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Monday, April 21, 2014

Louis M. Eilshemius

Village Near the Delaware Water Gap, 1896, Louis M. Eilshemius 
Louis M. Eilshemius Self-portrait, 1916.
He was absent the day they taught
self-portraits at the Academie Julian.
Would you believe that the same artist who painted the reasonably adept Village Near the Delaware Water Gap (above) in 1896, also painted wanton silliness of Figures in a Landscape (below) just ten years later in 1906? Aren't artists, like fine wine, supposed to improve with age? Louis M. Eilshemius is one of the strangest painters I've ever encountered. It's not uncommon for artists themselves to be much more interesting than their art. That's very often the case, in fact. That's certainly so with Eilshemius. As a painter, Village Near the Delaware Water Gap displays a reasonable grasp of color, it's compositionally is well-constructed, and it's reasonably attractive. No turn-of-the-century housewife would have minded having it hang over her sofa in the parlor. Having said that, the painting is also rather bland and uninteresting. Except as wall decoration, it has little to offer. Unfortunately, about ninety percent of all paintings created today (especially landscapes) share the same trait.
Figures in a Landscape, 1906, Louis M. Eilshemius. The figures are frivolous, lewd, ineptly drawn, and poorly rendered, The landscape is even worse. 
Samoa, 1906, Louis M. Eilshemius.
Figures were not his forte.
Louis M. Eilshemius had every reason in the world to have become an outstanding painter. He came from a wealthy Newark, New Jersey, family, born in 1864. He was the grandson of the Swiss painter, Louis Léopold Robert. He studied at all the right schools, starting with Cornell University, then New York's Art Students League. From there it was off to Paris to hone his skills at the Academie Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Traces of the Barbizon School and of Camille Corot, George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder appear in his early work. Despite all this, and after his own best efforts, his work gained little notice or respect from critics. But then, few critics were in the market for couch paintings.

Sirens, Del Mar, California, 1908, Louis M Eilshemius
Between 1906 and 1910, Eilshemius changed. While his Somoa (above left) would appear to indicate he still had a knack for landscapes, there seems to have developed a conscious attitude to the effect that, if no one appreciated what he did then he'd paint only for himself. Figures in a Landscape may have been his first work to reflect this change. Certainly by 1908, when he painted Sirens, Del Mar, California (above), the restrained eroticism had taken up permanent residence in his landscapes. Strangely, had it only been a change in style, Eilshemius might well have benefited professionally from this catharsis. The problem was that that he was literally "no good" at painting figures. If an artist can't do something well, he or she had better learn to handle such content or avoid doing so. Eilshemius obviously did neither.

The Rejected Suitor, 1915, Louis Eilshemius.
Even fully dressed, his figures seem awkward.
The Prodigy, 1917, Louis M. Eilshemius.
He certainly wasn't one.
Still worse, Eilshemius did not take rejection well. His painting The Rejected Suitor (above) is sadly indicative of his frame of mind. He wrote numerous, voluminous, angry letters to newspapers ruminating endlessly about the sad state of the arts. He self-published flyers (below) proclaiming himself: "Educator, Ex-actor, Amateur All-around Doctor (I love that one), Mesmerist-Prophet and Mystic, Reader of Hands and Faces, Linguist of 5 languages," as well as a world-class athlete and marksman, 'Spirit-Painter Supreme', and musician whose improvisations rivaled the compositions of Chopin. Of course, all this outrageous self-promotion accomplished nothing except to underline the fact that Eilshemius was either, at best, a world-class liar, or worse, crazy as hell (perhaps both). Moreover, he was often known to visit art galleries and loudly disparage virtually everything in sight. Needless to say, such galleries were not inclined to display his work, even if he'd been turning out priceless masterpieces.

His business card. Notice, he didn't list "modest."
Times change; art changes; tastes change. Neither Eilshemius nor his paintings changed appreciably, but as the avant-garde began looking about for models to immolate, crazy or not, artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Alfred Stieglitz, and Joseph Stella came to admire Eilshemius' work. Duchamp took him and his cardboard paintings to Paris to display, and then managed to arrange Eilshemius' first one-man show back in New York in 1920. The show was a bust. The critics hated the art, and ridiculed the artist. Eilshemius finally gave up painting in 1921 and spent the rest of his life and his fortune on self-promotion. He died penniless and broken in 1941.

Early Morning, 1910, oil on cardboard, Louis M. Eilshemius.
Since then, Eilshemius' work has become collectible. His work is showing up in museums and gallery exhibitions. Of course, now that he's dead, the art world no longer has to dread dealing with the crazy little man who couldn't paint nudes.


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