Alson Skinner Clark was an American Impressionist painter known for his landscape paintings and his murals, including at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles and the First Trust and Savings Bank in Pasadena. He was also an ardent photographer. He was born on March 25th 1876 in Chicago, Illinois, to Alson Ellis Clark and Sarah Clark. He had two brothers, Mancel and Edwin and a sister, Mary Emily, who died when young. His father was not always a wealthy man as he came from an impoverished background. He had served in the Civil War, and then moved to Chicago where he established a highly successful commodities business at the Chicago Board of Trade. From then, his wealth increased and he was able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for his wife and family.
Alson showed an early interest in art and was proving to be a gifted young painter. In an 1956 interview for The Archives of American Art, a collection of primary resources documenting the history of the visual arts in the United States, his wife recalled her late husband’s early “artistic talent” saying:
“… I think the desire to draw was always extant with Alson Skinner Clark. When he was nine or ten years old, it made itself manifest—and obnoxious as well—to the his church-going parents, for during the long Sunday sermons he surreptitiously recorded the bonnets and bald pates in front of him in the only place available at the time—the frontispiece and blank rear pages of the family hymnals…”
His family supported and encouraged him to continue with his art by enrolling him in Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago when he was just eleven years old.
One of the perks of being part of a wealthy family was the ability to travel and in 1889 the Alson Clark and his family set off on a two-year trip around the world. For Alson it was his first taste of European art and no doubt instilled in the young man a love of both travel and painting. Back in America, Alson graduated from high school, and for a short period at the end of 1895 enrolled as a full-time student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The teaching of art at the Institute was based on the teachings at the French Academies and focused on drawing from casts and still-lifes before students were allowed to progress to drawing live models. Alson was unhappy with the Institute’s system and after a quarrel with one of his teachers regarding the slow and arduous process of drawing from casts, Clark quit the Institute.
Despite his short but unhappy period at the Chicago Institute Alson was determined to carry on with his art and in 1896 moved to New York and studied under the tutelage of William Merritt Chase at the Art Students’ League of New York. Despite being twenty-years-old, Alson’s mother would not let him live on his own in New York and so went with him bringing along his childhood friend Amelia Baker. The three shared an apartment on Seventy-Seven Street and Columbus Avenue. Alson’s mother Sarah justified this arrangement by saying:
“…For two years Mela [Amelia] and I have talked of spending a winter in New York, in Bohemian fashion, and have searched for a good reason for doing so, in vain till this time. Alson, however, came to the rescue in his desire to study art with a New York master, and made it seem a necessary thing to do…”
When Chase opened his own school of art, Alson Clark, along with many other students, followed him. Chase was a great influence on Alson, an influence which would remain with him for the years to come. A painting completed by Alson, entitled Early Nude, which he completed in 1898 bears an inscription that Merritt Chase had also worked on the painting.
For two summers Clark spent working en plein air at Merritt Chase’s school in Shinnecock, Long Island and it was the beginning of his love affair with plein air painting and his predisposition with the Impressionist style of painting. In November 1898 Alson decided, like many other young aspiring artists, to leave America and travel to France to study at the famous French art academies. The most popular art academy for visiting American artists was the Académie Julian. However, the “rough and ready” Académie Julian was not for Alson, who commented that he found the working conditions “disgusting”. Alson preferred to enrol at the newly opened Academia Carmen, which had been founded by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, where the business side of the school was handled by Whistler’s former model Carmen Rossi for whom, along with her musician husband, the school was named. Alson Clark was in awe of Whistler’s artistic talents and kept going to Whistler’s atelier on and off until it closed in 1901. Alson would never to forget the teachings of Whistler.
In March of 1899, Clark entered his first work in the Paris Salon. In a letter written the following month to his friend Amelia Baker, he described his experience:
“…Wednesday, Wilson and I went to the Salon to see the stuff carried in and all the awful things that went in—I never saw such a lot of bad painting. The wagons come up to the entrance and take their wads of pictures in and there are crowds of people watching the stuff enter. I have little hope that [my picture] will pass the jury but one can never tell as there is a great deal of “pull” in the Salon, and as I have not studied under any Frenchman I may be thrown out. I don’t care what happens although of course I would rather be in than out. Exhibitions are, after all, a farce…”
When his painting was rejected by the Salon jury, Clark feigned indifference stating:
“It doesn’t’ matter to me at all as I haven’t a reputation to make and there isn’t much honour in being in unless you get in squarely as only very few do.…”
Despite his work being rejected by the jurists he never gave up trying to have one of his paintings was eventually accepted into a Salon exhibition for in 1901 his perseverance paid off with his painting, The Violinist being selected for that year’s Paris Salon exhibition.
Whilst he had been living in America Alson Clark’s health was often very poor and was a frequent visitor to his doctor with stomach problems. In 1901 whilst living in France he once again became ill and was advised he had to have his appendix removed. In those days this was a serious operation and so he decided to return to America for the operation and set sail for New York on June 1st with surgery booked at a Chicago hospital that summer. After the operation he recuperated at the family home on Comfort Island, one of the Thousand Islands in Alexandria Bay, New York. Comfort Island, Alexandria Bay, New York was built in 1883 by his father Alson E. Clark and it is located on the St. Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands Region in what is known as Millionaire’s row.
In the Autumn of 1901 Alson rented a barn from the parents of his friend Amelia in Watertown a small, provincial city near Lake Ontario and the Canadian border and the closest city to Comfort Island. This was the start of his career as a professional artist and the only one in Watertown. Now set up as a professional artist, he needed a model and he discovered that one of the local girls, Atta Medora McMullin, was willing to pose for him and her mother would act as her chaperone. Soon love between artist and model blossomed but Alson had his doubts about being good husband material. He wrote:
“…In the evening I would have liked to have seen Medora, but stayed home and wrote. I have no more business in marrying than the man in the moon for I am fickle and can’t help myself. It is a misfortune and not a fault.” Yet, just a few days later, he wrote, “In the afternoon she posed. I could not work as I wanted to tell her that I loved her but could not. We sat by the fire knowing each other’s minds…”
At the end of January 1902, Alson Clark professed his love to Medora and proposed marriage. She accepted. Medora was to prove a very compassionate and supportive wife. His first exhibition of his work was at Watertown and featured many paintings of Paris. It was a success and he sold many works. From there the exhibition moved to Chicago for Clark’s first major exhibition, at the Anderson Galleries. Once again the exhibition was hailed as a great success and the Chicago Times declared:
“… Popular opinion has decided that it is a very promising display for a young artist…. Mr. Clark has a style of his own. It is suggestive of Japanese reminiscences, is refined and pleasantly frank…. The sentimental does not interfere with the boldness of using masses…”
Alson Skinner Clark and Atta Medora MacMullin wed on September 20th, 1902, and for their honeymoon they took a sea voyage to Europe on the S.S. Minnetonka. On November 7th the couple moved into a Parisian apartment at 6, rue Victor Considérant. Shortly after settling in, Alson’s friend, and fellow American artist, Frederick Carl Frieseke, moved in with them whilst waiting for the apartment above the Alsons to become available to rent. Alson and Frieseke were good friends and Frieseke used to paint from the Clarks’ apartment balcony and would also occasionally use Medora as a model. That winter Alson and Frederick painted continually so that they could build up a collection to put before the jurists at the Spring Salon. They even split the cost of renting wagons to transport their work to the Salon.
Alson Clark continually acknowledged the debt he owed Whistler and wrote to him many times confirming such indebtedness. In 1905 Alson completed a work entitled Les Colliers (the Necklaces) and the style of the work mirrored many of Whistler’s works. It was simply Alson’s way of paying homage to Whistler’s portraiture. In the painting we see the lady, modelled by Medora, dressed in a flowing gown with her back to us, standing beside an elegant mantlepiece. In her hands she holds a pair of necklaces
One of Alson’s early industrial paintings is his atmospheric work entitled The Coffee House which he completed in 1906. It is a depiction of Chicago on a cold winter day. We see ice floating down the river which is overlooked by monstrous dark skyscrapers which are looming through the smoggy atmosphere. As we look at the painting our eyes are drawn into the picture by the curved ironwork of the State Street Bridge,
This is a typical depiction of urban realism and it is suggested that Alson may remember seeing such scenes depicted in Monet’s paintings such as his 1877 work, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, which highlight both the ephemeral nature of fog and smoke and the atmosphere’s effect upon the forms of the city.
………….to be continued.
Much of the information I used for this blog came from an article in CALIFORNIA ART CLUB NEWSLETTER entitled An American Impressionist by Deborah Epstein Solon Ph D.