Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with friendships with some of the most interesting people in the art world. One of the most fascinating was the self-taught folk artist Howard Finster. I was a myopic art historian in training when I first saw Howard’s work in an art magazine in the library of the Clark Art Institute. I had no experience with “outsider art” and thought the idea that someone self-taught could actually make art was ridiculous. Several years later, however, while spending a long weekend in Chicago browsing through the galleries of River North, I called on art dealer Carl Hammer and discovered that his entire gallery was devoted primarily to these “outsiders.” My education about folk- or outsider- art began that afternoon as Carl walked me through his back room pulling painting after painting from the racks and telling me stories about each of his artists, including Howard Finster.
Whoever is shown in this painting, parts of it were painted well and parts of it show a great lack of skill or a disinterest in accurately depicting parts of the picture. This painting was commissioned to local painter Horace Rockwell, who made a modest living in the business of commercial portraiture and occasionally executed nearly life-sized family portraits like that of the Hanna family. Rockwell, exercising the style of the time that people should be depicted naturally and without idealization, paid special attention to the faces of the Hanna family and rather skillfully shows how these people probably looked in real life. Ironically, the bodies of these people look quite unnatural, lacking anatomically correct bone structure and proportion. Feet look more like wooden wedges, shoulders slump like shapeless sacks of flour, and the youngest Hanna in the portrait is shown to have only four toes. Rockwell has problems with his composition as well. An empty spot in the middle of the painting leaves an awkward division between the sitters, and almost no attention is paid to the background, which the artist has chosen to resolve by painting it a flat brown with no clue to tell us where this family is sitting.
The history of American art is filled with little-known human stories that I find generally more fascinating than much of the art. Today, I’m thinking about a young artists’ model, Audrey Munson, whose mercurial rise to fame was as unlikely as her despairing descent into the black void of the rest of her life. At the golden dawn of the 20th Century, Audrey Munson, an impoverished pre-teenager, caught the eye of photographer Felix Benedict Herzog as she pressed her face against a department store window and soon thereafter became the most famous artists’ model in American history.
If asked, out of the blue, to name a short list of famous artists, what would our response be? We all could probably name a handful: Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dale Chihuly, Andy Warhol, maybe that guy who wrapped Central Park – Christo, right? – and Norman Rockwell, for sure. But what about DeKooning’s abstractionist friend, Milt Resnick? Or Pop Art guru Don Nice? Or member of the first “class” of Americans to graduate from the Royal Academy, Johnathan Trumbull? Each of these last three artists were successful on all levels, even though their names rarely leap to anyone’s tongue these days.