Summary of Ivan Albright
Albright painted some of the most meticulously detailed paintings in the history of art. His figurative style focused for the most part on the theme of mortality and the fragility of human life. Albright's paintings are palely lit, brutally raw, representations of figures ravaged physically and emotionally by the effects of aging and disease. He brought a whole new intensity to Realism in painting - which many categorized as Magic Realism - earning him the rather unkind title "painter of horrors". Albright eventually won the respect of curators and critics, but his unflinching view of the human body in decline was just too confrontational to garner widespread popular approval. Albright produced a smaller number of hugely impressive still lifes, and was also recognized as an accomplished printmaker and engraver.
- Albright paintings, which rather defy any straightforward classification, have nevertheless been put under the banner of "Magic Realism". This is because, unlike the German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, the heroic figures of Social Realism, or the photographic qualities of Hyperrealism, his ultrarealistic paintings feature such a finely detailed and heightened attention to detail, his subjects are transformed into figures so disquieting and strange they become almost hallucinations within the representational world from which they emerged.
- Albright would often spend years on a single painting and was painstaking in his preparation. So total was his control over his art he would design sets for his paintings, build preparatory models and make graphic plans for his color schemes. He even made his own paints and charcoal and, when his painting was finally finished, Albright would personally engrave its picture frame.
- Albright complemented his portraits with a small number of still lifes combining organic and manmade detritus and junk. These unusual and captivating mosaics, which sometimes introduced an abstracted human feature (such as a hand emerging through a door or window), were always disconcertedly "Albrightian" and created great pictorial intrigue amongst viewers.
- Albright once said: "A painting should be a piece of philosophy - or why do it?" This reasoned approach was evident in his journals, in his art, and even in the titles of his paintings which he very often conceived of as pieces poetry in their own right. One of his best known still lifes, for instance, is known generally as The Window but its full title reads as: Poor Room - There is No Time, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever and Ever Without End (The Window).
The Life of Ivan Albright
While many artists, before or since, have addressed themselves to the wear and tear of everyday life on the human body and soul, none have done so with Albright's dispassionate and unflinching eye for detail: "make flesh more like flesh than has ever been made before; make flesh close, close, and closer, until you feel it", he said.
Important Art by Ivan Albright
This early painting was awarded the Mrs. John C. Shaffer Prize for portraiture in the Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago & Vicinity. It shows a lineman (a worker who lays and maintains railroad tracks). Albright was already leaning toward a style of painting that emphasizes the fragility of the human body and the frailty of the human psyche. Albright's lineman (the model was in fact a neighbor named Arthur Stanford) is standing, his shoulders slumped, his clothing in disarray, and his expression betraying a sense of exhaustion and despondency. The work represents Albright's conscious decision to rebel against what he called the "pretty pretty" paintings produced by his father.
The critic Robert Archambeau asserts that "rejecting his father's aesthetic did not lead him to embrace the alternative artistic paradigms in the 1920s and 1930s: when he paints workers, for example, there is nothing of the burly nobility of Socialist Realism". This was made clear when The Lineman was printed on the cover of the May 1928 issue of the industry trade magazine Electric Light & Power, provoking, in Archambeau words, "an angry backlash from readers who, regardless of their politics, would clearly have preferred the healthy, clear-eyed proletarians painted under the direction of the Soviet cultural commissars". One of the magazine's subscribers wrote to the editor: "Frankly, all I can see in Mr. Albright's picture is a down-and-out tramp who has stolen a lineman's belt and pole strap".
Electric Light & Power received countless other complaints about the downbeat artwork. As the art historian Robert Cozzolino observed: "Most assumed Albright had picked a bum off the street to model. In fact, Stanford was a lineman. Electric Light and Power attempted reconciliation with its readers by placing an idealized photograph of 'the modern lineman' on its August cover. The fury symbolized Albright's position in the art world; while accepted by cultural institutions and many critics, his works met with indignation and hostility from the public and more conservative reviewers".
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida
Perhaps Albright's most famous figure was a nineteen-year-old mother named Ida Rogers who answered the artist's local advertisement for a live model. It was the first of his works to be painted at his newly built studio in Warrenville. The work is also indicative of the period when Albright's personal style was more-or-less solidified, and it gained him his first serious recognition amongst critics. Cozzolino writes, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida was at that time Albright's "most accomplished meditation on the body and has a vanitas theme throughout all of its compositional elements. Albright claimed he had walked around his model to view her from different angles, an approach that reveals more of the form than is customary from a single point. This constant shifting of perspective makes the objects and the model look unstable, nearly dizzying in uncertainty".
Despite Ida Rogers's tender years, the image is one of an elderly woman sat on a wicker chair. She is holding a make-up compact close to her chest in her left hand while looking into the small mirror held in her right. Her unkempt clothing, featuring a low-cut top and short skirt, expose her loose and discolored skin. She wears an expression of despair at the realization of her physical demise. Adding to the painting's general mood of malaise, is the badly untended room which features a discarded handkerchief and other unidentifiable items of trash. The model sits beside a wooden vanity upon which rests (among other objects) a lit cigarette, which critic Robert Archambeau understands as "an emblem for the waning fire of her life". The bleak lighting from above might even be read as a calling from heaven in lieu of her impending demise.
This sense of weakness in the human body is reinforced by the symbolic inclusion of wilting flowers and a black background. Art historian Susan Weininger notes that the image includes money and makeup, which likely serve as "symbols of the futile steps people take to ward off death". These items, Weininger argues, are in fact "symbols of death"; or what art critic Jackson Arn calls "a latter-day vanitas". Indeed, it is known that Albright was fascinated by the medieval concept of vanitas; a symbolic work that, as a reminder of one's own mortality, is a close relative of the memento mori ("remember you will die") and the idea that all things (and people) are fated to death. Ida proved to be the first great success for Albright. She was reproduced in several important art periodicals, and the painting won a gold medal in the Chicago Society of Artists annual exhibition in 1931. Six years later Ida won First Prize at the Springfield, Massachusetts Art League.
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)
Cozzolino called The Door "A hallucinogenic painting in both psychological and visual effect [that] remains one of Albright's best known works". This eight-foot-tall, three-foot-wide, painting took ten years of painstaking work and was based on a collection of found objects. The Door went on to receive first place awards at major exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago all in 1941. It presents an ornately carved but dilapidated wooden door upon which hangs a large funeral wreath. At the time of completion, Albright considered this to be his most important work, encapsulating his philosophy on life: "Death is the greatest event in the philosopher's life", he wrote, "Our bodies are our earthen shelters undercover of which we live. To really see ourselves, we have to step out from our shelters, and that time comes with death". This worldview probably accounts for the painting's human presence which, even if only barely noticeable, is manifest in the emerging hand (to the middle-left of the frame).
Chicago Journalist Alan Artner explains that in order the create The Door, "Albright first assembled a model of the same size, including a carved molding for the lintel and jamb, a tombstone for the threshold, an actual Victorian door and such props as his grandmother's handkerchief". He then executed a detailed charcoal underdrawing before beginning the process of painting the finely detailed work. Artner also notes that Albright took into consideration the scale of the painting and the perspective at which it would be seen, noting that "Albright's eye level was just below the center of the wreath. Viewed upward or downward from that point, the door's edges would begin to converge, so he exaggerated the effect to make the shape of the jamb suggest a coffin. Then, to paint the panels ascending on the door, he gradually shifted his viewpoints from right to left. These shifts, combined with the lighting and the tilt he gives the top two squares, help create the work's unsettling atmosphere".
In 1938 Albright began a practice whereby he would exhibit "works in progress". As Cozzolino notes Albright "exhibited The Door in its unfinished state at the Pittsburgh Carnegie International where it caused a sensation. According to lore, the unfinished canvas was displayed in an elaborately carved frame [now lost] that apparently caused the entire object to resemble a casket. The powerful effect was noted by many, including Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph critic Dorothy Kantner who wrote, 'if [Albright's] canvas doesn't squelch your joie de vivre you are pretty hard-shelled'".
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
The Picture of Dorian Gray
This painting was commissioned to be included in director Albert Lewin's Academy Award winning 1945 movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), in which the narcissistic title character commissions a portrait of himself as a handsome young man, before trading his soul for eternal youth and beauty. As a result of this Faustian pact, Gray becomes increasingly corrupt, unscrupulous, and malevolent, while, simultaneously, his portrait deteriorates in age and beauty symbolizing his declining morality. Considering Albright's reputation for painting highly detailed portraits that foreground the grotesque and fragile aspects of human appearance and human nature, it comes as little surprise that Lewin would seek Albright out to paint the older portrait of Gray. As art critic Jackson Arn put it, "In Wilde's account, the picture of Dorian Gray absorbs each and every one of its owner's sins, year after year - what better artist than Albright, who labored over every microscopic lesion and wrinkle, to paint it?"
The painting of the young Dorian Gray was (having initially been offered to Malvin Albright) given to Portuguese portrait painter Henrique Medina. Over the course of the film, as the portrait decays, Albright modified Medina's work, with his own portrait serving as the final vision of the of the broken and corrupt Gray. Even though the film was shot in black-and-white, to achieve its full effect, Albright's painting was filmed in sumptuous technicolor. Indeed, as part of the film's promotion, MGM Studios toured Albright's painting country-wide. Arn argues that the painting "is fiercely, wrenchingly literal, the culmination of everything [Albright had] learned about portraying the body". But according to Cozzolino, "Albright considered this Hollywood commission as an amusing digression from his studio work [even] though it remained synonymous with his artistic identity". Indeed, Albright's Picture of Dorian Gray marked the highpoint in the artist's fame.
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Poor Room - There Is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever without End (The Window)
Albright was notoriously assiduous, with rumors persisting that he took up to ten hours to cover a square inch of canvas. He is rightly classified a portraitist, but Albright also painted a number of very important still lifes, including The Window. To create the painting, Albright spent a great deal of time collecting organic and manmade objects and arranging them into a model from which he based this canvas. He began the work in Warrenville, Illinois, before transporting the entire model and artwork to Chicago where it was finally completed. Even though this work (with That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) (1931-41)) is one of the few that does not focus on the human subject he nevertheless introduces (again) a human element in the form of a hand emerging from the window-like space (lower center left).
Curator and art historian John Murphy notes that, even when human figures are not the central subjects of his works, Albright's paintings still "shock, dismay and fascinate audiences". It is also interesting to note that this and many of Albright's other works were given excessively long, poetic titles, which were composed only after the work was completed. Not only was Albright an aspiring poet, it is also suggested that he penned these poetic titles as a sign of rebellion against his father's artworks, which favored short descriptive titles.
The finished version of The Window debuted in September 1963 at the Dunn International exhibition in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where it was awarded a $5,000 prize. Cozzolino notes that the selection committee consisted of John Richardson, Sir Kenneth Clark, Sir Anthony Blunt, Alfred Barr Jr. and Gordon Washburn who were attempting "to show the current condition of the contemporary art world in 1963 by exhibiting the 'hundred best living artists'". Richardson, a prominent British Art Historian, "explained to Albright's friend and collector, Earle Ludgin, in an appeal for a loan from his collection: "Mr. Alfred Barr is particularly anxious that a painting by Ivan Le Lorraine Albright should be included. So am I, as Albright strikes me as being one of the strongest, most personal and most American of American artists, and he is very little known [in Britain]'".
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Hail to the Pure
Later in life, when his eyesight was badly deteriorating, Albright began experimenting with lithographs. He was diagnosed as clinically blind before he underwent a surgery in August 1977 that restored his vision (which he likened to a miracle). This work was given by Albright as a gift to the doctor who performed the surgery. Likely because of its intention to be given as a gift, it is uncharacteristic of his oeuvre as a whole. Here he presents an attractive face of a young girl, who appears to wear a crown and a flower in her hair, with several other objects and smaller faces surrounding the central figure.
Many of Albright's other lithographs, etchings, and drypoints, took as their point of departure his earlier paintings, maintaining a consistent theme of human deterioration. According to Albright's biographer Michael Croyden, he "always relegated printmaking to an adjunct role of his pictorial genius". Indeed, he made very few prints during his lifetime, somewhere around twenty, estimates curator and art historian John Murphy. Yet, as Murphy also asserts, Albright's prints "occupied an important place in his oeuvre, having afforded him the opportunity to reimagine earlier compositions. For an artist so concerned with the effects of time, such temporal circularity has meaning: a painting unfinished in 1930, for example, becomes a lithograph in 1940 and a drypoint in 1972. [...] For Albright, the work of looking and understanding was ongoing, never finished, subject to flux and transformation. His lithographs, etchings and drypoints thus engage with his deepest artistic concerns and preoccupations and merit the same attention as his indelible paintings".
Lithograph on white wove paper - The Art Institute of Chicago
Self-Portrait (No. 13)
This work is one of twenty-four self-portraits (reminiscent of Rembrandt's penchant for late-life self-portraits) that Albright produced between 1981 and his death in 1983. They were produced at the invitation of the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy, which has a 400-year history of collecting artist self-portraits. The invitation was considered a great honor, and Albright was energized to produce the works in a range of media, but all on a small-scale. Each work carries on to the end of his life his stylistic legacy of presenting the human form in a highly detailed and typically brutal and uncompromising manner.
Sara Phalen, Director of the Warrenville Historical Society, notes that it is interesting to consider that these self-portraits are more than likely not just reflections upon Albright's own image, but also that of his identical twin, Malvin, and that in the process of producing them, he was contemplating the nature of their relationship; especially so having been estranged from one another for something like twenty years. The series of paintings not only confirmed his technical excellence, but also Albright's life-long credo: "the body is our tomb". Commenting on the series, curator Mark Pascale wrote: "[Albright] looks quite dead at that point [in his life] he's barely alive [...] it's sort of a summation of a career through the eyes of 20 self-portraits". The last word should perhaps go to Cozzolino who wrote: For a man who devoted his life to transforming corporeality into that which transcended it [his self-portrait] seems as close to the soul as one will ever see".
Oil on hardboard - The Art Institute of Chicago
Biography of Ivan Albright
Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, and his identical twin Malvin Marr Albright, were born prematurely (weighing only three pounds each) to mother Clara Wilson, a well-educated graduate of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and father Adam Emory Albright, in the Chicago suburb of North Harvey, Illinois. Adam, a descendent twice removed of immigrant German Moravian gunsmiths, was a modestly successful Impressionist painter who studied under American realist artist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), with Carl von Marr in Munich, and Benjamin Constant in Paris. He became especially well known on the Chicago art scene for his unblemished landscapes and idealized portraits of children, with young Ivan and Malvin often modeling for their father.
When Ivan and Malvin were eight years old (also, they had an older brother, Lisle Murillo Albright, who had no interest in art) their father began giving Ivan and Malvin lessons in drawing and painting, placing great emphasis on anatomical precision. He took the twins on frequent visits to the Art Institute of Chicago (he himself had a one-man exhibition at the Institute in the early twentieth century), where they were introduced to American Impressionist and Realist painters such as Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Tarbell, and John Twachtman. Following several house moves, the family settled finally in the affluent Hubbard Woods suburb of Chicago, where the twins attended New Trier High School.
Education and Early Training
By his teenage years, Albright was pushing against the pressure he felt to step into his father's shoes. As the art historian Robert Cozzolino writes: "Albright formed an early repugnance for the politics and commercial ambitions that he saw operating in his father's artistic circle; he was determined not to become an artist. He called [his father] a 'short term artist,' believing him interested only in sales" Albright himself recalled: "At that period my father was known in the city. And we entertained one summer ... I think we had 3000 club women out there [in our suburban home] in the matter of a month and a half and they always say, 'little boy, are you going to be an artist when you grow up?' And I got to hate it ... I said 'I'll never be an artist. I'll be an architect, an engineer, anything. I'll dig a ditch, plaster a wall, but I don't want to be an artist'".
However, Albright came to realize that, while he didn't want to make "pretty pretty" pictures like his father, painting was in fact his strongest suit and he enrolled at the College of Liberal Arts of Northwestern University in 1915. His brother enrolled at the same school shortly after. Ivan, however, dropped out of the program in 1916 and transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana. The twins remained close and built adjoining studios in Warrington, Illinois (even though they forbade the other from entering his own workspace).
When World War One broke, Ivan and Malvin joined the US war effort. After military training in Iowa, the brothers were posted to a Base Hospital in Nantes, France, with the American Expeditionary Force Medical Corps.. Malvin was placed on Guard Duty while Ivan became a "medical drawer". Albright recalled how, having arrived in France, he began making sketches of local scenery which he sold to serving doctors so he might earn enough money to "buy a little wine or something". He was duly approached by a base Captain to draw scenes from the operating theater.
By the time the brothers returned to the US in the fall of 1919 (following a "two day and two night" period of study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nantes) Albright had completed a total of eight journals of graphite drawings and watercolor paintings of medical and surgical illustrations. As critics such as Robert Torchia and Zoë Samels have surmised, Albright's time at the hospital was "an experience that surely shaped his later aesthetic". But, as Cozzolino records, "Albright consistently downplayed the medical ward as an artistic influence throughout his career [and] even emphatically denied its impact. He did [however] admit he found x-rays to be a great revelation, excited on 'seeing right through the body' and called it the 'best art training' ever'".
On his return, Albright returned to his architectural studies at The University of Illinois but lasted just one week before moving to Chicago where he worked briefly for the architect firm Dwight Heald Perkins. He also took on freelance advertising work for the hotel firm Albert Pick and Company but accepted his true calling by enrolling (with Malvin) at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in January 1920. According to art historian Chloe Bowers, the brothers flipped a coin to decide which of them would study painting and which would study sculpture. Malvin became a successful sculptor (and also landscape painter), working for a time under the pseudonym 'Zsissley', while "Ivan took the coin toss seriously and painted all his life".
Albright graduated from the Art Institute in 1923, receiving the "Faculty Honorable Mention" for his portrait and still life painting. However, he had felt restricted in Chicago. Albright said later in an interview, "In Chicago all I inherited was a whole crowd of my dad's enemies ... I couldn't compete for scholarships ... they'd eliminate me ... They didn't like my dad, so they took it out on me". The brothers arrived in New York In January 1924. Albright wanted to study at the Art Students' League under George Bellows but the Ashcan School painter was on sabbatical in Europe and so he elected to continue his studies at the more traditional National Academy of Design. There he came under the influence of the conservative portrait painter, Charles W. Hawthorne. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Hawthorne proved to be a most inspirational teacher instructing his pupils, "Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision - it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace". It would become Albright's mantra.
In 1925, the Albright brothers rented a studio space in Philadelphia, again, erecting a makeshift partition so they could work privately. It was here that Albright's signature style was beginning to take shape and his sketch and notebooks from this time tell us that he was studying the works of El Greco, Rembrandt, Holbein, Ferdinand Hodler, and Abbot Henderson Thayer. Indeed, Cozzolino notes that "Albright discredited the history of modernism in a review of 'Modern French Painting,' by stating that France had never birthed an artist equal to El Greco and Velazquez in Spain, Rubens in Belgium, Rembrandt in Holland or Dürer in Germany, suggesting that together the moderns were but a tiny blip in the history of art". His biographer Michael Croydon describes these early pieces in fact as "Baroque" and characterized by half-length portraits executed in a "sharp-focus style". They marked the point at which Albright's paintings were starting to attract reviews (not all of them favorable) which he collected and pasted into scrapbooks.
In late 1926, the Albright brothers visited California for three months, spending most of their time in the area around San Diego. Cozzolino notes that "Before leaving California, Albright began another pivotal early work at the San Luis Rey Mission in Oceanside. It was his largest and most powerful figural work to date. An elderly Irish monk named Brother Peter Haberlin posed for I Walk To and Fro Through Civilization and I Talk as I Walk (Follow Me, The Monk). The octogenarian monk stands in prayer, his hands clutching a crucifix. Behind him, light bursts and he seems to levitate as if in a state of purity [...] The selection of Brother Peter as a model made explicit Albright's fascination with spirituality, the aging of the body, strong solid form and narrative, poetic titles. It also showed a growing interest in the total art object, as a hand-carved frame surrounds the canvas. One of the most distinguished aspects of Albright's art making practices was his well-crafted consideration of the impact of a completely unified object: in title, content, composition, and in its frame".
By the time the twins returned to Warrenville in late 1927, their father had transformed a Methodist church into the Albright Gallery of Painting and Sculpture. Once more the brothers could enjoy their own studio space. Ivan saw it as the beginnings proper of his mature style. He stated, "My painting calls for far greater study... in value, color, design and conception". Indeed, he dismissed his previous works as "very sloppy", "careless", and showing a "lack of knowledge". Albright became so obsessive about lighting, he painted his studio matte black, wore all-black clothing (as a way of eliminating any potential for glare) while lighting his sitters through a skylight (which he controlled). Croydon likened Albright's studio environment in fact to the interior of a camera. The building also doubled as an exhibition space for the Albright clan, and as a gathering place for other local artists.
As the decade neared its end, Albright's challenging style had still not won over the public. But critics, though ambivalent still towards his choice of subject matter, began to see some quality in his work. As art historian Elizabeth Lee put it, Albright "was praised by critics for his precise, meticulous forms and yet also reviled for his off-putting approach to the human figure". In 1929 his painting Woman (1928) was exhibited at the Toledo Museum of Art as part of the 17th Exhibition of Selected Paintings by Contemporary American Artists. He presented his model as a frail, flabby and gray, old woman, in an old fur coat which she wears inside-out. As New York's Museum of Modern Art described, "decay of the human body pervades this painting [and] rather than transforming her into an idealized image of femininity [Albright] treated her as a dour symbol of the aging body and the enervating forces of life". A local audience group found the painting so objectionable they succeeded in having it removed from display. Soon, however, a second group of pro-Albright protestors brought enough influence to have the painting re-hung.
Albright was soon to exhibit to acclaim with fourteen pieces (alongside the portrait and landscape painters George Baer and Martin Baer) at the Art Institute of Chicago in July 1931. He received a Gold Medal form the Chicago Society of Artists for his portrait of an elderly woman, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929-30), of which art critic Robert Archambeau said: "Albright's image implies that we are lost souls that, trapped in the flesh of dying animals, have forgotten what we are, and where we belong. This world is irrevocably fallen, a place of death and decay, and we have lost our connection with a better one".
By the early 1930s the artist had effectively established the wholly unique "Albright style". Cozzolino writes, "Albright himself supported the idea of his work existing in a vacuum. He constantly denied any influence on his work and even denied his context with the very contemporaries he competed with in exhibition. He consciously positioned himself in a manner that might be perceived as anti-modernist, yet his statements and his practice anticipate or run parallel to those approaches considered canonical avant-garde territory". In fact, his (relative) success continued throughout the 1930s, despite this being the period of economic depression. Albright himself later reflected, "people bought my paintings whether times were good or bad [so the Depression] didn't make a bit of difference".
Like so many of his contemporaries, Albright participated in the WPA (part of President Roosevelt's New Deal) for which he executed two paintings between 1933 and 1934 (despite being promised thirty eight dollars per week in the program as a "class A" artist, he claimed he have never received payment). Later, in May 1939, Albright's mother passed away, which profoundly affected both brothers. Over the next few summers, they spent time together in Maine working on their art. Albright entered a highly productive period and by 1941, the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago Daniel Catton Rich was hailing Albright as "one of the most original artists in America today". Albright would receive the patronage of the museum throughout the rest of his career.
In 1942 Albright received new recognition for an 8-foot-tall work called That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) (1931-41). It shows a dilapidated and weathered door on which is hung a funeral wreath and it had taken Albright some ten years to complete. The painting won both the Temple Gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the medal for best picture in the "Artists for Victory" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His growing reputation was accelerated with his Picture of Dorian Gray (1943-44) which showed Oscar Wilde's eponymous antihero as a decaying figure in the final stage of life. It was commissioned for a Hollywood film of the same name. As critic Jackson Arn writes, "In 1943, film director Albert Lewin - then in the early stages of adapting Wilde's macabre tale for the big screen - went in search of an artist suited to paint a version of the famous picture. The artist he commissioned for the task was [Albright] and the image Albright completed would become one of the jewels of his career, not to mention the film's most memorable highlight".
In 1946 Albright married a divorcée and heiress named Josephine Medill Patterson Reeve. Reeve's family had founded the Chicago Tribune and the couple eventually settled in the city (having spent short spells in Ten Sleep. Wyoming and Billings, Montana). Reeve had two children from a previous relationship, and they were adopted by Albright. The couple also had two children together: a son in 1947, Adam Medill (and future spouse of Madeleine Albright, the first female United States Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton between 1997-2001), and, in 1949, a daughter, Blandina Van Etten. Throughout their marriage the couple found time to travel the world, visiting Russia, China, Japan, Iran, Greece, Kenya, Alaska, and England. Albright produced numerous sketches and drawings on his travels, but at the suggestion that new and exotic locations may have influenced his studio works, Albright surprisingly stated: "Actually one place is just as good as another for me. Traveling around the world wouldn't move me any more than sitting right here in my studio. It's the meaning that you bring to your painting that's important".
Late Period and Death
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Albright turned from large-scale works to smaller portraits and self-portraits. The Albright's moved several times: to Aspen, Colorado, a plantation near Jacksonville, Georgia, and a ranch in Dubois, Wyoming. The plantation and the ranch belonged to Josephine's family and these proved to be inspirational settings for Albright's art. The plantation and surrounding area saw Albright produce several "swamp themed" subjects, while the ranch inspired several Western-themed works. It was also around this time that he fell out, and lost touch, with his brother, for reasons that remain unclear.
In 1957, Albright's father passed away. Then, in the early 1960s, the city of Chicago tore down his Ogden Avenue studio to erect a shopping mall. This, as well as the fact that artistic tastes of the time were turning toward Abstraction, Pop Art, and Minimalism, left Albright feeling unappreciated and irrelevant within the Chicago art community. In 1963 the Albright's moved to Woodstock, Vermont but his eyesight began to deteriorate significantly, leading him to be registered as clinically blind. Fortunately, a corneal transplant in 1967 restored his vision and he was able to resume working.
The first major work Albright produced in Vermont was The Vermonter (1966-77). His model was a retired member of the Vermont House of Representatives and maple farmer named Kenneth Atwood. Albright stated that he had selected Atwood because he "has lived and feels as tired as I do". Indeed, the painting was seen a precursor to Albright's late career defining self-portraits. But Cozzolino argues that, "The true and overlooked context of The Vermonter lies with contemporary paintings by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti [...] Albright and Giacometti, not to mention Bacon, shared similar views about the role and participation of models in painting, and the transformative experience before them as working through the painter. The Vermonter bears close resemblance to images of popes, depicted by artists from Raphael to Velasquez to Francis Bacon, and reinforces Albright's own claims for the sense of the spiritual in this late work". Cozzolino suggests in fact that his interest in spirituality found its most explicit manifestation in his "near obsession with the legendary Shroud of Turin, which became the inspiration for several works of art through the 1970s until his death".
Because of his family's comfortable financial situation, Albright enjoyed the luxury of no longer needing to sell his art. Indeed, he never had a dealer and was not affiliated with a dedicated gallery. In 1977, having held on to so many of his (150-or-so) works, Albright donated nearly all of his paintings to the Art Institute of Chicago and hundreds of travel sketches and drawings to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. That same year he and his brother reunited (on their birthday) for the first time in nearly twenty years. Between 1981-83 Albright produced a series of self-portraits at the invitation of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. Deeply flattered by the invitation, Albright produced the twenty-four small scale works in a range of media. In 1983, and having recently suffered a stroke, Albright completed the last of his self-portraits before passing away on November 18, 1983, just a few short months after the death of his brother Malvin.
The Legacy of Ivan Albright
Albright became (in)famous in the early-to-mid-twentieth century for his finely detailed portraits (and a smaller number of still lifes) that, through a combination of extraordinary attention to detail and stark lighting singled him out as true one-of-a-kind. The art critic Jackson Arn describes Albright's style as "a peculiar synthesis of his formal training" (through which he acquired a "formidable knowledge" of European art history) and "his grisly days in France" (as WWI medical orderly). One can trace in his attention to detail and light application of color, the influence of El Greco, Albrecht Dürer, and the late-career self-portraits of Rembrandt. Indeed, Albright's technical mastery is beyond dispute, but his moribund worldview - what curator Sarah Kelly Oehler described as "both enticing and repulsive at the same time" - may have proved too disconcerting to be widely accepted by the public. For example, critic Irwin St. John Tucker asked ironically why an artist would want to "paint a woman with flesh the color of a corpse drowned six weeks [ago]?"
Given his morbid obsession with the "expiring" condition of the human body, his painting has been described as Magic Realist; that being, in the words of literature and arts professor Matthew Strecher, "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe". Albright did exhibit at the 1943 exhibition Realism and Magical Realism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but the artist himself never associated with the Magic Realists, nor any art movement for that matter. As art historian Robert Cozzolino summarized, "Unaffected by the world around him, influencing no one and devoid of external artistic contamination he pursued an intensely personal vision". Indeed, while great fame might have eluded him, Albright can still lay claim to a genuinely unique position in the pantheon of twentieth century American artists.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Ivan Albright
- Ivan AlbrightOur PickBy Michael Croydon
- Ivan AlbrightOur PickBy Courtney Graham Donnell, Susan S. Weininger, Robert Cozzolino, and Susan F. Rossen