Parting with some things to simplify your life? Maybe you’re finding what other downsizers have found. Prized family heirlooms may be destined for the dumpster, impossible to sell or give away to younger generations with little interest in the past. For old souls like me, this cuts to the quick.
Dismayed and disheartened after researching this disturbing trend, I sought refuge in a space where a circa-1893 cabinet card from Urlin’s Mammoth Art Palace, an almost-illegible fragment of paper that once labeled a painting, and a sturdy wooden easel and palette are carefully displayed. Thank goodness these treasures weren’t tossed. They once belonged to Alice Schille, a Columbus art teacher who traveled the world to find inspiration for her acclaimed paintings.
To commemorate the artist’s 150th birthday, the Columbus Museum of Art organized In a New Light: Alice Schille and the American Watercolor Movement, on view through September 29. Spend time in these galleries and you’ll discover what made Schille a pioneering, critically acclaimed American watercolorist. You’ll also wonder why this vibrant personality was virtually forgotten after her death in 1955.
More than 50 of Schille’s paintings, many of which have not been exhibited for decades, are organized chronologically. They showcase Schille’s talent for depicting seaside and town scenes, landscapes and family life in brilliant color and patterns.
Born in Columbus on August 21, 1869, Schille was the daughter of a prosperous flavored-soda manufacturer. She graduated from the Columbus Art School (known today as the Columbus College of Art and Design) in 1893, and continued her art education in Paris and New York, where artist William Merritt Chase was one of her teachers. She returned to Columbus to teach at her alma mater and at the Ohio Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. She perfected her art in her studio, which was located over the carriage house behind the Near East Side home at 1166 Bryden Road where she lived with her mother and her sister.
Schille’s work was inspired by travel. During her first trip to Europe in 1903, she spent time at the Dutch art colony of Laren, where she painted Knitting, one of the first watercolors that she exhibited professionally. This and other scenes of peasant life she captured during return trips to the Netherlands, France and present-day Croatia established her reputation as a leading American watercolorist who experimented with the lightened palette and loose, rapid brushwork that define Impressionist painting techniques.
Her aptitude for capturing sunlight and surface patterning is particularly noticeable in paintings she made in the picturesque French village of Le Puy, such as Sun Spots on the Road and Mother and Child in a Garden, France, both painted about 1911. She also was drawn to dim church interiors enlivened by the rich jewel tones of stained glass-filtered light, which appealed to her Catholicism and enthusiasm for architecture.
When World War I curtailed her overseas travel, Schille remained stateside and began an especially productive period of her career. At home in Columbus, she was inspired by Claude Monet’s Impressionist style when she painted the water lilies at the home of William Miller, co-owner of Godmund Shoe Company. Her sparkling watercolors of brilliant beach scenes in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the colorful streets of New York City and the fascinating cultural heritage of Santa Fe, New Mexico rival the work of important American Impressionist painters like Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent and Edward Potthast. She experimented with Pointillist techniques, employing short, horizontal strokes of intense color.
After the war, Schille resumed her summer travels abroad, painting in the French Riviera, French North Africa, Central America and Mexico. Prompted by her interest in Diego Rivera’s art, her style became more abstract. She also continued learning. Colorful Cottages, the 1930s painting the museum chose to brand the exhibit, shows how Schille applied what she learned in her studies of modern painting and drawing during her 60s.
During the winters, Schille kept busy at home in Columbus, teaching until her retirement in 1948 and painting portraits in oils. In the 1920s, she painted decorative flamingo panels on the walls of the Maramor, a popular Downtown restaurant of the day. I’m especially glad the menu cover she designed for the Maramor didn’t find its way into a dumpster.
Letters, journals, photographs and other archival treasures on display offer a unique glimpse of Schille’s life. Reading her handwritten diary entries about her years in New York City, paging through a digitized version of her journal and sketchbook from the 1930s, and studying a receipt for watercolor paints she ordered from Windsor & Newton in London, England in 1925 restored my faith that not everyone trashes such treasures.
All this, together with an illustrated timeline of Schille’s life, makes for an exhibition as varied and interesting as the Art Institute of Chicago’s show of Schille’s work that Harriet Monroe reviewed for the Chicago Daily Tribune on May 30, 1929.
“Indeed, this Ohio girl makes, on the whole, the most varied and interesting exhibition in the galleries,” Monroe wrote. “Whether she handles street crowds, or figures of peasant girls and children…or anything she chooses to undertake, she always puts into the work a spirit and grace all her own. It will be interesting to watch her career.”
For more, read Alice Schille, by William H. Gerdts; as well as Alice Schille: An Independent Spirit and Alice Schille: The Early Years, 1902-1914, both catalogues for previous exhibitions of Schille’s work.