Wilson Henry Irvine (1869-1936)
By Harold Spencer (1920 - 2016), Ph.D. © Illinois Historical Art Project
The American impressionist painter, Wilson Henry Irvine (February 28, 1869 - August 25, 1936), began his career in Chicago and there matured as an artist over the course of some twenty-five years prior to his move to Connecticut in 1918, where he became associated with the impressionist art colony at Old Lyme. By any objective standards he would rank among the more conscientious of American impressionists as an interpreter of the manifold qualities of light. As the plein air painter he generally was, he would often switch canvases whenever the weather turned enough to change the natural light in which he had been working, a practice confirmed in the journals he kept on trips abroad. He was once reported to have said that he liked to paint when there was “a kind of hazy beauty in the air,” and this he often did, but, beyond that, a full range of natural light and atmospheric effects can be found within the body of his work. To convey a convincing impression of the quality of light specific to the time of day and to the specific locale was clearly an essential aim wherever he was painting, a purpose revealed not only in the paintings themselves but also in the detailed accounts from his journals.
In January of 1917, over a year before Irvine left Chicago to take up permanent residence in Connecticut, he exhibited with a small group of artists formed around 1916, known as “Painter Friends” in Robert W. Friedel’s galleries in Chicago. On that occasion the Chicago Evening Post reported comments by the painter Gordon Saint Clair (1885-1966) relative to this exhibition that contained a number of Irvine’s works painted during his summers in New England. Saint Clair’s remarks with respect to Irvine were especially perceptive.
“In the fresh, clean canvases of Wilson Irvine a hazy, almost languorous, poetry is laid
athwart the stubborn reality of our down-east landscape. Irvine invokes a mild summer or
autumn sun and invites us to share the magic he makes on tree, homestead, and hill.
Abounding sincerity rings through this artist’s every essay.”
This observer had recognized a typical aspect of Irvine’s art: that the solid substance of things tends to emerge through the sheen of light, a characteristic not uncommon among the American Impressionists. The “poetry” of Irvine’s art has been frequently noted in reviews and commentaries on his work. It derives, in part, from the artist’s sensitive response to the landscape, from feelings expressed in nuances of light and form that draw from the viewer a mood comparable to the artist’s own quiet affection for his subject. The probity and grace of his transcriptions of the transforming power of natural light are central to a poetic vision that invites immersion in the varied moods of a natural world harmoniously attuned to the human presence. The mention of “down-east” subjects in the newspaper article signals the degree to which Irvine’s quest for landscape motifs had by this time turned eastward, where he was soon to reside. Nevertheless, it is clear his development as an artist owed much to his studies, associations, and inspirations in the ambience of the Illinois years, where he remained close throughout his career and life.
Irvine was born near Byron, Illinois, in what is now Rockvale Township, Ogle County, where his family owned farmland along the picturesque Rock River. His great-grandfather, Alexander Irvine, a Methodist minister of Scottish birth, was one of the early settlers in the region, having emigrated from Ontario province in Canada around 1836. His ministry seems not to have impaired his commercial enterprise, for he is reported to have sold from “a shanty of logs” some goods he had brought with him from Canada. Irvine’s grandfather, Joseph W. Irvine, after years as a successful farmer on the family lands, became a prominent business executive in Rockford, Illinois, having moved there in 1869. Wilson Henry Irvine was born that same year to Malinda (Underwood) and Edwin A. Irvine, Joseph’s eldest son, still on the family farm. The artist’s father had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and eventually became a railroad mail agent in Rockford.
Wilson Irvine attended public school in Byron and graduated in 1888 from high school in nearby Rockford, where his parents had recently settled and where his father was now employed. Irvine apparently showed an aptitude for drawing at an early age and is said to have been allowed to accompany his sister, Ila, to public school before he was old enough to enroll and occupy himself with drawing on his slate. He is reported to have worked as a newspaper reporter in Byron when only about sixteen, and later, in Rockford, while still in high school.
An early stimulus to Irvine’s professional life was advent of the airbrush in Rockford around 1883. Its inventor and manufacturer, Liberty Walkup, founded an art school in that city the year Irvine graduated from high school. Instruction in the use of the airbrush was a part of the curriculum and it must have been in the Walkup circle that Irvine acquired his skill in this new field, for when he was married to Lydia C. Weyher of Lafayette, Indiana, on April 8, 1891, a Rockford newspaper reported he was already “a successful air-brush artist in Chicago.”
There is evidence Irvine had begun his mastery of the airbrush technique at least as early as the latter part of 1887. In a diary he kept for several months in 1888, he noted in the entry for January 2 that he had worked on the airbrush in the morning. The phrasing of the entry does not appear to indicate this was the initial session with the instrument.
Irvine’s earliest existing work may be a drawing of the head of a young man, probably a caricature, in this 1888 diary. On January 3, 1888, the day following his reference to the airbrush, he recorded working on a landscape, “Morning in Holland,” obviously an imaginary scene or one taken from a reproduction. Other than the reference to the airbrush, this is the only hint in the diary of “hands-on” art.
The 1888 diary is a very small pocket-size affair with little space each day for more than six or eight short lines, so the entries are necessarily brief. However, in its foreshortened way, it is a valuable source of information about the young man, revealing traits of character that mark his later self as well as providing a record of the intellectual and social life of a nineteen-year-old in a small Midwestern city of that era, and of his experience as he continued his education in Chicago. His last few months in Rockford, as a senior in high school, appear to have been very busy with activities scattered enough to impel his mother to the opinion he “must learn of the application of purposes.” While he was studying history, literature, astronomy and German, writing numerous papers on a variety of subjects from the Crimean War to the influence of age upon literature, reading novels, political speeches, Shakespeare, Emerson, Darwin, and Madame DeStaël, attending lectures and concerts, acting in the class play, going to various churches on most Sundays and rating the sermons, he was also indulging in a considerable amount of socializing. There were dances, skating parties, horse-and-buggy rides in the country, and fishing in the Rock River come spring. He enjoyed the company of young ladies and found them fascinating: one “a good sound girl”, another “dreamy” and “passionate,” another “a saucy little flirt.” He dated the latter the next evening. Apparently the energy that would make him a prolific artist in the future was already enlivening his youth.
After graduation he enjoyed, with one of his friends, a camping and boating trip in the Chain O’Lakes area in the northeastern corner of Illinois. They fished, swam, raced other boaters, and played chess in camp—the latter an activity he would continue to enjoy and at which he became very skillful. In camp, Irvine did most of the cooking. Shortly after this vacation, he set off for Chicago.
According to his diary, he arrived there on July 16, 1888, and the following day was enrolled in a business school, learning shorthand, to what particular purpose we do not know. The only reference to art in that metropolis was a visit to The Art Institute of Chicago on August 11. He “enjoyed the pictures very much” but gave no indication of an interest in becoming an artist.
Within three years he was applying his skills as an airbrush artist professionally, as reported in the notice of his marriage in the spring of 1891. His success in this new field of art may have led to his employment by the Chicago Portrait Company shortly after it was established in 1893, since the airbrush was utilized in its operations. Irvine’s mastery of airbrush technique in the late 1880s and early 1890s places him among the first practitioners of the art. How long and in what capacities Irvine worked for the Chicago Portrait Company has yet to be firmly established, but he is reported to have been an art manager and to have been with the firm until 1913.
The Chicago Portrait Company was a widespread operation with representatives on the road from the east coast to the Pacific Northwest, as far south as Mississippi and Florida, and in Oklahoma and the Indian Territories, soliciting customers and gathering their photographs for reworking in the Chicago studios. By the turn of the century the company reported there were some 2,000 salesmen on the road, and 150 artists employed in Chicago at rendering portraits in Conté crayon, Winsor & Newton colors, and pastels over “solar-print” photographs made from the originals supplied by the customers. Since the airbrush was sometimes used in the finishing of these portraits, Irvine may have been employed initially in this capacity.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 brought to Chicago some of the finest examples of European and American Impressionism, works that could have fired the ambitions of the young Wilson Irvine. His response to the experience may have been reinforced by his possible acquaintance with writer Hamlin Garland who had published in 1894, in his little volume of essays, Crumbling Idols, an enthusiastic endorsement of impressionism which he viewed as an international phenomenon bringing fresh vitality to the art of painting and to landscape painting in particular. Garland’s essay, “Impressionism,” occupies an important place in the history of the American phase of the movement.
From 1895 to 1903 Irvine was enrolled in evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago: from 1895 to 1902 in the life class taught by Charles Edward Boutwood (c.1856-1941) and from 1902 to 1903 in the illustration class taught by Walter Marshall Clute (1870-1915). Evening classes were apparently the only sound alternative for Irvine, a practical man, who was employed by day at the Chicago Portrait Company, engaged in free-lance commercial work, and supporting a growing family. He was among those students in the evening classes at The Art Institute of Chicago who met to form the Palette and Chisel Club in November of 1895, to further develop their skills at working from the model independent of instruction as well as to provide an opportunity for painting in color under natural light on the weekends, most of the participants being, like Irvine, employed by day during the week. They soon began to meet on Sundays in the studio of sculptor Lorado Taft, who was sympathetic to their cause. After he moved to other quarters, the club for some years occupied the vacated space. Obviously a prominent and active member, Irvine in 1898 was the club’s treasurer, its president the following year.
During this period when he was engaged in commercial art, attending evening classes, and apparently identified chiefly as a portrait artist, Irvine was also developing his skills as a landscape painter. By 1900 he was beginning to exhibit in group shows at the Art Institute of Chicago and elsewhere. Those of his landscapes which can be firmly dated to the first decade of the century reveal the extent to which he had already absorbed the reductive, summarizing methods of early impressionism, conveying the unifying sheen of natural light observed directly under a variety of atmospheric conditions throughout the four seasons.
The Indiana school played an important role in the development of impressionist aesthetics in the Midwest, and while Irvine was not directly involved as a participant in the group, it is not unlikely he owed something to its example. He was personally acquainted with some members of the school and Hamlin Garland’s high regard for these artists was surely not lost on Irvine. Among them, a particular favorite of Garland’s was Theodore Clement Steele (1847-1926), whose work Irvine could have seen at the World’s Columbian Exposition and, with other members of the Indiana group, in an 1894 exhibition in Chicago at the studio of sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936). Two years later Steele was one of the founders of the Society of Western Artists of which Irvine became a member in 1909.
Whether Irvine ever had formal or informal tutelage from John Henry Vanderpoel (1857-1911), the popular and for decades the legendary teacher at The Art Institute of Chicago, is not known, but he must have been fairly well acquainted with him. In 1905 Irvine exhibited in the annual exhibition of Chicago artists at the Art Institute a painting titled Van’s Pasture, the subject being from Vanderpoel’s place in Delavan, Wisconsin, where he and Boutwood had started an art colony around 1892. When Vanderpoel died in 1911, Irvine was one of the honorary pallbearers at the funeral.
During his Chicago years Irvine traveled considerably in search of fresh painting sites: titles of works from those years place him at one time or another in Montana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut. He exhibited regularly in the annual shows of the Palette and Chisel Club and at the fourth annual exhibition a reviewer singled out three of Irvine’s canvases as being among the good things. Some of the material for landscapes would surely have been in works associated with the club’s new summer camp at Fox Lake, about fifty miles north of Chicago, which had been established in July of 1905 to provide a place for members to stay and sketch or paint in the country. There was a large “house tent” with twenty-five beds and kitchen and dining accommodations, also room to pitch private tents if members desired to bring families with them.
Evidence of his travel to painting sites beyond Illinois soon turns up in his public showings. In 1906 an old friend of Irvine’s, Peter van Valkenburgh, who had established an “exhibiting studio” in the Beattie Block on State Street in Chicago, held there an exhibition of Irvine’s work, scenes from Maine, Michigan, and Massachusetts, which drew from a Rockford reviewer praise of the artist’s “rare genius for color and form.” The following year Irvine and Robert W. Grafton (1876-1936) held joint exhibitions in Indiana, at Michigan City in early summer and at Fort Wayne in September as part of a plan to show their work in various small cities in the Midwest.
That same year, 1907, on the recommendation of fellow Palette and Chisel club member Adolph Shulz (1869-1963), who would become a central figure in the Hoosier school of American Impressionists, and Irvine spent two weeks sketching in Brown County, Indiana, with artists Louis Oscar Griffith (1875-1956) and Harry Leon Engle (1870-1968), both of whom had been students in the same evening classes as Irvine. Although Shulz later reported “they were delighted with the scenery and the people,” there is no evidence Irvine ever returned to this Indiana hill-country. Therefore, assertions that Irvine was involved in the establishment of the Brown County art colony are clearly misleading. His friend Griffith, however eventually moved to Brown County and became active in the “Hoosier” group.
In 1908 he traveled to France for a session of painting in Brittany: at St. Malo, Pont-Aven, Trémalo, and Concarneau. Notes in one of his sketchbooks place him in Pittsburgh, in August of 1909, when he visited an exhibition at the Carnegie and jotted down comments on the paintings in his sketchbook. His travels to Maine and New England, beginning around 1905 or 1906, aroused an affection for the northeastern rural and shoreline landscape and led eventually to his moving by 1918 to Hamburg, Connecticut, near Old Lyme, then famous as an American Impressionist art colony. The continual search for fresh landscape material spurred Irvine and fellow club members to seek new locales such as in the summer of 1913 when Irvine and three of his colleagues were reported to have opened up a new sketching ground at Buchanan, Michigan, a hilly section in the extreme southwestern corner of that state. A motor trip in 1918 to Oregon is confirmed by a Chicago newspaper notice which cites Irvine’s invitation from a patron in Portland, Oregon, to paint landscapes on his estate.
Irvine’s Chicago years were very productive, with respect both to his painting and to his reputation as an artist of merit. Commencing in 1900, and annually from 1903 through 1926 he showed in exhibitions at The Art Institute of Chicago; some 163 works in forty-one shows, plus a memorial showing of his Autumn, from the Institute’s collection, in 1939. He won multiple prizes at shows of the Art Institute including the Chicago Woman’s Aid Purchase Prize in 1908, and the Municipal Art League Purchase Prize in 1911 at the annual show of Chicago artists. He won the Martin B. Cahn Prize for Early Autumn (location unknown) in the 1912 Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute and at the Chicago and Vicinity shows, the Clyde M. Carr Landscape Prize in 1915 and the Mrs. William Frederick Grower Prize in1917. His award in 1915 of the Chicago Society of Artists Silver Medal for the most meritorious group of works at the annual show of Chicago artists made him part of a long line of Chicago’s most important artists to secure the medal first granted in 1903. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco he was awarded a silver medal joining eight other Chicagoans so honored. The culmination of his work as a resident of Chicago was a solo exhibition at the Art Institute in the winter of 1916-17.
By 1911 Irvine had become one of Chicago’s most established and respected artists. His Cahn prize, particularly prestigious in Chicago, was brought critic George Breed Zug to compare Irvine’s work favorably to that of Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Zug noted in style that: “the artist’s method of placing the dots of pure color at varying angles is not only well suited to obtain his sunny effects but also tends to give the impression of movement, of animation in his painting…” Louis Kronberg once reportedly remarked that Irvine was the greatest artist in Chicago followed closely by Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer. He was among the first directors of the Artists’ Guild, established in December 1910. It juried paintings which were allowed to be displayed for sale in its gallery the Fine Arts Shop of Chicago, and had several special exhibitions. The Guild included as members many of Chicago’s finest artists and was the predecessor to the Arts Club formed in 1916, composed of artists and patrons, of which Irvine was a member. In 1911 Irvine was named president of the Chicago Society of Artists. The Society was the oldest and most established art club in Chicago and like the Artists’ Guild, boasted a membership including the finest artists of the area. A great deal of prestige would be attached to this office.
In 1915 the Chicago mayor’s office created the Chicago Commission for the Encouragement of Local Art, of which Irvine was soon named chairman. The function of the commission being to select and purchase paintings for the use of the city, the chairmanship placed Irvine in a very influential position since the commission was, in effect, an ongoing purchasing agency. He held the position until 1918, when he moved east. He was also a charter member and later president (1911) of the Chicago Water Color Club, which was active at least from 1907 to 1914, and the Chicago Society of Etchers made him an honorary member. Meanwhile, for several years, he had been spending a good portion of his summers painting in New England. On the occasion of Irvine’s one-man show at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1916, a reviewer noted:
“Irvine’s facility has grown so rapidly that it is difficult to keep pace with his advance. He is faithful to landscape, and in his sojourn in New England seems to have acquired a richer color texture, a surface quality, and a finish such as is always gratifying.”
The reviewer saw in these works “decisive character” and “dignity.” Two years later, an enthusiastic review of his exhibition of New England landscapes at O’Brien’s galleries in Chicago stated that his paintings had “both poetry and imagination.”
“The stubborn reality of our down-east landscape,” noted in Gordon Saint Clair’s review of the 1916 Painter Friends show, had become a constant factor in Irvine’s painting. His many summer months of working, year after year, in the northeast, inspired some of his finest work. When the Painter Friends group exhibited at Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company in December of 1917, a reviewer noted Irvine’s “tender perceptions of New England fields.” Taken as a group, any number of his paintings from these years could be viewed as paradigmatic of a rural New England long celebrated in the visual and literary arts, plying the image of that corner of the country that still resides in popular perceptions, as stubborn as the stony soil of the region—yet an image which, even today, can be confirmed along many a back road from Maine to Connecticut.
Summers spent in the vicinity of Old Lyme had apparently convinced Irvine this was an environment where he could work productively the year around. The Old Lyme art colony had initially gathered around the considerable presence of tonalist Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916) at the turn of the century. It was then influenced by Childe Hassam (1859-1935) and Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) who had summered there at the Griswold House—Hassam from 1903 to around 1907 and Metcalf from 1905 to 1907. Both continued afterwards to exhibit with the loosely formed group, Metcalf until 1909 and Hassam until 1912. In 1914 the Lyme Art Association was founded and Irvine exhibited at the first show. It was the kind of organization of artists Irvine would be drawn to as he was in Chicago. An active member of the group, he continued to show with them until the end of his life.
Although Irvine seems to have enjoyed ample patronage for his work in the Chicago area, his move to Connecticut may have been undertaken in the hope of expanding his clientele. He was, after all, a professional painter making his living by the sales of his art, and his reputation was growing with his appearance in prestigious exhibitions in the East. There may also have been considerations of a social nature: Guy Wiggins (1883-1962) and George Bruestle (1871-1939), his colleagues in the Painter Friends group, had residences in the Hamburg area near Old Lyme, as did Robert (1858-1933) and Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1954). As a member of the Little Room group in Chicago, Irvine may have met Bessie Potter there, since the group sometimes gathered in her studio. Hamlin Garland had known Robert Vonnoh before coming to Chicago, and possibly Irvine had met the latter through his acquaintance with Garland. The friendships flourished in Irvine’s new surroundings in the Hamburg area where he purchased “Brooksound” in 1918, the charming hillside property he made his final home. He had discovered the place on one of his earlier explorations of the area and, returning to look at it several times, he “unwittingly caused the price to double.”
Although his permanent residence was now in Connecticut, Irvine continued close ties with Chicago, listing Chicago addresses when he exhibited in group shows at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1918 through 1921. He continued to participate in annual exhibitions at that institution through 1926 and his main dealers appears to have been Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company and O’Brien and Sons until 1926. Furthermore, his two sons and daughter were living in the Midwest; there were personal as well as professional reasons for maintaining close ties with his native region.
In 1921 the Lyme Art Association opened its own galleries in the building designed for it by Charles Platt. Prior to this date its exhibitions were held in the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. The inaugural year for the new galleries was marked by Irvine winning the William. S. Eaton Purchase Prize in the association’s exhibition. Irvine’s prize, since he was still very much a part of Chicago, was acclaimed in the press. He continued to show with the group and some years later, in 1934, he was awarded the Mr. and Mrs. William O. Goodman Prize, art patrons from Chicago who had begun frequenting Old Lyme.
New England subjects dominated Irvine’s exhibition of twenty-five paintings at Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company galleries in 1922. The following year he would venture farther afield for his subjects, and on February 3, 1923, Irvine and his wife sailed from New York for England.
He filled hours at sea with his passion for chess, when it was calm enough to keep the pieces on the board, for it was an extremely stormy passage. The ship rolled and pitched heavily, tossing furniture around and throwing passengers out of their bunks. Irvine found many of his fellow passengers entertaining, even those he only viewed as a bystander, but the food was far from satisfactory. Although he found the stormy sea “wonderful” and “stunning” both he and Lydia were happy to see the end of the voyage.
The journal he kept on this trip, and the one he kept on a later one in 1929, document these periods in intimate detail. He spent some nine months abroad in 1923, painting on the Cornish coast, chiefly at St. Ives, coping with “moody” weather, mostly stormy, and with the local disapproval of painting on Sunday. He painted as well in Wales, at Betwys-y-Coed; at Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, where he had gone to paint a portrait of the mother of a Chicago patron, John Bain, following a few days on the Scottish mainland during which he visited Glasgow. After leaving Stornoway, The Irvines stayed briefly in Edinburgh then traveled on to Paris and a trip to see the “wonderful garden” of Claude Monet at Giverny. From Paris they traveled to Brittany for a month of improved weather and productive painting, mainly in the vicinity of Pont-Aven. The final three weeks of this trip abroad were spent traveling at a pace that precluded painting: Lyons, Avignon, Marseille, Monte Carlo, Martigues (to which he vowed to return one day), Carcassonne, Nîmes, back to Marseille, where the Irvines boarded ship for Corfu, Naples (with a side-trip to Pompeii), Palermo, and home.
Wherever there was an opportunity, in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Paris, and Naples, for example, visits to museums led to comments in Irvine’s journal, revealing his enthusiasm for a wide range of art: antique marbles and bronzes; mosaics; the red in Pompeiian paintings; Rodin; some of the old Italian masters “who for design & fine, gracious color could teach us a lot;” artists such as Whistler, Raeburn, Pissarro, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Titian, Velasquez (especially), Puvis de Chavannes, and (rather surprisingly) Paul Gauguin. While in Pont-Aven, Irvine and his wife supposedly resided in the same quarters that had once been occupied by Gauguin, whose anti-impressionism seems not to have prevented Irvine from admiring his work. Although natively conservative, Irvine was not inflexible.
Upon returning to the United States in late November, Irvine must have been very busy preparing the paintings he had done abroad. In January 1924 he sent off to his friend and fellow Cliff Dweller, Chicago lawyer Percy Eckhart, who appears to have served as one of his dealers, eight of the recent canvases. Three were immediately purchased by John Bain, who was deeply moved by Irvine’s outright gift to him of the portrait of his mother.
In March 1924 Irvine and Guy Wiggins showed their work jointly at Carper Galleries in Detroit, Michigan. Irvine may have been recalling the Cornish weather when he told a journalist covering the show there was nothing that made more difference to a landscape painter than the kind of wind that was blowing.
In April Irvine was again holding a solo exhibition at Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company galleries, some twenty-six works, almost all of which were from his recent trip abroad. The critic from the Chicago Herald Examiner, in a perceptive review of the show, sensed a new quality in Irvine’s painting.
“Many painters, despite oncoming years, have remained youthful and questioning in their work…I think this is true of Irvine. I know that before I knew his age, and judging entirely from his paintings, I had formed the very definite opinion that he was one of the younger men. [Irvine was fifty-five at the time.] His color was bright and happy, his manner of handling paint was spirited and, while informed, yet always gave me the impression of being the result of a constantly experimental attitude on the part of the painter…”
Making full advantage of his new material, Irvine began showing his canvases with great regularity to strong praise. In August 1924 a Boston reviewer found one of Irvine’s paintings from the trip abroad to be “perhaps the finest painting” in the Old Lyme summer show. By mid-November Irvine and Gregory Smith (1880-1961) of Old Lyme were exhibiting together at the Rockford [Illinois] Art Association, and in early December Irvine was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attending to a showing at the Grand Rapids Art Gallery. Also in December the American Magazine of Art proclaimed Irvine’s Morning at the Pool one of the high spots of the Lyme Art Association exhibition. The same work had also been selected as one of the illustrations in the catalogue of the National Academy of Design annual in 1923.
In May 1925 Irvine was among the painters who came to Atlanta, Georgia, on the occasion of an exhibition of works by artists associated with Grand Central Galleries in New York. In November a solo exhibition of his work opened in the Annex of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, with one work implying a recent visit to Quebec province, Canada. Two works in the show were subjects from Martigues. As he was only there briefly, he had painted them from photographs, unusual for Irvine. He finally did paint in Martigues—during his 1929 trip abroad. He would brave most any weather as he wrote during the Connecticut winter of 1925-1926, he was “painting like a Trojan on the snow.”
Around 1926 he may have been working on either his “aquaprints” or his prismatic paintings, more probably the latter. Lydia reported to their son Jan and his wife that “Dad has done some very important things in a different way again, he is feeling 10 years younger in ambition.” Indeed, change was something to be expected of Irvine, who would come to be known as an experimenter. In 1924 he was reported to have said that any painter who clung tenaciously to what he did best in a technical sense and was satisfied in doing so, was not only standing still but “actually retrograding.” Referring to this 1923 trip abroad, he is said to have remarked, “I determined to get new impressions and to start afresh in all things when I went abroad. I left my palette, brushes and paints at home. In London I bought new square brushes. Before that I used round brushes. I found a different palette and chose a new make of colors and a new easel. Everything was different.” But these were merely the material tools of his trade. The real factors of change lay within himself, which became evident during the course of the 1920s, as he ventured into new—and, for him, adventuresome—modes of expression.
He had already displayed an inventive turn of mind when in 1911 he was granted a patent for an ingenious “outing seat” which could be suspended from a tree or other overhead support and could also be adjusted to serve as a sleeping cot with a tent cover. It was later manufactured by a Chicago company. His inventiveness surfaced again during World War I when he presented a plan for a motor-driven shield for infantry which was rejected by the War Department. But it was his art that profited most from his penchant for innovations.
Although Irvine had been creating monoprints at least since 1913, around 1927 he began to produce some unique variations on the medium in a series of “aquaprints” which were exhibited that summer at the Lyme Art Association, in the early fall at the Milch Galleries in New York, from mid-October to early November at Curtis H. Moyer galleries in Hartford, and from November 15 to November 30 at the Albert Roullier Galleries in Chicago. These prints were modifications of the old Japanese method of making the marbleized paper later used so extensively in Europe and America as end papers in the binding of fine books. Irvine’s method probably involved laying down colors on the surface of a gum solution floating in a shallow pan in such a way as to suggest landscape or figural motifs and then laying the paper on this surface to pick up the patterns of color. Following this, some additional accents or painted areas would transform the work into a more specific image. These aquaprints tended to be more abstract in character than his usual work.
During the 1920s he began to experiment with another innovative mode, the so-called “prismatic” paintings, in which his faithful, impressionistic pursuit of the effects of natural light took on a radical new dimension. Observing that any object viewed through a prism developed a halo of refracted light around its edges, which, he stated, was more greenish against a light background and more reddish against a dark, he began to paint prismatic effects into his landscape, still life, and figural pieces. When this technique was applied with subtlety the effect was luminous without being intrusive. When more boldly rendered, these optical effects could be somewhat startling in the context of an otherwise impressionist painting, not unlike color printing that is slightly off-register. And when the prismatic contours were thus so strongly assertive the effect was such as to edge his palette towards an optically agitated, slightly acidic tonality, as of a shy and inadvertent adumbration of op art. “As far as I know,” he wrote in 1930, “the idea back of these Prismatic Paintings and the method employed in producing them are entirely new. There are principles involved that will, I believe, when properly understood, really mean something to painters.” He hoped this prismatic mode would open up new avenues for impressionist painting, but the modest flurry of interest that greeted his prismatic paintings was not sustained and was often decidedly negative as with critic Edward Alden Jewell of The New York Times, who remarked Irvine was “tipsy with prism madness.”
By this time, too, impressionism had for decades relinquished its place at the leading edge of painting. Since the turn of the century, successive waves of European modernism had altered the American art scene so extensively that Irvine was caught in the eddy of what was being viewed as an outmoded style by both critics and museums.
On April 15, 1926, Irvine was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design and fully confirmed at a meeting of the Council on December 22, when his mandatory self-portrait was accepted. In May, still roving in search of new subjects, he was in Virginia, painting a commissioned work at Westover, one of Virginia’s great James River mansions of the colonial era, built by William Byrd around 1730. En route he and Lydia had traveled through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the early fall, when the autumn colors would have been at their peak, the Irvines visited Vermont. The following year The Literary Digest featured (somewhat cropped) one of Irvine’s finest snow scenes, The Broken Wall (private collection), on the cover of its February 5 issue. The same magazine again reproduced one of his works for its cover on January 31, 1931: A Prismatic Winter Landscape (location unknown).
For part of the winter of 1927-28 he was painting in New Orleans and informed a journalist the reason was that twenty-five years earlier he had a passion for reading George W. Cable and never forgot. The reporter noted Irvine “ had a mild word of praise for the renovated courts of the quarter, but kept his unstinted encomium for the old grey places where the walls were decaying.”
The following winter Irvine, with his wife, left for France and Spain, painting chiefly at Martigues in Provence (fulfilling the promise he had made to himself in 1923) and at Ronda in southern Spain. At Martigues he employed his prismatic mode in at least one work, as he recorded in his journal at the end of January.
After some four months abroad, they returned home on April 1929. By this time he was having doubts about impressionism, which may have been spurred by his experiments in aquaprints and prismatic painting, as well as by exposure to contemporary European art (in Spain he had made the acquaintance of a disciple of Picasso). He wrote in his journal on this trip that the Barbizon school, “all of them” had “slipped a cog” in his estimation and that he himself was “on shaking ground.” “Same with most of the impressionists,” he continued, “Few have kept their luster or interest in surface quality or design. Design seems more important.”
Indeed, design had always been an important facet of Irvine’s painting, even to the extent that he sometimes applied a proportional scheme to his compositions. In an early sketchbook probably dating from 1908 there is a notation stressing the importance of the “rule of 2 to 3,” which he diagrammed in five different instances. An analysis of several of his paintings reveals this formula at work. In this respect, Irvine parallels a number of other artists of the time, like George Bellows (1882-1925), for instance, whose interest in Jay Hambidge’s “dynamic symmetry” and the “golden section” has been well-documented.
Irvine was an exceptionally prolific painter, which resulted in somewhat uneven production, but his best works rise far above the norm for American impressionism. In 1922 it was noted that his works were “faithful transcripts of Connecticut woods and hills,” his detail “careful and exact but not in the least labored,” his brushwork “vigorous,” his color delicate and “truth never sacrificed for dramatics.”
That he is not better known can be attributed to a number of factors: although, in age, he was not a full generation younger than the first generation of American impressionists, he is generally viewed as second generation, especially since he came to Old Lyme, one of the important centers of the movement, at a time when it had passed its prime; while he was a mature painter when he took up residence in Connecticut, having spent some twenty-five years of his professional life based in the Midwest, a New York base was then, as now, an important factor in recognition. Although he exhibited regularly at some of the most prestigious American museums and at galleries in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere around the country, the best of his works went chiefly into private collections and thus remained unknown to a wider audience. And since impressionism was eclipsed by modernist modes, interest in his vein of art was dormant for a generation after his death, until a revival of attention to its place and its regional manifestations in the history of American art, resulted in a series of landmark exhibitions beginning around 1980.
He exhibited at the Lyme Art Association throughout his Connecticut period and in 1928 won the Charles Noel Flagg Prize at the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts Annual in Hartford. He continued to show at various galleries in Chicago and at Milch, Macbeth, and Grand Central Galleries in New York, as well as at many other locations around the country.
During his last years Irvine seems to have spent more time than formerly on painting in the studio—figure and still life—and with exploring his prismatic mode. However, sometime around 1932, he must have visited Charleston, South Carolina, for the summer exhibition at the Lyme Art Association that year included some work, indicating, as one reviewer put it, that he had “discovered Charleston” and had made a “pattern of brilliant harmony out of the crumbling plastered walls” and the transparent shadows that graced them, much the same as he had done in New Orleans.
When he won the Goodman Prize at the Lyme Art Association exhibition in 1934, for a reclining nude Indolence (private collection) in the prismatic style, critic Jewell still wasn’t aboard.
Evidence from Irvine’s art throughout his career and from his journals as well points clearly to the artist’s intentions. The transience of light had for years been the artist’s overarching subject and he had explored it in all its natural manifestations. The prismatic paintings were merely an extension—albeit for him a radical one—of this career-long pursuit of the qualities of light. The prismatic paintings reached for a pictorial vibrancy. Irvine was always presenting himself with challenges.
His aquaprints seem, by comparison, to have been temporary experiments in a transfer technique, fascinating and inventive, but essentially a creative aside for one who was essentially a painter. They did not lead him, as they might have, to new directions in his painting. There are, however, other veins in his art that run contrary to the normal course of his work, evidence of his range but constituting only isolated examples, bordering on post-impressionismand, in one curious subject—a distorted studio interior—a psychologically elusive and evocative expressionism.
During his last year Irvine was in poor health. He died at his home in Hamburg, Connecticut, on August 25, 1936. Upon learning of his death, Peter van Valkenburgh, his boyhood friend, wrote to the artist’s widow from his home in California of his great respect for that “buoyant and gallant personality” who had been denied the fruitful years of his seasoned maturity. Throughout Irvine’s career as a landscape painter the emphasis and probity of his art lay primarily in his sensitive rendering of the sheen of natural light as tempered by atmosphere, the weather, and the seasons. He was ever in tune with the shifting nuances of the skies, and his journals confirm the evidence of this we find in his paintings. Finally, if, as some would maintain, poetry is a transcendent distillation of experience, then one might say of Irvine’s art, including its prismatic phase, that, through the artist’s sensitivity to the subtleties of transience, it paid homage to the poetic, transforming power of nature’s light.
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