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Details & Cataloguing

American Art

|
New York

Oscar Bluemner
1867 - 1938
VIOLET TONES
signed Florianus (lower right); also signed, titled, dated and inscribed 28 1/2 x 38 1/2 Tempera - Varnish Painting/on Paper/1934 Record #370/"Violet Tones"/Oscar F. Bluemner/102 Plain St. S. Braintree/Mass on the reverse
casein on Fabriano paper mounted on board by the artist
28 ½ by 38 ½ inches
(72.4 by 97.8 cm)
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Provenance

Robert Bluemner (the artist's son)
Sid Deutsch Gallery, New York
Harvey and Françoise Rambach, 1979
Gerald Peters Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, early 2000s

Exhibited

New York, The Marie Harriman Gallery, New Landscapes by Oscar F. Bluemner: Compositions for Color Themes, January 1935, no. 19
Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham Museum of Art; New York, IBM Gallery of Science and Art; Syracuse, New York, Everson Museum of Art; Akron, Ohio, Akron Art Museum; Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, The Expressionist Landscape: North American Modernist Painting, 1920-1947, September-November 1987, no. 12, p. 107, illustrated fig. 48 
Washington D.C., The Corcoran Gallery of Art; Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum; Trenton, New Jersey, New Jersey State Museum, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, December, 1988-September 1989, no. 117, p. 77, illustrated 
Boca Raton, Florida, The Boca Raton Museum of Art, Masterpieces of American Modernism: Selections from the Harvey and Françoise Rambach Collection, March-April 1995, pp. 18-19, illustrated
Roslyn Harbor, New York, Nassau County Museum of Art, American Vanguards, January-April 1996, no. 46, p. 23
Youngstown, Ohio, The Butler Institute of American Art, Masterpieces of American Modernism: The Rambach Collection, January-April 1998
New York, Gerald Peters Gallery, American Modernism: The Françoise & Harvey Rambach Collection, September-November 1999, pp. 53, 261, illustrated
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, October 2005-February 2006, p. 159, illustrated

Literature

Oscar Bluemner Papers, 1886-1939, 1960. Painting Diary 1934, box 2, folder 8, pp. 78-82. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 
Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 168, illustrated fig. 116 and pl. VIII

Catalogue Note

“Landscape painting speaks to the soul like a poem or music,” Oscar Bluemner wrote in 1938 near the end of his career, “more intimately than any other kind of painting. I present a surprising vision of landscape by the daring new use of color” (quoted in Debra Force, Oscar Bluemner: Visions of the Modern Landscape, New York, 2004, p. 1). With these words, Bluemner summarized the ethos that defines his striking, multisensory interpretation of the modern American landscape. Painted in 1934, Violet Tones belongs to a significant period in Bluemner’s mature career, and exemplifies the highly personal vision of this enigmatic and experimental artist, who privileged the expressive power of color above all.

Bluemner arrived in the United States from Germany in 1892. Trained as an architect, he worked in Chicago and New York before deciding to pursue a career as an artist. By the beginning of the 1930s, Bluemner had developed a body of work that primarily utilized the local landscape and architecture as motifs, working in both oil and watercolor. Throughout the first decades of the century, Bluemner mined a diverse range of artistic sources for inspiration, engaging with elements of Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and Expressionism to create a unique visual language that championed art as a manifestation of inner consciousness and color as the primary vehicle for this expression. Art, “comes from the inside,” he wrote. “Nature delivers no pictures” (quoted in Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: Passion for Color, New York, 2005, pp. 31). These ideas remained central to Bluemner’s conception of his work as he continuously revised his artistic theories, wrote prolifically and experimented with a wide range of media.

In Violet Tones, Bluemner depicts a darkened street—either Bank or Smith—in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He described this composition, which he also articulated as a preparatory sketch and in a 1933 watercolor (Fig. 1) in his painting diary on August 24, 1934, writing “I saw very rose violet lightened large clouds in a cyan sky. Black yard spaces. Dull red fences a lemon yellow shed. Old apple trees” (Oscar Bluemner Papers, Painting Diary 1934, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. p. 81). An unseen but implied setting sun has rendered the sky ablaze with riotous color, vivid hues of pink, blue, purple and yellow contrasting dynamically with the rich tones of black, navy and red that dominate the foreground of the composition.

A lifelong student of the color theories of figures such as J.W. von Goethe and Arthur Schopenhauer, Bluemner emphasized the non-associative use of color in his work from the earliest years of his career. For Bluemner, the psychological power of color was significantly more important than its descriptive or decorative role. He believed that every color held a specific emotional meaning. Red, for example, conveyed power and vitality, whereas white represented light, energy and purity. These complex ideas aligned Bluemner with a group of German Expressionists known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Reiter), whose work the artist first encountered during a trip to Berlin in 1912. Both Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, the group’s chief proponents, ascribed to a similar idea of the emotional power of art (Fig. 2).

The brilliant, jewel-like palette of Violet Tones is characteristic of Bluemner’s work from this decade and illustrates the aesthetic and theoretical affinities his work shares with that of Kandinsky and Marc. Like these artists, Bluemner believed that that both color and form held spiritual value and painting, like music, had the ability to prompt emotional responses that were unbound to a particular subject matter or image. “Look at my work the way you would listen to music” he wrote. “Look at the space filled with colors and try to feel; do not insist on ‘understanding’ what seems strange… When you ‘FEEL’ colors, you will understand the ‘WHY’ of their forms. It is so simple” (quoted in Haskell, p. 146). The correlation he saw between the visual and musical arts was often manifested in the titles of his works. Always a highly experimental painter, in 1930 Bluemner began to apply “a new secret medium, neither oil nor water,” that fused materials such as casein, watercolor, gouache, and formaldehyde. In Violet Tones, the combination of the artist’s media has deeply saturated the porous Fabriano paper support, producing both a more opaque surface and striking luminosity that contributes to the drama of the scene. Indeed, the dynamic energy of Violet Tones attests to Bluemner’s belief in the force and power of the natural world, a growing preoccupation in the mature years of his career. 

Violet Tones radiates with an undeniable sense of dynamism, which Bluemner used both color and form to achieve. His painting diary is filled with notes on how both should be arranged independently and together to impart the biggest visual impact. In addition to the emotional significance of color, Bluemner also believed that each hue in the spectrum manifested its own type of kinetic energy and thus would either recede or advance when applied to the picture plane. Arranging areas of contrasting colors therefore allowed the artist to define forms and organize space within the picture plane. The repetition of similar shapes throughout the composition adds to the sense of rhythmic motion that finds parallels with not only Marc and Kandinsky but also the work of the Italian Futurists, which Bluemner also discovered in 1912.

However, Bluemner consistently differentiated himself from his European counterparts in his insistence on grounding his landscape compositions in realistic rather than imaginary scenery or indeed in pure abstraction. “A landscape cannot be fully invented,” he declared; “we cannot escape the particular” (Ibid., pp. 44-45). Indeed like most American modernists, Bluemner drew his primary inspiration from the forms and figures of the rapidly changing world around him. In Violet Tones, Bluemner alludes to the encroaching industrialization of the country with his inclusion of a telephone pole and factory smokestack yet ultimately it is the organic forms and arabesque lines of the billowy clouds and twisted branches of the tree in the foreground that command the viewer’s attention.

This compelling juxtaposition of the natural and the manmade echoes the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, who also explored the iconography of urban living in this period (Fig. 3). Bluemner knew O’Keeffe through her husband, the avant-garde photographer and gallerist, Alfred Stieglitz, who promoted the work of many of America’s most progressive modern artists in the first years of the 20th century. Stieglitz gave Bluemner his first solo exhibition in America at the 291 Gallery in 1915. While Bluemner shared an interest in depicting the modern world with the other artists in Stieglitz’s stable, including O’Keeffe, his insatiable curiosity and at times irascible personality helped to forge an aesthetic and body of work that are ultimately difficult to categorize. He evolved his ideas on the function the meaning of art throughout his career, and constantly looked for sources of inspiration both in the United States and abroad. He took elements from each and synthesized them, ultimately creating visual language that is entirely his own.

American Art

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New York