This is an artist’s tale, albeit a cautionary one. It involves eccentric temperament, erratic talent, and bad timing; lust, grumpiness, and epic egomania; yearning, success, and abject failure. It is the story of an artist caught between art-historical tendencies: between insider and outsider, academic and avant-garde, the freakish and the freaked-out. An artist who, although rediscovered at regular intervals, is all but unknown today. This is the story of the ill-fated Louis M. Eilshemius, who is being discovered once again in an illuminating, off-the-wall show of paintings at the National Academy of Design.
The weirdness of his vision and awkwardness of his style make Eilshemius very much an artist for our time—a moment when folk, thrift-store, and academic representation are once again being rethought and actively mingled by artists as various as John Currin, Verne Dawson, and Kara Walker; a time when the gallery scene accommodates contemporary and historic outsiders.
Born in 1864 to a wealthy New Jersey family, Eilshemius studied art in New York and Paris, and started out painting landscapes in the tradition of Corot. Although he traveled extensively, he spent most of his life in New York, becoming one of the art world’s best-known eccentrics. He created a very vivid public persona, penning vituperative letters to editors and calling himself, among other things, “Super Artist,” “Mahatma,” “King of American Artist-Painters,” “the American Shakespeare,” and “Mightiest Man and Wonder of the Worlds.” Duchamp was an early champion, which makes sense given his appreciation for off-center talents like Florine Stettheimer and Beatrice Wood. Matisse called him “a real painter.” Supposedly, when Picasso first saw Balthus’s work, he said, “You must have been looking at Eilshemius.” Between 1932 and his death in 1941, Eilshemius had 25 solo shows in New York, but none of them contained new work. After years of being ignored and branded a “nut,” he had stopped painting and—as the result of being run over by a car in 1932—was confined for the remainder of his life to his 57th Street studio. There, he received admirers like Louise Nevelson, Milton Avery, and the young Willem de Kooning. His New York Times obituary began, “Eilshemius, 77, Dies in Bellevue, Penniless, Bitter and Famous.”
Prodigy or pariah, Eilshemius was some kind of genius, even if that genius was, as Clement Greenberg said, a “thin” one. (Greenberg also called him “one of the best artists we have ever produced.”) Eilshemius painted landscapes, city scenes, and nudes. The surprise of this show is learning that the land- and cityscapes are so good, and that the undue attention to the kinky nudes has distorted his historical achievement. This exhibition, ably organized by Steven Harvey, corrects some of that imbalance.
More than half of the 44 works here are city views or landscapes. These paintings suggest Eilshemius was more normal than you think, and more gifted. Conventional but not conservative, his depictions of countrysides are never merely sentimental and are often entrancing. The way he used paint is fairly advanced; his touch is buttery; his surfaces a combination of filmy and unfinished; his sense of color, numinous. While his landscapes connect him to visionaries like Ralph Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder (who Eilshemius visited and copied), his work is a paradoxical combination of the nonheroic lyricism of Barbizon painters like Millet and Rousseau and the classical landscapes of Poussin. Additionally, he may have been influenced by fruity academicians like Cabanel, sappy symbolists like Puvis de Chavannes, and the erotic figure paintings of Aristide Maillol.
The 16 nudes at the National Academy are typically lewd and screwy. Think barroom and bordello paintings; pinups, Playboy Bunnies, and cheesecake; R-rated fairy tales as told by Juggs. You can see voluptuous vixens berated by demons, lolling in streams, hovering over fields, and touching themselves. A curious Victorian revulsion for pubic hair and genitalia is also evident. Hairless, holeless women lounge on rocks, and float in midair; depilated Samoan girls stand in streams and stroll beaches. It’s all classic straight-guy fantasy stuff, but there’s something deeply frustrated and horny about it all.
Had Eilshemius not fixated on the nudes, he might have developed his art and made it more mainstream, or at least less manic. Had he developed his considerable gifts for light, color, and burnished surfaces, reined in the gaucherie, and prolonged his attention span, Eilshemius might be better known than he is. He might have been able to avoid the “crackpot” label. Eilshemius is a lesson in how far is too far, and how little is not enough. Even so, landscapes like Early Morning, Malaga Beach, Central Park, and North Africa, as well as the exquisitely twisted, proto-Balthus portrait of a little girl at a piano, The Prodigy, are stunning.
Eilshemius called himself “a bad-luck fellow.” I believe his career is the product of a quadruple whammy of unluckiness. He was the wrong type of personality with the wrong taste, born at the wrong time in the wrong place. Unlike Cézanne, who had Pissarro to curb his wild side, Eilshemius had no older, wiser master to guide him. And while Ryder was also a loner, his outlook was all-encompassing, his style more enduring. Something sad happened to Eilshemius. Neglect turned his tenacity into obstinacy, and his resonant vision grew cheesy.