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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Philip Evergood

American Tragedy, 1937, Philip Evergood--The Memorial Day Massacre
Philip Evergood, Self-portrait, Such
Stuff as Dreams Are Made on, 1956
My parents were teenagers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It had a profound effect, not just upon their lives at the time, but upon the very way they thought, their whole attitude about life for the rest of their lives. My father had only two employers his entire life. My mother could manage money with such a degree of finesse, whether a little or a lot, there was never a penny wasted. Yet she would go shopping and buy simple commodities whether she needed them or not (usually not) just for fear of running out. After she died, we found accounts in as many as ten different banks. We found records where she had routinely obtained and repaid loans from banks for sums as little as $50. She was fond of sewing identical mother-daughter dresses (my sister hated that). My father had a sizable garden in the back yard from which my mother canned the produce for years after it was no longer very profitable to do so. I hoed the corn (I hated that). Philip Evergood was an artist, a product of the Great Depression--one of many. Today we can see and even feel through his eyes this tragic decade in American history. His most famous painting, American Tragedy (above) from 1937, depicts the social nadir of the era with a stark, Expressionist impact no Realism painter could have touched.

Sunny Side of the Street, 1930s,
Philip Evergood (sunny version,
based upon the popular song).
The less sunny Sunny Side of the
Street.  Same painting, different
photos. Which is accurate?
Philip Evergood was not his given name. He was born Philip Howard Francis Dixon Blashki in 1901, almost a full generation older than my parents. For those born in the early decades of the 20th century, the Great Depression was especially horrendous. He'd known better times. Young Philip grew up in New York City, in a prosperous, middle-class, English/Australian family. He studied music starting in very early childhood. He was an accomplished pianist by the age of seven. He went to a private boarding school in England (Eton), and eventually ending up studying at Cambridge. He left there to study art in London under Henry Tonks followed by a stint in Paris at the Academie Julian. In 1923, when Evergood (he'd legally changed his name by then) returned to the U.S. to try to make for himself and a career as a painter, even during the relative good times of that era, life as a 22-year-old fledgling artist was difficult. He continued his studies at the Art Students League, often having to choose between buying paint and food.

The New Lazarus, 1927, Philip Evergood--not exactly "roaring 20s" art.

Music, Philip Evergood--closer to the spirit of the 20s, but more likely from the 1930s.
Pittsburgh Family, 1944, Philip Evergood.
During the early 1930s, Evergood was rescued from "starving artist" status by the fabled art collector, Joseph Hirshorn. But even then, the WPA artist program starting in 1934, was a welcome relief, allowing him to paint murals in nearby Queens and as far south as Jackson, Georgia. From that point on Evergood developed a social consciousness, influenced by such diverse artists as El Greco, Bosch, Brueghel, Goya, Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Sloan's Ashcan School, his work varying from Social Realism to Expressionism depending upon the subject. In a sort of combination of the two styles, his American Tragedy (top) reflects his outrage following the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago when police shot and killed ten unarmed striking steel workers. Thirty were injured, many permanently. In the years during and following WW II Evergood continued to be a shrewd observer of American life and times. His painting from 1944 The Pittsburgh Family (left) captures the wartime angst of love amid uncertainty, coupled with the hope and joy in the earliest onslaught of the baby boom.

Bridge of Hope, 1940s, Kalamazoo University, Philip Evergood.
Notice the bridge portion of the mural is either damaged or was left unfinished.
During the return of peace and prosperity following the war, Evergood likewise thrived. His dining hall mural at Kalamazoo University displays a bright hope for a better tomorrow typical of the post-war era. He continued teaching both music and art (schools love double majors), moving to Southbury, Connecticut, and later to nearby Bridgewater where he was killed in a tragic house fire in 1977.


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