top of page

Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) | by Joel S. Dryer © Illinois Historical Art Project


fine arts building,ralph elmer clarkson
ralph elmer clarkson,eagle's nest

The roots of Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) were firmly established in New England soil. Once transplanted to Chicago’s art scene, his background of culture, refinement, and talent lent themselves to the promotion of a cultural life in Chicago, which has rarely been equaled. Clarkson was born August 3, 1861 in Amesbury, Massachusetts. His mother was Susan (Watson) Clarkson, and his father, a carriage manufacturer, was Joseph True Clarkson. His paternal grandparents were Scotch and came to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1718.1 His brothers, Andrew and James Clarkson, were described as men of distinction in the two-volume history of their town.2 In the State Historical Society of Wisconsin is a portion of a silk flag brought by the Clarkson forebears upon their migration from Scotland to New England. It bears the Latin motto, “Nem-Me-Impune-Lacesse 1719” (No One Provokes Me with Impunity).3 He was influenced to pursue an art career by a close friend and neighbor of Ralph’s father, the “Quaker poet” John Greenleaf Whittier, who critiqued the boy’s early work,4 and urged him to include “nature” in his art. In 1881, Clarkson entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,5 making great progress under Frederick Crowninshield (1845-1918)6 and Otto Grundmann (1844-1890).7 The latter had fine qualities of sympathy, patience, insight and honesty and stressed beauty and purity, truth and dignity found in classic art and works of old masters.8 It was Grundmann who introduced Clarkson to the works of the Spanish court painter, Diego Velázquez, who strongly influenced many of Clarkson’s contemporaries,9 and who Clarkson, would idolize throughout his career. In 1884, Clarkson left for Paris with fellow Boston artist Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938).10 Their ship landed safely at Liverpool in October and by mid-month they were staying together at Madame Gogly’s boardinghouse, 83 Avenue Victor Hugo.11 While they began studies at the Académie Julian with William-Adolphe Bouguereau they quickly switched to work under Jules-Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave-Rodolphe Boulanger.12 The two also studied with American expatriate William Turner Dannat (1853-1929).13 Clarkson dutifully followed their academic teachings, but was likely aware of the attention accorded the French Impressionists. After fleeing cholera in Paris and heading to London, Clarkson eventually found his way back to Paris while Tarbell left for Munich.14 In pursuit of study of the Impressionists’ plein air methods, Clarkson left Paris for Switzerland. There, he succeeded in capturing Impressionist procedures, painting a seven by eleven foot picture of two old men in a sunlit square titled The Arrival of News in the Village. His pigments were keyed so high that when the canvas was hung in the Salon Société des Artistes Français of 1887, it was as bright as the works of the Impressionists,15 and earned a place in a center panel.16 Some ten years later noted artist Gari Melchers (1860-1932) stated: “‘Do you know that in my opinion, that is the best sunlight picture in the whole salon today.’”17

Sara Tyson Hallowell, Chicago’s distinguished secretary of the Art Section of the Illinois Industrial Exhibit (begun in 1873 and outranking all the previous fairs and expositions in importance),18 was so impressed by Clarkson’s work, she arranged for it to be sent to Chicago at the end of the Salon show. Here, it hung with 487 other works by distinguished Americans and Europeans.19

Clarkson himself did not arrive in Chicago until almost a decade later. Back to America after the Salon appearance, he had a studio in the Cheney Building in Hartford, Connecticut. On January 15, 1890, he married Frances Rose Calhoun, daughter of the distinguished Judge David S. Calhoun of Hartford.20 In 1891, the newly married couple became tenants of the famous Sherwood Studio Building in New York, completed in 1880 and intended as a working and living space for painters and their families.21 He was a charter member of the New York Watercolor Club, and had many portrait orders there.22 The bridal pair spent three years abroad after 1892, a year in Italy and two years in Paris.

ralph elmer clarkson,eagle's nest
Nouvart Dzeron Art Institute of Chicago

It is not clear why Clarkson chose to join the Chicago art community late in 1895.23 Sara Hallowell had chosen his painting Café au Lait au Frais (Schwartz Collection) in Paris for exhibition at the Annual Exhibition of American Artists at the Art Institute and perhaps this exposure led him to consider the town after its recent success of fine art at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Was Chicago after the Fair ready for a painter of his talents? It has recently been intimated he was lured to the city by hopes and certain promises of a brilliant career among wealthy patrons in the thriving metropolis.24 Perhaps, he aimed to fill the shoes of the world-famous portraitist, George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894), who had died the year before. Healy had originally been induced by Chicagoans traveling in Europe to make his temporary home in their “frontier town,” rather than importing foreign artists to paint them.25 Healy was popular in Chicago, but traveled extensively to paint kings, presidents, and other notables. Toward the end of his life, Healy chose to spend his final days in Chicago.26 Clarkson quickly made new friends in Chicago, and was pleased that they were still starry-eyed from their success at the Columbian Exposition. He established a workshop in the rich and attractive Masonic Temple at State and Randolph Streets,27 to which Chicago’s elite were invited on Saturday afternoons and where he earned several commissions to paint some of Chicago’s popular citizens. He maintained a valuable collection of works by European masters that also became and attraction for his visitors.28 Oliver Dennett Grover (1861-1927) took a studio on the 12th floor, near Clarkson, and they began a friendship, which continued throughout their lives.29 Early on, it was recognized Clarkson had achieved the essential end of portrait painting, “the likeness of the subject,” accomplishing that in fifteen or less sittings. It was also noted Mrs. Clarkson was a most stimulating and helpful companion.30 Early in 1897, Clarkson’s large salon piece of The Arrival of News in the Village,31 was invited to become a part of the permanent exhibition in the Art Institute.32 Soon after, he exhibited eight of his works at the Exhibition of Chicago Artists held at the Art Institute. He tied with William Wendt for a prize given by the Young Fortnightly Club for the best oil painting in the show; Wendt winning on the second ballot.33

In April of 1897, at the request of Art Institute Director Wm. Merchant Richardson French, Clarkson lectured on the subject of “Pictures: How to Judge and Enjoy Them,” using stereopticon slides. He told his audience “the artist is the discoverer and revealer of the beauties of nature.” He commented on the intuitiveness of the Japanese to enjoy and understand, without knowing why. His closing remarks were that “to know about a thing is not to know it.” It was the best-attended lecture so far that year,34 and was repeated in May at the Art Congress of the Central Art Association. The ladies of the Fortnightly Club were quite impressed by his intelligence and culture when he lectured to them later on “Chicago Art and Its Problems.” Hope was expressed that such a gifted painter would remain in Chicago, and be a part of its new life, which promised a “distinct renaissance.”35

The Central Art Association of America had been organized in 1894 to promote the art interests of the country through the encouragement of original American art among the artists, and the extension of art education among the people.36 A similar organization, The Chicago Art Association, was formed under the leadership of Mrs. Herman J. Hall, with Judge John Burton Payne serving as first president. The group united several established clubs whose purpose was to foster the fine arts in Chicago and they encouraged cooperation between local artists and the Art Institute.37 Clarkson served on its Board from 1897 to 1900. The Chicago Art Association announced that an exhibition of summer sketches would be shown. Clarkson joined the committee at large, composed of Grover and Pauline Dohn (later Rudolph) (1865-1934).38 O’Brien’s Art Galleries gave Clarkson the opportunity to exhibit his talent several times, the first exhibition opening in December, 1897, following a summer the Clarksons spent in Evanston visiting the estate of Mr. and Mrs. C. J. Connell at 1810 Hinman Avenue. The result: a stunning picture of Mrs. Connell in a pink dress of watered silk. Other portraits of skillful likenesses in the O’Brien’s Exhibit were of Mrs. J. Russell Winterbothom, Louis Laflin, Mrs. Charles E. Nixon, Virginia Whitehead, Mayor Carter Henry Harrison, Jr. (which showed a personality not captured in the usual newspaper cuts) and ex-Governor John Peter Altgeld (said to be far superior to the official portrait of him painted for the State by another artist.)39 One critic praised the quality of the paintings, which placed Mr. Clarkson at the very head of portrait painters in Chicago, and predicted a brilliant future for him with proper encouragement.40

When the Hon. William Jennings Bryan viewed the exhibit at O’Brien’s during a visit to Chicago, he was so struck by Clarkson’s handling of the portraits of Mayor Harrison and ex-Governor Altgeld that he immediately commissioned his own portrait to be done. Mr. Clarkson soon set out for Lincoln, Nebraska, to begin sittings of the distinguished politician, who would be nominated three times for President.41 While there, the 400-member Haydon Art Club sponsored an exhibition of Clarkson’s works.42

In May of 1898, Clarkson lectured at the fourth annual congress of the Central Art Association in Chicago on the subject “The Municipal Art Commission Idea.”43 At an art congress held at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha in the fall, Clarkson represented Chicago, along with Art Institute director French, sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936), landscape painter Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920), lecturer Miss Caulfield, and critic of the Chicago Evening Post, Miss Isabel McDougall, speaking on various branches of art.44

In October, 1898, after the Studebaker Carriage Shop vacated the building at 410 South Michigan Avenue for larger quarters, Charles Curtiss refurbished it, renamed it “The Fine Arts Building,” and opened its doors to artists, writers, and dramatists for occupancy. Such talent as Lorado Taft, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Frank Lloyd Wright, and L. Frank Baum soon graced its halls.45

When Clarkson moved in, history was written in his elegant studio on the tenth floor where the cultural aristocracy gathered on Friday evenings, and where the Cliff Dwellers, the Cordon, and the Municipal Art League were founded.46 Before Clarkson became host of the Little Room, as his studio was called, sculptors Bessie Potter (later Vonnoh) (1872-1955) and Lorado Taft, and other artists, casually opened their studios from time to time to artists of kindred spirits. Lucy Monroe (sister of Poetry editor, Harriet) suggested the name “Little Room” from a Little Room member’s ghost story of a mysterious room, which disappeared and reappeared.47 There was actually nothing “little” about Clarkson’s spacious corner studio situated ten floors above the noise, odor and smoke of the street below. Following matinee performances by Theodore Thomas’ symphony orchestra in the Auditorium next door, candles were lit in the Little Room, portraits in progress turned to the wall, and attention centered on the silver samovar dispensing pink tea (sometimes supplemented by a bit of brandy). Its main function was as a bridge between the Chicago artist and their local society.48

The Little Room guest book read like a “Who’s Who” of artistic talent. Among the signers were dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), artist Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Publisher Edward William Bok (1863-1930), and writer Richard LaGalliene (1865-1947).49 A very picturesque visitor was brought in by Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) at the close of the Spanish-American War. He was Joaquin Miller (1837-1913), “Poet of the Sierras,” who posed for a simultaneous sculpture by Taft and portrait by Clarkson. After the second sitting, Miller looked appreciatively at Clarkson’s sketch and remarked, “I see you’re digging the old man out of the shadow.”50 Clarkson hosted the writers, dramatists, and artists in the Little Room until 1931, except for one interval when he was abroad and dramatist Anna Morgan did the honors in her eighth floor studio. Special parties were arranged from time to time, with the members furnishing entertainment. Clarkson took the role of “The Mysterious Stranger, Right Out of a Dime Novel,” in a play written by Miss Morgan and performed in the Little Room.51

The ambiance of the Little Room was captured and extended when Chicago attorney Wallace Heckman proposed that the Little Room group establish a colony on his summer estate overlooking the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois. Eleven charter members signed up, promising to pay property taxes plus $1 a year, and give two art lectures annually to the locals in exchange for use of 15 acres of wooded bluff property. Tents were first used until cabins could be built.52 The main hall was soon erected, with members pitching in to complete various phases of the building, with even the women doing the shingling. Later, Clarkson built a one-room stucco cottage, which expanded into a living room and veranda, with two sleeping rooms, described admiringly in The House Beautiful.53 There, he painted some of his best portraits. Among his sitters were Professors Albert A. Michelson, Nobel Prize winner for discoveries in the velocity of light and distinguished geologists, Rollin Salisbury and Thomas C. Chamberlin,54 who joined the jovial Eagle’s Nest group during their stay with the Clarksons. Mrs. Clarkson inspired the children of the camp to study nature when they were not canoeing and camping. They learned much from her and continued a search for knowledge of botany, biology and zoology.55


In September, Clarkson achieved a distinction he hoped for since arriving in Chicago. A portrait he had done of the venerable Henry L. Palmer of Milwaukee, president of Northwestern Life Insurance Company, was described as comparing favorably “with the best work in this line done in Chicago since G. P. A. Healy lived and worked here.”56

Chicago was treated to a spectacular “Court of Honor” festival on State Street in October 1899, featuring sculptural and architectural decorations. Director French promoted the idea of a Court of Honor after attending a reception for Admiral Dewey in New York. Many viewers felt that the decorative work even excelled that at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Mr. Clarkson was selected to serve on the festival committee because “he is an artist of excellent reputation. His ideas of symmetry, color and arrangement were generally adopted by the committee in their consideration of plans.”57

Announcement was made the previous month of the members of the advisory board (D. H. Burnham and C. L. Hutchinson) and art judges (Lorado Taft and Clarkson) who would officiate at the anticipated Paris Exhibition of 1900.58 Clarkson went to New York in November to serve on the national jury of paintings; Taft had just returned from similar duty on the sculpture jury.59 It was Clarkson’s opinion that Chicago made a good showing compared to New York and Boston, and predicted that both cities would soon give honor due Western artists.60 Clarkson and Taft departed together for the Paris Exposition in April the following year to study art trends in such countries as France, Germany, England, Belgium and Holland and to provide that information to the Municipal Art Commission. It was on Mr. Clarkson’s agenda to go first to Gibraltar, then to Seville, Spain for ten weeks. He meant to avoid the usual tourist route, and instead “come in contact with real life.” Especially, he wanted to study the works of Velázquez, who he considered the greatest of Spanish artists. Also, he was considering writing a book about four or five leading Spanish artists, an idea, which had occurred to him while living in Rome.61 He wrote back to Chicago that he had been in Madrid for a month seeing bullfights and working in the Museo eight hours a day with temperature at 99 degrees for a week. He would then go to Vienna, Munich, Prague, Nuremberg, Dresden, Berlin, Cassel, Cologne, Amsterdam, Haarlem,
The Hague, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris and London, adding that “if this is an artist’s idea of a vacation, no one need talk of the hard-worked business man.”62

Returning to Chicago after the long sojourn in Europe, Clarkson brought with him a copy of a Velázquez painting he had done at the Prado in Madrid, and which he mounted on a wall of his studio to be admired by guests. It was called “Las Meninas” (Maids of Honor) and featured the daughter of Prince Phillip IV, surrounded by dwarf and attendant.63 William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), an admirer of Valesquez, also copied “Las Meninas” in January 1896.64 The influence of Clarkson’s trip must have helped in the portrait of Mrs. William R. Harper (wife of the first president of the University of Chicago) that was much admired at the annual exhibition of works by Chicago artists that year in the Art Institute. Comment was made that Mrs. Harper’s red gold hair and fair skin were remindful of the type of coloring that Rubens loved to paint.65 Although personally concentrating on portraiture, Clarkson was conscious and appreciative of other avenues of art. He praised the work of Chicago photographer William B. Dyer in Brush
and Pencil for his aesthetic accomplishments vs. the monotony of the usual photographic print.66 In April of 1900, the first photographic salon exhibit in Chicago was held under the auspices of the Art Institute and the Chicago League of Amateur Photographers. It was the largest held in this country, occupying two rooms. Clarkson served on the jury of selection for Chicago; Alfred Stieglitz represented New York.67

In 1899, The Cook County League of Women’s Clubs had objected loudly to the unsightly billboards put up in the city, claiming they were usually inartistic and often repulsive, besides spoiling the view and cutting off the air. They cited the little kiosks at street corners in Paris as models for use in Chicago advertising instead.68 Beautification of the City became the aim of the Municipal Art Society, which was launched at the Little Room in June of 1899 with Clarkson a founding member. To achieve that purpose, Mayor Harrison then appointed Clarkson, Taft and William LeBaron Jenney (1832-1907) as art commissioners to approve artwork to be initiated or acquired by the City. As a start, Clarkson proposed setting up a small park on the North Side by enclosing a small area, then adding a fountain and statuary.69 Clarkson also joined the lively Art Association of Chicago and was a director in 1900.70 One of its main concerns was the glaring, ugly billboard.71 The following year, that association merged with Municipal Art Society because the two organizations were so closely allied. The new organization was called Municipal Art League of Chicago, and elected Franklin McVeagh as its president. Clarkson was first vice president 1901-1904, and president 1904-15.72

It was soon apparent that Clarkson’s talent was not limited to portraiture. A comment was made about his painting, “Despair” that the picture was superb, and “makes one regret that the artist cultivates portraiture so assiduously.”73 Perhaps that writer did not put a value on portrait painting as did a leader of the Romantic Movement in painting, Eugene Delacroix, who stated: “You say a portrait painter has only to copy? His model is there; all he has to do is to reproduce it? But within the features that outline a physiognomy, the artist must find the soul.”74 Early on, Clarkson was asked whether he could paint women in the forthright fashion in which he captured his men. He admitted that the fair sex posed problems, and that most artists were
more comfortable painting their own gender.75 In 1901, comment was made that, although delightfully rendered, Clarkson’s earlier portraits of women “seem needlessly rounded and elaborate,” but that he had advanced to the point that his “Student” in the 1901 Chicago Artists Exhibit at the Art Institute, seemed enveloped in an atmosphere not observed before and made luminous by a mysterious method.”76 Another viewer called “The Student” the best thing Clarkson ever did.77

Early in 1902 a debate arose at a meeting of the Exhibition Committee of the Municipal Art League as to whether the battle scenes of Russian painter Vassili Verestchagin (1842-1904) should have been allowed to be exhibited in January, 1902 at the Art Institute. Its Secretary, Newton H. Carpenter, told how the public had gone “wild” over the work when displayed earlier in 1889.78 He claimed “there has never been a man who so depicted the horrors of war.” Charles Francis Browne, however, expressed the fear that the display of the pictures “would hurt the public” since they were “distinctly brutal.” This was also Clarkson’s reaction.79

The recently opened Chicago Academy of Fine Arts hired Clarkson and Oliver Dennett Grover to conduct painting classes in 1902, Clarkson teaching only the advanced students in his portrait classes.80 Neither continued at the school for Grover had scheduled a tour abroad and Clarkson had heavy portrait commissions.81 However, the following year, Wm. M. R. French, Director of the Art Institute, persuaded Clarkson to teach there as a replacement for Charles Frances Browne during a year’s absence.82 French confided that he had awaited the opportunity for a long time to have Clarkson join the teaching staff,83 where he remained for seventeen years, contributing his expertise to make the school the most successful in the country. Clarkson set about making portraits of fellow artists, starting with Charles Francis Browne; then Oliver Dennett Grover, both portraits accurately catching the spirit of the subjects, although painted in a record time of ten hours.84 Frances Cheney Bennett recognized and was ready to promote Clarkson’s talent, saying “There is no realm of art in which it is so difficult to achieve success as in that which portrays the human face and form in marble or on canvas. Mr. Clarkson’s portraits are instinct with life itself, a speaking likeness, a bright eye, an almost mobile lip, being among their chief characteristics.” 85

Clarkson attended the Whistler memorial exhibition in Boston in March 1904, along with other members of the Art Institute staff.86 The year before, similar methods used by Clarkson and Whistler had been analytically described. Clarkson laid his paints on a huge palette and mixed them just as they were to appear in a picture. No mixing was done after the painting was begun, either on the palette or the canvas. This was also Whistler’s technique. Both had preconceived plans of how their finished work would look.87 The most obvious reference to Whistler’s work was Clarkson’s prize winning painting Twilight Harmony (Union League Club of Chicago).88 References to Clarkson’s connection to Whistler and later Velazquez continued throughout his career. Clarkson revealed he had “always keenly felt the importance of Whistler’s doctrine, to the effect that the means by which a picture is produced should be as unobtrusive as possible.”89

At the Universal (Louisiana Purchase) Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis, Chicago made a great showing, the Art Institute winning a grand prize. Seventeen medals were given Chicago artists. Mr. Clarkson earned a medal but could not accept since he had served as a juror.90 One critic, after analyzing the pictures at the Fair, dwelt on the excellence of Clarkson’s work at O’Brien’s in Chicago. He praised the portrait of Elbridge G. Keith91 for being painted for the sake of the subject, “much like the old way of Rembrandt and Velasquez.”92 Clarkson had taken great pains to study the works of the master Velasquez, and it often showed in his work.93

Clarkson walked away with two prizes at the 1905 Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, at the Art Institute. His Twilight Harmony, a difficult composition of three figures playing a piano, viola, and violin “captured the hearts” of the Young Fortnightly Club, which awarded him first prize; whereupon the Municipal Art League voted it the most popular picture in the show.94 On the last day of the exhibition, praise was heaped upon Clarkson for his portrait of Dr. Herrick Johnson, the famous Presbyterian educator, but it was noted that the sketch of Lou Mersfeller showed skill beyond academic limitations because of its simplicity. In this area, too, Clarkson resembled Whistler, “who refused to “ball things up” despite the public’s demand.95 Later in the year, Clarkson’s painting of the five Studebaker brothers was described as a “miracle.” Exhibited at O’Brien’s in November 1905, only one of the five bearded brothers, John, Clement, Peter, Jacob and W. F., was still alive when the painting was rendered. Yet, Clarkson “caught their spirit in a way as true to our life as the paintings of Franz Hals in Haarlem were to the Dutch life of his time.”96

The first important murals planned for Chicago were decorations of the new Chicago National Bank, of which Jenny and William Bryce Mundie (1863–1939) were architects. Frederick W. Ramsdell (1865-1915) was in charge, with Clarkson, Grover and Browne to serve as associates.97 Grover painted the decorative panels and ceiling on the subject of “Use and Misuse of Money.”98 But with Clarkson engaged in Europe, the commission went to Lawrence C. Earle (1845-1921), assisted by Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927) to paint sixteen murals of Chicago historical events.99

In 1900, Frank X. (1877-1924) and Joseph C. Leyendecker (1874-1951) supervised the beginning of mural decorations to be placed over the tenth floor stair and light wells in the Fine Arts Building.100 The unveiling finally took place in January of 1906. Clarkson’s striking mural entitled “Torch of Progress,” which portrays a torch being passed from a young man to a young woman, was said to represent “the passage of the century and advent of another.”101

Early that year, Clarkson was one of six local artists chosen to draw the Kirmess Dancers in a fundraiser sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Many Chicago socialites participated in the event, which ran three straight evenings at Orchestra Hall to facilitate the building of an infant’s pavilion at the new Children’s Memorial Hospital. Mr. Clarkson pictured Mrs. Bertha Honoré Palmer engaged in the Spanish dance.102 At the time, it was noted he was serving as president of Chicago Society of Artists, Municipal Art League and Municipal Art Commission. Comment was made that “Mr. Clarkson is counted by many as Sargent’s closest rival.”103 Such tribute was not confined locally:


“The New York Post, publishing its first review of the Corcoran Art Gallery exhibition in Washington [said] ‘Worthy to stand side be side with the best work from Sargent’s brush is a splendid portrait by Ralph Clarkson of Chicago, whose work is too little known in the East. The canvas is a great favorite with the artists, and there are those among them who think it has not only the mastery which we admire in Sargent, but also a certain reserve and intellectual quality that lie outside the range of the great portrait painter’s art.”104

The enthusiasm greeting the exhibition of American watercolors at the Art Institute prompted the formation of Chicago Water Color Club during spring 1907. Adam Emory Albright (1862-1957) was the first President and Clarkson a charter member. The club encouraged participation by younger men who had not allied with other groups to join the older established artists.105 The owners of the Fine Arts Building awarded prizes in 1906, divided between Clarkson and four other artists of the Society of Western Artists at their annual exhibition. The show traveled between Midwestern cities from 1906-1907. Clarkson won first prize of $500 for his portrait of novelist, George Barr McCutcheon (1866-1928). A new turn was observed in this work where Clarkson employed an abundance of warmth of color interpretation not noticed before, making the flesh almost realistic and even in the way the color of the tie was captured.106 The Attic Club was incorporated August 13, 1907 at Clarkson’s studio. Its object was social intercourse and the promotion of literature and art.107 By January 18, 1909, the name was changed to The Cliff Dwellers, with Clarkson signing the Certificate of Change of Name as Secretary on April 17, 1909.108 Esteemed writer Hamlin Garland was the moving force for a club in Chicago like the Player’s Club in New York, to be “a meeting place for writers and artists; a rallying point for Midland Arts.” He was the first president of Cliff Dwellers, serving for seven years. However, members complained that he over supervised, restraining the more free spirits of the club.109

Clarkson encountered the same attitude as president of Cliff Dwellers from 1922-1923. He gave
orders that the members not serve intoxicating drinks, voted down at the next meeting.110. During
prohibition, Clarkson had all the glasses used for hard drinking removed to the basement, but the
members soon restored them to their lockers. He was referred to as “a noted Puritan, nagger and
typical law enforcer.”111 Perhaps Garland and Clarkson were thinking “salon” while the tipplers
were thinking “saloon.”

One fellow artist of less than genteel background criticized Clarkson, calling him “haughty,” and that he tried to “create an impressive demeanor and maintain an atmosphere similar to that of continental artists.”112 Years later, this fellow artist at age 80, had second thoughts, saying about Clarkson’s Little Room: “There’s nothing like it now. The town has gone to pot.”113 Another writer claimed that Midwesterner Garland should have stayed and lived as a patriarch in Chicago, guiding the footsteps of the young, instead of back trailing to the east and London where he did not belong.114 On the other hand, Clarkson, an Easterner, did stay in his adopted Chicago and threw his energies into improving the culture for the city and its people. During the summer of 1909, upon a bluff overlooking the Rock River, one could find artists working with students and fledglings.115 In addition to painting three portraits of the Heckman family,116 Clarkson had been experimenting with landscapes. One of his students, Leon A. Makielski (1885-1974), who won a traveling scholarship at the Art Institute the prior summer, painted some fine landscapes along or near the Rock River, which were exhibited at the newly
opened library in Oregon. Six of his paintings were featured at the 4th Annual Exhibit of the Eagle’s Nest Colony, and two are presently part of the Oregon Public Library Gallery collection.117

Sculptor Lorado Taft sought Clarkson to paint Taft’s portrait upon admission in the National Academy of Design. The picture was such a marvel that the Art Institute requested Clarkson do yet another for its collection, which was awarded the Martin B. Cahn Prize of 1909 for best picture by a Chicago artist.118

Clarkson had served on the jury for the Corcoran Gallery of Art Biennial in Washington in 1907. In 1909, the Corcoran accepted for exhibition Clarkson’s portrait of Edson Keith119, (Union League Club of Chicago). Charles M. Kurtz, who had served as Director of Fine Arts at the World’s Columbian Exposition and as first Director of the Buffalo Art Academy, noted that in the exhibition which included works by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp (1858-1923), Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), Julius Garibaldi “Gari” Melchers (1860-1932), and other noted painters, Clarkson’s surpassed theirs, adding: “It would scarcely be too much to say that no finer portrait than this has been painted in this country.”120 The portrait was then invited for exhibition at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo. Western artists encountered great difficulties in being accepted for shows in the East. But Clarkson’s portrait of the late Elbridge Keith was well hung and attracted favorable comment from the viewers, several insisting it looked like a Sargent. Some wired compliments and inquired when he was coming on to New York. Many a painter would have packed up and gone straight to Fifth Avenue and Broadway after such praise. Clarkson preferred to remain “home” in Chicago, saying that he was impressed from the beginning by the wholeheartedness of the people, their offers of friendship, their absence of prejudice, among other fine qualities. He said, “Some of the finest types of polished gentlemen I have ever met have been Chicagoans born and bred.”121

The same year, when Taft’s statue of Washington was chosen to stand in front of the Pennsylvania station in Washington, DC, Clarkson cheered this success, saying that eyes, which had turned for ideals across the Atlantic, now looked toward Chicago.122 A State Art Commission was created mid-1909 to pass upon all public works of art, and Clarkson was appointed to serve for four years, along with successful businessman turned painter Frederick Clay Bartlett (1873-1953).123

Following the Civil War, the new aristocracy showed their superiority by collecting rare and costly objects, none produced by Americans. Their patronage of museums did not extend to encouraging native talent.124 Clarkson is credited for having changed this when he authored the idea for the creation in 1910 of The Friends of American Art. One hundred twenty-five Chicagoans, among whom none was more enthusiastic than Clarkson,125 pledged $1,000 each to enable the Art Institute to purchase works done by living American artists. This changed the nature of the museum’s collections, which previously had favored the privileged upper and upper middle class.126 Clarkson served on the Executive Committee, which looked to spend $20,000 a
year on American art.127 Some of the greatest Icons in American art today are the result of purchases from the Friends including Grant Wood (1891-1942) American Gothic and Edward Hopper (1882-1967) Nighthawks. In addition to the plan to bring art to the masses, a generous gesture was made to teach prisoners at the house of correction at Bridwell where Clarkson volunteered to give lessons one day a week to lighten the lives of those confined.128 Mrs. Clarkson was active in a like organization, The Antiquarian Society of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose purpose was to acquire art objects to be presented to the Art Institute and to assist through exhibition and lectures in stimulating interest in the Art Institute129 She was often in the receiving line for social events connected with the many organizations her husband promoted. One, of note, was a tour early in 1910 he conducted for members of the Chicago Woman’s Press League of Mrs. Potter Palmer’s art galleries in her Lake Shore Drive Mansion. Familiar with the paintings, their value and history, he was well equipped to lecture on their beauties.130

By 1910, The Art Institute ranked with the greatest of institutions of its kind. A hunger was observed among ordinary people for good music, good literature and art.131 The Art Institute of Chicago was compared with various like organizations in New York, and it was marveled that the Institute accomplished so much.132 There was also celebration that the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts accepted works of more than 20 Western artists (Clarkson included) for its 105th Annual Exhibition.133 In spring of 1910, Clarkson had the honor of being elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in New York.134 Arrangements were made with the noted artist Henry Salem Hubbell (1870-1949) to paint Mr. Clarkson’s portrait, but at the last moment, Hubbell could not comply. Hence, Clarkson, sitting before a mirror, did a self-portrait in two mornings, which he sent to the Academy.135 Mr. Clarkson had been a good model for a painting done in five hours by Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) for the Cliff Dwellers136, and by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) (Oregon, IL Public Library), done in two and a half hours. Mr. Cox gave Mr. Clarkson a “wholesome robustness” and Mr. Sorolla found him “a picturesque personage.”137

Expectations were high for the 23rd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture held October 10 to November 27, 1910 at the Art Institute. Clarkson exhibited portraits of A. C. Bartlett (painter Frederic Bartlett’s father) and John V. Farwell, the former described as the “best from his brush.”138 At a reception held at the Woman’s Club in honor of visiting artists, Art Institute President Hutchinson, Henry Hubbell and Clarkson were scheduled to speak on the subject, “Art Expression in Chicago, The Actual and the Possible.”139 Comment was made that among the courtly artists, Mr. Clarkson was “undoubtedly, the dean of the corps.”140 The question arose at the reception: “Is Chicago really one of the big art centers of the United States?” Henry Hubbell said “Yes,” as did Hutchinson, Clarkson, French and Carpenter. They were taken aback at the great etcher, Joseph Pennell’s (1857-1926), accusation that “Chicago doesn’t appreciate art.” He told that the day before four hundred people were in the Art Institute viewing the pictures, while outside 10,000 men and women were fighting to know the returns from the baseball game. He and Clarkson disagreed about the size of art juries, Clarkson preferring large ones, and Mr. Pennell charging that more politics would result. Clarkson predicted that soon Chicago would surpass New York as an art center, and deplored New York’s closer ties with Europe than its own country.141

Charles Hutchinson, President of the Board of Directors of the Art Institute and Vice President of the Corn Exchange National Bank, was horrified that Mr. Pennell considered Chicago “hoggish, dirty, seedy and atrocious.”142 The Pennell remarks were reminiscent of a situation 10 years before when Londoner C. R. Ashbee spoke to the Architectural Club and made reference to a “Nameless City” with two rivers covered with slime of factory refuse. “Soft coal is burned and chimneys tall and unsightly belch forth a pall of filth, where the residents wanted to stay just long enough to make their fortunes and move on to a pleasanter place.”143 Reassurance was given by Swedish-American painter, Carl O. E. Lindin (1869-1942) on his return to Chicago in 1910 that the artists would triumph over the dirt and dinginess of the city. It was his opinion that the environmental ugliness would force Chicagoans to develop their inner sense of beauty.144 Later that year, in December of 1910, Clarkson was on leave of absence from his teaching at the Art Institute, taking care of a commission in Washington, D. C. to paint the portrait of Jacob M. Dickinson, Secretary of War.145

In the annual report sent out by Clarkson as President of Municipal Art League in early 1911, some of the League’s accomplishments included a defensive war against billboards, an offensive war for electrification of Illinois Central Railroad as smoke abatement measure, establishment of a municipal art gallery in the Art Institute which at that year held works of eleven Chicago artists (the remains of the collection are now in the Union League Club of Chicago), placing of mural paintings by Art Institute students in the Home for Destitute Crippled Children, and mural painting in waiting room of Juvenile Court of Cook County. The League had assistance in these and like projects from sixty women’s clubs.146

It should be noted that usually the public wasn’t given the opportunity to see many of the portraits coming from Clarkson’s studio. They were “jealously guarded and passed to the owners’ homes without display.”147 Viewing, upon completion, was usually done at a tea to which only close friends of the subject were invited.

Clarkson’s most widely known painting Nouvart Dzeron: A Daughter of Armenia (Art Institute of Chicago) was of the namesake Armenian student from the Art Institute painted in 1912. After exhibition at the American Annual at the Art Institute, it was purchased by the Friends of American Art. Student Dzeron posed in an exotic costume her grandfather had sent from Armenia. Later, instead of the usual weekly lecture at the Art Institute, Dzeron presented a concert of folk songs of Armenia, attired in native costume.148 Nouvart Dzeron is lauded as ennobling the downtrodden and common person. It is compared with Sargent’s work since it shows a fascination with the exotic, using silhouette and light flesh tones against dark backgrounds to achieve a dramatic effect.149 Artists and critics, as well as the general public admired it. Even the student’s father complimented Mr. Clarkson, saying “he had put something in the picture which captured the genuine spirit of the East.”150

Following graduation, Dzeron married a wealthy Armenian educator in the east, and continued her art career.151 The painting enjoyed a good audience, traveling to the Corcoran Gallery at Washington, D. C. for the biennial show, 1912; Minneapolis Fine Arts Museum, February 1914; American Academy, New York, October 1931; Half Century of American Art at the Art Institute, November 1939; and St. Louis Art Museum, Currents of Expression: Painting in the Midwest, 1820-1940, February 1977.152 Upon the occasion of the centenary of the Municipal Art League of Chicago in 2001, the Art Institute of Chicago once more displayed Nouvart Dzeron in its American section of the Rice wing.153

Clarkson expressed his love for nature in an Arbor Day speech to the Outdoor Art League on the artistic value of trees. A true environmentalist, he was saddened by the absence of trees along the lakefront in the Loop, and urged their cultivation in the outlying district of the city.154 Some found Clarkson’s views on art were enigmatic. Even though he was educated in a traditionalist manner he was favorable towards the works of the Impressionists. He also found some favor in the modern International Exhibition of Modern Art, “Armory Show,” when it arrived in Chicago in 1913.155 His friend and colleague however, Charles Francis Browne, scorned the show.156 Clarkson was described as a liberal traditionalist. His attitude toward modern art came from belief that art is not mere imitation, but is “nature seen through a temperament; and that temperament marked the difference in style.”157 Shortly after the Armory Show departed Chicago Clarkson’s works were exhibited in stark contrast to futurism at the Art Institute in the summer of 1913.158

In the summer of 1914, the Clarksons visited the principal countries of Europe, seeking new ideas in the realm of art expression. He concluded that most of the latest and best work to be seen had been earlier displayed on the Art Institute’s walls.159 Unfortunately, Clarkson’s survey in the interests of the Art Institute was cut short by declaration of war between France and Germany. There were many tense moments before they were able to escape from Berlin and sail home from Italy.160 Safely back home, Clarkson lectured to members of the Chicago Society of Artists about his adventures among the Italian futurists and the “virile” German impressionists. He called them “furioso” artists who would just as soon use an old soup can to obtain effects. He derided the need of an English artist he met to “have a kick in the back of the head” when he looked at a picture.161

Late in 1915, Clarkson joined Lorado Taft and fellow sculptor Leonard Crunelle (1872-1944), on a trip to the studio of Andrew O’Connor in Worcester, Massachusetts to examine a Lincoln statue for placement in the Illinois statehouse.162 This was in a long line of civic art duties Clarkson performed before resigning from the Municipal Art League as President at its closing meeting in the spring 1916. He had served well since 1905, and the League made many accomplishments under his leadership. Everett Millard was elected his successor.163 However, this was not the end of Clarkson’s civic duties as the very next year he lectured before the Chicago Woman’s Club on “The Rank of its [Art Institute] Exhibits.164

Impressed by the example set in England where hundreds of thousands of war recruits were obtained through a poster campaign, the acting director of the Art Institute, George William Eggers, started a like movement.165 An appeal for cooperation was accepted by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) of the Society of Illustrators in New York City, which resulted in 25,000 United States art students being solicited to serve their country in this way.166 Ralph Clarkson served on the Committee of Selection167 and later served as a Chicago representative of the government’s department of pictorial publicity relating to the War. Drawing on his wartime experiences, Clarkson was the principal lecturer at a meeting of four hundred members of the American Association of Commercial Artists in early March of 1918.168

In the following month, Clarkson’s opinion (as a former member of the Chicago ArtCommission), was sought regarding the display Albin Polášek’s (1879-1965) nude bronze “Sower” on the front steps of the Art Institute. It had already stood for months in the open air of Buffalo, New York and San Francisco with no complaints made against the heroic man, striding forward, scattering good seeds upon the earth. Now, mid-country, criticism was hysterical. Clarkson rebutted: “I can’t appreciate how anyone’s modesty can be affronted by this statue. How anyone could apply the adjective ‘salacious’ to such a noble work is incomprehensible.”169

Painting seemed to be falling into a rut after the Armory Show. Critic Lena H. McCauley lamented in the Chicago Evening Post in 1917 that contemporary art lacked “soul,” stating “the good old school of honest effort was no more” and warned “American art stood at the Great Divide.”170 Soul was what Clarkson pursued many years before, according to a speech at the Art Institute wherein he stated “character and soul should be sought for and brought out by the portrait artist, rather than a too-perfect likeness.”171 The same, now-pessimistic, critic had said Clarkson “stood out as an interpreter of man; that his penetration saw beyond surface motives, and his gift of sympathy allowed him to find the presence of the man himself.”172

The Clarksons closed their summer home at Eagle’s Nest and visited Highland Park in the fall.173 In spring of 1920, the Art Institute announced the resignation of three valued instructors, chief of which was “the dean of painting instructors, Ralph Clarkson.” His reason was the need of more time to devote to portrait painting, “in which he has achieved a national reputation.”174

That summer found him at Ann Arbor painting portraits and at New York in the fall executing commissions.175 Before departing for California at the end of 1920, Clarkson painted the portrait of Karleton Hackett, past president of the Cliff Dwellers, music critic for the Chicago Evening Post, and worker for the advancement of music in Chicago.176 The portrait hung in the clubroom above Orchestra Hall and moved with Cliff Dwellers to its new address at 200 South Michigan Avenue.

After painting hundreds of portraits of distinguished gentlemen across the country, Clarkson declared that he had painted his masterpiece when in fifteen sittings he completed the portrait of Mrs. William H. Stuart, the wife of the political editor of the Chicago Evening American.177 Later, he is credited for capturing the “spiritual” aspect of his sitter when he finished the portrait of William P. McKee of the Francis Shimer School in Mount Carroll, Illinois.178

In May of 1923, Clarkson was a keynote speaker at the National Conference on Art called by the U. S. Commissioner of Education at St. Louis. His exposition was said to be the clearest presented and “sounded the keynote of the spirit of education” as he emphasized the need to discover talent early and urged training in drawing in the common schools to awaken a perception of the beautiful.179 Later in the year, in an analysis of what makes a good portrait, Clarkson’s expertise was consulted about dark vs. light backgrounds; many viewers feeling dark backgrounds were more impressive. To Clarkson, it did not always matter but he pointed out that dark ones are easier to do. He commented on the difficulty of pleasing so many people: the artist himself, his subject, a host of the subject’s friends and relatives, and a critical public.180

By 1928, Clarkson had completed eleven of over fifty portraits owned by the University of Chicago, earning him the title of their “court painter.” The eleventh was of the distinguished physician, Dr. Frank Billings, who promoted the growth of Billings Hospital and who donated his medical library to the University of Chicago when he retired.181 Charles Hutchinson was honored with the Hutchinson Court. He was a trustee and treasurer of the University from 1890 to 1924, as well as dependable contributor. In the great hall of Hutchinson, there were hung portraits of men and women who had performed admirable services for the University. The Hall was a chief center of the University social life, where the students took their meals, and where important events related to dining were held.182 Seventeen portraits done by Clarkson are owned by the University of Chicago, six of them in Hutchinson Commons, and many can be seen throughout the campus today.183

In 1929, Clarkson wrote of the City’s cultural progress. He praised the many distinguished artists who had sincerely and earnestly worked for the interests of Chicago and helped develop true art consciousness, even listing some modernists.184

The last meeting of The Little Room is recorded as January 3, 1931. Member Alice Gerstenberg, lauded as Chicago’s great playwright and president of the National League of American Penwomen, Chicago Branch, made an attempt to revive it.185 The demise of the Little Room in 1931 coincided with the death of Henry B. Fuller in 1929. Fuller felt perfectly at home there since it was a completely informal society, with no written constitution or by-laws. It was more exclusive than the Cliff Dwellers, yet less pretentious. To some, the ambiance was “overgenteel.” To Henry Fuller “it was the breath of life.” For years, he was the unofficial treasurer, and director of the serving of tea and cakes.186 Fuller often visited Clarkson at his studio when he was engaged in painting. According to Clarkson’s accolade in Anna Morgan’s compilation of tributes to Fuller from seventy-five admirers, Fuller would often offer his opinion and advice to Clarkson.187 It should be noted, also, that incidents at the Little Room often inspired Fuller’s writings, in particular, “Under the Skylights.”188

Clarkson and Taft, apprehensive in 1932 that American artists showing in the coming Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago would not be properly represented, called a special meeting of protest against foreign importations. Both artists, members of the American Artists Professional League, with headquarters in New York, planned to organize a Chicago chapter to insure national representation and to impress visitors to the exposition in 1933 with the accomplishments in art made by the city during the last 100 years.189

Since 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Logan had given awards each year to encourage local artists. The Logan medal was considered one of the most prestigious awards at annual exhibitions of the Art Institute, if not the most important. When Josephine Hancock Logan deplored the evil influence of the 1936 Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute, and struck back with her “Sanity in Art” movement, both Mr. and Mrs. Clarkson wrote letters supporting her viewpoint. Critics Clarence J. Bulliet of the Daily News and Eleanor Jewett of the Chicago Tribune took opposite viewpoints, with the former conceding that since most radicals were fanatics, he preferred radical art but conservative artists.190

One of Clarkson’s last commissions was in 1937 of Bernard E. Sunny, prominent businessman who had acquired an admirable art collection over a twenty-five year period.191 In addition to the organizations noted, Clarkson was a charter member of Illinois Athletic Club, a member of Arts Club, and the Century Association of New York. He and his wife attended Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue.192 Ralph Clarkson died April 5, 1942 at age eighty while vacationing in Orlando, Florida.193

Soon after his death, the Clarkson cottage was closed at Eagle’s Nest.194 This coupled with the earlier death of Lorado Taft’s in 1937, caused interest and inspiration of other members to dwindle. Clarkson was the last living charter member. In 1943, with the last eagle flown, the Eagles Nest Association terminated.195

In his will, Clarkson authorized, should he survive his wife, the donation of his copy of Velázquez’ “Las Meninas”, to the Wadsworth Athenaeum of Hartford, Connecticut or to the Chicago Public Schools Art Society.196 The rest of his paintings, if he survived his wife, were to be distributed by a committee composed of the executor and Chicago artists Rudolph Ingerle (1879-1950) and Walter Krawiec (1889-1982), to relatives and friends and to organizations for the advancement of art.197

Frances survived him for seven and a half years, dying in Western Springs, Illinois on September 6, 1950. She had a great appreciation and understanding of his work, and her social background enabled the fulfillment of many of his ideas. The Blue Book of 1905 and Chicago Social Register of 1940 note Mrs. Clarkson’s membership in Fortnightly Club and National Society of Colonial Dames. As an officer of The Antiqurian Society of the Art Institute, she was elected treasurer for 1904, reelected for 1905, acting treasurer for 1908, reelected for 1916.198 Their ashes are interred in her family plot at the historical Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut. Although the Clarksons left no children to keep their memories alive, their marriage was strong. No doubt, the love they would have lavished upon children was, instead, given to Chicago.


bottom of page