Friday, August 27, 2010

Observations of Gammell: The Academic Approach vs. The Impressionist

Robert Hale Ives Gammell (1893-1981) was an American painter, muralist, teacher, and author, who was very outspoken in his condemnation of the Modernist art movements.  In the United States, he was a student of William McGregor Paxton (who in turn was a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme), as well Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp, and Philip Hale.  In France, he studied at the Académie Julian and the Atelier Baschet.  Gammell's unique position as one of the last Americans to receive classical training in the early twentieth century, and of being, by birth, free from financial worries, allowed him to pursue the type of art he loved, despite personal and professional criticism.¹

R.H. Ives Gammell, Song of Lamentation, 1938

With the 1946 publication of his book, Twilight of Painting, in which he defended classical methods of art making and attacked the "clumsily applied daubs of paint" which he felt characterized the emerging art schools of the time², Gammell began to attract serious students, including Richard Lack, Robert Douglas Hunter, and Robert Cormier.  In the thirty-five years in which he actively taught, nearly eighty students received training from R.H. Ives Gammell, many of whom have continued to keep alive the art of painting he feared would be lost.³

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Greek Slave, 1870

This unfinished painting and the one... [below] point the contrast between the academic and impressionist approach.  Gérôme proceeded from a firmly established outline and his interest was concentrated on the figure itself from the start, though the carefully worked-out perspective indicates that he had the rest of his picture planned and possibly sketched in a separate study.

William McGregor Paxton, Nude, 1915

Paxton, on the other hand, made his composition by moving the model and the furniture about the room until they formed the balanced design he wanted.  In starting the picture he laid in the broader areas of color as they appeared to his eye without particular regard to what these areas represented, gradually adding detail and refining shapes.  Carried to their ultimate limits by very competent painters the two methods could lead to quite similar results.⁴

¹R.H. Ives Gammell, Twilight of Painting, (Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, MA, 1990), p 7.
²ibid., back cover.
³ibid., pp. 7-8.
⁴ibid., pp. 181-182.

Reprints of Gammell's book, Twilight of Painting, can sometimes still be found at The Atelier Bookstore.  Otherwise, copies of the original and the reprint can still be found through used book venues such as Amazon, Bookfinder, AbeBooks, etc..



Judy P. said...

So succinctly clarifying-thanks!

Kyle V Thomas said...

That Paxton painting is beautiful. The colors are so rich. Wonderful design.

Thanks for posting these, Matthew.

Andre Lucero said...

I prefer the Paxton mode which is a little more spontaneous when compared to Gammell. More fun from the artists point of view

Sandra Galda said...

My goal this summer was to read through all the books written by Gammel. I am on the final book on that list. Currently, I am finishing up reading "The Shop Talk of Edgar Degas." It is great to see someone blogging about Gammell's books, thanks!

Bo said...

I visited Gammell in Boston once in the mid 70's. I was 19 and looking for a teacher. He was in Fenway Studios with his students. They were all doing sight-size paintings and memory drawings. We met in his studio with several of his proteges surrounding us. He asked me, how I'd come to find him, who had recommended him as a teacher, and so I told him that several American expatriates in Florence had recommended him, including Charles Cecil among others, and he said, "Ah, so your a name dropper, hunh." He was tough. He had very little to offer this green wide eyed young student. But he had some talented students, Hilary Holmes was there then and was nice enough to suggest to me that I might want to consider meeting with Harvey Dinnerstein, who had been a teacher of his. Harvey, as you may know, is not only a great painter, but an intelligent, social minded, warm human being. He welcomed me into his studio in Brooklyn and spent a whole day with me, talking about his art, my art, and art in general. Formally, Gammell may have done some interesting work, but it reminds me of the old quote, "A Great painter is a Great person painting." Stories of Gammell's many large paintings in storage (because no one wanted them) astounded me when I was younger. But perhaps there are reasons why the paintings weren't and aren't so popular. There is more to painting than the technical. We have to live deep full, rich, lives. An art built on technical principles alone will be vapid. We must live whole heartedly, let it rip, dare to love deeply and bring the paint to life. I'm certain that he had many students who gleaned much from his teaching. But, personally, at least on the day that I met him, he had only one thing to teach me... never be rude to young students.

Marvin Mattelson said...

In my eye there is a very strong connection between Paxton and Bunker, one of humanity and love of beauty. I don't think that Gammell ever got that message, so he obviously couldn't pass it on. I agree wholeheartedly with Bo regarding the lack of appeal in Gammell's work.

Juan said...

Excellently put in a nutshell, Matthew. Thanks. Also, thank you @Bo for your illuminating comment. Yes, Marvin, funny how such a wide range of painters were hatched by Gerome, huh?

Dagoelius said...

Gammell was so on the money. Impressionism always struck me as half finished, too vague, contrived and overvalued by the pretentious artyfarty types. Give me Tadema, Bouguereau,Cot,lefebvre and the likes anyday.