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Monday, October 3, 2016

George Biddle

Society Freed through Justice, /em>Department of Justice
mural, 1936, George Biddle
It doesn't happen often, but from time to time an artist will have a greater impact on history in general than on art history. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, became an outstanding early American architect, but was an even more outstanding third President of the United States. British wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was superb amateur painter, but there was nothing amateur in the way he shepherded England through WW II. Samuel Morse was far removed from being an amateur painter, yet he had his greatest impact in the early science of telecommunications. George Biddle was another such artist. As a painter of murals during the first half of the 20th-century he would hardly have been more than a cipher the vast, convoluted history of art. However, during the desperate days of the Great Depression, George Biddle not only made a name for himself as a muralist, but managed to directly or indirectly lift hundreds of other painters like himself out of poverty, having major role in establishing the Federal Art Project (1935–43), which employed artists under the Works Progress Administration.
From Philadelphia lawyer to wartime art correspondent for Life
magazine, to muralist and presidential advisor to FDR, Biddle's
impact on history, and certainly art history cannot be overstated.
There's an old saying, "It's not what you know but who you know that counts in life." George Biddle was born into an upper-class family in 1885. He grew up in Philadelphia then attended the elite Groton School where he just happened to be a classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biddle completed his undergraduate studies and later earned a law degree from Harvard. A short time later, he passed his bar examination and was well on his way to becoming the proverbial Philadelphia lawyer. How much of his life's course at this point was imposed upon him by his socially conscious family is hard to say, but the smell of turpentine and linseed oil proved to be much more appealing than the dust of legal tomes. In 1911, Biddle booked passage to France, never to crack a law book again.
The Convalescent, 1916, George Biddle
Biddle started at the famous Académie Julian in Paris but during the next two years he also studied at his hometown Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before returning to Europe in 1914. Biddle spent time in Munich where he copied Rubens and in Madrid, where he copied Velasquez while also picking up printmaking skills. He then traveled to Paris again and took up French Impressionism, cubism, futurism, and the old masters. In short, Biddle absorbed the wet paint of a wide variety of art styles and eras like a dry sponge. His Convalescent (above) from 1916, displays the influence of Biddle's friend and fellow Philadelphian, Mary Cassatt.
Having just returned from Mexico, the Latino influence is very much
apparent in these prints dating from 1928.
With the sudden outbreak of war in Europe in 1917, Biddle hustled back home where he enlisted in the army. After the war, during the early interwar years, Biddle continued his studies in such exotic locations such as Tahiti, before returning to France in 1924. In 1928 he went on a sketching trip through Mexico with Diego Rivera from whom he caught the mural painting fever. In returning to the United States, Biddle established a print shop in New York City where he explore the variety and richness of technique and expressionism possible in lithography (above), a medium which he hoped would popularize American art by making it better known to the public.
Tenement Mural Study, Dept. of Justice Bldg., George Biddle
Impressed by the passion as well as the political and social awareness of the Mexican muralists, Biddle decided to devote his own art to the contemporary American scene and to paint the social, economic, and political issues facing America. In the 1930s, he became an activist for social art and strongly advocated government funding for artistic endeavors. His correspondence with his former classmate and newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt contributed to the establishment of the Federal Art Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration that produced several hundred thousand pieces of publicly funded art. Biddle himself completed a mural titled The Tenement (above) for the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C. while also making sketches of the opera, Porgy and Bess during its late 1930s tour.
Industrial Scene, 1930, George Biddle, a relatively
small, easel painting in an expressionistic mode.
George Biddle executed his first mural in 1933 for the Chicago World's Fair; then in 1936 he also created a larger triptych mural for the Department of Justice, in Washington, D.C. titled Society Freed Through Justice (top). Incidentally, the mural occupies three adjoining walls of a single room. In coping with the perspective elements of two separate photos of the hard to photograph image, stitching them together gives the unavoidable appearance of a protruding corner (which does not exist) in the middle of the center wall unit.
Dead Civilians, 1940s, George Biddle
With the coming of WW II, Biddle was appointed chairman of the United States Department of War's Art Advisory Committee, serving to recruit artists to that body. Biddle also traveled through Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy with the 3rd Infantry Division producing works documenting that unit's achievements. He wrote a book on his war travels: Artist at War Tunisia-Sicily-Italy, in 1944. When the Art Advisory Committee was disbanded, he began producing combat art for Life magazine. George Biddle was married three times, twice for only brief periods of three or four years then in 1930 he married Helene Sardeau , a sculptor from Antwerp, Belgium with whom he had one son. George Biddle died at his home at Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in 1973. He was seventy-eight years of age.
Portrait of Fletcher Martin, (a fellow
combat artist), George Biddle.

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