THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
For those who have never been to the Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts, think ornate Victorian town-house—specifically, the William Waller House, which the Academy purchased in 1921. Tucked in amid the looming apartment buildings of Chicago’s Gold Coast, the Palette & Chisel feels like a remnant of another era where horse-drawn carriages raced through cobblestone streets and men tipped their top hats to women in petticoats. As one mounts the steep concrete staircase and arrives at the large double doors that creak open with a sigh, one has entered a unique artistic world.
The Palette & Chisel is first and foremost a working studio and art school. Since its formation in 1895, it has promoted the practice of “working from life,” providing students with the opportunity to use live models and develop formal training in art and architecture. As the United States’ second oldest artist organization, Palette & Chisel has preserved the ideas of the European academies and salons of the nineteenth century that were en vogue when it was first established. 125 years on, this Academy continues to explore the legacy of academicism and its practice today.
The gallery is a one-of-a-kind exhibition space. A long hall divides the two rooms hosting the show, which were likely once the receiving room and dining room. Green velvet panels take the place of today’s white-washed gallery walls. Parquetry decorates the floors, marble fireplaces gleam in the center of each room, and the ceilings are a collage of elaborate molding. In the corner, framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, stands a stately grand piano. This is no white cube, but rather a house-turned-studio-turned-exhibition hall. The layers of history, all carefully maintained, lend a sense of nostalgia to the gallery space.
Highlighting the artists who work and teach at the school, the showcase is divided into more than a dozen sections to feature samples of each faculty member’s work, including painting, drawing, and sculpture. These individuals hold memberships in arts societies around the world, some formally trained at arts academies and others learning through their own artistic practice. Yet amid this array of backgrounds, materials and aesthetics, there is a uniting theme of realism and the human figure. The various works denote a studied and referential understanding of the world that is stylistically reminiscent of artists such as John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase.
Stuart Fullerton, one of the artists featured in the exhibition, produces hauntingly realistic drawings. With simple black and white charcoal and large sheets of paper, Fullerton brings his models to life on the page. His portraits illustrate his attempts to capture human expression and individuality.
The life-like nature of his work is exquisite. Indeed, the only hint that you are not looking at a photograph is that everything apart from the human figure is blank. In one drawing, a nude leans her arm against a wall that is left to the viewer’s imagination while sitting upon a seat that does not exist. Although you can see how the material forms affect her posture and her body—the flesh on her hips, for example, contours to the surface of the invisible chair—you are left admiring the human form and its adaptability to the environment in which it exists.
Fullerton’s creations were not the only works that stood out. One of the most dynamic works is a painting of a woman partially submerged in turquoise water and surrounded by red and yellow flower petals. The vibrant colors lend a sense of romance and mysticism to the space, while the figure’s pose hints at a deeper story waiting to be discovered. This modern creation by artist Michael Van Deyl reminds me of John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia (1851-52), now in the collection of the Tate Britain. Depicting the tragic figure from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1852 and is one of the most widely studied artworks of the nineteenth century.
While the space appears filled with serious artistic practice and art historical references, it is also an incredibly open and welcoming environment. From the moment I enter the house, I am surrounded with the hustle and bustle of students eager to create their own works of art. One young man rushes in with a large black folio tucked under his arm and dashes up the heavy wooden staircase to the second-floor classrooms. A drawing teacher scurries down the hallway and into a hidden closet for supplies. As I walk around the two rooms of the gallery, a student wanders in and takes a seat at the grand piano. Still in his winter coat, his un-gloved fingers begin to whip across the keys, producing a beautiful classical melody. But as quickly as he begins, he stops and abruptly runs off to a lesson upstairs.
I am standing before a portrait of a woman when a man wanders in and introduces himself as Andrew Conklin, one of the drawing and painting teachers at the Palette & Chisel.
“She’s the wife of a famous architect, Hans Lüttgen,” he tells me. “There was a famous photograph of the two of them by August Sander… but then Lüttgen divorced her. So, I copied her face and put her in this fencing jacket to give her a more confident look.” Then he excuses himself and rushes off to begin a class.
As a photograph-turned-painting, the figure of Dora Delfs Lüttgen transcends mediums and forms of artistic expression. At first glance, she has the look and feel of a modern woman. In Andy’s fencing jacket, she is sporty and individual. Her strong profile is framed by a sharp bob haircut, and her gaze is determined and fresh. Yet her side-view silhouette is also reminiscent of neoclassical sculpture and currency. Her name, appearing almost carved into the canvas in Latin lettering, juxtaposes the aesthetics of antiquity with that of contemporary portraiture.
The Palette & Chisel is certainly not your typical art gallery. From its Gilded Age architecture to the murmur of students scribbling in sketchbooks and dabbing at easels, the Palette & Chisel is unlike any other exhibition space in Chicago. Here, not only is art being shown, but it is also being taught, studied and created. Through their classes, these artists are keeping alive the traditions that have inspired some of the greatest artistic movements of all time, including realism, romanticism, and impressionism. By conflating the spaces of the studio, the classroom and the exhibition hall, the Palette & Chisel offers a wholly unique look into the artistic practice as a whole—of learning, creating, and celebrating the human figure in all its forms.
Emelia Lehmann is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and an aspiring arts professional. An avid writer and researcher, she loves exploring the incredible arts and cultural opportunities in Chicago.
The Faculty Showcase was on view at Palette & Chisel from February 8 - 23, 2020.
Andrew Conklin, Dora Delfs Lüttgen, 2015, oil on linen, 16’’ x 11.’’ Courtesy of Andrew Conklin.
John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-1852, oil on canvas, 30’’ x 44’’. Photo © Tate. Released under CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Stuart Fullerton, Abbey, 2018, charcoal on paper, 24’’ x 18.’’ Image courtesy of Stuart Fullerton.
Michael Van Deyl, Lo Tienes, 2016, oil on panel, 48’’ x 36’’. Image courtesy of Michael Van Deyl.
Stuart Fullerton, Figure Study, 2017, graphite on paper, 24’’ x 18''. Image courtesy of Stuart Fullerton.
Make a MONTHLY DONATION or a ONE-TIME DONATION via PayPal
SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal