Monday, May 16, 2011

RH Ives Gammell

RH Ives Gammell

We have listened to RH Ives Gammell tell us about his teachers and fellow artists from the Boston School of painting, and one might wonder, "What of Mr. Gammell himself?"

Robert Hale Ives Gammell has a significant place in the history of American art. Much more than the fact that he was a fine artist, he became a bridge. He spanned the chasm of modern art allowing the accumulated knowledge of classical art to pass over to the current generation.

"Born in 1893, the youngest son of a prominent Rhode Island family, Ives was reared in the patrician New England society which [often commissioned portraits from the Boston painters at the turn of the century]. That small group of artists, thoroughly trained in their profession, staunchly maintained the old standards of craftsmanship, at a time when the avant-garde forming in New York and Philadelphia had begun to reject such standards.

Gammell received his most important training from the Boston painters. His principal mentor, William McGregor Paxton, had studied with the eminent French academic painter Gérôme, whose teacher, in turn, had been a pupil of the great Jacques Louis David.

The Seamstress by RH Ives Gammell

Mr. Gammell became adept in the Boston style of painting, but his real passion was for imaginative painting--the creation of complex allegorical, historical, or literary scenes, composed of dramatic figural groups in elaborate costume and architectural settings. The choice of this most demanding of all painting genres was an extraordinarily challenging one for Gammell, since he was by his own admission a painter of only average talent (taking as his standard the great works of Western art), and his teachers could offer little specific guidance on this approach to picturemaking.

Gammell spared no effort toward the creation of an ambitious body of imaginative paintings. He traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, visiting museums to study the Old Masters, and tirelessly recording exotic details of costume, ornament, and architecture that he observed in various locales. More remarkable, when he was past thirty and had been painting professionally with a fair degree of success for a decade, he interrupted his career to spend two years relearning drawing under Paxton.

Finally, in the early 1930s, he began work on his allegorical paintings. They are often stunning images, brilliantly composed, with complex groups of carefully drawn figures and a vivid sense of color.

Dream of the Shulamite Woman
RH Ives Gammell

That work may well have taken its toll on Gammell. By the end of the decade, he was exhausted, overcome by a growing sense of despair and isolation. By that time

  • the First World War and the Depression had transformed American society and culture
  • the other painters of the "old school" were dying off, and their elegant, well-crafted pictures were being relegated to museum storerooms, along with the work of the nineteenth-century French academic artists, reviled by the modernists
  • not only was there little likelihood of a wide audience for his own [type of] work, it seemed that the entire Western painting tradition was in jeopardy
  • moreover, a second great war threatened to annihilate civilization itself.
Gammell sank into a profound depression. When he emerged from that dark period, however, it was with renewed purpose and a significant shift of focus. Seeing himself as the guardian of a priceless cultural tradition on the brink of extinction, he began to write and, eventually, to teach--as well as continuing to paint.

His first book was Twilight of Painting. Written in the early years of World War II, it was first published in 1946. It was, the author said, "a painter's book about painting," addressed to the general public and to the future artists who might someday undertake to revive the "all-but-lost art of picturemaking."*

(It was this book that attracted many of his best students to his school which had been founded in 1951 in Boston. His students were young men looking to acquire the knowledge of past great artists; in turn, they are dedicated to passing this valuable body of information on to others.}

Following Twilight of Painting, Gammell wrote a monograph on one of the finest of the late-nineteenth-century Boston painters, Dennis Miller Bunker; compiled and edited Shop Talk of Edgar Degas; and wrote a collection of essays posthumously published as The Boston Painters, 1900-1930--apart from much still unpublished material. Evident in his writing are some of the qualities that must have contributed to his effectiveness as a teacher of a painting: breadth of vision, clarity of thought and expression, erudition without pomposity, and above all a passionate dedication to the art of picturemaking--a dedication informed by a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the history and methodology of Western painting.

By all accounts, Gammell was a strict, often crusty, teacher, but he was also extraordinarily generous. He took no fees from his students, and frequently defrayed their studio expenses as well as their room and board, in addition to ensuring that they were exposed to a broad cultural program (also at his expense), which he considered essential to the development of an artist.

Undoubtedly, it was as a teacher and a critic and commentator, rather than as a painter, that he made his most significant contribution. Indeed, if the great painting tradition that is one of the glories of Western civilization survives and flourishes into the twenty-first century, it will be due in no small measure to RH Ives Gammell's teaching and writing on this art. It was a mission that he loved and to which he dedicated his life till his death in 1981.

There are many interesting stories from those who studied with him, and we shall hear first-hand from some of them beginning in our next blog.

* from RH Ives Gammell by Michelle Marder Kamhi in Aristos, May 1990


  1. Thank you for presenting this. His great contribution in transmitting the knowledge underlying naturalistic painting should be more widely known.

  2. I am enjoyed reading your posts Linda!