Modern Day Auction

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Gertrude Abercrombie

Untitled (Key on Table)

Auction Closed

May 18, 09:51 PM GMT


15,000 - 25,000 USD

Lot Details


Gertrude Abercrombie

1909 - 1977

Untitled (Key on Table)

signed Abercrombie and dated 37 (lower right)

oil on Masonite

5⅝ by 7½ in.

14.3 by 19.1 cm.

Executed in 1937. 

We are grateful for the research conducted by Susan Weininger, Professor Emerita, Roosevelt University. 

Katherine Kuh Gallery, Chicago
Mrs. Adeline Harold Pynchon, Chicago (acquired from the above in 1937) 
Private Collection
Acquired from the above circa 2000 by the present owner

We are grateful to Susan Weininger for preparing the following essay:

This small early work by Abercrombie depicts a room empty of everything but a rectangular wooden table topped by a large key, in a limited palette of shades of browns and off white. The closed space has a simple, hingeless door on the back wall. It is signed with the block letters that the artist used only up until the early 1940s. Despite its simplicity, this work contains the seeds of her mature style and content, and offers clues to her early development. 

The painting was exhibited at the Katherine Kuh Gallery in 1937, where Abercrombie was frequently featured in shows early in her career. It was sold, presumably out of the exhibit, to a woman identified by the artist as Mrs. Harold Pynchon for $25. Mrs. Pynchon, also known as Adeline Lobdell Atwater (Atwater was her first husband’s name), studied at the Art Institute as a young woman, and was a manager of a number of galleries on the East Coast before her marriage to Mr. Pynchon in 1932. Settling back in Chicago, where she had grown up, she continued to pursue activities related to women’s rights (she had been a leader in the fight for suffrage and was active in many charities including Planned Parenthood) as well as a career as a writer and a continued interest in the arts. She seems a perfect patron for an artist such as Abercrombie, and an impressive one as well, for a 28 year old at the beginning of her career. 

This painting relates to a number of works made early in Abercrombie’s career as well as presaging much that comes later. Throughout her career, Abercrombie used objects of personal significance to her and this work is no exception. The closed, austere room appeared early in her career, probably inspired by her move to her first apartment in the Weinstein Building (no longer standing) at 57th Street and Harper Avenue in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, enabled by her selection to participate on the Illinois Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (IAP/WPA) in 1935. The appointment validated her as an artist and offered her a regular salary that gave her, at 26 years old, the opportunity to move out of her family home for the first time. Her conservative parents, who were strict Christian Scientists, disapproved of drinking, smoking and general carousing. The latter activities were extremely appealing to Abercrombie, who was a lifelong lover of parties, alcohol and cigarettes. The Weinstein Building was a mecca for artists of all kinds, and Abercrombie met many like-minded people during this period with whom she forged lasting relationships: writers James Purdy, Thornton Wilder, Wendell Wilcox, and visual artists Charles Sebree and Karl Priebe. The room represented independence and freedom, but also reflected the isolation and emptiness she felt, even as she was sparkling and vivacious and surrounded by friends in her active social life. This room is a particularly barren example, with only the table and the large key pushed up to the foreground of a space empty of anything else—no pictures on the walls, no window, no other furniture. The simple door is closed tight.

Like this room, a number of her earlier paintings have wood floors (often of this same reddish color), in which the boards lead us back in a strict perspectival recession of which an early Renaissance practitioner would have been proud (see, for example, the paintings Untitled (Girl in Room), 1935, Private Collection; The Pedestal, 1938, Illinois State Museum; and prints, Untitled (Room, Woman’s Profile and Door, c. 1940, and Untitled (Masked Man by Pedestal), c. 1940, both Illinois State Museum). With some notable exceptions, by the early 1940s Abercrombie favored floors in undifferentiated flat colors. The perspectival floors reflect Abercrombie’s mastery of the technical aspects of constructing a composition that she learned in her art classes at University of Illinois. Despite her claims to have had little art training, she did take classes that she seems to have worked quite hard in, achieving proficiency not only in perspective, but in traditional methods of creating three dimensional objects through the use of light and shade. This kind of classical beaux arts training was still in place in many art schools including the Art Institute of Chicago well into the 20th Century and is evidenced in the drawings she created for classes that are now in the Illinois State Museum. 

This skill is evident in the large key that is on the table in the foreground of this painting, a solid object painted using the technique of chiaroscuro that she studied in college. The key is an object that appears in other paintings (see The Key, 1951, Private Collection; The Enormous Key, 1963, location unknown) with less frequency than the austere room or the wooden table it sits on. It is oversized and prominent and is an example of the kind of surreal element that she often employed, although her work is not technically surrealist. The key in this case has a typically witty quality, perhaps referring to the impossibility of opening this hermetically sealed room.

The table in this room appears in a number of Abercrombie’s works from this period, including There on the Table (1935, Illinois State Museum, Springfield) which won a prize at the Art Institute of Chicago, Head on a Plate (1936, Private Collection), Still Life with Stairs (1936, Stern Collection) and Untitled (Still Life) (1940, Illinois State Museum, Springfield).  In the late 1930s she introduced a round Victorian table and that became her favored table in works from the early 1940s on. The heavy rectangular wooden table may have been a piece of furniture in her Weinstein Building apartment. 

Like most of Abercrombie’s images, there is a deceptive simplicity, in this case a paucity of elements organized with precision—the large key placed front and center, balanced by the off center placement of the table and the door, which echo the angle of the wall. This is combined with a mysterious, magical quality lent by the large key in the otherwise vacant interior, also typical of the artist, demanding our attention and producing an image that engages and resonates. It is both personal and universal, straightforward and enigmatic, qualities that generate the persistent interest in Abercrombie at her best.