09 December 2019

Arthur B. Carles: A Neglected Modernist



He has been called " one of the most brilliant colorists in the history of American art" by Barbara Ann Boese Wolanin.  So why do we not know more about Arthur B. Carles?  

I was immediately drawn to these two paintings, hanging among the likes of Marsden Hartley and William Baziotes to name just two, on the walls of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  For those of us who live within reasonable driving distance to Utica, New York this type of revelation is a common occurrence.   The museum has a stellar collection of early 20th century American modernist art, thanks to a bequest from Edward Wales Root.  Root (1884-1956), who taught art at nearby Hamilton College, was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum but when he offered his collection to them, they turned it down.  They were not interested in modern art: their loss was Utica's gain.

Paris Landscape demonstrates Carles' bold use of color - juxtaposing green and yellow, yellow and blue, blue and red - to create a luminous atmosphere.  In lesser hands the effect might have been jarring but Carles ingeniously used what he had learned from looking at Cezanne's structured blocks of color.

Carles (1882-1952) was a native of Philadelphia, a place whose Procrustean bed of an art scene he would escape as often as finances permitted.  The son of a watchmaker, he was able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Art on a scholarship.  His teachers, William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux introduced him to French Impressionism but when  he was able visit Paris in 1907 it was Post-Impressionism with its riotous colors that won him over. 

Carles took lessons from Matisse; he dismissed the man  as "bourgeois," but admired his work. The two  met again in 1931 when Matissse came to Philadelphia to paint a series of lunettes for the Alfred he met Mercedes de Cordoba, a. mezzo soprano and flamenco dancer from Spain.  The two wed in 1909 but spent little time together during their sixteen year marriage.  The couple had one child, a daughter, born in 1913; Mercedes Matter studied art in New York with Hans Hoffmann and became an abstract expressionist painter. 

Through Steichen, Carles also met Alfred Stieglitz who invited Carles to show his work at his New York Gallery 291.  Carles also showed his work participated in the notorious Armory Show in 1913.  The public had never before seen American and European modernists together under one roof; the effect was shocking and the public was thrilled to be shocked.

From 1917 to 1925 Carles taught at his alma mater but he was eventually dismissed for his refusal to follow its conservative academic curriculum.  Undeterred, Carles taught privately and never lacked for students.  For Carles, color was the bedrock of painting, a belief that had been reinforced by his wartime work supervising ship camouflage operations at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.   Derivation, painted between 1929 and 1933, suggests that losing his academic position freed him artistically. Those cubist flowers look the way they might to a bee - overwhelming beauty coming from every direction.

Carles suffered from bouts of depression and alcoholism which led to several hospitalizations during the 1930s as his health deteriorated.  In 1941 he had a fall that left him partially paralyzed and unable to paint.  Carles lived out his final years in a nursing home where he died in 1952.

Images:
1. Arthur B. Carles - Rooftops I, 1921, oil on wood panel, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica
2. Arthur B. Carles - Derivation, 1929-1933, oil on canvas, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica

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