Distinguished Artist Series


R. H. Ives Gammell

1893 - 1981

By Elizabeth Ives Hunter


Robert Hale Ives Gammell

photo by George M. Cushing


Ives Gammell is one of the most complex and interesting intellects ofthe 20th century. The body of his work, his paintings, the men and women whom he taught, and the writings that he left behind define the journey of our century.

Gammell was concerned with the survival of civilization. He saw that economic depression and World Wars could lead to the inexorable destruction of the very conditions which allow culture to grow and nourish. He was able to overcome aesthetic and intellectual paralysis and to begin, in the last third of his life, a teaching career which he hoped would safeguard and transmit the art of painting as he knew and valued it.

Gammell understood that to be successfully passed on, a tradition must be a living thing to which each generation of practitioners makes a contribution; otherwise tradition becomes an historic artifact preserved but ultimately no longer vital.

Ives Gammell was born to a wealthy and socially prominent Rhode Island family. He was educated at home until he went to Groton School at the age of 12. Summers were spent in Europe with his family or at their house in Newport where life followed a series of stately rituals.

Small of stature, non-athletic, intellectual, Ives did not fit the mold either at Groton or in his social setting. He did not like small talk and was not amused by the pursuits suitable to a member of his class. He was an intellectual on a search for nothing less than the organizing principles of human kind. He realized early on that his chosen medium for communication would be paint and canvas.

During his Groton years Gammell spent every spare minute drawing in private, showing the results to only a few of his most intimate friends. By 1908 he had shared his desire to become a painter with his family, or at least with his mother, and began to receive criticism and instruction during the summer in Newport from William Sargent Kendall.

Groton was followed by the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and then on to Paris for further training - only to have that Paris interlude cut short by the outbreak of the First World War. Gammell returned to Boston and after a brief period, joined the National Guard. He saw duty on the Mexican Border and then was sent to France when the United States entered World War I. Undoubtedly Gammell would have died in the trenches like so many of his generation had he not been seconded from his unit to the Intelligence Services because of his knowledge of French and German. He stayed on in Paris during the Peace Conference and then returned home to begin his career as a painter in earnest.

During the 1920's Gammell painted in Boston. Aided by his contacts from school and family, he was able to get portrait commissions and find a market for his still lives and interiors. He did murals for private houses and public buildings and was well on the way to establishing himself. Throughout it all, however, he was aiming higher, hoping to be able to paint large canvases whose subject matter dealt with intellectual matters which he found fascinating. He was frustrated in this endeavor because of what he perceived as a deficiency in drawing and composition. In 1928 he took the radical step of laying down his brushes, apprenticing himself to William M. Paxton, then considered to be the best available teacher and practitioner in both areas.

At the end of this two year hiatus, Gammell returned to Europe and North Africa for an extended visit, from April 19 to July 1, 1930. The trip had multiple purposes: to allow him to revisit the works of the great masters whom he so admired and to provide the opportunity to study and record in paint the landscape and gestures of the people of the southern Mediterranean. These sketches and observations formed an archive of pictorial information which Gammell intended to use in the pictures which he was planning.

Upon his retum, Gammell began an extraordinarily productive decade. One after the other, large canvases representing years of intellectual effort came in succession. Their titles, THE DREAM OF THE SHULAMITE, ATTYS, TAMUZ, MOSES, THE LIBATION BEARERS, AND THE CLOUDS RETURN AFTER THE RAIN, ALLECRO (A BACCHANALE) DECREE, THE GARDEN OFPROSERPINE, A SONG OF LAMENTATION, all demonstrate his choice of pictorial idiom rooted in the context of classical and Biblical literature. This was an exphcit choice on Gammell's part to give his pictures a more universal application. What he did not foresee was the change in educational emphasis which made Biblical and mythological references obscure rather than illuminating. Gammell's concern with the human predicament, be it an individual reaction to some recurrent situation or a collective reaction taking the form of a culturally integrated myth or ritual, found much fresh and contemporary material as the century progressed.

In 1936 Gammell had a one man show at the Guild of Boston Artists which included his major works to date. The show was well received even though it demonstrated how far Gammell was from the contemporary mainstream in American art. The Boston Museum of Fine Art committed itself to the purchase of two paintings, ATTYS and TAMUZ but later, as the result of a curatorial change at the Museum, the purchase was canceled.

With this public repudiation, Gammell became acutely aware of his artistic isolation. He had withdrawn from the social background ofhis early years and worked unstintingly to make a career for himself as a painter in the great tradition of from the Renaissance through the French 19th century academicians.

His aspiration to be a mural painter foundered on the economic reality of the depression which reduced the scale of domestic architecture so that such decorations were no longer required. His subject matter was far too intellectually expressed to arouse any interest for WPA work. He realized that no one cared to examine his draftsmanship or compositional skills, let alone the intellectual content of his paintings. All the while, he followed events in Europe, the rise of Hitler and his expansionism which appeared to be unopposed. Gammell concluded that the destruction of Europe and its cultural treasures was imminent.

Around Thanksgiving, in 1939, Gammell came down with what he thought was the flu. By Christmas he was home in Providence because he was too ill to care for himself in Boston. He returned to Boston in January but had little energy and found work to be exhausting. This condition continued throughout the next year and remained despite repeated attempts to find a physical cause or cure. At last his doctor suggested that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion (a breakdown).

Gammell's recovery was slow and involved a reshaping of his goals and objectives. During the war years he worked on altar pieces for the Army, revisited designs and themes which had been the subject of musing since his days at Groton, and read extensively from the works of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Additionally, he began to set down his thoughts on the art of painting and how it should be taught so that there would be some systematic format for future generations who might be interested in painting characterized by the two dimensional representation of light falling over three dimensional forms.

These writings evolved into his book THE TWILIGHT OF PAINTING which was published in 1946. It was at this time too that he began to take students on a serious basis. Working with no more than three or four at a time, Gammell set about passing on what he knew about his craft to those interested and talented enough to seek him out.

At the same time that he began his atelier, Gammell started work on his series of panels based on Francis Thompson's poem THE HOUND OF HEAVEN. Gammell had been familiar with this poem since his school days at Groton. His diaries are filled with references to an unnamed and often ill-defined major work which he felt compelled to paint but was unable to pull together because he could not find the connecting link to give artistic unity to the pictorial ideas which "had haunted my thoughts for many years."

The link was provided by C. G. Jung's THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS and by Gammell's experience. Traditionally, Thompson's poem was considered to be the story of a specifically religious conversion, and undoubtedly that was the way it was presented at Groton. Gammell saw a more universal interpretation of the poem and, by adopting that more inclusive point of view was able to delve into the close relationship between myths, symbols, and poetic imagery, and the perpetually recurring emotional patterns of human life from which they evolved.


From top to Bottom: Testimonial, 1936, oil, 101 x 62 inches; Still Life (with Faun), c. 1955, oil, 14 x 16 inches; Predicament, 1958, oil, 60 x 38 inches; Hounds of Heaven Series, small panel, 39 x 13 inches; Study for Hounds of Heaven, c. 1955, oil, 60 x 23 inches; Hounds of Heaven Series, small panel, 39 x 13 inches; Sewing, c. 1923, oil, 40 x 30 inches.

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 10/28/11

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