A BUCKEYE ABROAD: FRANK WILCOX PAINTS PARIS, 1910-1911, at Tregoning and Co.

While not very well-known today outside of Cleveland, Frank Wilcox was one of the great virtuosos in the history of American watercolor and was often described as such in articles written during his lifetime. This October and November, Tregoning & Co. will present a fascinating chunk of his achievement: a group of watercolors of France and particularly of Paris in the closing years of La Belle Époque.

It’s not that rare, of course, to find paintings of Paris from this period. But the comprehensiveness of Wilcox’s view of Paris is something I’ve never encountered before: more than one hundred small watercolors detailing varied aspects of the life of the city —artists sketching at La Grande Chaumiere, the laundries along the Seine, mattress stuffers beneath the Pont Neuf, workmen with horses and carts, pretty girls strolling in the street, the city’s architectural marvels such as Notre Dame, Les Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, and many other subjects. Taken as a group, they’re an amazing record of a golden moment in human history when Europe was at peace, when France was prosperous, when everything was picturesque, and when one of every seven people in Paris was an artist.

In Wilcox’s career they’re notable works. They mark his shift from earnest student to mature master, and set the course of the rest of his career. As he later wrote of these watercolors, produced from the fall of 1910 to the summer of 1911: “What I deem the best in my life’s work grew out of that year’s effort. “ Frank Wilcox was born on old Genesee Street in Cleveland, Ohio in 1887. His father Frank senior was a prominent Cleveland attorney. His mother came from a farming family in Brecksville, where the family retained a farm, and both parents traced their lineage to New England families that had settled in the Western Reserve. Wilcox’s older brother, lawyer and publisher Owen N. Wilcox, had a distinguished career as president of the Gates Legal Publishing Company, also known as The Gates Press. His younger sister Ruth Wilcox became a respected librarian.

Wilcox graduated from Central High School in 1906 and then attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1906 to 1910, where he studied under Frederick Gottwald, Herman Matzen, Louis Rorimer, Horace Potter, and Henry Keller. Interestingly, he seems to have encountered no family resistance to a career in art, for his father, although a lawyer by ractice, was a poet by temperament, and had many friends who were writers or illustrators for the Cleveland newspapers. It was surely Keller, the most forward-looking of the group, and the most engaging personality, who was the greatest influence. Equally as important as Wilcox’s formal study at the Cleveland School of Art were the much more informal summer classes in outdoor landscape with Henry Keller in Berlin Heights, Ohio, where a colony of artists—including Grace Kelly, Billy Eastman and Carl Broeml—formed a serious painting group, but also had time for games, excursions and active fun.

Wilcox was the first of the group to go to Europe, doing so with funds provided by his family. While in France he managed to place one of his watercolors in the French salon; and on the strength of this a group of his father’s former law partners agreed to ante up a small sum of money to be paid for later in works of art. On the strength of this windfall, Wilcox was able to extend his trip a few months, and make an excursion to Italy. Interestingly, while Paris was filled with art schools, Wilcox avoided taking lessons, aside from attending occasional evening life classes, where, apparently without instruction, he was able to draw from the model.

What seems to have attracted him were the picturesque aspects of the place, which had a street life different from any American city. Unlike an American city, where work took place indoors, often in sites widely separated from each other, in Paris both work and social life were often pushed out on the street where they became a spectacle— a sort of urban theater. Seemingly every variety of humanity was on view: schoolgirls, workmen, priests, eccentric artists, small children, American tourists, and many other types. And work was constantly taking place before one’s eyes. Walking along the Seine, for example, one passed bookstalls, laundry barges, flower markets, and horse-drawn carts hauling cargo and trash. All these things became subjects for Wilcox’s brush. When he exhibited his work from Paris at the Taylor Galleries in Cleveland, in August of 1912, the response was enthusiastic. As a writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted: “Enthusiastic visitors to the Wilcox water color exhibit at Taylor’s have done more during the past week than to praise the vitality and season quality of the pictures—they have left a bright scattering of red cards marked “sold” here and there on all four walls.”

Taken as a body, Wilcox’s early French sketches of 1910-11, provide an extraordinary record of a world on the verge of momentous changes. As Wilcox noted, the way of life that he recorded was never quite the same after World War I, something in the whole temperament of Europe grew more suspicious and defensive afterwards; and the same might be said of the artistic innocence of this period, when the pleasures of direct observation, the nuances of an artist’s touch, had not yet been supplanted by the more strident concerns of modern art. While there are undercurrents of seriousness and discrete hints of class conflict in Wilcox’s scenes of carters and workmen along the Seine, these occasional allusions to social injustice are subsumed into a picturesque delight in the beauty of daily activities, and the fleeting effects of weather and atmosphere.

It’s hard not to be captivated by the uncanny sensitivity of Wilcox’s pencil and brush, the quickness and sharpness of observation with which he captured the passing scene as well as the venerable buildings that provided their backdrop; and as we absorb these qualities, we have a sharp awareness of a beautiful moment that has passed—though of course echoes of it remain even today. When he made these drawings and watercolors, young Frank Wilcox was an artistic innocent, with dreams of artistic triumph before him; and in a wonderfully complete way, not simply in subject matter, but in their artistic skill and artistic approach, Wilcox’s creations bring to life the magical period which is still known in France as “La Belle Epoque.”

A Buckeye Abroad

Frank Wilcox Paints Paris, 1910-1914

through December 1, 2012