Monday, March 19, 2012

Arthur Carles Could Pretty Much Do It All

Arthur Beecher Carles (1882-1952) is not well-known today and, as best I can tell, didn't attain first-rank artistic notoriety in his day. Here and there on the Internet I've found observers who assert that he was a great colorist and perhaps was a practitioner of Abstract Expressionism before it emerged as a movement.

Carles is obscure enough that I had never heard of him until recently when I was searching the Hirshhorn Museum online listing of works in its collection and found some stunning images by the man. Let me quickly add that what looks great in a small area of a computer screen doesn't necessarily translate into an equally fine image when viewed in person, so I can't fully vouch for Carles' ability.

One thing I noticed was how versatile Carles was. And how he would paint in different idioms at about the same time (both naturalistic and abstract in the 1920s, for instance) rather than doggedly pursue a stylistic theme as many artists do.

I can't offer much biographical information. His Wikipedia entry is here and a Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts snippet is here (scroll down or else click on his name). It seems that Carles never sold many paintings, drank too much and suffered a stroke in 1941 that ended his career, such as it was.

One of his finest works was his daughter Jeanne, who assumed her mother's first name and became known to the art world as Mercedes Matter, having married photographer and graphic designer Herbert Matter.

Here are images of some of Carles' paintings in roughly chronological order along with a few comments by me.


Frances Metzger West - pastel - 1907
A satisfying mix of a finely drawn head with modernist-inspired sketchiness, both done in the spirit of pastel.

Silence - c.1908
Almost poster-like in its compositional simplicity and flat painting. Can we call the early 1900s Carles' "blue period?"

Portrait of Katherine Rhoades - c.1912
Here Carles is about as minimalist as one can get while still making a convincing depiction.

The Actress as Cleopatra (Mercedes de Cordoba, artist's wife) - 1914
Mercedes de Cordoba - by Edward Steichen - 1904
Carles' wife as painted by him and photographed ten years earlier by Steichen, who liked to use her as a model.

The Lake, Annecy - 1911-12
This disappoints me because Lake Annecy is framed by a string of visually interesting mountains to its east, and here Carles turns them into a series of ordinary-looking lumps.

The Harpist Edna Phillips Rosenbaum - n.d.
Woman in White - 1920
These two paintings show that Carles could do quite well at representational images, though adjusted using a whiff of modernist simplifying.

Landscape - 1921
This paining is part of the Hirshhorn holdings, so I have to assume they got the date right. Very much in the later Abstract Expressionist spirit.

Nude Reclining - 1921
Representational, but using a color set close to that of the abstraction shown immediately above it. Plus, they seem to have been done at about the same time.

Woman with Red Hair - 1922
The drawing here is still pretty representational, but the colors are exaggerated, if not quite Fauvist distortions.

Seated Woman with Upraised Arm - c.1927
Now we find one in the Fauve color spirit. Yet I happen to like it; it's the image that caught my eye and led me to explore Carles' work in more detail. Why do I like it? It's because, under all the color pyrotechnics, the visible drawing is pretty solid in the sense that the features of the face are proportionally reasonable, allowing for effects of perspective. I usually object strongly where an artist gives us sloppy drawing along with false colors. Ditto where the drawing is off and the colors are roughly natural (think Picasso's famous Les demoiselles d'Avignon).

Reclining Nude - c.1931-35
Composition (Seated Nude) c.1931-35
In these early 1930s paintings Carles is back in proto-Abstract Expressionist mode using those strong colors he seemed to favor in those days.

Abstraction - 1936-41
According to the Hirshhorn, this was Carles' last painting.


Siolo Thompson said...

Fantastic post!! I love it when you bring us folks who exhibit such a wide range of work. For lack of a better thing to say - it's fun, fun to see how an artist can work in various styles or fit into different movements and still maintain some common ideas and preferences.

Donald Pittenger said...

Siolo -- Thank you. Glad you liked the posting.