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Friday, January 11, 2013

Treasures in the Attic

Louis Dewis Self-portrait, 1940
One of the most exciting rooms in a house is not the kitchen, the game room, or even the bedroom. It's the attic, especially if it's your grandmother's attic or perhaps that of an aged aunt. It's like crawling through a time warp into a different age. There's nothing like browsing through your inheritance before you actually get your hands on it. And, there's nothing like finding the occasional collector's item comic book, some valuable old coins, your grandfather's stamp collection, an ancient Victrola, the manuscript for an unpublished novel, antique photos, or perhaps, if you're as fortunate as Brad Face, of Portsmouth, Virginia, you might come across a dusty old painting by an important artist. Brad was very fortunate. He found a whole crate of them...actually several crates of them, numbering about 300 paintings.

Notre Dame, 1919, Louis Dewis
When Brad's mother died in 1992, he and his wife decided to visit a maiden aunt living in Paris whom they'd never met. They discovered his 92-year-old Tante (aunt) Andree was the daughter of Belgian landscape painter, Louis Dewis (pronounced Lew-WEE Dew-WEES). On the walls of the apartment in which she'd lived for over fifty years were works not only by her father but by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. During the course of this visit, and others over the next several months, Brad's aunt recalled that there were probably more of her father's work stored in the attic, though she figured they'd probably all rotted away inasmuch as they'd been there since his death in 1946. What they found were over a dozen crates that while caked in dust, the paintings themselves were in remarkably good condition. And stored in the ceiling were still more rolled canvases, numerous sketchbooks, journals, even his palette.

The Village Road - Auvergne,
ca. 1929, Louis Dewis
Louis Dewis was hardly an unknown artist in his time. But then again, he was no Monet or Degas either (both of whom he knew intimately). Born in 1872, Louis Dewis' work resembles most closely that of Corot, who was his strongest influence, except that he tended to borrow from the Impressionists a more resplendent use of color. Dewis painted mostly landscapes, those of the Belgian towns and countryside he knew all his life. But by the end WW II, the popular art styles of the time had not only changed drastically but the art world he'd known all his life had fled Paris entirely. When he died, it was as if he took his life's work with him, except for less than a dozen examples in family hands in this country, and the few on the walls of his daughter's apartment in Paris. However, thanks to the perseverance of Brad Face and his friend, Pat Dungan, of the Portsmouth Art Museum, the work of Louis Dewis, and perhaps his spirit too, returned from the dead in a retrospective exhibit in the U.S., bringing great-uncle Louis a new level of respect both here and in Europe.
Andrée, the Little Fisherwoman, 1922, Louis Dewis


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