Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Ivan Albright Photo

Ivan Albright

American Painter

Born: February 20, 1897 - North Harvey, Illinois
Died: November 18, 1983 - Woodstock, Vermont
Movements and Styles:
Magic Realism
,
American Realism
"I find that my thumb close up is as big as the highest mountains ... I would in that case rather paint my thumb, because I can get around it easier and see what it is all about."
1 of 8
Ivan Albright
"All curves of etching tool have to follow curvature of lips, of chin, of cheek bones - make it as strong as granite sculpture. Work, pray, worship, love it."
2 of 8
Ivan Albright
"A painting should be a piece of philosophy - or why do it?"
3 of 8
Ivan Albright
"Make flesh more like flesh than has ever been made before; make flesh close, close, and closer, until you feel it."
4 of 8
Ivan Albright
"Things are nothing. It's what happens to them that matters."
5 of 8
Ivan Albright
"In any part of life you find something either growing or disintegrating. All life is strong and powerful, even in the process of dissolution. For me, beauty is a word without real meaning. But strength and power - they're what I'm after."
6 of 8
Ivan Albright
"The artist must be the human reservoir for all emotions, all thoughts, all kindness, cruelty, pain, joy."
7 of 8
Ivan Albright
"Loneliness is not a fault but a condition of existence."
8 of 8
Ivan Albright

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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).

Biography of Ivan Albright

Detail from <i>Self-Portrait</i> (1934) by 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.



Progression of Art

1927

The Lineman

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

1929-30

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

1931-41

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 (1943)
1943

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

1957-63

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 - Art Institute of Chicago

1977

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

1982

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


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Ivan Albright
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on Ivan Albright

articles
video clips

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Ivan Albright Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Available from:
First published on 21 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]