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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Leon Kroll

Summer, New York, 1931, Leon Kroll. Yes, there's a very tastely posed odalisque,             
but two out of three of the ladies are not nude, which may say a lot for Nude painting in America.                        
Leon Kroll, Self-portrait, ca. 1910
As compared to several European countries, there is not a long tradition in the United States in the art of painting nude figures. Whereas Italy, France, Spain, the Dutch, even England, have immense collections of nude figures (mostly female) in their art museums, very few American museums have much along that line, especially be American artists. And what few they have, are of the 20th-century variety. In fact virtually no American painters indulged in such art until after the Civil War, and even at that, such works were rare. I suppose there are several good reason for that type of work being so scarce during American art history, principally being the fact that there is a moral streak of modesty in the American culture a mile wide and, until recently, almost that deep (figurtively speaking). Likewise, its in the areas of landscapes, genre, and portraiture that the American buying public preferred both in collecting art and in decorating their staid Victorian parlors. That's why I found it strange, even humorous, to come upon an artist dubbed by Life magazine as the the "dean of U.S. Nude Painters." My first reaction was, what U.S. nude painters. Further reading turned up the name Leon Kroll, an Amreican painter born in 1884. Oh, that American nude painter. I'd forgotten about him. (Okay, I confess, I'd never even heard of him.)

Leon Kroll with his most famous nude (above). There weren't all that many of them.
Inland Pool, Leon Kroll
That's not to say that American's dislike the nude figure, but it's an acquired taste and for the most part, one that's little more than a hundred years old. About a week ago, in discussing the work of the French painter, Raphael Kirchner, I noted that it was only after WW I that the American male became aware of naked art, but even at that, they didn't go streaming to American art galleries to see it. In fact, it wasn't until the 1930s that major American painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Thomas Eakins, and Edward Hopper began even occasionally painting nude figures. No, in America, men (always the major proponent of such content) much preferred the photographer's art to that of the painter, then as well as now. All of which probably accounts, more than anything else, for the lack of a nude painting tradition in America. I guess there wasn't many other applicants for the position of "dean of American nude painters." (The job didn't pay very well, in any case.)

Eastern Point Lighthouse, Gloucester - 1912, Leon Kroll, one of his earliest works.
Manhattan Rhythms
Leon Kroll was born into a musical family in New York City. His father was a violinist, as was his cousin, William Kroll, the composer. Leon Kroll studied first at the convenient Art Students League under the impressionist, John Henry Twachtman (his most important influence) and later the National Academy of Design. He was suffciently good enough to win several awards, culminating in a scholarshp to study in Paris where he gravitated to the Academie Julian for a year. Kroll first displayed his work in 1910 and immediately began winning awards. It was probably during his time in Paris that he picked up his love of painting nudes, though nude models were used in American art academies to a limited extent during the late 1800s.

The Terminal Yards, 1913, Leon Kroll.
Gull Rock, 1913, Leon Kroll, about as
close as Kroll ever got to abstraction.
Although he could hardly be considered an adherent to Modern Art (even the American brand), Kroll displayed at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City beside Americans Robert Henri (who displayed a nude figure), his friend, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, George Luks, Charles Sheeler, John Sloan, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, and numerous others. (Notice the number of Ashcan Social Realists in the group.) There's no indication Kroll sold anything but being among the list of exhibiting artists alone, both foreign and domestic, elevated him considerably in the eyes of collectors.

Central Park West, 1923, Leon Kroll
County Ridge Construction, 1946,
Leon Kroll
However, it was in teaching painting that Kroll found his true calling. (As mid-level artist at the time, a teaching position was all but a necessity for those in the habit of eating.) Kroll began with the Art Students League, then was elevated to full membership in National Academy of Design in 1927. He also taught at the Pennsylvania Academy and at the Art Institute of Chicago. His work includes murals painted for the WPA during the Depression and paintings exhibited today in most of the major museums in this country. Yes, he painted nudes, perhaps more than most of his colleagues, but despite the dubious distinction given him by Life magazine, he's remembered most as an American painter willing to adhere to Naturalism in the face of the Abstract Expressionist tidal wave and the many other "isms" that rolled over American art during his liftime. Leon Kroll died at his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1974, at the age of eighty-nine.

Rockport Harbor, 1916, Leon Kroll, about two miles from his home in Gloucester, Mass.


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