Published: July 10, 2001
Seasons of Life:
By Stephen May
GREENWICH, CONN. – Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951) is hardly a household name today, but in his time he was an important figure in American art. A deft painter of landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and murals, he was also one of the great teachers in our art history.
It is fitting that the artistic and educational achievements of this longtime Connecticut resident be celebrated in this small but fine and comprehensive exhibition, on view through August 19, at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science. Showcased are examples of DuMond’s illustrations, still lifes, early paintings of the French countryside and its people, portraits, religious works, landscapes of Connecticut and Vermont, and mural commissions. Many of the paintings are privately owned, making this a rare opportunity to see some of the artist’s finest work.
The 26 works in “Seasons of Life: ” should help revive appreciation for the diverse accomplishments of this neglected American master. The exhibition is underwritten by the artist’s great-grandson, Douglas DuMond and his wife Marcia of Darien, and his firm, CDC IXIS Asset Management Intermediary Services.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., the son of a manufacturer of ornamental iron, DuMond acquired a love of nature through his mother, a dedicated gardener. In 1884 he enrolled in night classes at New York’s Art Students League, where his teachers included J. Carroll Beckwith and William Sartain. By day DuMond worked as an illustrator for the New York Daily Graphic.
He first gained prominence in 1886 when he finagled his way into the tightly guarded funeral of former Presidential candidate and New York governor Samuel Tilden, held in the Tilden home, now the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in Manhattan. DuMond’s surreptitious sketches of the event, including the presence of President Grover Cleveland, led to exclusive coverage of the funeral in the next day’s Graphic. DuMond’s scoop attracted the attention of Horace Bradley, editor of Harper’s Weekly Magazine, who hired the precocious young artist as an illustrator for Harper and Brothers.
DuMond illustrated numerous magazine articles and later books for the company for some two decades. After Bradley became president of the Art Students League in 1902, his 27-year-old protégé began a remarkable 59-year run as a much-revered teacher there.
For many years DuMond also produced illustrations for other leading magazines of the day and for books. The illustration “Lady of the Birches” (1903) is an example of his innovative touch in this field.
Determined to become a serious painter, in 1888 DuMond enrolled in the Académie Julian in Paris, where he received rigorous academic training under the likes of Gustave Boulanger, Benjamin Constant, and Jules Lefebvre.
Excursions into the countryside and a summer in Britanny broadened his outlook and gave him experience in painting outdoors. At the age of 25, DuMond’s large painting of a youthful Christ blessing Mary and Joseph’s meal was not only accepted at the prestigious Paris Salon, but won a third-class medal. DuMond, one admiring critic opined, had “produced a picture which is thoroughly modern and original and yet thoroughly religious as well.”
Although not much for organized religion, the young painter went on to create a series of sizeable canvases on religious themes, characterized by realistic figures in tranquil, reverential biblical settings.
“Christ and the Fishermen” (1891), measuring 51 by 62 inches, presents an ethereal view of Christ on shore gesturing to two nearby fishermen. Set against a luminous background, it is an accomplished academic rendering of a dramatic moment. It was, a contemporary reviewer wrote, “almost all atmosphere, tremulous, soft, glowing, with a distance that seems to reach the realms beyond.”
About the same time DuMond painted a handsome still life, “Yellow Roses” (1890), that is so skillfully done that one wishes he had done more work in this genre.
Soon after he began teaching at the Art Students League, DuMond led several pioneering summer classes for American pupils in France. After DuMond married one of his students, Helen Xavier, in 1895, the couple wintered in Paris and summered in southern France for the next five or six years.
Among the academically oriented paintings on view in the Bruce Museum show from this period is “Southern France” (late 1890s), a serene harbor scene. “Garden Steps in Southern France” (1897) and “Victorine in the Garden” (1899) demonstrate DuMond’s penchant for placing realistic figures in Impressionistic natural surroundings.
While still in his 30s, the expatriate American gained much respect and admiration for his output. “By the end of the Nineteenth Century,” writes art historian Barbara Mellin in the useful exhibition brochure, “DuMond was considered one of the outstanding American artists of his time.”
Returning to New York soon after the turn of the century, he resumed teaching at the Art Students League. Soon he began spending summers in Old Lyme, Conn. At first he stayed at Miss Florence Griswold’s celebrated boardinghouse (now a museum bearing her name), headquarters for tonalist and then Impressionist artists of the Lyme art colony.
In 1906 DuMond acquired a property that included a farmhouse on Grassy Hill Road, just outside town, a residence that he occupied for the rest of his life. It is still standing. Winters were spent in the cooperative studio building that Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, DuMond, and other artists developed on Manhattan’s West Side. DuMond murals still grace the interior of 27 West 67th Street.
In Old Lyme, where he maintained friendships with numerous members of the art colony, DuMond reveled in the gardens, pastures, trees, rock outcroppings, overflowing greenery, and old structures around this rural enclave. “The Gray Barn” (circa 1920) reflects his appreciation for the venerable wooden buildings, stone fences, and sturdy trees of the area.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are brightly hued, sun-splashed, affectionate landscapes, executed en plein air, such as “Garden in Lyme” (1925) and “Planting Season, Lyme” (circa 1925), characterized by spectacularly skilled, precise brushwork that cannot be adequately conveyed in reproductions. They demonstrate what American Impressionist authority William H. Gerdts has called DuMond’s “sun-soaked colorism.”
DuMond’s greens are particularly memorable, as exemplified also in “Harmony in Green” (1932), set in Vermont, where he conducted summer classes. Indeed, according to Mellin, Gerdts “claims that as one might speak of Velazquez’s blacks, one must speak of DuMond’s greens.”
The standout in the show, “Autumn in Lyme” (1925), is a freely brushed view of boulders, trees, and yellowing leaves bathed in sunlight. It is a scene familiar to all who have observed the countryside around Old Lyme in the fall. This evocative image, brilliantly captured on canvas, is a real beauty. As Mellin observes, “DuMond truly loved nature in all its many guises.”
In his pencil self-portrait of 1907 the artist presented himself as a serious, mustachioed man looking somewhat warily at the viewer. It demonstrates the 42-year-old artist’s gifts as a draftsman and delineator of light and shadow. His commissioned portraits, such as that of “Mrs Henry Barrows” (1905), not in the show, and of “Mr Henry Barrows” (1908), are straightforward, somber likenesses that reflect his academic training and the influence of Frans Hals and other early Dutch masters.
DuMond utilized many of the skills acquired over a long career of illustrating, painting, and teaching in his mural work, highlighted by a display at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
On view at the Bruce is his study for “The Pioneers’ Arrival and Welcome in the West” (1915), which formed part of “The Westward March of Civilization” in a mammoth entrance arch to the Exposition. DuMond’s panel, somehow reminiscent of both Pierre Povis de Chavannes and Maxfield Parrish, shows settlers who had set out from snowy New England being greeted by earlier arrivals in a sunny California orange grove.
“The magic and charm of the West with its spontaneity and joy of life are expressed,” said DuMond. “The color is warmer and the country is volcanic [in the West], where the East was glacial.” Much praised at the time, DuMond’s enormous murals survive today in the main reading room of the San Francisco Public Library.
DuMond’s art was based on deeply held beliefs that also infused his teaching methods. His nearly six-decade tenure at the Art Students League, during which he established a reputation as a genial, generous, and perceptive instructor, ended only with his death at age 85. “His grip was strong and his influence indelible,” recalled portraitist Herbert E. Abrams. “The force and pertinence of his teaching grew out of… [his] ever-active painting knowledge, which he had an intense desire to share.”
DuMond credited his students with inspiring his pedagogical enthusiasm. “They have taught me,” he observed, “that passing on one’s own accumulated knowledge and experience to others is the most noble profession in the world.”
Former pupils remembered DuMond’s emphasis on unity in works of art. He talked, said Charles Ferguson, one-time director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, “about the need for unifying the parts [of a painting] to create what he referred to as the ensemble. DuMond used this term to mean harmony, simplification, or the whole. Work for the ‘big’ picture, he would advise us.”
Above all, Ferguson wrote in 1990, DuMond “did not tell his students how to paint so much as he wanted to teach them how to see. For him the natural world was there to be explored through keen observation and comprehension. Once one had been exposed to seeing, a new world opened up.”
In general, recalled Ferguson, “He spent a great deal more time talking about life than how to paint.” Said Abrams, “He inspired in us a respect for the balance of logic and emotion in the human personality and encouraged us to express both to whatever height we could reach in creating a painting.”
Among other prominent painters who studied under DuMond were Charles W. Hawthorne, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ogden Pleissner, Norman Rockwell, and Eugene Speicher.
Assessing DuMond’s place in our art history, Ferguson concludes that he “belongs to a select group of American artist/teachers that includes Benjamin West (1738-1820), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Like them, Frank Vincent DuMond gave unstintingly of himself to his students, opening up new horizons and changing their lives.”
Kudos to Mellin, Nancy Hall-Duncan, the museum’s curator of art, and all responsible for mounting this varied selection of the work of an overlooked American painter. It demonstrates that DuMond deserves to be remembered not only as one of the outstanding educators in American art history, but as a painter of diverse talents, whose work, especially his Old Lyme landscapes, merits long-lasting recognition.
Those who appreciate skillful brushwork and astute compositions immortalizing the look and feel of the Connecticut countryside will find a visit to this admirable show amply rewarding. This exhibition is a welcome sequel to “Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum’s First Decade,” seen earlier this year. One hopes the Bruce will continue to organize art shows that draw on the rich heritage of Connecticut-based painters and sculptors.
Bruce visitors should also be sure to see “Forbidden Art of Postwar Russia,” a fascinating exhibition in adjoining galleries. It documents the iconoclastic, radical art of non-conformist Soviet artists who challenged the Social Realist strictures of the Communist government during the Cold War era, 1953 through 1988. There is such intriguing, innovative work on view here, most of it virtually unknown in the West. “Forbidden Art” runs through July 29.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences is at One Museum Drive. For information, 203-869-0376.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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