries and a graceful gesture, he introduces Minnie Harms Neebe as the pride of the family. Mrs. Neebe, still blushing after thirty-five years, protests – but her work speaks in corroboration of “Uncle Louis.”
Mrs. Neebe, born in Chicago in 1873 – the same year Louis was being born in Philadelphia – is the product, artistically, of his enthusiastic belief in her.
In the early days of their marriage Mrs. Neebe was his chief helper in working out color combinations for his lithographic plates and processes. For he is the sort of lithographer who gets ready the comic Sunday supplements and the advertising for fruit pies that make your mouth water.
So expert was his youthful helper that Louis Alexander started her sketching trees and flowers and their friends and soon it began to appear that a real artist was in the process of evolving.
Mrs. Neebe studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago for a time and then went east to Provincetown and Charles Hawthorne.
She puzzled Hawthorne from the outset. Instead of the model, he found her sketching fellow artists she felt more interesting. The colors she put on her canvases were not the colors the other artists used – though they all came out of the same tubes. One of her fellow artists doubted it – he couldn’t get the vivid results she got and begged for the secret. Mrs. Neebe offered to trade palettes. With his palette she got her novel effects – with hers his canvas went dead as usual.
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” said Hawthorne, “but keep on doing it!”
The pictures she brought back from Provincetown were unlike Hawthorne’s (too many of his students developed into just “little Hawthornes”) and were not like anything else anybody had painted.
Mrs. Neebe, on her return to Chicago, became a heroine of the radicals. As she advanced in years the oncoming youngsters called her “Aunt Minnie” and she became the “godmother” of all the radical movements.
Lorser Feitelson, Walter Ufer, Charles F. Browne, Ambrose Webster and Wellington J. Reynolds are other artists who have had something to do with shaping her destiny – but, in the main, she is the product of her own impulses and the enthusiastic admiration of Louis Alexander Neebe.
She has made many painting expeditions, covering America from Provincetown to San Diego. China and India? Curiously not. Most of the weird and wonderful objects the Neebes have collected have come from antique shops in Chicago. They have been, for three decades and a half, on the eager lookout for pieces as they turn up and the dealers know the Neebes and have tipped them off to choice treasures.
Equally curious, neither Mrs. Neebe nor her husband is addicted to “still life” paintings of their curious, suggestive to laymen of countless canvases. Mrs. Neebe, though has a peculiar conscience about flowers. When somebody she likes gives her a bouquet she feels in duty bound to paint it before it withers. Sometimes she arranges the flowers in one of their antique vases or bowls. But the chow dogs and the Chinese gods who are looking on never materialize in her paint.