12 March 2019

An American Cezanne: Henry Lee McPhee

The spirit that suffuses this portrait of a young boy by  Henry Lee McFee is that of Paul Cezanne.  McFee (1886-1953) was an American artist whose works are included in the collections of major museums although his name has faded unjustly, I think, with the passing decades.  The Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York alone, are joined by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery, the Cleveland Museum - and the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, where Boy is currently on display.
Although we think of landscapes of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne painted some memorable portraits  including Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair (c.1877), now considered a milestone of modernism.

The quiet intimacy of this painting derives as much from the harmony of its elements as it does  from the eye contact between sitter and artist.  In reproduction McFee's careful use of glazing techniques is not easy to discern but makes its contribution based on his study of European art generally. The boy looks sweetly solemn and there is something noble in the vulnerability of his young face and his good clothes.  A pensive sense of occasion emanates from his posture.  That harmonious coloration that unites the  boy, his clothing and the chair he sits in and the wallpaper behind, support the emotional weight that, in a more conventional portrait, would be borne by the sitter.   This is the balance that Cezanne's portraits struck so forcefully,the innovation that caused McFee to credit Cezanne as the influence on his own style.

McFee was born in St. Louis and moved to Woodstock, New York in 1908 to study landscape with the Tonalist painter Lowell Birge Harrison.  He soon began to work independently with Andrew Dasburg who became his lifelong friend and his guide to European art, from the Renaissance to Cubism. Beginning in the late 1920s and continuing for almost a decade McFee wintered at Bellevue, a former plantation in Bedford County, Virginia where he painted the Black farm workers. He empathized with them, recalling in 1948 to Ernest W. Watson, "I think I came closer to painting something of their life and my life with understanding." What is clear from the works themselves is a sensitivity and lack of preconception unusual for a white artist at that time.
 An inheritance allowed McFee to pursue his studies but by 1937, as the Great Depression dragged on, he was compelled to take a series of teaching positions that brought him to southern California, where he influenced a generation of students at the Chouinard School and Scripps College.  McFee died of pneumonia in Altadena in 1953.  An impressive artist with a restless temperament, McFee's exhibited that same restlessness in his personal life.  After being married to Aileen Fletcher Jones for twenty years, he ran off with her niece Eleanor Brown Gitsell in 1936.

Henry Lee McFee - Boy, 1932,  oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica.
2. Paul Cezanne - Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, c.1877,  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Tania said...

I didn’t know this portraitist, thank you for making us discover these unsung American artists in Europe (at least by me).

Jane said...

Tania, I did not discover McFee util I saw "Boy" in person. The finish of the surface is truly beautiful. I'm glad you like it, too.

Anonymous said...

Any information on the painting Boy specifically?

Jane Librizzi said...

Hello, Anonymous. I don't have specific information but I have found the staff at Munson-Williams-Proctor are very helpful. Business hours are Monday-Friday 9AM-5PM.
You can try this link and leave a message.
Hope this will get you the answer to your question.
And thanks for visiting!