ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 96 Oliver Dennett Grover
Chicago art for the first quarter of the present century was dominated almost dictatorially by three distinguished artists who were strong, too, as fighting men — Oliver Dennett Grover and Ralph Clarkson, painters; and Lorado Taft, sculptor. Whatever they believed and promulgated was pretty much “official,” let “rebels” kick and rant as they would.
Only Mr. Clarkson is now alive, dean of conversationalists at the Cliff Dwellers. Only this year, Mr. Clarkson was chosen to represent the conservatives of Chicago on the jury that chose the Illinois representation in the American exhibition at New York’s World’s Fair.
Mr. Grover’s reputation as most militant of the three was capped in 1922 in a bitter fight that changed, eventually, the system at the Art Institute of jurying the annual “Chicago and Vicinity” show. A large jury of local artists had, for many years, so controlled the selection of exhibitors that only “conservatives” got in. Exhibitors voted for the jurors and the juries chose the kind of art that would (in practical working out, if not in intent) provide voters for the next year’s jury.
Oliver Dennett Grover was chairman of the jury of the preceding year, had been chairman frequently, and in the eyes of the “Rebel” artists was the symbol of “the entrenched.” In the controversy of 1922 appeared a circular published by Emil R. Zettler, sculptor, and Gordon St. Clair and Carl Hoeckner, painters, assailing savagely Grover and his administration of jury affairs.
Out of the controversy came the Salon des Refuses (the “runaway show” from the Art Institute); No-Jury, a “coup d’état” that gave the “revels a foothold in the Art Institute’s “official” shows; and the splitting of the old Chicago Society of Artists into warring groups, the “conservatives breaking away and becoming the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors.
It was in the midst of this “civil war” that I became involved as a “critic” in the art affairs of Chicago, and being liberally inclined, I had visions of Mr. Grover with horns, cloven hoofs, and carrying a flaming pitchfork.
Afterward I came to know him (though never intimately because he resented rebellious “critics” as well as “artists’) as a man of fine culture, sensitive, and looking every inch the artist. Had Hollywood been seeking “types” at the time as eagerly as now, Mr. Grover could have been cast as a painter without any help from the makeup man.
But it was not a pose. Mr. Grover, like Mr. Clarkson and other of their associates of the period, believed thoroughly in the dignity of art. His long Old World training and intimate association with “masters” gave him a self-respect — today we call it empty-headed “ego” — that prompted him to move among his associates, art or business, in such a way as to command respect for his profession.
Oliver Dennett Grover, then, “gentleman artist,” was born Jan 29, 1861, in the small but cultured village of Earlville, Ill. His father, Alonzo T. Grover, was a lawyer who numbered among his friends and correspondents Lincoln, Sumner, Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. His mother, a woman of intelligence and fine feelings, encouraged Oliver in his schoolboy aspirations to draw.
These aspirations were fanned into hot flame when a painter, A.F. Brooks, came to stay for a while with the Grover’s to paint family portraits. This was the first “hand painting” the boy, now 11, had seen, and he eagerly followed everything Brooks did.
In 1875, the family came to Chicago, and Oliver (at 16) entered Chicago University, destined for the law. However, his Saturdays at the Academy of Design (later to be incorporated as the Art Institute of Chicago) intrigued him more, and at 18 hew quit the university to become a painter.
If he was to be a painter, he might as well be a good one, his family reasoned, and so in August 1879 he sailed for Europe to enter the Royal Academy of Munich — Munich then being the Mecca for American painters instead of Paris.
Among his first acquaintances there was Julius Rolshoven of Detroit, later to become distinguished as a painter in London.
The boys became chums and, when the school year was over, they started on a trek of Europe, paint boxes on their backs, spending May and June in the picturesque village of Gruenwald and its environs, and eventually, in August, reaching Venice where they ran across some art students, youngsters like themselves, “Duveneck boys” from Florence.
Their new companions persuaded them to go on to Florence, to study with Duveneck, instead of returning to Munich. John Alexander and Ross Turner were among them.
So to Florence and to the school of Duveneck, right in the shadow of the campanile of Giotto — there they remained until 1882.
Then Duveneck relinquished his school to return to America, and Grover and Rolshoven took charge, conducting the school or two seasons.
However, Grover, still only 24, felt the need of further art education himself, so in 1885 he went to Paris to the Julien Academy, where he studied with Boulanger and Lefebvre.
In 1887, the wanderer returned to Chicago where (1) he married his chum’s sister, Louise Rolshoven, and (2) he joined the teaching staff of the Art Institute.
Too, it was the era in Chicago of giant panoramas and cycloramas, paintings on huge scale of Civil War battles, the Chicago Fire, and other horrendous spectacles to excite the rabble and draw in the two-bit pieces. Nearly every artist in Chicago was pressed into service at tempting pay, and Grover was no holdout.
In 1892 Grover achieved the distinction of winning the first art prize in Chicago donated by a Chicago capitalist. “They Will Be Done” was the picture, and the award was the Yerkes prize.
The rapidly succeeding years were marked by much painting, including portraits and mural decorations, and the winning of many more prizes. Where there was a commission to be executed, the artists most frequently called upon were Mr. Grover, Mr. Clarkson, and the sculptor, Mr. Taft.
Immediately after the World War, Grover, comfortably wealthy and distinguished, felt homesick for the Italy of his young manhood, his student days.
So he went to Florence, and more fruitfully to Venice, whence he returned with a series of paintings of the canals and the romantic palaces, which have done duty as “models” for painters and etchers for many centuries.
A score of these canvases were exhibited at the Art Institute in the mid-winter of 1923, rejuvenating interest in Grover’s work and repairing to a degree his reputation, being shattered by the noisy rebels, well on their way to the conquest of Chicago’s “art scene.”
It was Grover’s last important stand. He died three years after the conclusion of his show, Feb. 14, 1927. The mid-winter following, the Art Institute showed again the Venice paintings, along with a number of his portraits and Chicago and Illinois scenes — the “Oliver Dennett Grover Memorial Exhibition.”