A Noble Tradition: American Paintings from the National Arts Club

by Carol Lowrey



The National Arts Club's first headquarters, located at numbers 37-39 West 34th Street, soon proved to be too small to accommodate the growing number of exhibitions and programs. In 1905, treasurer Spencer Trask arranged for the purchase of the former home of Samuel J. Tilden, a double brownstone facing the south side of Gramercy Park, a private park founded in 1831 by lawyer Samuel B. Ruggles. Surrounded by rows of red brick and brownstone houses;:many of them with wrought-iron grillwork and brass lanterns, the park continues to provide residents of the neighborhood with a haven from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

The new location, next door to the Players' Club in a neighborhood whose population of artists, actors, musicians and literati contributed to its reputation as an "American Bloomsbury," was ideal for an organization devoted to fostering the arts. [6] And so too, was the Tilden mansion. Indeed, during the early 1880s, Tilden hired architect Calvert Vaux to unify both the façades and the interiors of numbers 14 and 15 Gramercy Park South, which he had acquired several years earlier. In accordance with the tenets of the Aesthetic Movement, the interior of the house was artistically decorated to create a very rich, unified look. As well as black walnut woodwork and turquoise ceiling tiles, the interior featured stained glass windows by John La Farge, elaborate satinwood carvings by Ellin and Kitson, a New York-based firm of architectural sculptors, and in Tilden's library, a magnificent vaulted glass dome by the Boston glazier, Donald MacDonald. [7]

The building was subsequently converted into a clubhouse and gallery under the. able direction of decorative architect and NAC member Charles Rollinson Lamb, who retained as much as possible of the original interior.[8] At the same time, architect and first club president George Post designed a connecting twelve storey tower in the adjacent 19th Street garden to provide studios and apartments for artists, musicians, educators, writers, and performers as well as lay members with similar interests. Early tenants of the Studio Building included sculptor Paul Manship and painters Ernest Lawson and Oscar Fehrer, while current residents include such artists as Will Barnett, Chen Chi, Diana Kan and Everett Raymond Kinstler.

Although the idea of acquiring a collection of artwork for the club had been discussed as early as 1903, a program for the systematic development of a permanent collection was not formulated until June 1909 at a Special Meeting of the members. William T. Evans (1843-1918) one of the foremost collectors of contemporary American art and chairman of the club's Art Committee, proposed the establishment of an artist life membership category whereby leading painters and sculptors would receive life membership in exchange for a representative example of their work valued at not less than one thousand dollars. The proposal was duly ratified and incorporated into an amendment to the constitution. The first group of eighteen artists elected to life membership under the new provision in 1910 consisted of such renowned American painters as George Bellows, William Merritt Chase and Charles Hawthorne. [9]

William T. Evans, who "did more... than any other collector to promote interest in American art," remained the guiding force behind the artist life membership program from 1910 until 1918, nominating most of the painters and sculptors and frequently selecting their diploma presentations himself.[10] Evans, who had "the faculty of winning the confidence of artists of the widest diversity of method and viewpoint," also played a key role in bringing a number of accomplished women painters into the club, among them Lillian Genth, Ella Condie Lamb and Helen Turner.[11]

The majority of the club's diploma paintings reflect Evans's own collecting interests which were geared towards such styles as Tonalism, Realism and especially Impressionism, the dominant aesthetic in the United States at the turn of the century. These tastes were also echoed in club exhibitions after 1908; indeed, although groups such as the National Society of Craftsman, the Society of Illustrators, and the American Society of Graphic Arts continued to organize annual displays, a greater number of exhibitions were devoted to the work of artist life members and the permanent collection.[12] After Evans's death and until the late 1930s, the chairmanship of the Art Committee was assumed by the artists themselves, beginning with Douglas Yolk (1918) who was in turn succeeded by F. Luis Mora (1919-22), Ben Foster (1923), Glen Newell (1924-28), Ernest Ipsen (1929-31), Edmund Greacen (1931-36), and Henry Rittenberg (1936-38), all of whom continued to favor painters and sculptors working in traditional modes of artistic expression.[13]

Under the aegis of the artist life membership program, The National Arts Club has acquired a distinguished collection of American painting, the majority of pieces entering the collection during the 1910s and 1920s. A Noble Tradition features thirty works, primarily diploma presentations, as well as a selection of archival material such as period photographs, letters, catalogues, drawings, oil sketches and other forms of club memorabilia. This is the first instance since the early 1920s that a substantial portion of the collection has been made available for viewing outside of club premises. Many paintings in the exhibition have recently been conserved and reframed in conjunction with an ongoing restoration project inaugurated by club president, O. Aldon James Jr., and the Curatorial Committee, which is, in turn, part of a broader collections management program that also addresses matters relating to research, documentation and exhibitions. A permanent collection catalogue is currently in preparation.

By focusing on key paintings from the collection, A Noble Tradition illuminates the collecting tastes of Evans and his generation and provides an artistic profile of The National Arts Club from its inception until the late 1930s. Realist painters featured in the exhibition include Charles Hawthorne, renowned for his powerful depictions of the Yankee and Portuguese fisherfolk of New England, and Robert Henri, the influential painter and teacher who organized the landmark exhibition of The Eight at New York's MacBeth Gallery in February of 1908.

Through his role as a teacher at the New York School and at the Art Students League, Henri passed on his direct realist manner to a younger generation students who would go on to become artist life members of The National Arts Club, including Hilda Belcher, a painter of portraits and figure subjects widely admired for her skills as a colorist. Other examples of early twentieth-century realism in the collection include Ernest Blumenschein's Night Scene, a richly-colored rendition of lower Broadway painted before the artist's move to Taos, New Mexico in 1919.


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