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Frank Duveneck

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Frank Duveneck
(Covington, Kentucky, 1848 - 1919, Cincinnati, Ohio)

Often called the “Father of American Realism,” Frank Duveneck’s career spanned fifty-years – at a time when the dominant artistic styles in Europe and America passed from realism to impressionism and into modernism. Duveneck’s best known works are the portraits he created before the 1880s. Not unlike his American predecessors, such as Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, Duveneck had an uncanny ability to capture the psychological as well as the physical characteristics of a sitter. His portraits are almost haunting as figures emerge from a non-descript background engaging viewers with dark eyes. Unfortunately, Duveneck’s work has been overlooked for a number of years, and scholars are only recently beginning to understand the impact of his career. Not only was he a talented artist and teacher, but Duveneck also served as an impetus for the trends that followed.

Born in 1848, Frank Duveneck was the son of Bernard Decker, a Westphalian cobbler who immigrated to the Cincinnati area and died as a result of the cholera epidemic of 1849.(1) Soon after Bernard’s death, Duveneck’s mother, Katherine Siemers Decker married another Westphalian emigrant, Joseph Duveneck. Joseph Duveneck was a successful businessman and adopted his new wife’s son.

Duveneck received a limited education at St. Joseph’s Parochial School, but began to learn painting skills at an early age. Throughout his childhood, his drawings and sculptures immediately impressed his family and friends. His first job was as a sign painter and coach decorator. At the age of twelve, he had completed his first easel painting.(2) His mother made his talents known to Father Cosmos Wolf, a man with interests in church art. The priest recommended that he be apprenticed to Johann Schmidt, a skilled handicraftsman trained in Munich in altar painting, carving, and gilding. Duveneck learned to mix paints, model plaster medallions, and paint floral borders – he primarily learned what was needed to complete the task at hand. From 1868 to 1869, Duveneck was apprenticed to Munich-trained artist Wilhelm Lamprecht. The two men traveled up and down the eastern seaboard embellishing Benedictine monasteries. It was then that Duveneck decided to go to Munich to study.

In 1869, Duveneck enrolled in the Munich Royal Academy for Fine Arts, the leading art center in Europe and most popular for American art students of German extraction.(3) Duveneck arrived in Munich in 1870 and studied under Wilhelm von Diez (1839-1907), who had a profound influence on the young artist. Von Diez emphasized studying from Old Master paintings. He often took his students to the Alte Pinakothek, where they could not only copy Old Master paintings, but also emulate their various styles using their own subject matter. Duveneck recognized that his own manner was similar to that of the Dutch master Frans Hals (c.1582/1583-1666).(4) Duveneck was also influenced by the works of Spanish masters Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Encouraged by von Diez to experiment with his technique, Duveneck soon displayed the vigorous brushwork and exactness of characterization that became hallmarks of his figurative painting.

During his first year at the academy, Duveneck painted a number of portraits and his rise at the academy was meteoric – with students borrowing, begging, and even stealing his paintings. Duveneck’s paintings of the 1870s were marked by dramatic contrasts between backgrounds and costumes executed in dark colors and lighter hued faces and hands. His best known work, "Whistling Boy" (1872, Cincinnati Museum of Art), is a relatively small painting, about half life-sized. Duveneck had an interest in disheveled, tattered types, and youths from the poorer classes who were affected by the industrial revolution appealed to the sentiments of the bourgeoisie. The painting represents a young working boy, who pauses to gaze at the viewer. His lips are pressed together as if he is expelling air, hence the title "Whistling Boy."(5) The figure emerges from darkness with highlighted face and clothing. The work is loosely painted in rich impastos with the most detail given to the boy’s striking face. While not the only version the artist painted of "Whistling Boy," it has proved the most important and marked Duveneck’s official debut as an artist.

Duveneck painted hundreds of atelier portraits until late 1873 when an outbreak of cholera drove him from Munich. At the advice of his father, the artist retuned to the United States and took with him a few portraits of which he had managed to retain possession. Surprisingly, Duveneck’s paintings between 1873 and 1875 were not accepted in Cincinnati. He had a difficult time finding patrons and although reluctant, began decorating churches again for a short period of time. In 1874, his work returned to his liking and Duveneck began teaching a life drawing class at the Ohio Mechanics Institute School of Design. At the urging of American artist William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), Duveneck began to exhibit his Munich works in Boston where he soon received high acclaim. He became active in the arts community by joining the Boston Art Club. This move was crucial, as Boston became a principle source of patronage for the artist before 1890.

While in Boston, Duveneck attracted the attention of Elizabeth Boott (1846-1888). Her father, Francis Boott, was a wealthy philanthropist and close friend of novelist Henry James. Elizabeth had a profound affect on the artist, and is perhaps a catalyst for the changes that were to come in his art.

In 1875, Duveneck decided to return to the Academy in Munich, however, little is known about his activities once he arrived. Some letters reveal that together with close friends and artists Henry Farny and John Twachtman, Duveneck traveled central Europe. Presumably the three were always with sketchbook in hand. By winter of 1875, Duveneck returned to Munich and was assigned a private studio at the Academy in recognition of his senior standing and superior achievement at the academy in previous years.

The American students at the Academy worked closely together in one another’s studios where they often shared models. Among Duveneck’s studio mates were William Merritt Chase and Walter Shirlaw. In fact, Duveneck, Chase, and Shirlaw were so close that their fellow students referred to them as “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”(6) Painting portraits of fellow students was another common practice. Chase painted several portraits of Duveneck, his most famous being "The Smoker" (1876, ).(7)

During this period, Duveneck continued to paint young street urchins as he had done in 1872 with "Whistling Boy." Chase shared Duveneck’s interest in this subject matter and both used local youths as models, depicting the boys in leisure moments away from their daily lives. In 1876, the series culminated in the two artists’ representations of one of these boys as a “Turkish page,” the most elaborate of the works. Excited by the find of this youth, Chase engaged him as a model, decked him out in exotic costume, and created an elaborate setting. He then called Duveneck into his studio: “Here’s a Turk – the real thing!”(8) Chase painted his version, Duveneck created his own version, and then to commemorate the occasion, Chase also made a sketch of Duveneck in the act of painting his version.(9)

During this second Munich period, Duveneck’s work became darker, emphasizing a kind of realism that recalled artists of the Spanish Baroque such as Jusepe de Ribera (1588-1656). He practiced wet on wet painting, thereby giving the works a fluid appearance and rich color that are highly appealing. The Museum’s "Spanish Don," dated c. 1877-1880, is one of this period.

About 1876 or 1877, Duveneck suggested that American art students living and working in Europe organize a summer trip to Italy. Nothing is known of his efforts, but he did persuade Chase to accompany him in Venice.(10) Upon his return to Germany, Duveneck and fellow artist J. Frank Currier traveled to the small village of Polling, about sixty kilometers from Munich. Frustrated with the restrictions of the Academy, Currier and Duveneck decided to focus on landscapes and began painting "en plein air". They sought out beech and birch forests, the low rolling hills, and the marshy lakes around Polling. They took over an abandoned Franciscan monastery, where Duveneck began informal painting classes and concentrated on landscape painting. The ancient monastery’s small rooms were perfect for separate studios and living quarters, which quickly filled with young American painters. His students became known as the “Duveneck boys.”

Polling was a turning point in Duveneck’s career as it helped to free the artist from the academicism in which he had been immersed for the better part of ten years. Duveneck discovered the pleasure and challenge of pure landscape painting and was pleased with how easy the change was – stylistically and technically. According to art historian Robert Neuhaus, it was now only a short step from the Polling landscapes to the high-keyed Italian marines. Venetian lagoons, ships and harbors, the Tuscan hills – became irresistible. With a little persuasion from Elizabeth Boott, who had now moved to Germany and become one of his students, Duveneck decided to take his students to Italy late in 1879.

Once in Italy, Duveneck began to experiment with a bright-multicolored palette that signaled a stylistic change. Neuhaus explains that his first Venetian marines seemed to anticipate a subjective, more expressive style of painting. Greater things were expected – but did not happen. Around 1882, a recession began in Duveneck’s work – first gradually and then more steadily. Scholars attribute this to two reasons. First, as Duveneck became more consumed with teaching, he began to focus less on his painting. Second, Duveneck and Boott married in 1885, and she unfortunately died from pneumonia three years later. Family members believe that the artist never fully recovered from his wife’s death, and in 1888, Duveneck returned to America.

Upon his arrival, an inheritance from his wife freed Duveneck from having to take portrait commissions and he was able to travel back and forth between Cincinnati and Europe for the next six years. At this point, teaching became Duveneck’s primary goal and he spent the rest of his life teaching in Cincinnati and joined the faculty of the Art Academy in 1900. Duveneck continued to paint landscapes mostly on Cape Ann, where he summered from 1892 to 1917. The artist died in 1919, at the age of seventy-one.

(1) Westphalia was a region and former provence of Prussia, West Germany. Many Westphalian families immigrated to America, fleeing the impoverishment and hardships of life in Germany following the Napoleonic Wars.

(2) There was a rising art community in Cincinnati; however, Duveneck did not have much involvement with them as a youth.

(3) Public institutions, run at public expense, were opened to any qualified student who paid a modest fee for up to seven years. They even offered free studio space to advanced students. Foreign students were admitted in large numbers. The Munich Academy was founded in 1847 to teach painting, sculpture, architecture, and engraving. Munich was also largely famous due to the dynamism of its director-artist Karl von Piloty who allied his program closely with the Alte Pinakothek and Neue Pinakothek.

(4)The Alte Pinakothek is one of the largest picture galleries in Europe. The museum was begun around 1528 and based on the collection of duke Wilhelm IV. of Bavaria (1493-1550). A catalogue of the museum published in 1871 lists major artists such as Bronzino, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Durer, Holbein, Van Dyck, Murillo, Hals, Rembrandt, and Velazquez.

(5) Robert Neuhaus, author of "Unsuspected Genius: The Art and Life of Frank Duveneck", states that the title is a misnomer, a more accurate title being Smoking Boy. Neuhaus states that the subject’s lips are pursed to exhale smoke from a cigar almost indiscernible in his unfinished right hand. The famous Smoker by seventeenth-century Dutch painter Adrian Brouwer and the two well-known street urchin pictures by Bartolome Esteban Murillo may have been the prototypes for Duveneck’s theme. For more, see pages 20-2.

(6) Neuhaus, 35.

(7) The painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1881 and received honorable mention.

(8) Ronald G. Pisano, "A Leading Spirit in American Art: William Merritt Chase, 1849-1916", (Seattle: University of Washington, 1983): 29.

(9) The paintings are as follows: Chase, "Unexpected Intrusion" (Boy Feeding a Cockatoo; Turkish Page) (1876, Cincinnati Art Museum, Duveneck, "Turkish Page'' (1876, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts).

(10) While in Venice, Chase became very ill and money had to be raised to provide medical assistance and transportation back to Munich. Duveneck was able to secure a portrait commission that provided the necessary funds. For more, see Neuhaus, 30.

Letha Clair Robertson
November 18, 2003

Image credit: Frank Duveneck, Self-Portrait, about 1890, oil on canvas, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG84.176, CC0

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