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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Richard Bernard Skelton

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Man in Makeup Series, 1980-2000, Jim lane, all long-since sold.
It's long been my contention that artists are what they paint. Or, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say artist paint what they are. At first glance you might think the statements are redundant. But there is a difference, albeit, a subtle one. In the first case, an artist's life's work is a reflection of the manner in which the artist wants to be seen by posterity, often a carefully cultivated image developed, by the artist's lifestyle and many choices as to content, as well as, to a lesser extent, style. However, there is also an inadvertent element, which applies to the second statement, that being the mostly unconscious self-portrait which evolves as the artist learns, grows, and matures. Michelangelo is an obvious example of this dichotomy. As an artist, he worked a lifetime to present himself a classical, humanist, a master sculptor first, a reluctant painter, a competent architect, and even a man of letters (he wrote sonnets). All of this is reflected in his work. But his sculpture also reveals him to have been devoted to, attracted to, and perhaps even obsessed with the nude male body. The nude figures in the background of his Doni Tondo, some would suggest as being...well, suggestive...young men flirting with young men and quite out of context, given the subject matter. His poetry (such as it was) indicates one or more homosexual relationships with a younger man, all of which the artist strove diligently to conceal during his lifetime.
Triple Self-portrait, Red Skelton--the official and unofficial images.
Skelton painting, probably not his first clown,
but judging by his youthful appearance,
likely one dating from the mid-1940s.
Of course, most artists are not so duplicitous. However, the more famous the artist, the more likely there is to be a public art image, and a private one. Likewise, the more famous the artist, the more likely it becomes that the private "self-portrait" will eventually become known. With few exceptions Richard Bernard Skelton painted nothing but self-portraits. Perhaps you know him better by his nickname, "Red." Most people know him best as a comedian, radio, film, and TV personality. Some would sum him up simply as a comic. Those who know his art, would better define him as a clown, which was what he preferred. That he was. He painted clowns, over a thousand of them in his lifetime, nearly always using his own highly mobile features as a model. His first painting (which, try as I might, I could not locate with any certainty) was from 1943. His last was shortly before his death from pneumonia in 1997 at the age of eighty-four.

Lucille Ball as seen by Red Skelton
Skelton's W. C. Fields.
Red occasionally painted
tributes to other clowns.

Skelton and his art, 1948
I know a thing or two about painting clowns. Several years ago I painted a whole series of them, numbering nearly a dozen. I called it the Man in Makeup series (top). That's not to say I am a clown though it's been said I have a sometimes warped, rather dry sense of humor which I'm seldom reluctant to display. But even clown makeup wouldn't help a face like mine. Red Skelton didn't need makeup either in order to be a clown, though he did feature a few "made up" characters in his extensive repertoire of comic figures. He knew clowning well, literally from the "ground up." His father had been a circus clown who died shortly before his son's birth. In fact, Red's first "gig" as an entertainer came during his teen years when he also worked for a short time in the same circus as had his father.
I believe this to be an "early" Skelton clown, possibly dating from 1947.
However, the face is rather "old" for that year. (The date is hard to discern.)
As anyone familiar with clowns will tell you, there are basically only two types of clowns--happy clowns and sad clowns. Red Skelton knew both roles intimately. Born in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1913, his family struggled even in the relative "good" times of the 1920s. Comic actor, Ed Wynn, was a family benefactor. Coming of age in the midst of the Depression, the struggle became desperate. The young "clown" experienced first-hand the makings of his "sad" clown. Add to that a nervous breakdown during his brief stint in the army during WW II, two divorces later in life, and the death of his nine-year-old son, Richard, from childhood leukemia, and it's plain to see the private, unfunny times depicted by Skelton in the portrait faces of many of his clowns.

By 1953, Skelton's happy times included movies as well as television.

Not exactly top billing.
But there were happy times. Success happened rather suddenly around 1937 when Skelton graduated from vaudeville and burlesque to his own show on radio. His first film, Having a Wonderful Time (right), came in 1938 followed over the next twenty-five years by thirty-five other feature films in which he appeared. Skelton's creativity was not limited to painting. He was also a writer of short stories and enjoyed composing music. Likewise, he wrote much of his own comic material. But it was his paintings which brought him the most personal fulfillment, outside of show business. One biographer, however, speculated that over his lifetime, Skelton had garnered more income from his paintings than his work as an entertainer. That might, at first glance, seem to be an overstatement, but when you consider that, at the time of his death, his originals were bringing around $80,000, and he was selling lithographic prints as fast as he could sign them, many priced in the hundreds of dollars, the estimate may not be that far off.
Some might be surprised to know that Red Skelton also painted still-lifes, this one dating from 1950-51.
Bring in the Clowns.


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