On Thursday, October 30, the exhibition Charles Courtney Curran: Seeking the Ideal opens at the Frick Art & Historical Center
in Point Breeze. Even if his name is unfamiliar, Curran's work is likely known by many Americans. Particularly recognizable are his early painting, Lotus Lilies (1888), and his later work On the Heights (1909). Celebrated for his sparkling canvases of women in outdoor settings, Curran brought the broken brushstrokes and sun-drenched palette of Impressionist painting to a distinctly American landscape, capturing the dappled sunlight, deep shadows, and scudding clouds of locations on Lake Erie and in the mountain hamlet of Cragsmoor, New York.
Curran was popular with American collectors at the turn of the 20th century, including Henry Clay Frick, who purchased one of his works. The first critical restrospective of the artist's work, the exhibition spans nearly five decades of Curran's productive career-from early genre scenes of the 1880s showing children at play and women doing household chores; to later work, which further developed his interest in depicting the figure outdoors. Lenders to the exhibition, which is composed of about 60 paintings, include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Frick Art & Historical Center, and many other public and private collections. Admission to the exhibition is free.
Born in Kentucky, Charles Courtney Curran spent most of his childhood in Sandusky, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie (which later figured in a number of his paintings). He first studied art in Cincinnati, and by 1882 moved to New York to study at the National Academy of Design, where he augmented these traditional classes with more progressive studies at the Art Students League. By 1888 he was experiencing enough success to marry his childhood sweetheart Grace Wickham and head to Paris-the center of the art world. Curran brought a recent canvas with him to Paris, Lotus Lilies, which depicts Grace and her cousin seated in a rowboat surrounded by lilies. The painting, with its sumptuous greens and delicate yellows, was accepted into the Salon of 1890 and received a medal.
In Paris, Curran absorbed the Impressionists' interest in working en plein air, and depicting modern life, creating paintings of women (often Grace) enjoying the city's many public parks and gardens. One of his instructors was Jules Lefebvre, who was known for teaching many Americans at the Académie Julian, and specialized in the female figure. Curran also studied with a fellow pupil of Lefebvre's, Henri Doucet, who painted fashionable scenes of Parisian life. The 1889 painting Afternoon at the Cluny Garden, Paris is an excellent example of his Parisian work. The painting beautifully captures the intense light of a summer afternoon. Two women pause on a park bench, shaded by a bright red parasol. The rich greens are complexly rendered in sun and shadow, and the various semi-exotic summer plants and trees are identifiable, as are the red canna lilies that dot the horizon. While this painting depicts specific people (likely Grace and a friend) in a specific place, the subject matter is the atmosphere of a brilliant summer day as much as it is leisure time in Paris.
Sometime after 1891, Henry Clay Frick bought one of Curran's Parisian canvases. Titled Going for a Drive, it depicts Grace putting on her riding gloves as a horse and carriage stand at the ready. Fashionably dressed in a green ensemble, her figure is surrounded by green-gold grape leaves and heavy clusters of fruit. There is no documentation of exactly when this painting entered Frick's collection, but it is visible in interior photographs from around 1900. Frick's daughter Helen, curious about the source of the painting, wrote directly to Curran in 1921.
Unfortunately, the artist informed her that he did not keep records of sales that early in his career and was unable to help her.
The Currans returned to the United States in the summer of 1891, moving into a New York City apartment. Interestingly, Curran was never affiliated with a specific dealer or gallery. Instead, he managed the sale of his paintings himself. He made use of exhibition opportunities at the popular international fairs and expositions of the day-exhibiting 11 canvases at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He also was active in many art organizations and clubs, using their annual exhibitions and group events as a way to bring his work to the public. He continued to specialize in painting the figure outdoors and conveying the qualities of natural light-but also embraced symbolism, art nouveau, and aspects of tonalism as he continued his prolific output.
Around 1903, the Currans began spending summers at the well-known arts colony Cragsmoor. Located about 100 miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley, Cragsmoor was known for spectacular mountain vistas and convivial artistic fellowship. In 1908 the Currans built their own home at Cragsmoor, and Curran painted one of his most famous works there, 1909's On the Heights, depicting three young women silhouetted against a blue summer sky dotted with puffy clouds. On the Heights represents a synthesis of Curran's skill at capturing summer's brilliant light and his ability to capture feminine grace, in an image that seems iconic of American women facing a new century. Poised looking into an unknown expanse, the figures are more than beautiful-they take on a heroic quality.
At the time of Charles Courtney Curran's death in 1942, World War II gripped the nation, and his bucolic and idyllic images seemed at odds with contemporary concerns. There were no retrospective or memorial exhibitions held. This exhibition provides an opportunity to see a broad selection of the artist's work from all phases of his career. Installed in a loose chronology that encompasses themes and subjects of particular interest, the exhibition begins with early work from his days studying in New York City in the late 1880s. Lotus Lilies marks a transition as the artist takes the canvas with him to Paris. While in Paris, Curran tended to work on a smaller scale, knowing he would eventually be carrying work back to the U.S. His time in Paris is beautifully elucidated with an assortment of small, beautifully rendered and lushly colored paintings depicting the sights of Paris as well as giving a sense of his domestic life. As his career progresses on his return to the U.S., sections of the exhibition explore his interest in Symbolism, compositions set in gardens, and his growing interest in the rugged landscape near Cragsmoor.