Louis Michel Eilshemius (1846-1941), who often spelt his last name, Elshemus, has had a devoted but small following among some famous artists and important American art collectors, but his eccentric oeuvre has not achieved wide popularity in part because of the proliferation of his paintings of voluptuous nudes in bucolic settings, which are often clumsy and ungainly and were a bit too risqué for his period.
The nudes are amusing but slight and the best of these predominantly green and yellow paintings often have them floating in air, an image first employed by Arthur B. Davies a few years before Eilshemius started painting them.
While some of the nudes have a poetic, mystical and sensual appeal, it is Eilshemius's landscapes and allegorical images that are the strongest and most interesting. Very much influenced by the dark, brooding marines famously depicted by Albert Pinkham Ryder, Eilshemius could be quite bold in his palette and very painterly. His "The Flying Dutchman," for example, is a copy of a subject done by Ryder and it is richly black. His "Zeppelin in Flames Over New Jersey" (oil on cardboard, 18 ½ by 15 ½ inches, 1937, collection of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton), is a very focused abstraction of the famous Hindenberg disaster. Some of his night cityscapes have a comforting and wonderful light.
This small but fine exhibition brings together most of Eilshemius's masterpieces and is the first major show on him in a generation.
While the catalogue, entitled "Louis Michel Eilshemius, An Independent Spirit," correctly emphasizes the influence of Corot, the Barbizon painter, on Eilshemius as witnessed by some of his very lyrical and impressive landscapes, it is really with Ryder that he should be compared. Ryder's intensity and abstraction have greatly influenced many American artists such as Marsden Hartley and Ryder is the first great "modern" American artist. Eilshemius, of course, is not as consistent as Ryder and his vision was not as original, yet his visionary work is complex and interesting and quite powerful. Indeed, Eilshemius is his own worst enemy as his best works have long been in public collections and those that have appeared on the auction market are generally inferior nudes in sylvan settings. Furthermore, his eccentric persona did not serve him well. At his best, however, Eilshemius can be inspired and quite striking and could well be compared a bit to William Blake, the famous English mystic artist. One of his interesting characteristics was that he often painted sinuous and irregular "frames" on his canvases, one of the few artists to recognize the importance of "framing" their work to their own satisfaction.
In her foreword to the exhibition's catalogue, Annette Blaugrund, the director of the National Academy of Art, notes that the artist was elected an honorary member of the academy in 2001: "Organized in response to the widespread appreciation for the work of Louis Eilshemius among current Academicians, his exhibition is both fitting and meaningful, for it commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of the artist's death in December 1941. Eilshemius desperately wanted to be associated with the Academy and now, at long last, he is.
"Collectors such as Roy R. Neuberger, Joseph Hirshhorn, Chester dale, and Duncan Phillips, among others, brought and championed Eilshemius's work in the 1930s and 40s. In fact, almost every major museum has at least one Eilshemius in its collection. Although his wok is infrequently exhibited, interest in this neglected artist recurs periodically. The Museum of Modern Art recently exhibited two of his paintings (2000). Among artists, then and now, his work remains appealing for its acquired naïve style, its tonal palette, and to some extent because he symbolizes the essence of an outsider and hereby endures as an American original," Ms. Blaugrund wrote.
In his essay," Against the Grain: The Paintings of Louis Michel Eilshemius" in the 63-page, hard-cover $29.95 catalogue, which has 18 excellent color plates, Steven Harvey provides the following commentary on the artist:
"If he is known at all now, it is mostly as a legendary bohemian figure of early twentieth-century New York. He referred to himself as the Mahatma, the Supreme Spirit of the Spheres.Eilshemius was multifaceted, describing himself as a painter-poet-musician. He wrote and published his poetry and prose, composed music and painted. In his later years he promoted quasi-scientific discoveries in pamphlets, including his `patented' self-painted frames. In one he proclaimed himself an `Educator, Ex-actor, Amateur All-around Doctor, Mesmerist-Prophet and Mystic, Reader of Hands and Faces, Linguist of 5 languages,' a 'Spirit-Painter Supreme,' as well as the 'most wonderful and diverse painter of nude groups in the world,' whose middle name is 'variety.'
While all of this adds up to a picture of a vivid and grandiloquent eccentric, it also has served to obscure his painting. Eilshemius was an extraordinary and innovative painter who always possessed his own voice. The combination of his eccentric personalityand the often-shocking subject matter of his paintings have led art historians and critics to categorize him as a primitive. He was actually, however, an academically trained and sophisticated painter, who is part of a lineage of modern art that begins with Corot and continues from Derain and Balthus to many contemporary painters.The teacher who helped him the most was the American Barbizon painter Robert C. Minor, who guided him to the French landscape tradition. Eilshemius came from a wealthy, cultivated, first generation family of French-Swiss and Dutch-German lineage.He brought a European sensuality to his work that was missing from American art of the period. His formal and imaginative originality relate his work to the progressive American artists of the period notably George Inness, Ralph Albert Blakelock, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. American painting of the mid-nineteenth century was primarily about empirical observation, anecdote, sentiment and effect. Eilshemius's understated and plain-spoken approach to landscape went against the grain of the American work ethic in art, which demanded finish, exactitude, and virtuosity. Though born into comfortable circumstances, Eilshemius's personal life was difficult filled with loss and artistic rejection. He lost three of his five siblings early in life. For the greater part of his career, he was unable to interest others in his work. His response to rejection was a defensive antagonism that led him to attack most other forms of both traditional and modernist art."