Review: Duveneck, the Painting Genius, Has a Gala in His Home Gallery, Again

The following review is written by James Dady, a contributor to The River City News

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s current exhibition, “Frank Duveneck: American Master,” is a triumph, a gesture of curatorial bravura in celebration of the work of the city’s most famous and best-loved visual artist.

Those who’ve not experienced Mr. Duveneck’s work before now can have the pleasure of doing so for the first time.

Those with familiar with it are offered an immersion in about 90 of his works and those of a few of other artists included to offer context.

Those well-familiar will revel in the experience.

The introductory essay by Barbara Daye Gallati in the sumptuous catalogue accompanying the show relates that Duveneck scholarship until now has emphasized the artist’s compelling personal story, and that it is the intent of the catalogue and the show to construct “a more thoroughgoing analysis of Duveneck’s art in relation to the wider cultural environment he occupied.” At this both the catalogue and the exhibition succeed handsomely.

It is understandable that Mr. Duveneck’s compelling biography of high genius and personal tragedy would attract more attention than the work itself.

He was born in Covington October 9, 1948, to Bernard and Catherine Siemer Decker. Bernard died the next year, and two years after that Catherine married Joseph Duveneck, a grocer, and justice of the peace who operated a beer garden at 13th & Greenup adjoining the family home. Frank was given his stepfather’s surname and was raised with eight step-siblings.

At 11, Mr. Duveneck completed an oil painting, “Impatience or Involuntary Servitude,” that depicts a mature woman and a boy engrossed in what appears to a game of cat’s cradle as a small dog looks on.

In a narration at the exhibition accompanying Mr. Duveneck’s oil of an African soldier, “Guard of the Harem,” it is said that his attitudes about race are unknown. The catalogue reports that Catherine harbored fugitive slaves making their way north on the Underground Railroad.

Young Frank was a painting prodigy. He painted signs as a preadolescent. He began painting and sculpting in early adulthood in an apprenticeship with the Catholic Altar Stock Building Company in Covington. His work adorned Catholic churches as far away as New Jersey and Quebec, Canada.

By the time he was 21, he had travelled to Munich with the patronage of his stepfather and was enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he immediately began to win prizes. 

By age 24 he had completed “The Whistling Boy,” a study of a lad engaged in adult labor. The painting is by consensus Mr. Duveneck’s tour de force. At the exhibition, it is displayed on the same wall as “The Carpenter’s Apprentice” and “He Lives By His Wits.” All three show boys used hard early by life. Mr. Duveneck’s portraits of the well-off found favor with those who bought his work and commissioned his portraits, but a contrary strain in his oeuvre portrayed those who inhabited society’s underside. His imagination was often occupied by characters like those he might have encountered at 13th and Greenup.

Mr. Duveneck’s foray in Munich was the first of many spent in European art capitals. Another was at the Bavarian town of Polling where he opened a painting school in 1878, and, as related by a character in Thomas Mann’s great novel Doctor Faustus, where “painters were as thick as blackberries.” Mr. Duveneck’s impressionistic landscapes, some in oil, some in watercolor, dominate a brilliant corner of the exhibition.

Mr. Duveneck also lived and worked for a time in Florence, where flowered his relationship with his student Elizabeth Boott, known to her circle as Lizzie.  Ms. Boott, a Boston heiress, preferred to live and paint in Europe in the company of her father, Francis Boott. Both were given the Duveneck treatment in oil portraits displayed at opposite ends of a room in the exhibition. The show-goer may take note that the hazel in Mr. Boott’s eyes mirrors that in the portrait of his daughter in portraits executed seven years apart.

Mr. Duveneck liaison with the Bootts yielded the friendship and critical appreciation of no less than Henry James, the grandmaster of the American novel.

When Mr. Duveneck and Lizzie Boott fell in love, Mr. Boott had misgivings about the roughneck Bohemian artist as a spouse for his daughter, and insisted that Mr. Duveneck renounce claims to Lizzie’s fortune before giving consent to the marriage.  Mr. Boott soon rescinded the stipulation and the couple was married in 1886 and soon produced a son, Frank, Jr. In a tragic turn, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck contracted pneumonia and died just two years after the couple had married. Frank, Jr., was taken to be raised by relatives of Ms. Duveneck in Massachusetts.

The artist’s medium of etching, also known as intaglio, is a process by which a metal plate, usually copper or zinc, is coated with a ground of acid-resistant resin or wax. The design is drawn on the ground with a needle exposing the metal. Then the plate is submerged in acid, cutting into the exposed lines. The plate is removed frequently, and lines that are sufficiently deep are coated with varnish; others remain longer and produce darker, heavier lines when printed.

While working in Venice Mr. Duveneck produced a series of stunning etchings of representations of Venetian inhabitants, canals, bridges, and gothic architecture that are amply sampled in the exhibition.  A show of Mr. Duveneck’s Venice etchings alone would be well worth the price of admission.

The show also reflect’s the artist’s mastery in watercolor, monotype, and sculpture.

Mr. Duveneck’s time in Italy brought forth more of his prodigies in oil, including “Florentine Flower Girl,” “Florentine Flower Girl With Fan,” “Canal Scene With Washerwomen, Venice,” and “Water Carriers, Venice,” all of them virtuosic displays of color, rendering of Italian light, and depth of feeling for the Italian female form. Italy was the setting of “Italian Courtyard” and “Italian Doorway,” both oils of such perfection as to seem divine.

By the 1890s, after his wife had passed and he had returned to America more or less permanently, Mr. Duveneck began to work in pastel, a medium of chalk and pigment, tempered in gum-water and usually molded into sticks. Its other exponents have included Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mr. Duveneck’s contemporary and friend, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The exhibition includes studies of the subject Marie Danforth Page in both oil and pastel. Seen side by side, each informs the viewers understanding and appreciation of the other.

Also in the 1890s, the artist developed an interest in rendering the nude figure. One such work is the pastel, “Siesta,” of a reclined figure with her intimate parts carefully concealed, a nod in the direction of contemporary mores. 

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Mr. Duveneck occupied the very front rank of artists of his era.

None other than Henry James was one of his greatest champions. He attributed to Mr. Duveneck certain qualities observed in the work of Diego Velazquez, the 17th century Baroque Spaniard whose influence has been felt in the Impressionist era in the 19th century and in such 20th century figures as Picasso, Dali, and Francis Bacon. Early in his experience with Mr. Duveneck, Mr. James wrote that he would “take it hard” if Mr. Duveneck failed to do something of the first importance. 

After viewing Mr. Duveneck’s work in Boston, Mr. James praised it in critical essays published in The Galaxy and the Nation in 1875.

Mr. James was fascinated by the triangle of Mr. Duveneck, Ms. Boott Duveneck, and Francis Boott – the heiress daughter, the father, and the outsider bidding for the daughter’s affection. The web of relationships suggest some of the materials for Mr. James’s last great novel, The Golden Bowl (1904), which the master called “the most finished of my productions.” 

The exhibition catalogue includes a chapter on the real-life relations among Duveneck and the Boots, and how traces of them can be found in Mr. James’s work, contributed by the contemporary Irish-American novelist Colm Toibin.

Mr. Duveneck’s work earned devotion elsewhere in the highest critical and curatorial circles. 

“The artist’s [Mr. Duveneck’s] power to bring out characters appears … in his portraits of buildings. He may take liberties with his boats and the graceful figures of his boatmen, but he takes no liberties with the fair-faced places beautifully devoid of superfluous features, serene, of classical proportions, yet piquant with the sprightliness of the race that built them,” enthused Henry McBride in the New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Duveneck was called “the greatest genius of the American brush” by John Singer Sargent, his equally eminent contemporary.

Selected himself as a juror for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, Mr. Duveneck was ineligible to enter its competition, but an impromptu decision by foreign jurors who, after viewing a collection of his paintings, etchings, and sculpture, honored him with a special gold medal.

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For all of his virtuosity as an artist, Mr. Duveneck won even greater renown as an art teacher.  He acquired a devoted following of students, known as the Duvenbeck Boys as early as his time in Munich. 

A large photographic reproduction of the artist at his easel with a large contingent of students in rapt attention covers a curving wall at the exhibition. He taught as many as 100 students at a time.

Mr. Duveneck taught at the Ohio Mechanics Institute, the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and at the art museum itself. He was a founder of the Cincinnati Art Club, where he gave painting demonstrations.

“He always inspired activity in others; he was rarely without a large and devoted following,” wrote Elizabeth Robbins Pennell in a narrative captured by the exhibition. It has been written that his influence as a teacher is his most important contribution to American art. It is reported at the exhibition that “Mr. Duveneck could keep his students “keyed up to the highest pitch of endeavor” and that the same time “he was endlessly patient.” 

John Twachtman, whose elegant work has long hung in the Cincinnati Art Museum, was a student of Mr. Duveneck.

Elizabeth Boott persuaded Mr. Duveneck to move from Munich to Florence and to teach there, where she and her father had rented an apartment in the Villa Castellani at Bellosguardo. She facilitated arrangements with patrons  and galleries and encouraged her classmates from the William Morris Hunt School in Boston “[T]o come and get a winter in Italy and the best teacher in the world.”

In 1917, two years before his death, the artist was granted a Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Cincinnati in recognition of his accomplishments as an artist and teacher.

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Celebrated in the citadels of art across the world, Mr. Duveneck has never stopped being a Cincinnatian, a Kentuckian, a Covingtonian, even more than a century after his passing.

The art museum’s current Duveneck gala follows one in 1987 that emphasized his work in Europe. It is easy to imagine that the museum will be putting on Duveneck galas every few decades long into the future. Mr. Duveneck has been the greatest benefactor in the history of the museum. It is inconceivable that there will come a day when Frank Duveneck will not be remembered as the museum’s most revered patron and artist.

The Frank Duveneck Arts and Cultural Center occupies the quarter of Covington where he was born and where he kept a studio. In the 1960s, Vance Trimble, then the editor of The Kentucky Post, helped to raise a fund which led to the aggregation of the ten Duvenecks that hang in the main branch of the Kenton County Library in Covington.

Two of the artist’s religious installations survive in Covington’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.

To make distinctive a regenerating quarter of the city, Covington commissioned a sculpture depicting the artist that stands at the corner of Washington and Pike streets now known as Duveneck Square.

A large funerary sculpture in memoriam to the artist executed by Clement J. Barnhorn adorns Duveneck’s grave at Mother of God Cemetery in Fort Wright.

His work still is traded among the moneyed cognoscenti in and around his hometown.

Covington’s Behringer-Crawford Museum has planned its own celebration of the artist. Its “Year of Duveneck” which will feature lectures about him around northern Kentucky begins February 17.

An homage to Mr. Duveneck’s “The Cobbler’s Apprenticeship,” a collaboration of twelve young artists as part of ArtWorks’ street mural program, and called “The Cobbler’s Apprenticeship Plays Ball,” adorns a wall at 120 East Freedom Way in downtown Cincinnati near Great American Ballpark

Perhaps the best anecdote about the great man’s local imprint is attributed to Theodore Faurer, who ran a saloon in downtown Cincinnati Mr. Duveneck frequented. “Siesta,” (1900), the artist’s lovely pastel nude, scandalized viewers when first shown at the Cincinnati Art Club. Mr. Faurer purchased the picture and hung it in his saloon, but even there it caused talk. When Prohibition closed the establishment in 1919, Mr. Faurer gave “Siesta” to the art museum. 

Mr. Faurer was heard to say, “That girl was too naked for my saloon, but she was not too naked for high society.”

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“Frank Duveneck: American Master” runs through March 28 at the museum. It is a ticketed event free to museum members. Access to the show has been curtailed by the Covid pandemic. But if it is believed that the highest expression of civilization is in its art, then the show will be a singular event in the life of its viewers and is not to be missed.

For details, click here.

-James Dady

Image via Cincinnati Art Museum

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