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Reynolds Beal

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Reynolds Beal
(New York, 1867 - 1951, Rockport, Massachusetts)

The American artist, Reynolds Beal, (1) was born in the Bronx on October 11, 1867, the oldest of six children. (2) Beal's father was William Reynolds-Beal, then superintendent of the Yonkers Gas Company, and eventually president of the Central Union Gas Company of Port Morris, New York. His mother was Eleanor Louise Bell, the daughter of a well-to-do Connecticut family. Beal grew up in Port Morris, New York on the East River. He spent much of his childhood in and on the water, and was fascinated with ships of all kinds, particularly sailboats. Beal began sketching as early as the age of six and his father encouraged him to keep notebooks of his sketches and observations. One of the earliest of these notebooks dates to around 1876, when Beal was ten years old. (3)

Beal first attended school at The Misses Sterling's Select School for Boys and Girls, then transferred to a public school where he studied with the drawing master, Monsieur Valoins. In 1881, he entered Chauncey Hall, a well-known college preparatory school in Boston. Two years later, at the age of 17, Beal made his first trip to Europe where he sketched and took copious notes on the artworks, landscapes, and cultures he encountered. After graduating from Chauncey Hall in 1886, Beal entered Cornell University to study marine engineering. In 1888, however, Beal apparently suffered some form of physical or nervous breakdown and left the university. The cause of this breakdown is unclear, but Beal had been struggling academically for some time, and had been under pressure from his father to leave school and try some other career. Though his academic career was not a success, Beal did leave behind a body of successful illustration work that he had produced for various college publications and clubs.

Soon after leaving Cornell, Beal began working for a family friend, Captain Samuels, as a ship designer and in 1889, he went to work at Morgan Iron Works in Manhattan where he drafted designs for ship engines. Once again, however, his health began to suffer and he gave up the job in 1891. Beal's father strongly encouraged him to consider art as a career and this encouragement, combined with Beal's recent success as the illustrator of a book of nautical poems, called Songs of the Sea, convinced him to begin formal training as a painter.

In October 1891, Beal enrolled as a student at the Art Student's League in New York under the tonalist painter, J. H. Twachtman. Though Beal soon became tired of endlessly drawing plaster casts of famous works, he did become caught up in the New York art world and began visiting and studying New York's galleries, taking extensive notes on framing, prices, etc. In the summer of 1892, on the advice of a fellow student, Beal left the Art Student's League and went to join William Merritt Chase's new summer school of plein air painting at Shinnecock, Long Island. Unlike the academy teachers, Chase believed in teaching drawing and painting simultaneously, and he concentrated on teaching his students to see their subjects in terms of light. He also encouraged his students to take risks and try painting in new ways, a lesson which Beal particularly took to heart. Beal returned to the Shinnecock school for several summers, but it is unclear what he did during the winter months. He most likely continued to study as a private student at Chase's 10th Street Studio in New York and continued his rounds of the New York galleries, looking and learning.

In 1895, Beal exhibited his first works at the National Academy of Design. He also spent much of that year in Europe, particularly London, Boulogne and Paris. Beal remained in Paris until February of the following year, studying both contemporary and classical works and exhibiting at the Champs de Mars. In February, 1896, he traveled to Spain to study and copy the works of Velasquez. From there he continued to North Africa, finally returning to New York in May. Upon his return, Beal purchased a 30 foot sailboat, fitted it up as a floating studio, and spent the summer sailing and sketching the area around Long Island Sound. Also in late 1896, Beal began to exhibit at the National Academy of Design and participate in exhibitions of the Society of American Artists. In 1898, he was elected to the Salmagundi Club and began exhibiting there regularly.

By 1902, Beal was dividing his time between two studios in New York and a third in Noank, Connecticut, an area he painted often between 1900 and 1907. The area around Noank also hosted an informal artist's colony headed by the painter, Henry Ward Ranger, and though Beal never formally studied with Ranger, the two men went on sketching trips together and Beal cited Ranger's work as one of his influences. In 1907, Beal had his first major commercial exhibit, in conjunction with his brother Gifford, at the William Clauson Galleries in New York and in 1909, he became an associate member of the National Academy. (4) Around this time, Beal also became friends with Childe Hassam,(5) whose work inspired Beal to lighten his own palette and experiment with other Impressionist techniques.

Beal's father died in 1912 depriving Beal of one of his most enthusiastic supporters. By the late 1910s, Beal's painting technique began to change. He began to study and copy Japanese wood-block prints and he became interested in Post-Impressionism, particularly the work of Van Gogh. Beal was especially drawn to Van Gogh's bright colors and his use of outlines and patterns, influences which are most clearly visible in Beal's many paintings of circuses from this period. In 1915, Beal learned etching from the printmaker, George Senseney, and etching quickly became one of his favorite media. (6) In 1917, Beal began showing with the Society of Independent Artists, and eventually became director of the Society in 1921. He also helped found the New Society of Artists who held annual shows at the Wildenstein Galleries in New York. In 1919, he was one of 154 American painters chosen for a major exhibition at the Musee de Luxembourg in Paris. Beal also continued to sail and travel whenever the opportunity offered.

In 1920, Beal became involved with the creation of the Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Phillips Collection), in Washington, D. C. Duncan Phillips was related to Beal by marriage and he asked Beal to be a member of the Gallery's Committee on Scope and Plan in 1922. He also purchased works by Beal and his brother Gifford for the collection, and in 1922 held an exhibition of Beal's drawings, watercolors, and etchings. Beal's mother died in 1921 and the family home, where Beal spent much of his time, was sold in 1922. It has been suggested that both these events may have been the catalyst for Beal's rather abrupt marriage in 1924 to Helen Higgins, an amateur decorative painter whom he had met in Rockport. (7) The couple traveled frequently, particularly by sailboat, dividing their time between Rockport and New York when at home. Their extensive travels began to interfere with Beal's career, however, and aside from a one-man exhibition of Beal's work in 1925 at the Kraushaar Galleries, Beal began to exhibit less frequently, particularly avoiding the larger shows at the National Academy and the Society of Independent Artists. Also at this time, Beal began to work more extensively in media other than oil paint such as watercolor, crayon, and etching, media which perhaps lent themselves more easily to his mobile lifestyle.

Beal continued to travel extensively during the 1930s, ranging progressively farther afield to countries such as India, China, and Australia among others. In the early 1930s, Beal became friends with Bob Davis, a foreign correspondent, and the two began planning to jointly publish a book called Day Before Yesterday: As Illustrated by Reynolds Beal and Revealed by Bob Davis. In preparation, Beal compiled several notebooks of his memories of New York in the 1870s and 1880s, and though the book was never published, the notebooks have served as a valuable source of information on Beal's early environment and history. (8) During the late 1930s, Beal also became involved in the formation of the Mystic Seaport Museum, which was being organized by his friend, Clifford Mallory. Under Mallory's direction the museum originally planned to acquire a large body of Beal's works, but after Mallory's death in 1941, the plan was dropped.

In 1936, there was a major fire in Beal's Rockport studio which destroyed a large number of his paintings as well as notes and other personal effects. The loss of his works in the studio fire, combined with Beal's extended absences from New York and his reduced participation in high profile exhibitions, continued the erosion of public awareness of his work and the deterioration of his connections to the contemporary art scene. Aside from a large joint retrospective exhibition with his brother Gifford in 1944, Beal lived quietly and exhibited infrequently during the 1940s. Health problems also began to limit his activities, though Beal continued to sail and paint up until his death on December 18, 1951. The contents of Beal's studio were inherited by his widow, Helen and remained in her possession until her death in 1965. Unfortunately, she left no instructions for the disposition of this collection of Beal's work and it was not until 1968 that the estate made it available for exhibition and sale. (9)

Reynolds Beal's style evolved continually throughout his career and in retrospect is perhaps best described as eclectic. Works from early in his career clearly reveal the Impressionist techniques he absorbed from William Merritt Chase and from studying the works of the French Impressionists during his trips to Europe. Works produced after 1910 often exhibit the outlined forms and bold patches of color characteristic of the Post-Impressionist artists he had begun to study. During the same period, however, Beal continued to produce carefully detailed watercolors of ships and landscapes worthy of the strictest naturalists, and also produced landscapes reminiscent in color and tone of works by the Tonalists. By the end of his career, the bright, sharp colors of Fauvism began to appear in both Beal's oils and watercolors, though they were often constructed from the individual unblended color strokes characteristic of Impressionism.

Beal's eclecticism most likely arose from his continuing awareness of the work of other artists and his love of experimentation. (10) Beal carefully investigated the techniques and histories of the artists he admired and kept extensive files on artists such as Van Gogh and George Luks. He often tried his hand at imitating elements of other artist's styles as well. Beal's experiments also extended to the media he used. In addition to working with oils, watercolors, pastels, pencils, and etching tools, Beal also varied the binders he used for his pigments and the thickness of his paints. Though his style and technique fluctuated, Beal's preferred subjects remained much the same consisting of landscapes, seascapes, and depictions of leisure-time activities, particularly those related to water. Beal always carefully investigated his chosen scenes, often recording atmospheric conditions, colors, and other details on his sketches as well as taking photographs.

Though he exhibited regularly for much of his life, Beal contended throughout his career with a lack of public interest in his works. This public apathy was probably the result of a combination of factors including, most importantly, Beal's own lack of interest in public recognition. Since Beal's income was extensive, he pursued art for his own enjoyment and never needed to promote his works in order to support himself. Perhaps because of the roundabout way he approached his art career, Beal also was never confident of his own abilities, particularly in contrast to the success of his brother Gifford. Confusion was most likely another factor which prevented Beal from developing a regular following. His constantly shifting style, though entertaining to himself (and art historians), would have been a liability for collectors looking to obtain a characteristic work. Whatever the combination of factors, Beal's artistic reputation was never strong and fell into eclipse after his death. Since many of Beal's works were out of circulation from his death in 1951 until 1968, there also were no public presentations of his works for many years and it was not until the late 1970s that interest in Beal's career began to revive, mostly as a result of the work of Ronald Pisano and Sidney Bressler. (11)

(1) The artist's given name was Alonzo Reynolds-Beal. His grandfather, Joseph Reynolds, married a Miss Beal and hyphenated the family name as Reynolds-Beal. Alonzo disliked his first name, however, and chose to be called Reynolds instead, dropping the hyphen and using Beal as his sole last name. His brother, the painter Gifford Beal, also chose to use only Beal as his last name.
(2) Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Reynolds Beal: Oils, Watercolors, Drawings, Etchings, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D. C., 1971; Ronald G. Pisano, The Students of William Merritt Chase , Heckscher Museum, Huntington, New York, 1973; "Reynolds Beal", Arts Magazine 50, June 1976, p. 18; Robert R. Preato, Reynolds Beal--Impressions of an American Artist. Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings, Selections from the Haig Tashjian Collection, Sterling Regal Inc., New York, 1984; Ann E. Berman, "Reynolds Beal: A Biographical Essay", Reynolds Beal: Impressionist Landscapes and Seascapes, Associated University Presses, London and Toronto, 1989, pp. 11-40.
(3) Beal continued to fill similar notebooks throughout his life. Much of the information on his life and career has been extracted from these notebooks.
(4) Beal was never awarded full membership in the Academy most likely because his extensive travels suggested that he was not dedicated to a full-time career as an artist and because his style was highly variable.
(5) Beal's relationship with Hassam is detailed in a series of sketchbooks and notebooks Beal kept during their relationship. They are on file at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York along with a series of notes on the subject of Childe Hassam and related topics
(6) Beal began to exhibit at the Brooklyn Society of Etchers after 1930 and became a member in 1931. In both 1930 and 1933, Beal etchings were included in Fine Print of the Year, a prestigious juried British show. Beal produced more than 140 prints during his lifetime, most after 1923. They vary between contemporary subjects and subjects drawn from his sketchbooks. Though many of his prints were supposed to be produced in editions of 100, during the Depression normally only a few were actually printed (Berman, 1989, p. 30)
(7) Berman, 1989, p. 28
(8) These notes are in the Bob Davis file in the possession of Royal Galleries of Englewood, New Jersey.
(9) It was at this time that Sidney Bressler purchased a number of Beal paintings from the estate. The painting, The Mystic River, donated to the MMFA collection by Bressler, was one of the works purchased.
(10) "Of course, art of any kind at its best is invention--splicing together of discordant and distant notes in a working whole. But the great question [is] how much of nature or personal observation shall be used as the something upon which to raise the structure." Reynolds Beal, as quoted in Berman, 1989, p. 33
(11) Works by Ronald G. Pisano with information on Reynolds Beal include: The Students of William Merritt Chase, The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York, 1973; Reynolds Beal, Paintings and Watercolors, Hammer Galleries, New York, 1976; William Merritt Chase in the Company of Friends, The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York, 1979; A Leading Spirit in American Art: William Merritt Chase, 1849-1916, The Henry Gallery, Seattle, Washington, 1983. Bressler has produced a Beal catalogue raisonne which is a list of title, date, size, and medium of all known Beal works accompanied by biographical and stylistic essays (Reynolds Beal: Impressionist Landscapes and Seascapes, Associated University Presses, London and Toronto, 1989). Provenance, exhibition history and other information is not given, though Bressler may have additional information in his personal files.

Margaret Bullock
January 16, 1997

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