WCMA’s own Morton Schamberg at The New-York Historical Society’s The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution Exhibition
For those of you thinking of heading to New York to catch The New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition on the famous Armory Show of 1913, be prepared to have a moment of hometown recognition. WCMA’s own painting Study of a Girl (Fanette Reider) by American artist Morton Livingston Schamberg figures prominently among the works by Americans that were included in the original 1913 show—you know, that show, the one where Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) of 1912 (now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) rocked both the art world and New York’s intelligentsia who visited. While the European artists included in the show clearly can be seen to have stolen the show, Americans like Schamberg showed their own kind of upstart moxie. In Schamberg’s study, this avant-garde spirit played out in a portrait of his friend Reider with elongated limbs, harsh black outlines, and electric colors that gave off a distinctly Matissean vibe. The painting was completed in the same period that Schamberg began working as a photographer to earn money. It was one of five works the artist had in the Armory Show, but it is also the only known one.
WCMA’s Schamberg was in the collection of Walter Pach until Pach’s death in 1958. Pach was an influential artist, critic, and art historian who co-organized the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” better known as the Armory Show, in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. He also had five paintings and five etchings of his own in the exhibition. Schamberg and Pach were classmates and friends. Along with Charles Sheeler, the two had studied painting with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1903 and 1904, they had been roommates at Chase’s summer programs in Haarlem (The Netherlands) and London. They stayed close, and Schamberg actually wrote to Pach in November of 1908 from Paris of seeing the work of Henri Matisse at the Salon d’Automne that year and finding his work “very beautiful” and “a very personal art.” (To see letters like this one, from Schamberg to Pach in the Walter Pach papers, 1880-1980, you can e-visit the Archives of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution.) In another letter to Pach of August 1912, Schamberg included photographs of his latest paintings that were strikingly similar to WCMA’s Study.
As one of the primary organizers of the Armory Show, Pach has to have been instrumental in the inclusion of Study of a Girl in the exhibition. In addition, Pach, himself, was in charge of sales for the Armory Show. While, at some point, Pach inscribed “M. L. Schamberg/about 1909/For Nikifora/Walter Pach/91a” on the back of Study of a Girl, that date for the work was dispelled long ago by Lane Faison in WCMA’s 1979 Handbook of the Collection on a stylistic basis. The letter to Pach with similar paintings photographed from 1912 strongly suggests that date as well. Pach may have forgotten the date of the work after the fact in writing the inscription. However, his recollection that Schamberg created the work for him and his wife Nikifora still shows that the work most likely began its ownership history in Pach’s collection.
From Pach’s collection, the artwork made its way to the collection of Lawrence Bloedel with a short interim period at Zabriskie Gallery. Bloedel bequeathed the work to Williams College.
As to Schamberg, after this period of Matisse-inspired highly saturated colors and thick black outlines, the painter and photographer turned to the Precisionist style and motifs for which he became better known. In fact, it was at the Armory Show that Cubism made an indelible imprint on the artist; after 1913, he quickly adopted that style. The shattering of planes led him toward the mechanistic imagery of Precisionism he later shared with his old friend Sheeler. By 1917, he was collaborating with Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven on the then infamous assemblage of a wood box and a cast iron plumbing trap cheekily called God (today in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Schamberg died, tragically, at the very young age of thirty-six during the 1918 Philadelphia influenza pandemic. A memorial exhibition at M. Knoedler & Company in New York followed in 1919, in which WCMA’s painting also appeared. In writing the review “The Schamberg Exhibition” in Dial in May of 1919, Pach praised his work: “What we have here is a splendid thing. What would have come was bound to surpass it.” The article was one of the first writings on Schamberg after his untimely death and shaped views of Schamberg thereafter. As a result of Schamberg’s curtailed life, the artist left behind only seventy-five paintings. So WCMA is very lucky to have Study of a Girl.
The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition continues until February 23, 2014. WCMA is planning a special tour of the show for WCMA Fellows with American Art Curator Kevin Murphy on January 16, 2014. So see the Schamberg (and some Pach paintings to boot) in the centennial recreation of the Armory Show yourself, become a WCMA Fellow, and get a special tour of the show with WCMA’s own American Art Curator Kevin Murphy!
By Jane R. Becker, WCMA blog writer