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While historians argue Duveneck's precise position in art history, all agree that he was significant regionally and nationally as an artist and as an outstanding educator. He was significant in the movement toward the primacy of the medium, the creation of an "art for art's sake" and as an exemplar of the American artist. Mastering draughtsmanship and the brush early in his career, he rapidly developed a naturalism constructed from rich sensuous brushwork. Rather than following the lead of contemporaries Whistler and Sargent, both who focused on fashionable society portraiture Frank Duveneck portrayed the ordinary person, the street gamin. And Duveneck memorialized these working class folk, presenting them with dignity and sympathy while offering the viewer insight into their persona. Duveneck, then, truly reflects American political ideals as well as his own working class immigrant background.
Known as A "ganzer Kerl" a good guy.[ 1 ] Duveneck was attractive, tall, blonde, blue eyed, charismatic and according to Neuhaus "generous to a fault." As a leading figure in the Munich school he became a major influence for "The Eight:" Robert Henri, Henry Luks, William Glacken to name only a few.[ 2 ]
Robert Henri described Duveneck's influence in a 1936 interview with Mary L. Alexander of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"Duveneck is a great master; ... an extremely sensitive painter, a great draughtsman and every stroke of his brush manifests a consciousness of life, an intense conception of nature .... A brush stroke which to the ordinary eye might seen [sic] crude or hasty is in his work the very perfect measure."[ 3 ]
Frank Duveneck was born October 9, 1848 in Covington, Kentucky, son of Bernard and Katherine Siemers Decker. Both parents were immigrants from Westphalia. Bernard Decker, a cobbler by trade, died of cholera in August of 1849, when Frank was only one year old. Katherine subsequently married Joseph Duveneck, a grocer, proprietor of a popular Beer Garden in Covington, as well as Justice of the Peace. [ 4 ]
Duveneck enjoyed little formal education but began painting early. In 1860 when only 12 years old he painted his first work, The Little Match Girl. Recognizing his skills Duveneck was apprenticed to Johann Schmidt the church decorator of Benedictine Monastery in Covington and in Cincinnati. The Benedictine Brothers Johan Schmidt, Cosmas Wolf and Wilhelm Lamprecht had founded an art studio in Covington at St. Josephs Church in 1863, originally named "the Institute of Catholic Art." Under the Fathers' tutelage Duveneck learned to mix paints, model and gild plaster medallions and paint floral borders.[ 5 ]
In 1866 Duveneck painted his second genre picture Involuntary Servitude or Boy with Skein of Yarn. These works, according to Booth, already drew strong inspiration from the 17th century Dutch painters, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen and Adriaen Brouwer in terms of compositional elements: note for instance, window placement, consequent lighting, costumes, furnishings and spatial illusionism.[ 6 ] His early works revealed such talent that Father Cosmas Wolf advised him to study in Munich. His stepfather agreed but only after he reached the age of 21. Until that time Duveneck continued working with Benedictine brothers traveling and painting with Lamprecht throughout U.S. and Canada.
Duveneck arrived in Munich Jan. 2, 1870 when the Royal Academy there was enthralled with what they described as "the New Realism" inspired by French Realist, Gustave Courbet as well as 17th century Dutch masters: Frans Hals, Rembrandt, the Italian, Michelangelo de Merisi, (Caravaggio) as well as the Spaniards, Goya and Velazquez.[ 7 ]
In Munich Duveneck studied with Wilhelm von Diez (1839-1907) who was a member of the Leibel-Kreis: (the Leibel circle). Wilhelm Leibel (1844-1900) relied on Courbet's technique of painting dark to light. A technique Duveneck would rely on through his most productive years.
Even In his first year Duveneck outshone all of the other students, winning
". . every prize given by the academy for drawing and composition."[ 8 ] While Duveneck showed strong influences from contemporary German Painters. He also revealed a strong influence from the Dutch and Flemish masters he studied in Munich.
Duveneck developed a direct painting method, modeling directly in paint with no preliminary under drawing, wet on wet, a technique he learned in Leibl circle in early 1870's. Michael Quick described his technique explaining that during this early period Duveneck never painted over dry paint, he applied one wet stroke upon another so that the two blended into one stroke on the canvas. He laid strokes side by side in the correct position and relationship so that no stroke obscured another.[ 9 ]
This technique according to Quick, required
"absolute clarity of observation and precision in judging exact color and value, in addition to masterly control of the brush." John Singer Sargent for this reason said,
"After all's said, Frank Duveneck is the greatest talent of the brush of this generation."[ 10 ]
Duveneck covered his canvases between sessions to keep his paint wet until completion. In regard to this final stage he once told his class:
"To paint a picture there needs to be two artists, one to paint and the other to tell him when to stop."[ 11 ]
In 1872 painted The Whistling Boy, though this is a misnomer; it is really The Smoking Boy suggesting again the profoundly strong influence of Adriaen Brouwer. Neuhaus described this work as a "painter's painting." and further suggested that the artist was inspired by the 19th century esthetic ideal, the
"autonomy of the fragment."[ 12 ] This tendency is significant in indicating his modernism and his obvious awareness of the primacy of the mark making, a forecast in fact of the Abstract Expressionists.
Duveneck remained in Munich till 1873 when either a cholera outbreak or lack of funds forced him home to Covington. Duveneck spent two years in Cincinnati, during that period sending a picture to Boston that attracted attention of William Morris Hunt. Hunt, a successful portrait artist and lecturer, had a well-known studio in Boston. Hunt praised Duveneck's painting, drawing critical attention to the young artist. Duveneck's work met with great success in Boston; in the form of several commissions for portraits as well as praise from the critics.[ 13 ] Finding less support in Cincinnati Duveneck decided to return to Munich accompanied by his pupil John Twachtman (1853-1902). Sharing a studio for a while with a fellow Midwesterner and painter, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).
Success continued for Duveneck when in 1877 the National Academy Exhibition in New York recognized him as:
"the most brilliant of the company of Young Americans."[ 14 ] Works from that period like Cobbler's Apprentice, 1877[ 15 ] demonstrate his continued reliance on the wet on wet technique as well as the Dutch penchant for humble subject matter. Significantly, a Self-Portrait in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art points more specifically to the Dutch painter Adriaen Brouwer. Duveneck's self-portrait, really a head study, reveals in its jaunty tilt, expressive face and the extraordinarily rendered plumes of smoke rings, a vibrant recollection of Brouwer's The Smoker of 1636, now in the Metropolitan Art Museum. Indeed Brouwer's influence seems to predominate in that like Brouwer, Duveneck's evocations of common folk and lively brush work are very similar in character to the Dutch painter's genre scenes.
Duveneck remained in Munich till 1877 then traveled to Venice with Chase. He spent nine months in Venice before returning to Munich and opening an art school for American and English students. His students, called the "Duveneck Boys" formed a devoted cadre in Munich and spent their summers in Polling sketching the landscape. Duveneck worked with his students in an abandoned monastery enjoying what several historians describe as a Bohemian existence.[ 16 ]
In 1879 Elizabeth Boott traveled to Munich from Florence just as Duveneck was leaving for Polling. Determined to study with him she returned to Munich the following winter. As painting sales diminished in Munich and possibly influenced by Boott, Duveneck moved his class to Florence. A period mirrored in William Dean Howell's novel, Indian Summer where the author's "Ingelhart Boys" activities reflect the antics of true life "Duveneck's Boys.[ 17 ]
For two years Duveneck and students spent winters in Florence and summers in Venice. His Florence classes included many of his companions from the summers in Polling. In Italy Duveneck's palette brightened and he experimented with new techniques and subjects.[ 18 ] More planned, and methodical in modeling Duveneck reversed his paint application and began to paint on dry paint. This technique required a careful placement of pigment, but less blending; while it was more uniform and systematic it was less spontaneous.[ 19 ]
Elizabeth had encouraged him to move away from "ugly" subjects and he seemed to heed her advise replacing his mischievous street urchins with graceful Italian peasant girls, During his Italian years he also began to experiment with etchings and monoprints. In 1880 he met Whistler. Both were producing etchings with Duveneck's ex pupil Otto Bacher. Many historians hold that Whistler drew some inspiration from both Duveneck's etchings and monoprints.[ 20 ]
In 1886 Duveneck married Elizabeth Boott and moved to the Florentine villa she shared with her father. During this period one of Duveneck's most impressive works was a Portrait of his Wife. In the spirit of Salon style portraits this work revealed a much more formal approach and Booth pointed out, the pigment was dry and thinly applied. Tragically Elizabeth died of pneumonia on March 22, 1888 while the couple was working in Paris. Shortly after this, a grief stricken Duveneck returned to live with his mother, brother and sister.[ 21 ] He would remain in the family house on Greenup Street in Covington for the remainder of his life.[ 22 ]
Painting in a studio transformed from mother's washhouse Duveneck lived simply despite the fact that Elizabeth left him $12,000 a year. [[ 23 ] Beginning in the summer 1890 Duveneck taught landscape painting in Gloucester to group of Boston students. He would continue to spend summers in Gloucester, demonstrating a growing interest in Impressionism with two studios to observe the light both in the morning and afternoon. In the fall he taught class at Cincinnati Art Museum and at the Art Academy during the winters of 1890-92.[ 24 ]
Through the 1890's Duveneck periodically returned to Europe for short visits. Recognition continued, in 1899 he was asked to jury for paintings in the 1900 Paris exposition. The following year Duveneck was appointed to the faculty of Art Academy in Cincinnati where he served until his death. Duveneck was next honored with a special exhibition of his work at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco where he received a gold medal. Before his death in 1919 the University of Cincinnati awarded Duveneck with an honorary doctorate.[ 25 ]
Duveneck demonstrated a deep devotion for the women in his life. Besides the elegant portrait of his wife Elizabeth he produced a remarkable sculpted tomb monument. In later years his sister Molly who kept house for him, frequently sat for him and her portraits are highly sensitive representations, in fact, some of his finest work. Besides the memorial murals he painted for his mother, Duveneck frequently painted her portrait. Like the murals, the 1902 Portrait of his Mother must be seen as a tribute.
When Katherine Siemer's family immigrated from Westphalia they joined a party intent on settling frontier lands of Ohio and established a community in Minster, near Piqua, Ohio. When her mother and then father died in 1840, with her sister, Katherine walked barefoot to Covington, where she found work as servant in the house of portrait painter, James Beard (1811-1893). She was illiterate, but a courageous and hardworking woman.[ 26 ] In this she stood in stark contrast to the educated literati Bostonian Elizabeth Boott.
Like the 1902 portrait, none of Duveneck's paintings idealize his mother. They offer straightforward likeness that reveals a serious, hardworking, and intelligent woman. But the 1902 portrait differs from the earlier portraits in some significant ways. Duveneck's earlier portrayals are busts; the 1902 painting is a three quarter length portrait. Katherine is seated regally in her chair, in a pose and garbed as a woman of gentility. Her headpiece, kerchief and pose are oddly reminiscent of contemporary portraits of Queen Victoria. Curiously, the British monarch had died only a year earlier. The painting offers a shallow space and thinly applied pigments recalling Duveneck's portrait of his wife and his earlier adoption of the salon style.
On several occasions Duveneck's portraits reveal figures with one gloved and one ungloved hand, for example his portrait of father in law, Francis Boott of 1881 and his 1880 Portrait of Miss Blood, Woman in a Satin Gown. This motif seems to emphasize the elegance of the sitters and their status in the upper class. Notably Duveneck used the same motif with the 1902 portrait of his mother. Ironical since the graceful ungloved hand is noticeably ruddier than Dame Duveneck's face. Duveneck's message in the portrait then not only positions his mother in the upper class among the educated elite, it also recalls the dignity of her hard manual labor standing as a testament to her working class nobility.
This sensitivity is really continuance of the democratic values described earlier and reflected in his energetic portrayals of street urchins in his early years as such Duveneck truly was a painter of the people. His extraordinary skill in drawing out the personality of his subject is equaled by his unparalleled craft. Neuhaus claimed:
"It was [ 27 ] Finally there is Duveneck as the teacher. Booth pointed out:
'painting for painting's sake' above all else that declared Duveneck's strength and his irrepressible creative drive."
"Not only could he teach, he had the power of inspiring a rare devotion in his students who became practically his disciples. Duveneck was one of the few masters seemingly content to be surpassed by his students."[ 28 ]
Duveneck indeed was a "ganzer Kerl" as much a rarity then as today.
Booth, Bill R. A Survey of Portraits and Figure Paintings by Frank Duveneck, 1848-1919, DSS, University of George, 1970.
Duveneck, Frank. Frank Duveneck: 1848-1919, New York: Chapellier Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, 1972.
Evans, Christine T. "Frank Duveneck: The Italian Years", MA, Thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1981.
Neuhaus, Robert. Unsuspected Genius: The Art and Life of Frank Duveneck, San Francisco: Bedford Press, 1987.
Quick, Michael. An American Painter Abroad: Frank Duveneck's European Years, Cincinnati, Ohio: Cincinnati Art Museum, Exhibition Catalogue, 1987.
© 2009 Kimberly Allen-Kattus
Steely Library phone number: 859.572.5457