From Famous to Forgotten:Reconsidering Eugene Speicher
While it is now difficult to imagine that Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) in 1936, he was indeed once a towering figure in the American art world. From the 1920s through the 1940s, his works were highly prized by collectors and museums. He mounted a series of profitable and critically acclaimed solo exhibitions at a leading Manhattan gallery. And he won numerous awards and honors, and he earned a national reputation for portraiture.
Nonetheless, in the more than 50 years since his death, a number of Speicher’s works, including major ones, have been deaccessioned from museum collections, and the remaining ones are rarely hung. In short, he has been consigned to the margins of American art history and is largely missing from the canon of 20th-century realism.
Speicher received his first formal recognition for a portrait he painted of a fellow student, Patsy O’Keeffe, now better known as Georgia, which won a prize from the League in 1908. The oval portrait of the young woman who ultimately achieved such celebrity is rather sober and academic. Yet it is sensitive and shows a soft femininity largely absent in subsequent photographs of her. It also illustrates Speicher’s already remarkable skill in realizing a convincing likeness and getting beyond superficial characterizations.
Over the next several years, additional accolades burnished his reputation, including the 1911 Proctor Prize from the National Academy of Design. The following year, he was elected to associate membership in that organization, for which he executed a traditional self-portrait in 1913.
The 1920s represent a second career crest for Speicher, one that started in 1920 with his first New York solo show (at the prestigious M. Knoedler gallery).
Speicher was deeply connected to New York City’s art scene, and also to that of Woodstock, 100 miles to the north in the Catskill Mountains. He spent summers there beginning around 1909 (as a student), then returned following his marriage and a stint in Europe.
Speicher always looked to his surroundings for subject matter, and so his oeuvre includes a sizeable body of compositions related to the Woodstock area. His circle there included Bellows, and also Charles Rosen, Konrad Cramer, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Carlson, John Carroll, Leon Kroll, and Henry Lee McFee. Bellows, Rosen, and Speicher were especially close, socializing together and painting each other’s family members. Speicher’s favorite models were Woodstock locals and friends, including Jean Bellows, Polly and Katherine Rosen, Red Moore (a farmer and blacksmith), Jean Reasoner, Jeanne Balzac, and John Carlson. Many of them appear repeatedly as portrait subjects.
In 1925, Speicher received an important commission to paint a fellow Buffalonian, Katharine Cornell, and it became one of his crowning triumphs. Though he painted other celebrities, Cornell was considered among the foremost actresses in American theater. In a departure from his usual seated pose, Speicher produced a full-length, Grand Manner portrait of Cornell in the title role of George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, a role that had helped establish her fame. This composition deftly captures her poise, theatricality, and confidence. Cornell donated her portrait to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1938; after it was featured in many exhibitions there, MoMA deaccessioned it, and it was acquired in 1950 by what is now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, where it still resides as a tribute to two notable natives then at the peak of their careers.
Speicher became a full Academician in 1925 and immediately secured representation by New York City’s Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery,which was noted for American art. His successful show there that year marked a significant turning point by giving him artistic freedom. Soon after, Speicher declared that he found painting commissions “as inspiring as a piece of gaspipe [sic],”6 asserting that he wanted “to produce portraits that are paintings that will stand as paintings, not portraits that will stand as subtly flattering resemblances.” Thus, at the height of his success, Speicher largely abandoned commissioned portraiture, the genre for which he was best known, opting instead for more personal subjects, mainly figures, floral still lifes, and landscapes.
Recent works by the artist Eugene Speicher
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Speicher produced a steady stream of work, including many three-quarter seated compositions of female models. Sometimes these featured more contextual settings, furnishings, still life elements, and interesting attire. Images such as that of Katharine Rosen (Portrait of a Young Girl). And of Jeanne Balzac (Portrait of a French Girl) epitomize Speicher’s answer to Grand Manner portraiture.
This type of seated composition is what he usually submitted for juried exhibitions, and thus what helped establish his name. In fact, Pène du Bois later bestowed on Speicher the apt moniker “master of the seated figure.” The essential qualities of balance, scale. Beauty manifested in these works were identified as “Speicheresque” by his fellow artist Charles Burchfield.
In 1929, Speicher mounted a second solo show at Rehn that again enjoyed strong sales and reviews. From this time forward (and increasingly in later decades), still lifes and landscapes grew in importance to him. The scenery in and around Woodstock was a prime source of inspiration. As seen in Last of the Sun, executed in the painterly realist style he favored in the early teens. Speicher claimed that he generally chose to paint what “was familiar. And was not outside his environment,”10 an idea derived from Henri’s teachings.
Later landscapes such as Kingston, New York reveal an evolution toward a bolder realism that places him squarely within the tradition of American Scene painting.
Eugene Speicher ’s renown continued to build through the 1930s. A third solo exhibition at Rehn in 1934 was seen by 7,000 visitors and called the most “successful [show] of the art season,” even surpassing a popular Edward Hopper retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.11 In his later years, florals became Speicher’s primary vehicle for color explorations and combinations.
He was an avid gardener, and it was his garden at Woodstock that produced the blooms for his still lifes. Which feature an array of vases he arranged himself, as in Tulips and Spirea. He continued painting landscapes, however, which were now also rendered with increasingly free brushwork and less restraint. Both landscape and still life compositions were conceived as formal designs — studies that rely upon color and form.
AN ARTIST OF HIS TIME
Draftsmanship was integral to Speicher’s art and technique, and his numerous drawings demonstrate a profound mastery of line. This year’s retrospective includes an extensive selection of works on paper, most depicting heads, nudes, or draped figures; some of these sheets are formative exercises used to prepare for oil paintings, while others are finished works in their own right. Throughout his career, Speicher had a strong technical orientation that drew upon Old Master traditions, above and beyond superb draftsmanship.
He spoke often of the formal qualities of color, form, and composition, and his working methods reveal a disciplined. And deliberate approach, with each canvas carefully conceived in terms of design.
Not surprisingly, Speicher’s compositions evoke the particular era in which they were painted. The fashions worn by the figures, the subject types. And the color schemes all recall the aesthetic prevalent into the 1940s. But considered retro by the 1950s. His likenesses exude a studied formality that may result from his working process. Speicher often required numerous and lengthy sittings from his models (many of whom complained).
This static quality is less apparent in the art of Henri and Bellows, whose reputations have never ceased to flourish. And whose portraits (with the exception of commissions) generally resonate with a timelessness, immediacy, and vibrancy.
In the grand scheme of things, Speicher’s long and active career may not have served his reputation well. As he consequently had such a prodigious output. His long life also means that he endured the riptide of change in the art world that left his style completely out of favor. By the late 1940s, abstraction had assumed American art’s progressive forefront. And Speicher had never been considered a modernist.
Today, Eugene Speicher is greatly undervalued for an artist so celebrated in his day. Appearing most frequently at auction now are landscapes of upstate New York, especially from the 1930s onward, followed by floral still lifes, then by drawings. Speicher’s figurative compositions are the most avidly pursued, particularly larger seated poses with background settings and details. Prices range in the low to middle five figures for these, although major works are rare. And few have appeared on the market in recent years. Floral still lifes and Woodstock landscapes generally fetch prices in the low thousands of dollars. And most drawings are in the hundreds, up to around $1,000.
As the works illustrated here demonstrate, Speicher possessed an exceptional talent that now deserves wider recognition. Like other American Scene paintings, his creations open a window into a fascinating era. Even as they appeal to contemporary viewers who admire traditional skills deployed in the service of realism. In the 1950s, Burchfield aptly considered Eugene Speicher “not an innovator,” whose art was “built on the past. Time and again, posterity is usually kinder to innovators. But that does not mean we should not admire Speicher as someone who always pursued his art — as the critic Frank Jewett Mather wrote — “along his own lines.”