If there were any question about the importance of the Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC) or the quality of its teachers and students, the thoughtful “Art Academy of Cincinnati at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints” at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) puts that to rest. The exhibition presents 90 drawings and prints by 85 AAC alumni and faculty from the permanent collection of CAM. It’s not arranged chronologically or by medium, but rather thematically, a clever strategy.
The organizers—Curator of Prints Kristin Spangenberg and Curator for American Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings Julie Aronson—had a daunting task: selecting the works on paper, writing long wall labels for each piece, and then installing them. But I also suspect they had at least some moments of fun in putting the show together.
The school, founded in 1869, was known by a number of monikers1 before it became the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1887. That same year it moved into a new building next to the also newly built Cincinnati Art Museum, both designed by the local architect James W. McLaughlin. The school became independent in 1998, and in 2005, moved into a warehouse in Over-the-Rhine.
The wisdom of hanging the exhibition by subject is apparent in the grouping of three seascapes done roughly 50 years apart: Edward H. Potthast’s (1857–1927) Windy Day, Bermuda Bay (possibly Scene in Bermuda or Bermuda Coast), circa 1895; Paul Chidlaw’s (1900–1989) Rocks and Harbor with Boat,circa 1953-1955; and Ruthe Pearlman’s (1913–2007)Wave Patterns, late 20thcentury.
Potthast had two stints as a student at the Academy: 1869–80 and 1885–1886.In the 1880s, he studied in France where he came in contact with Impressionism, bringing that style backto Cincinnati where, as in Europe, its aesthetic merits were debated.
In Windy Day…. a watercolor, gouache, and pencil drawing, Potthast captured a moment of time when the water of the Bay is being churned by wind, whipping up whitecaps. Several boats are anchored, but their seemingly diaphanous white sails billow out. It is an energetic image and predicts his future focus on “bright, blustery coastal scenes.” 2
Pearlman studied at the Academy from 1929–36 and taught there from the 1930s to 2006. In her resist watercolor Wave Patterns, a choppy sea, seen from the point of view of a drone hovering over it, fills the entire field for an energetic abstract painting.
Chidlaw’s Rocks and Harbor with Boat fits neatly between these two works. He was a student at the Art Academyfrom 1919 to 1923. In 1927, he went to France where he studied at L’Ecole des Beau-Arts in Fontainebleau. He traveled around Europe and lived in Morocco for a year before returning to Cincinnati in 1935. 3 On the Academy faculty from 1947 to 1964, Chidlaw described himself as “not a person who represents. I present. Landscapes are outside. Paintings are inside. Therefore, they’re more from the mind and not a copy of something. That way I still get a good copy of nature as I feel and understand it.” 4
In this acrylic drawing, he “presents” a placid lake with a speedboat slipping past the rocky shore. I see a “muscularity” to these rocks, bringing to mind wrestlers.
Back in Cincinnati, Chidlaw often bragged about breaking the half-century dominance of Frank Duveneck and his followers who carried on his distinctive style at the Art Academy.
In 1869, at the age of 21, Duveneck had gone to Germany to study with Wilhelm von Diez and Wilhelm Leiblat at the Royal Academy of Munich, readily embracing their style. He was inspired by their veneration of the Dutch Old Masters, dark palettes, and expressionistic brushwork.
In 1878, Duveneck opened his own schools in Munich and in the village of Polling in Bavaria, attracting a coterie of students who became known as the Duveneck Boys. They studied, traveled, and caroused around in Europe with the Covington-born painter. The group included Otto Bacher, Julius Rolshoven, and John White Alexanderas, as well as John Henry Twachtman, Louis Ritter, and Theodore Wendel, all of whom had been students at the School of Design in Cincinnati, respectively in 1871-1875, 1873-1874, and 1876-1877. Before going to Europe, Twachtman had studied with Duveneck at the Ohio Mechanics Institute 5, where he taught an evening painting class, 1874-1875.
It’s interesting that the one Duveneck in the exhibition is such a departure from the style so identified with him. In the 1890s, Duveneck had become attracted to pastel, a medium that was popular at that time. He is represented here by a pastel portrait, probably of a studio model. It is a soft and sweet rendition of the woman, far more refined, lyrical, and informal than his usual bravura performances in oil.
Actually more characteristic of Duveneck’s signature style is Robert Frederick Blum’s pastel drawing of his own studio. The artist is not present but the nude model with her sketchy drape still holds the pose. Despite the quiet of the studio, Blum’s loose handling of the chalk imparts a sense of activity.
When Blum returned to Cincinnati, he bemoaned the conservative taste in the Queen City. A student at the School of Design, 1873–1874 and 1875–1876, he criticized the School’s curriculum as stodgy. However, the curators suggest that its emphasis on drawing, illustration, and design led to his lifelong commitment to works on paper.
Duveneck’s students did not always follow in their mentor’s steps. Twachtman’s impressionistic work bears no resemblance to Duveneck’s dark Old Master-like style even though he had studied with him at the Ohio Mechanics Institute and became one of the Duveneck Boys in Europe. Stylistically surely Twachtman’s many trips to Europe in early to late 1880s and time spent in Paris at the Académie Julian, 1883 to 1885, played a greater role as he matured as an artist and fully embraced Impressionism. He is considered the premier American practioner of the style. It’s easy to see this in his Tree by a Road, an almost ethereal depiction of the scene.
More characteristic of the aesthetic of the Academy is another Duveneck Boy, Louis Ritter. He probably attended the School of Design in 1873 and 1874, before going to Munich to study at the Royal Academy in the 1870s where uncompromising realism was favored. His Half-Length Seated Nude Man, circa 1878, is a powerful record of an aged figure, his face lined with wrinkles, his body sagging, his hands in an attitude of prayer, but his arms are still muscular, suggesting this man continues to be a laborer. This drawing reminded me of John Coplans’ black-and-white photos of his own body done in the 1980s when he was in his 60s.
Skip ahead about a century to Constance McClure who has taught at the Academy from 1974 to the present and since 1998 has been Professor Emerita. Like Ritter, she records what is real. The source material for her pencil drawing 1937 is a Depression-era family photograph (McClure is the three-year-old child in the center). Like all photographs, the scene documents a moment in time, but her ghostly crosshatched drawing seems to have and perhaps continues to fade away, just as memories do. The drawing is delicate but the size–78″ x 100″–makes it a commanding presence, rivaling any large abstract painting popular at the time. For her “[Drawing] is the beginning of it all. Drawings are honest—not hiding behind color.” 6
The illustrator Charley Harper had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Academy, beginning as a student 1941-1942, leaving for military service in November 1942, and finishing in 1947. He also was Summer and Wilder Traveling Fellow, 1947–48, and taught at the Academy in 1958–79 and 1989–91.
Harper is so well known in Cincinnati that it’s easy to assume his reputation extends far beyond the city limits and those knowledgeable about design and illustration. Perhaps under known, the designer Todd Oldham purports to have “rediscovered” Harper’s work in 2001 when the artist was 80. Oldham was so taken by it that they collaborated on glassware and china. He also penned an impressive and lavishly illustrated monograph published in 2011: Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life. In it he wrote, “Charley’s inspired yet accurate color sense is undeniable, and when combined with the precision he exacts on rendering only the most important details, one is always left with a sense of awe.” 7
There are two nearly identical gouaches by Harper in the exhibition. One presents a gazelle in the high grass in the daytime and the other the lissome animal in the dark. In both the gazelle is fixated on the viewer, unaware of the big cats, possibly a tiger mother and her cubs, lurking in and camouflaged by the golden grasses behind the dangerously oblivious creature. All eyes of the felines are on what might be their next meal. With Harper’s usual economy, it only takes the adult’s outstretched back leg to suggest that she’s stalking her prey. If tigers, they must pounce as closely as possible to the gazelle, which has a top speed of 60 mph, and can easily outrun their predators with a top speed of only 40 mph. In the evening version, there are only the big cats’ eyes, yellow with black pupils, trained on the gazelle. The scene is more menacing than the cats seen in the light. These pieces were illustrations in the 1961 children’s book Giant Golden Book of Biology: An Introduction to the Science of Life.
It’s possible to see a kinship between Ralston Crawford’s Precisionist style and the “minimal realism” of Harper. Crawford taught at the Academy from 1940-1941, and Harper was there 1940–42 so their paths surely crossed. Whether they had any extensive interaction, I don’t know, but there’s no doubt that they shared an affinity for bold color and shapes.
The exhibition is a nice mix of very well known artists, such as Tom Wesselmann and Jim Dine, and lesser-known artists. One of the latter is Edna Boies Hopkins. She’s represented by a color woodcut depicting two women walking with eyes focused on the ground. As one of the women carries a basket, I assume they are foraging. The composition is spare; the figures look like cutouts with little detail except for one woman’s checkerboard-patterned blouse and the other’s skirt with a few stripes of blue. I saw a composition that was straightforward, compelling, and contemporary. As simple and ordinary as that the scene is, it is arresting. I was stunned when I looked at the date: 1917.
Reading the label: “Edna Boies Hopkins found inspiration in the refined designs and delicate hues of traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e color woodcuts. Her style coalesced under the influence of the color woodcut revival in Belle Époque Paris.” That’s when I hit my forehead and thought “of course.” 8
Let me end with a long quote from Petah E. Coyne (b. 1953), who graduated in 1977:
The best thing about the Art Academy, when I attended, was the high level of artistic freedom. As long as you were working, the faculty didn’t bother you, but allowed you to experiment. This, I feel, is most important. Also, most of the teachers at the Academy shared what they were doing artistically with their students: the problems and solutions they found in their own work. The teachers were quite open and giving of their time and energy. Lastly, but probably most importantly, was that for the first time in my life I saw working artists. The teachers were able to support themselves and continue to be prolific with their own work. This was excellent role modeling for me.9
I suspect that sentiment could have been articulated by many connected to the Art Academy in the last century and a half.
“Art Academy of Cincinnati at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, through April 28, 2019. 953 Eden Park Dr., Cincinnati, OH 45202, phone: 513-721-2787, www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org. Tues.-Sun., 11 am-5 pm; Thurs., 11 am-8 pm.
–Karen S. Chambers
1 The Art Academy was founded in 1869 as the McMicken School of Design and was intended to be part of the planned McMicken University. In 1871, it was absorbed into the University of Cincinnati, becoming the School of Design. In 1884, it was transferred to the Cincinnati Museum Association and renamed Art School of Cincinnati. In 1887, it changed its name one last time to Art Academy of Cincinnati and opened next door to the Art Museum, both buildings newly built and designed by James W. McLaughlin. The school and museum operated under one administration until 1973 and in 1998 AAC became independent. In 2005, it moved to a warehouse in Over-the-Rhine.
2 “Art Academy at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, Edward H. Potthast label.
3 “Paul Chidlaw,” Wikipedia.
4 “Art Academy at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, Paul Chidlaw label.
5 The Ohio Mechanics School was founded in Cincinnati in 1828, with the charter of assisting Ohio’s skilled workers in the state’s rapidly industrializing economy. In the 19thcentury a mechanic was someone skilled in a trade that required extensive training, for example, blacksmiths, bricklayers, or carpenters. It was one of the first technical schools in the country.
6 “Art Academy at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, Constance McClure label.
7 Todd Oldham, Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life,2011, Ammo Press.
8 “Art Academy at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, Edna Boies Hopkins label.
9 “Art Academy at 150: A Celebration in Drawings and Prints,” Cincinnati Art Museum, Petah Coyne wall text.