George Biddle, American
Oil on canvas
50 x 60 1/16 inches (127 x 152.6 cm)
Gift of the artist, 1972
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Man RayAmerican, 1890 - 1976
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At a time when painting, far outdistanced by photography in the pure and simple imitation of actual things, was posing to itself the problem of its reason for existence, . . . it was most necessary for someone to come forward who should be not only an accomplished technician of photography but also an outstanding painter. . . . It was the great good fortune of Man Ray to be that man.1
The acclaim of Man Ray (1890 - 1976) as a photographer far outstrips his reputation as a painter, and yet his paintings show that he was a strong and original talent. Never bound by convention and ever seeking alternatives to the norm, Man Ray's earliest interest was in mechanical drawing. By the time he left high school in 1908, he had decided to become an artist, beginning as an engraver's apprentice and taking on other commercial art jobs before entering life drawing classes in New York at the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League in 1910 and 1911, respectively. He found, though, that each of them was too restrictive for his independent spirit. The recently established Ferrer Center, with its openness to new and unconventional approaches to artistic practices, where Man Ray enrolled in 1912, was better suited to his temperament. In classes taught by Robert Henri and George Bellows, artists such as Ben Benn, Samuel Halpert, Max Weber, William Zorach, as well as Man Ray, made twenty-minute sketches from the model instead of traditional finished anatomical renderings. Man Ray also became exposed to avant-garde art through association with Weber, one of the first artists in New York who had witnessed European modernism firsthand. He also avidly frequented Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291, where he observed the freedom of Paul Cézanne's spare watercolors (March 1911), Auguste Rodin's drawings of nudes (1910), as well as drawings and collages by Pablo Picasso (1911). Although he wrote for Stieglitz's magazine Camera Work and learned much from conversations with Stieglitz, Man Ray never exhibited his work at 291.2
As would be expected with his modernist leanings already in place, in early 1913 Man Ray found the Armory Show a life-changing experience, and he claimed that its impact rendered him unable to work for six months afterward.3 Following this period of inactivity, a series of wide-ranging and stylistically eclectic paintings in 1913 and 1914 show that he was working through a number of influences, yet always maintaining his independence and seeking alternatives to what others had done. Man Ray, unlike other American modernists, such as Weber, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, had not yet been to Paris, but in fundamental ways he followed a path similar to theirs by trying out a variety of styles while freeing his art from naturalistic form and local color. Man Ray had many strings to his bow, and his work had a distinctive character that combined aspects of his training in commercial art, his interest in decorative design, and influences from the work of European and American contemporaries. Dark outlines often dominated, as did a preference for applying colors in agitated parallel strokes. His subjects remained traditional ones: nudes, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. While his figure paintings exhibit the most experimentation with abstraction, it was in landscape that he made his most innovative strides in freeing himself from direct observation of nature. Initially, they ranged from busy, loosely brushed watercolors of dappled forest depths, to stacks of varicolored cubic houses emerging from speckled foliage, to hills and fields rendered as broad strips receding toward a distant horizon. In the fall of 1914, however, feeling that "sitting in front of the subject might be a hindrance to really creative work,"4 he made the decision to stop painting directly from the motif and instead to make imaginary landscapes from memory, so that his compositions and colors became subjective and expressionistic. Wood Interior (one of two paintings with that title)5 falls into the latter category. Beyond an outcropping of rocks springs the red trunk of a pine tree with spreading branches à la Cézanne, their forms defined and illuminated by a moon surrounded by a golden aura.6 Forms are outlined in heavy black, as they often are in Man Ray's paintings of this period, while colorful stripes and zigzags painted in agitated brushstrokes underline the artist's strong sense of design; his unique combination of dark outlining and jewel-like color here bear some resemblance to stained glass.
Although Man Ray exhibited regularly in group and solo shows at the Daniel Gallery in New York between 1915 and 1919, as well as elsewhere in New York and other American cities, his permanent departure from New York for Europe in 1921 and his subsequent fame as a photographer account for the relative obscurity of his genuine accomplishment as a painter during his New York period. Several key early paintings now in museums came from prescient collectors of Man Ray's early work, such as Ferdinand Howald and A. E. Gallatin and, later, Duncan Phillips and Joseph Hirshhorn, but many of the paintings from this period have been lost, destroyed, or still remain in private hands.Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection, (2009), pp. 194-196.
2. The principal source of biographical information cited here is Francis M. Naumann, Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, in association with Montclair Art Museum, 2003).
3. Merry Foresta et al., Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (New York: Abbeville Press, in association with the National Museum of American Art, 1988), p. 55.
4. Man Ray, Self Portrait (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988), p. 52.
5. Francis M. Naumann, "Man Ray and America: The New York and Ridgefield Years, 1907-1921" (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1988), vol. 2, p. 557, nos. 130-31, lists two oil paintings entitled Wood Interior, with no locations indicated. Man Ray's card file, also catalogued by Naumann, lists three works with that title, p. 508, nos. 14-16. A watercolor titled Wood Interior (1913) is reproduced in Man Ray, Self Portrait, p. 43; it bears certain similarities to the present painting, though it lacks the moon.
6. Naumann, Conversion to Modernism, pp. 87-88, suggests that this painting may be based on a lightning storm Man Ray wrote of in his Self Portrait: "With each illumination the landscape stood out as in daylight, but with a quality of intense moonlight."