Monday, July 3, 2017

Sergei Bongart Paints Walser Greathouse

Sergei Bongart (1918-1985), emigré Ukrainian painter, had a successful career in America as an artist and teacher. His early training included a sound grounding in traditional painting, but he also was strongly influenced by Russians whose styles were Impressionism-derived. There is not a lot concerning Bongart on the internet, so this post of mine is about as good a place to start as any.

The present post features a Bongart painting that captured my interest at this exhibit at Seattle's Frye Museum. The exhibit showed a few examples of art acquired for the museum by each its various directors over the years since its establishment in the early 1950s to supplement the founding collection of Charles and Emma Frye. Many examples from the founding collection are always on display in accordance with the Fryes' wishes. The more recent acquisitions are less often seen, and I had never laid eyes on that Bongart.

The subject of Bongart's portrait is Walser Sly Greathouse who was executor of the Frye estate and when the museum they wished to establish was opened in 1952, Greathouse was its directer, a position he held until his death in 1966. The Bongart painting does not have a precise date, being classified as "circa 1966." So it likely was posthumous with regard to Greathouse. On the other hand, Bongart and the Frye were on very good terms, and 21 of his paintings have entered its collection since 1961. Five of these were acquired before Greathouse died, so Bongart knew him and didn't just create the portrait from photos and nothing else.

The Greathouse portrait by Bongart was acquired in 1967 in part using funds from friends of Greathouse, so it probably can be regarded as a commissioned work. It was painted on masonite using acrylic paints.

What caught my interest was the contrast between the sketchy, colorful setting and the subdued, traditionally painted face that, despite all the Bongart pyrotechnics, is the strong focus of the work.

Let's start with two examples of Bongart's style when painting people. First is the brightly done "Girl with Red Shawl" from around 1975.

And using a different color scheme is "Man with Turban" c. 1965.

A photographic portrait of Walser Greathouse made many years before his death. This and the following photo are from the Frye web site.

Greathouse showing paintings at the Frye Museum, perhaps around the time it was opened.

Bongart's portrait of Greathouse. The reds of the furniture are more intense than indicated here. Given such shocking brightness, one would expect this to distract from Greathouse. But no: The cool-colored (again coloring a bit distorted by the camera, grays being less obvious) head and face remain the painting's focus. A real tour-de-force by Bongart.

Detail showing Greathouse's face.  The rest of the painting, aside from his face and hands, is sketchy -- even the attire shown here.  So it is the comparative lack of sketchiness on the face that also attracts our attention.

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