Rudolph Weisenborn (1881-1974)
Please credit Illinois Historical Art Project and Author: Professor Lloyd C. Engelbrecht with Joel S. Dryer
The last of the major modernist painters of the twentieth century awaiting widespread recognition is Rudolph Weisenborn. He was born October 31, 1881, in Chicago, and died there March 15, 1974.1 As Henry Rago, editor of Chicago’s venerable Poetry magazine, proclaimed in the catalogue of a Weisenborn retrospective exhibition “… [he] should have a permanent place among the few really indispensable painters in our time.”2 Late in his career a Chicago reviewer was so positive and full of praise that the mystery of Weisenborn’s vanished reputation seems unsolvable.
“Weisenborn is the local artist whose work best reflects the times in which we live… he is one of the greatest and least appreciated of American painters. He also is the most creative in the Chicago area, shows no derivations and turns out canvases so different that to many they are baffling.”3
After a peripatetic youth, spent mostly outside Chicago, Weisenborn returned to the Windy City in time to see the Armory Show of 1913 and to share the local interest in Vorticism, an avant-garde British literary and artistic movement known in Chicago chiefly through publications. Although he had received a traditional art education in Denver, Weisenborn quickly moved beyond his early academicism and soon was recognized as Chicago’s leading modernist, a position he held for several decades before sliding into oblivion in the late 1960s. Moreover, in addition to his work as an artist, his activities organizing new venues to show modern art, coupled with his efforts as the first artist in Chicago to offer instruction in modern trends in art, made him a powerful agent for changing the tastes in art of many Chicagoans. The artist’s reputation was somewhat revived by three events: a symposium in 1988; a 1990 publication based on that symposium (The Old Guard and the Avant-garde; Modernism in Chicago, 1910-1940); and a lecture, “Weisenborn’s Windy City; the Life and Art of Rudolph Weisenborn,” given April 29, 1993, by Herman Spertus at the Harold Washington Library (accompanied by a showing of a 1978 documentary film on Weisenborn). Nevertheless, by 1996, when the Museum of Contemporary Art showed Art in Chicago, 1945-1995, it was not thought necessary to include Weisenborn in the exhibition nor even to mention him in the essays in the 312-page catalogue, even though he had exhibited new work in Chicago into the mid-1950s.4 Moreover, Weisenborn is still poorly represented in museum collections, with the crucial Art Institute of Chicago previously owning a single work, now deaccessioned.5 Although his work was shown at the Art Institute with some frequency (1918 to 1949),6 and again in 1965,7 praised by Chicago art critics in 1951,8 and again in 1971,9 efforts for a large retrospective exhibition at the Art Institute, have not been successful. Surely part of the reason for Weisenborn’s lack of renown was because he worked as a fine artist in Chicago, where it simply was harder to become recognized than it was for an architect or a writer. No serious history of American architecture or literature would ignore the major architects and writers of Chicago. However, there has yet to be published a general history of American art, or of twentieth-century art, that even mentions Weisenborn! Rudolph’s parents were from Strasbourg, France (still part of Germany at the time they emigrated). His earliest years are best understood in the context that when he was orphaned at an early age, there were two basic approaches for caring for orphans: raising them in an institutional environment or placing them out to be raised in a private home.10 Placing out sometimes meant indenture or adoption, but nearly always it meant undocumented, not legally binding arrangements.11 The placing-out approach characterized the Chicago Home for the Friendless, which was entrusted with the care of young Rudolph; its policy was to offer “…protection and employment or assistance to worthy destitute women and children, until other and permanent homes and means of support can be secured to them.”12 The practice of placing out gained impetus from the growth of the railroads and what became known as orphan trains. Moreover, the Chicago Home for the Friendless, perhaps typically, acknowledged help from railroads in the form of passes.13 Many orphans were shipped in groups from east-coast cities, or from the newer cities in the interior, for resettlement in often western rural communities. In some cases individual orphans were sent by rail to families who had requested them.14 It was also common for the placed-out orphans not to stay put; some became little wanderers, moving from farm to farm, either because they chose to leave or because they were turned out.15 While Weisenborn died before the interest in orphan-train oral histories began, he nevertheless relayed some of his memories to his wife and sons and to newspaper critics and gallery owners. Some of his memories were bitter, and perhaps for this reason there are some inconsistencies in reports of his memories. There is one report that Weisenborn had two siblings who also were adopted.16 Weisenborn’s birthplace is most often given, by himself and others, as Chicago, but sometimes the nearby Du Page County town of Naperville is said to be his birthplace.17 His son, West Weisenborn (born 1929), recalled hearing his father had worked on a farm in Naperville.18 In any case, Rudolph Weisenborn remembered having spent part of his childhood in Chicago, because he once wrote of his move to Chicago in 1913 as a return: “I came back to Chicago and was newly inspired by the visuals and dynamics of the city.”19 Moreover, he once told an unnamed critic for a Chicago neighborhood newspaper The Booster that he had lived until he was seven in an orphan’s home on the south side of Chicago.20 The most detailed account of Rudolph’s early youth was given by his writer wife, Alfreda (“Fritzi”) née Gordon (1900-1968),21 who married Rudolph on May 4, 1922.22 This is in an undated account evidently intended as part of a manuscript for an uncompleted biography of her husband.23 Her chronology is sometimes vague. She wrote that before he was nine years old, Rudolph was orphaned, and shortly after entering the orphanage was adopted by John Derr, the superintendent of schools in Elgin, Illinois. Immediately after the adoption young Rudolph was “…given a basket, a rag tied around his neck, and put on a train to Clark, South Dakota.”24 There he worked for George Derr (evidently related to John), who lived in a sod shanty, and combined his activities as a farmer with teaching in the town school. Critic Clarence Joseph Bulliet (1883-1952) reported: “At school he (young Rudolph) drew pictures, and was the choice of the teacher to decorate the blackboards for holiday occasions.”25 Nevertheless, Derr treated the young man rather harshly, according to Fritzi Weisenborn, who described punishments such as an hours-long exile to a woodshed, as well as strappings. After about four years, when he was thirteen, Rudolph hitched a ride south on a lumber wagon that dropped him off in Davis,26 a tiny town in Turner County in southeastern South Dakota. In Davis he worked for the eponymous Mr. Davis (first name not known), in tasks such as cutting bundles for a threshing machine. The atmosphere was less oppressive, and he stayed eighteen months, after which he worked on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. He left the dairy farm to work in Wisconsin (and/or possibly Minnesota) lumber camps, and then worked as a migrant harvester, beginning in Oklahoma in early summer, working his way to North Dakota in the fall.27 He also spent some time as a Colorado cattle-ranch hand.28 Another account, evidently based on a 1951 interview with Weisenborn, stated that he: “…lived until he was seven years old in a South Side orphan’s home, in Chicago. One day the superintendent’s brother from North Dakota wired: ‘Send us a good boy.’ The superintendent sent Rudolph Weisenborn to the farm in the Dakotas where he lived with his foster parents and four sisters until he was 14.”29 Weisenborn was said to have studied in 1898 at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.30 But city life beckoned, as well as a hoped-for career as an artist, and Weisenborn was in Denver by 1902, listed as an artist in a city directory, with an address of 931 21st Street.31 Evidently he began his career as a self-taught artist. Thus it was before his formal art studies that Weisenborn did some portrait sketches for the Denver Post.32 He also joined the cavalry section of the Colorado Militia, because he liked to ride horses; his enlistment resulted in emergency duty during a miners’ strike in Cripple Creek in 1903-1904.33 Although he was not involved in any shooting, it was reported he executed sketches used by the Denver Post to cover the strike.34 He was also stationed in Telluride in the wake of the strike in Cripple Creek,35 where, according to Sidney Lens, “As late as December 1904 the mines in Telluride, now non-union, had to be patrolled day and night by guards armed with rapid fire guns, for fear of a union resurgence.”36 Weisenborn worked as a miner in Telluride,37 and while there sold a few paintings,38 and also executed a backdrop of a street scene for the opera house attached to the Sheridan Hotel,39 a harbinger of his future role as a mural painter. Since the Sheridan Opera House dates from 1913,40 Weisenborn would probably have painted the backdrop there shortly before leaving Colorado. Weisenborn found a job as a janitor in a Denver high school41 to finance his studies with Henry Read (1851-1935),42 a conservative, academic teacher at the Denver Students’ School of Art. Weisenborn studied with Read from 1905 to 1907,43 but only after trying for four years to gain admission.44 Weisenborn left there to study with a less conventional artist, Jean Mannheim (1863-1945),45 newly arrived in Denver from Europe.46 Weisenborn once stated he had studied at “Jean Mannheim’s School of Art—Denver—1907-1910.”47 He was attracted to Mannheim because they shared a love for Rembrandt. Weisenborn’s love for Rembrandt had already borne fruit in his “Rembrandtesque” Self-Portrait of 1903,48 Weisenborn’s earliest surviving work. This painting was greatly admired by Mannheim.49 Weisenborn himself once characterized his studies in Denver: “I spent two years drawing from casts: replicas of idealized Greek sculpture, arms, legs torsos which had no relationship to reality, the character of line and form. Just a stultifying matter of light and shade. I even studied Rembrandt and did a self-portrait a la Rembrandt. He was a great painter but not of my time. This was in Colorado and when I went outdoors to paint, Rembrandt and my academic training stifled me; something was fundamentally wrong. Then I saw some impressionist paintings that were like gusts of fresh air from the mountain tops. I came back to Chicago and was newly inspired by the visuals and dynamics of the city.”50 Fritzi added that it was only after the two years drawing from casts that he was allowed to work from a living model, and noted that her husband had often stated: “It took me ten years to get it [i.e., traditional academic training] out of my system.” She also wrote that the impressionist works seen in Denver were by painted by Claude Monet.51 In 1908, while studying with Mannheim, Weisenborn submitted two works, The Wind and Sunset, (locations unknown) to the International Exhibition at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh; both were rejected.52 Weisenborn’s Denver experiences probably primed him for the Armory Show, an international art exhibition that included some of the most daring examples of European modernism, seen in at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 24 to April 16, 1913.53 Moreover, in 1913, Chicago was still in its heyday as a major literary center, and the Armory show was soon followed by local interest in English Vorticism, a short-lived artistic and literary movement strongly influenced by Italian Futurism. Vorticism received a bit of attention in Chicago, and its appeal to Weisenborn,54 who had a strong interest in literature, was easy to understand. Blast; Review of the Great English Vortex, the Vorticist magazine, was edited by Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), English writer and artist, and Ezra Pound (1885-1972), an expatriate American poet and critic.55 The first issue of Blast was dated June 20, 1914, and comment on it by Llewellyn Jones, editor of The Chicago Evening Post Literary Review, appeared July 31, 1914. Basically Jones attributed the content of the first issue of Blast to “Midsummer Madness,” despite his earlier admiration for Pound.56 It would probably be wrong to look for too much direct visual influence from Lewis on Weisenborn. As one of Weisenborn’s friends, the British-American-Canadian writer, John Grierson once put it, although Lewis had “indeed worked wonders,” he was after all a “brilliant amateur.”57 Be that as it may, there is no evidence Weisenborn knew much about the paintings of Lewis and his British Vorticist colleagues beyond what he had seen reproduced in a few publications. The one work by Lewis we can be sure was known to Weisenborn was Portrait of an Englishwoman of 1913 (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford),58 a watercolor with pen-and-ink work, reproduced in The Friday Literary Review of the Chicago Evening Post on July 31, 1914. Composed of hard-edged forms, the picture was seemingly completely abstract, but in his adjacent comment Jones cleverly noted that: “Anyone thinking in terms of representative art would say that this was a picture of one of Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses tumbling down in an earthquake…”59 Weisenborn’s first known showing in Chicago was at the Moulton and Ricketts Gallery in 1914.60 [James Gardner] Moulton and [Robb R.] Ricketts described themselves as “importers and dealers in foreign and American paintings,” and they were located at 71-73-75 East Van Buren Street.61 To supplement whatever income he might have derived from painting, Weisenborn also did backgrounds for show windows for Marshall Field’s and the Boston Store.62 There is no record of his working as an art teacher before 1920, and one can only speculate as to what, beyond fees for decorating show windows, or the sale of an occasional picture, provided an income for Weisenborn.
The first known address for Weisenborn after his return to Chicago was 2721 South Michigan Avenue, where he was living in 1918.63 By 1920 he was at 19 East Pearson Street.64 The next year he moved to 854½ North State Street.65 The first artist-organized group show Weisenborn might have had omething to do with was the short-lived Independent Society of Artists, which opened its first exhibition on April 4, 1916, in the Ohio Building, at Wabash and Congress.66 It is not known whether Weisenborn had anything to do with organizing the 1916 exhibition, but he was among the forty artists who showed in the Society’s third exhibition at the Arts Club in June, 1918.67 He was no doubt impressed that for an annual membership fee of two dollars, any member could show two works of art that did not have to be passed on by a jury.68 In 1917 Weisenborn began showing with the Palette and Chisel Club in the club rooms at the Athaeneum,69 where he showed a painting called The Gardner (location unknown).70 It was in the Club’s tempera show early in 1918 that Weisenborn began to achieve recognition as an innovator. An entire wall, directly opposite the entrance, was devoted to his work. A reviewer praised the “powerful color and unique design” of his tempera paintings, and went on to say: “In this exhibit his work reflects the mind of one who lives in a world apart, which makes him, to say the least, an individual.” The reviewer noted the artist “…credits Colorado mountains, canons [i.e., cañons] and sunshine for his color.”71 The one tempera identified by name was An Abstraction of Spring (location unknown), “composed of lines and color that nature uses at this time of the year,” and “also symbolical of all youth and springtime.”72 Weisenborn made it easy to identify himself with Colorado, or more generally the cowboys of the west, because he habitually wore a Stetson (tengallon) hat.73 The tempera exhibition brought a measure of national recognition, as the reviewer for American Art News commented: “R. Weisenborn presents a series of poster effects that rival the rainbow for color and are strongly and decoratively composed.”74 Following the close of its tempera show, the Palette and Chisel Club’s 1918 annual exhibition opened, on March 23. Weisenborn showed a well received work simply called Portrait (location unknown). Another critic for the Fine Arts Journal noted “…an unusual feeling for the color effects of light,” and the magazine reproduced the painting.75 As early as 1919, Weisenborn publicly showed a stormy temperament. He was named a juror for the Palette and Chisel Club annual exhibition and rejected a painting by Arthur Grover Rider (1886-1975)76 entitled Autumn because he judged it was not finished, even though the artist insisted it was.77 A Chicago Herald and Examiner reporter related:
“The paint wasn’t dry: some of the hills in the landscape looked as if they had been left out in the rain. Weisenborn asked Rider if the picture was actually finished. Yes, said Rider, but he didn’t say it with enough conviction. So Weisenborn decided Autumn would not be admitted.”78