From Immigrant to “Painter Laureate”: The Shelburne Museum Honors 20th Century Artist Luigi Lucioni | Art review | Seven days
On Saturday June 25, the Shelburne Museum opens the exhibitionLuigi Lucioni: Modern Light” in his Pizzagalli Arts and Education Center. Anyone who has seen the online version in recent months should not think, Was there; it is done. The in-person exhibition is both larger – with 48 paintings, 11 prints and a plaque – and more visually spectacular. In a way, paintings are like friends and lovers: no matter how good the virtual or printed reproductions are, an intimate closeness to the original is always better. And for admirers of deft brushstrokes, Lucioni is swoon-worthy.
“Modern Light” presents a comprehensive survey of landscapes, portraits and still lifes by the Italian-American artist (1900-88). Those with a passing familiarity with his work might think of the birch trees, barns, and other vistas of the Vermont countryside. Indeed, Lucioni came to spend much time painting outdoors in Green Mountain State, and the founder of the Shelburne Museum, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was an important patron. In 1937, Vermont life the magazine even declared him the state’s unofficial “winning painter”.
But first Lucioni, who was 10 when he arrived on Ellis Island with his mother and three sisters, became a New York artist. His talent showed up early on and may have spared him the typical immigrant fate of factory work. He was educated at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the National Academy of Design and won coveted residencies at the Tiffany Foundation. Lucioni was steeped in the city’s thriving creative culture, as well as its largely closed gay community.
Gallery owners, collectors and other artists began to take notice of the young realist painter even as his skills evolved alongside – and contrary to – abstract expressionism. Lucioni’s style drew on historical artistic conventions, yet he was “visibly up-to-date for his mid-century audience,” writes Tom Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum, in a new book about the artist that accompanies this exposure.
“Both timeless and current, [Lucioni] captured the elliptical, even enigmatic nature of his adopted New England, as well as the pervasive sense of alienation manifested in international creative circles during the decades surrounding World War II,” he suggests in Luigi Lucioni: Modern Light.
In a guided tour of the exhibit last week, curator Katie Wood Kirchhoff pointed to the unpopulated scenes and a “modern” practical manifestation: the telephone poles. Lucioni’s Vermont landscapes are masterpieces of precision, his incandescent lighting, but he didn’t shy away from including such mundane, era-specific cues. A real telephone, circa 1928, and what appears to be a Campbell’s soup can sit on a table in one of his still lifes.
In the book, Denenberg notes that Lucioni disdained categorisations, an attitude itself modern. He also cites art historian Bruce Robertson’s comment that Modernism was not just a “‘Manhattan Project’.” It was essentially, Denenberg writes, a “response to rapidly changing living conditions in the twentieth century”. Modernism eschewed the sentimentality of the earlier era, as well as the “kinetic embrace of the Impressionists. They were replaced, in Robertson’s words, with a “certain stillness.”
While Lucioni shared similarities with contemporaries such as Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and Edward Hopper, two other influences shaped his unique approach to canvas.
“He had studied printmaking,” Kirchhoff said. “His works definitely depend on the line.” (And sometimes Lucioni’s livelihood depended on his ability to make and sell prints.)
Significantly, Lucioni absorbed his European artistic lineage during several trips to Italy in the late 1920s. There is something Renaissance about this 20th-century American Modernist-Realist. Observing a pair of his still lifes several years apart, Kirchhoff noted the evolution of Lucioni’s attention to minute detail, the increasing truthfulness of his brushstrokes. It even subtly perfects imperfection, so to speak, like reproducing bruises on fruit.
In his own essay in the book, Kirchhoff quotes an early 20th-century critic named Frank Crowninshield, who was captivated by Lucioni’s confluence of Italian and American artistic sensibilities. “He seems to see the world through the eyes of his ancestors, but conveys his impressions of it in the conventions of his contemporaries”, wrote Crowninshield in 1928. He also praised Lucioni’s “fresh and assured use of colour”.
A striking example of the latter distinguishes Lucioni’s 1939 “Portrait of Ethel Waters”. Lucioni posed her looking to one side, away from the viewer; his face is unsmiling, his arms folded against his waist. The resplendent colors of the paint burst from the canvas, but this is Waters’ inscrutable expression – of resignation? sadness? – who catches the eye. It’s hard not to think that even fame and glamor haven’t shielded Waters from the realities of being black in America.
Two other portraits in the exhibition – of fellow painters Jared French and Paul Cadmus – testify to Lucioni’s involvement in the gay community. But while these two men were public about their sexuality, in life and in their works, Lucioni remained more discreet. Kirchhoff admitted to having doubts about the artist coming out now, considering he’s never done it himself.
In the book, however, contributing writer David Brody devotes an essay, titled “Coded Portraits: Lucioni’s Queer Circle,” to the work and interactions of these artists in a historical period of extreme homophobia. Lucioni’s 1930 portrait of the Frenchman might be a simple depiction, “but given the nature of their relationship, the portrait becomes more intriguing”, writes Brody; “It’s as if Lucioni had designed a tribute to his relationship with this beautiful young artist through painting.”
“Resting Athlete (Amateur Resting)”, from 1938, is more ambiguous and suggestive. It is not quite a portrait, as the sleeping figure, dressed in shorts and socks, is reclining with his face turned away from view. Absent any contextual clues, we simply marvel at Lucioni’s flawless execution of the cropped body, shiny skin, velvety robe and checkered flannel bedding as the young man dreams.