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Morton Livingston Schamberg

American, 1881 - 1918

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It is not the business of the artist to imitate or represent nature. Art is creative, or, rather, interpretive. The artist does not reproduce that which is in itself pleasurable, he receives a pleasurable sensation from nature and within himself translates that sensation into terms of plastic expression, thereby creating a work of art which presents this pleasure in plastic form.1

Those who have taken the trouble to know the work of Morton Schamberg (1881 - 1918) have expressed unanimous admiration of his originality and the extent of his contributions to the history of modern art during a brief career that was cut off at age thirty-seven by the flu epidemic of 1918.2 Not until 1982 was a study of Schamberg's artistic evolution undertaken by William C. Agee, who was the first to present his work as a logical continuum rather than as a disjointed series of phases.3 Agee recognized Schamberg's enduring and unusual gift for color, which developed as he proceeded from chromatic abstraction to severe, yet coloristically sophisticated depictions of machines and mechanical abstractions now thought to be the earliest works of Precisionism.4 Yet there are other explanations for the difficulty in fully assessing Schamberg's career, for much of his work remained in his family or in private collections after his death; moreover, few color reproductions of his paintings were published before the late 1970s and early 1980s, making his important contribution as a colorist difficult if not impossible to appreciate.

Schamberg's evolution as a painter proceeded rapidly and surely from 1906, when he left the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he was a pupil of William Merritt Chase. Successive trips to Europe between 1904 and 1909 (an early one in the company of Chase) encouraged an enduring love of the old masters whose work he would always claim had a greater effect on him than the moderns.5 Nonetheless, his introduction in Paris in early 1909 to the art of Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque left a profound and lasting impact on his development. Traces of these influences appeared about 1910-12, when Schamberg began to replace his impressionistically treated street scenes and landscapes with more structured compositions displaying brushwork and color reminiscent of Cézanne. After the Armory Show in 1913, Schamberg for the most part abandoned naturalistic colors, and he began to shatter forms into cubistic broken planes, though he did not yet venture into total abstraction. A series of figure paintings, called Geometric Patterns, was followed by landscapes constructed of prismatic planes of blue, rose, yellow, and green arranged in distinctive combinations and juxtapositions.

Schamberg's use of chromatic Cubism is generally acknowledged to have its source in the work of the Puteaux Cubists, such as Albert Gleizes, Jacques Villon, and Jean Metzinger, whose work he would have seen at the Armory Show. However, his sense for selecting, combining, and placing colors has an instinctive and authoritative flavor unrivaled by any of his contemporaries. As much if not more so, the colors in Schamberg's chromatic Cubist paintings of 1913-14 recall the clear hues of Italian quattrocento painting, for which he is known to have had special affection.6

Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection, (2009), pp. 258-260.

1. Schamberg, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 19, 1913, quoted in Ben Wolf, Morton Livingston Schamberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963), p. 27.
2. See, for example, Lawrence Campbell, "Morton Livingston Schamberg," review of exhibition at Zabriskie Gallery, Art News, vol. 62 (January 1964), p. 14; and Anne d'Harnoncourt, "Morton Livingston Schamberg," in Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), pp. 498-99, 505-6, 515-16.
3. William C. Agee, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881 - 1918), exh. cat. (New York: Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, 1982), p. 3. The earlier monograph by Ben Wolf (see n. 1 above) is not an art historical study.
4. Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900: A Critical History (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), p. 102: "Schamberg was the first to develop these machine forms into the basis for a lucid geometric art."
5. Schamberg, quoted in Wolf, Morton Livingston Schamberg, p. 27: "I have never studied under any of the above mentioned moderns. . . . I have seen many of their pictures, I like them, and have been much stimulated and influenced by them, but much more so by the old art."
6. Agee, Morton Livingston Schamberg, pp. 4-5.

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