Fairfield’s Philip Eliasoph celebrates painter Robert Vickrey

Image: Vickrey paintingAdmiral Benbow, 1979 
Egg tempera on Geso panel, private collection. Photo courtesy Hudson Hills Press.

By Alistair Highet

Robert Vickrey has been one of America’s preeminent realist painters since 1952 when, barely out of the Yale University School of Art, his painting Labyrinth - depicting a nun caught in a bleak labyrinth of corridors – was selected for the Whitney Annual Exhibition. In subsequent years, his paintings, praised for their presentation of the “mysterious in the apparently commonplace,” would be chosen for the Whitney exhibit on eight more occasions, and he would be described by New York Times critic John Canaday as “most surely the world’s most proficient craftsman in egg tempera painting.”

Not that Vickrey would always be in critical favor. While his work is in the collections of 80 leading museums, and the 78 covers that he painted for Time magazine between 1957 and 1968 of public figures like Nikita Khrushchev remain iconic images of the Cold War era, Vickrey has followed a personal vision that has not always been in step with the times. He is dedicated to pictorial representation and a repetition of symbolic themes that have led him to be described as a surrealist, a magic realist, or dismissed as a mere illustrator. During the 1950s and early 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism was the fashion, Vickrey and other realists were pushed to the margins. By the time photo-realism emerged in the 1970s, older realists like Vickrey had already fallen off the critical radar screen.

More than a thousand paintings and drawings later, at the age of 83, Vickrey is still painting. On March 23, Fairfield University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., presented the artist – who lived in Fairfield for many years – with the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Award for Excellence in the Arts. The award coincided with a retrospective exhibit of the artist’s work in the University’s Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery, and the publication of Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism by Dr. Philip Eliasoph, professor of art history in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Fairfield.

Image: Vickrey awardFr. von Arx presented Robert Vickrey with the Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Award.

The book, published by Hudson Hills Press, is a comprehensive catalogue of Vickrey’s work. It is also a biographical sketch of an artist who had an unusual childhood – born into wealth, and then suddenly whisked off by his mother to a ranch in Nevada. At age 10, his mother died and Vickrey was sent to a boarding school where he realized his “career was to be an artist.” Dr. Eliasoph has followed Vickrey’s work and been a friend since 1981. When Vickrey was named Artist of the Year by the town of Fairfield in 1982, Dr. Eliasoph curated an exhibition of his work at the University.

Fairfield Now spoke with Dr. Eliasoph about his interest in the artist.

Fairfield Now: How did your interest in American realism develop?

Eliasoph: My formative introduction to the history of art came from my grandmother, who was an American impressionist artist, Paula Eliasoph (1895-1983), and was modestly recognized in the American art world as a protégé of Childe Hassam. So many of the artists of the period were friends of hers. They weren’t mere luminaries; my grandmother told me about these people. At the age of 10, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a football player or a painter, but I probably lacked the coordination to be either.

As for realism, in terms of my own training as an artist, I came with great humility to realize the inadequacy of my ability. There comes a moment when you need the mastery to be able to put onto the canvas whatever you want to render. My esteem for realist painting came out of a recognition of my own limitations.

Image: Vickrey paintingCorner Seat, 1964
Egg tempera on panel, private collection. Photo courtesy Hudson Hills Press.

Fairfield Now: How do you respond to criticism of Vickrey’s painting, that it is “illustrative” or “too matter-of-fact” or “lacking in real resonance”?

Eliasoph: Vickrey lives in a zone where there is a cast of characters, where certain themes are repeated – the adolescent lost in a maze, the teenager on the bicycles, the nun who is a symbol for Vickrey of a kind of purity that is unsustainable in our world. I accept that there is Vickrey style, recurrent leitmotifs – that he is exploring a world of light and shadow. One of the reasons that there has been little change in his work over time is that he has refused to pander to what art is supposed to be. Part of what I’m trying to express in the book is that Vickrey, at a time when realist art was considered passé, knew what was going on. He knew that realist painting was out of favor but he said, “Damn the torpedoes. I’m going to stick to what I want to express as an artist.”

Bob Vickrey is himself his own worst critic. He’s going to be 83 in August and he knows that he is still wrestling with the compositional and artistic problems that he first attempted to master in 1949 and 1950.

As for being dismissive of the illustrational and the representational, I am seasoned enough to say that (Johann) Vermeer was considered a minor artist until he was rediscovered in the 19th century, and let’s not forget that masters such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper were widely published illustrators in mass market magazines.

Image: Vickrey paintingAfter the Festivities, 1989 
Egg tempera on Geso panel, private collection. Photo courtesy Hudson Hills Press.

And let me say something in defense of illustration: What does it say that in December 2001, after the events of 9/11 and the shock of the World Trade Center coming down, that the Guggenheim Museum – the temple of post-modernism – had scheduled a retrospective of Norman Rockwell, and that show had lines around the blocks. It was the biggest blockbuster in memory. Americans came to the Guggenheim for the solace and the emotional balm that Rockwell was able to provide at a time when we were trying to redefine and rediscover ourselves as Americans. America came to see Rockwell illustrate the American experience.

Fairfield Now: How do you think Vickrey will be remembered? Where will he fit in the tradition?

Eliasoph: Vickrey is indelibly written into mid-century American representational painting, regardless of whatever trend or fashionista re-editing is currently being written. I have no doubt that 300 years from now – just as we came to rediscover American painters like John Vanderlyn (1775-1852) and William Sydney Mount (1807-1868) who were also at one time dismissed – that he will be permanently cast into the flow of the current of American realist painting, including what I call painting of the Age of Anxiety, the period between Hiroshima and Vietnam, where we see the themes of loneliness and alienation, the existentialist themes of contemporaries like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.


Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism

by Gail Leggio

Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism by Philip Eliasoph. Manchester and New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2008. Illustrated, 228 pages.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2.Robert Vickrey is a crucial figure in the mid-twentieth-century renaissance of egg tempera, a demanding technique he has been exploring over six decades. After studying with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League, Vickrey went on to Yale, where he learned egg tempera from Lewis E. York. The rediscovery of Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte(c. 1390–1410) was highly influential. The Brandywine River Museum’s 2002 exhibition “Milk and Eggs: The American Revival of Tempera Painting, 1930–1950” chronicled the experiments of the era. Vickrey wrote his own manuals on the subject: New Techniques in Egg Tempera (1973), which author Eliasoph calls “an instant classic in the field of technical art books,” and Robert Vickrey: Artist at Work (1979). Eliasoph quotes Vickrey on reinvigorating the old medium: “There are many ways to use egg tempera, not just one. And with a lot of practice and some imagination, you should be able to come up with techniques I’ve never thought of.”

Egg tempera has a short drying time, which precludes blending. Vickrey makes changes by scraping paint with a razor, by scumbling, stippling, sponging and sandpapering. Vickrey’s paintings don’t have the neo-Renaissance look of many practitioners. One nice juxtaposition in the book sets Vickrey’s Lanterns (1996) alongside George Tooker’s In the Summerhouse(1958). Both images use colorful paper lanterns as a magical light source, but Tooker’s blonde girls have the gravitas of allegorical figures, with their rhymically arranged arms. Vickrey’s little girl—who looks like a contemporary figure, in spite of her rather old-fashioned dress and hat—has a child’s curiosity. Children approaching adolescence are a specialty of Vickrey’s. The blonde girl in Victoria’s Mural (c. 1978), studiously painting her parents’ wall with simplified flowers and webs and suns, is an exemplar of the fledging artist. She is also a particular individual in rumpled white shirt, blue pants and brown socks. Anyone who doubts the range of possibilities in contemporary egg tempera practice should compare Vickrey’s distinctive matte, somewhat grainy surfaces with Tooker’s peachier tonalities. Tooker’s figures, whether lyrical lovers or angst-ridden cogs in the soulless machine of bureaucracy, move in the ritualized choreography of early Renaissance tableaux.

Eliasoph, a professor of art history at Fairfield University, based his monograph on extensive research and interviews with the painter. He does a good job in placing Vickrey’s long career in the context of twentieth-century American art history. He traces a line from Ashcan Realists Robert Henri, John Sloan and William Glackens to social realists such as Reginald Marsh and the Soyer brothers, glancing at the Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton and the master of existential light, Edward Hopper. The Magical Realists are probably the group Vickrey, who is not particularly doctrinaire, found most congenial. Eliasoph focuses on the critical reception of Vickrey’s work, citing much positive and insightful analysis, especially during his early success, as well as occasional dismissive comments. Vickrey, Eliasoph sums up, “is more a revolutionary than the misconceived reactionary conservative.” One early critic described Vickrey as a “semi-surrealist,” a convincing tag in the face of a signature work such as Labyrinth (1951, Whitney Museum of American Art). In this disturbing image, a nun regards her distorted reflection in a grey wall, part of a menacing maze stretching back to infinity. Nuns feature in some 400 Vickrey paintings. Members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, they wear distinctive starched white wimples.

In Midsummer Dream (1984), the shape of a nun’s white, wing-like headdress is echoed by windblown pieces of pure, blank paper. This is one of Vickrey’s late “wall” pieces, in which the artist reproduces a flattened version of a famous painting on the backdrop wall. Here, the image is a shadowy version of Bruegel’s sixteenth-century painting The Hunters in the Snow. A black-and-white dog in the nun’s three-dimensional space is echoed by a silhouette on the two-dimensional wall, calling attention to the flatness of Vickrey’s own painting, despite its illusionism. Midsummer Dream is a conceptual puzzle-piece, a painting about painting in a modern idiom that reminds us what a slippery thing representation actually is. After the Festivities (1989) is a particularly lighthearted entry in this group, with two nuns walking in front of a swirl of Bouguereau nymphs. Even better is a chalk-on-sidewalk variation, Four Graces (1993), with a street artist (a fourth Grace) drawing a replica of Botticelli’s famous trio.

Vickrey’s long career encompasses a phase when he seems to be running alongside the photorealists or anticipating them. Eliasoph juxtaposes Vickrey’s The Flower (1951), with its mysterious layers of reflection, and Richard Estes’s harder-edged Nedrick’s (1970). During a period when he was living on Cape Cod, his coastscapes and lonely figures in interiors are reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s work. Yet Vickrey’s In the Boathouse (1972), an overhead view of a boy and two cats caught in an elaborate pattern of sunlight and shadow, has a warmth that makes Wyeth’s touch seem dry. Vickrey retreated to Cape Cod after a lucrative decade painting portraits for Time magazine covers. Eliasoph devotes a chapter, titled “Time Out,” to the period, 1957–68, complete with a fold-out sampler of cover images. Skillful as they are, the reader gets the impression—reinforced by the chapter title—that this was a digression in the career.

The relationship between fine and commercial art projects is a fraught subject. Winslow Homer’s vivacious illustrations for Harper’s Weekly were part of his learning process and strong explorations of graphic possibilities. Contemporary graphic designer Milton Glaser brings a powerful visual intellect to the commercial field, his principal arena for aesthetic experimentation. At the turn of the twentieth century, Maxfield Parrish found a profitable outlet for his crepuscular idylls in advertising the new technology of Edison Mazda, although his flushed twilights have little resemblance to the harsh glare of the early lightbulb. Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers have the one-note punch of an O. Henry short story, mixing satire and sentiment in clever, palatable images. Vickrey’s situation is different. He started fast in the art world, winning critical praise for both his innovative technique and complex content. The ninety portraits he made for Time magazine gave him wider recognition, but they seemed like a step back. Vickrey remarks: “I could not evade some critics thinking I had become an illustrator.”

By the time Vickrey emerged from his commercial phase, the art scene had moved on. With the spectacular success of Abstract Expressionism and then Pop Art, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that realism had been a viable component of the American mainstream for fully half of the twentieth century. When Vickrey returned to his own painting full-time, he had become a more peripheral figure, but he did not fade away. Throughout the book, Eliasoph acknowledges how patrons, gallery owners and curators fostered Vickrey’s career. Lincoln Kirstein picked Vickrey out of York’s tempera class at Yale, choosing the young artist’s The Doorway for “Symbolic Realism,” a 1950 show at Edwin Hewitt Gallery in New York City. The exhibition, as “American Symbolic Realists,” went on to London the same year. Vickrey found himself in heady company, showing alongside Ben Shahn, George Tooker, Paul Cadmus and Isabel Bishop. Vickrey’s first solo exhibition in 1951 drew laudatory reviews. ANew York Times critic wrote that the artist “lets a meticulous technique and a realistic style serve a fantastic imagination.” In 1952, curator Juliana Force selected Vickrey’s Labyrinthfor the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Museum director Lloyd Goodrich included Vickrey’s work in nine Whitney Annuals and, in a 1954 Art in America essay, praised his “remarkable draftsmanship” and the way he exploited “perspective and deep space…in a highly ingenious and brilliant fashion.” From 1953 to 1976, Vickrey was affiliated with Midtown Gallerias on 57th Street, which also represented Isaac Soyer, Isabel Bishop and Paul Cadmus. Vickrey credited Midtown owner Adam Gruskin with making his career. Gruskin’s first press release for Vickrey reveals a knowledgeable supporter, who has noticed how “the tendency of egg yolk to set somewhat like gelatin” allows for the creation of “unbelievably intricate textures.” Vickrey would lose much of that support as fashions in art changed, but praise sometimes came from unexpected sources. In the mid-1980s, New York Times critic Michael Brenson responded warmly to the playful mystery of Midsummer Dream. Recently, Vickrey has found a new home at the Harmon-Meek Gallery, based in Naples, Florida. Dealer-agent J. William Meek III has staged a number of national shows promoting the work of realist artists, including a forty-five-year Vickrey retrospective.

It is fair to ask, however, how Vickrey fits into the story of twentieth- and twenty-first-century realism. An acknowledged master of a traditional medium, he uses egg tempera in original and idiosyncratic ways. As Eliasoph notes, Vickrey is “armed with remarkably precise brushwork and rendering skills,” but his iconography and aesthetic philosophy hardly adhere to the principles advocated by many orthodox neo-realists today. Take, for example,Under the Swings (c. 1966), a disorienting, horizon-less playground image, where the shadows are as real—or unreal—as the swings, bikes and children they mirror. There is no sense of spatial recession; the image is as flat as any modernist work. The artist’s choice of a warm beige grisaille also adds to the feeling of unreality. Under the Swings is related toPlayground, one of seven short films Vickrey experimented with in the 1950s. A self-described “cinema addict,” he drew on the visual style of favorite directors—Alfred Hitchock, Orson Welles, Jules Dassin and the French New Wave—as a source both for vaguely sinister moods and for dynamic examples of light-and-shadow monochrome. In a short but intriguing chapter, “Splicing Reality: Art & Cinema,” Eliasoph quotes Vickrey (who spent his honeymoon at the Cannes Film Festival): “I might have become a cinematographer, but I just liked painting more.” It’s another strand in this complex artist’s makeup, giving him more depth than the title of his collected essays, The Affable Curmudgeon (1987), might suggest. Vickrey may occasionally adopt the pose of the recalcitrant realist, but he knows well how central visual ambiguity is to his oeuvre: “I am not attempting to counterfeit reality through high-fidelity realism—these paintings are never a truthful lens.” Eliasoph calls attention to the artist’s “hallucinatory, optically undulating patterns of distorted, reflected and refracted glass surfaces.” The doubling of forms is particularly effective in paintings such as Shadows and Sean (1968), featuring another of Vickrey’s trademark motifs, the bicycle. Throughout the book, paintings are shown alongside the artist’s own photographs, which function like preliminary sketches.

This well-researched book should become an essential resource for anyone interested in Vickrey. There are aspects of the career that would benefit from more in-depth analysis. Paragraphs sometimes seem short-winded, and Eliasoph occasionally falls back on clichés (“a chorus of art critics changed their tune”), but this study has essential virtues: a wealth of information and critical insight.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2.