Walter Tittle (1883-1966), American
“Lady With Blue Ring”, possibly a portrait of Miss Frances Myers (ca. 1916)
oil on canvas, 20 in. x 16 in.
(framed dimensions: 24 ½ in. x 20 ½ in.)
sgraffito signature lower right “Walter Tittle”
Walter Tittle was the opposite of the archetypal starving artist. A prolific illustrator, etcher, painter, and author, he was able early in his career to attain international renown and financial success but today has been largely forgotten. As he said in his own words: “I never had any other job than that of an artist, and I am quite satisfied.”
This painting, a portrait of a young woman in profile, impressed me from the outset with its draftsmanship, brushwork, balance, composition, and color. The sitter’s hair is cut in a stylish wavy bob, and her pose and expression project an easy elegance and confidence. Enhancing this overall effect is her low-cut purple dress and what appears to be a large blue sapphire on her right hand. In what is really a bravura performance, the paint is applied with astonishing facility – the hair is painted effortlessly, and the features of the face are finely delineated, employing lost and found edges. The painting is richly colored from the blush of the woman’s cheek to her russet hair to her deep purple dress to the blue background. In addition, Tittle effectively uses light and shadow to create a real sense of form and depth. Nothing in the painting appears labored and you get the impression it was completed in “one go” - even if it required multiple sessions. Tittle understands that the painting is to be seen as a whole and he pays less attention to the details of the fingers as they are subordinate to the focal point of the woman’s face. Even the background is quite pleasing in its rich and complimentary blue hues and spirited paint application. Finally, with a touch of elan, he signed his name by incising it into the wet paint with the back of his bristle brush.
In researching this work, with the help of my local librarian I borrowed the diaries of Walter Tittle on microfilm from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. The diaries are voluminous, covering decades, and the painting is undated. Searching for a reference to it was a bit of a needle in a haystack. Tittle’s cramped handwriting did not make the task any easier. The woman’s hair and clothing and Tittle’s paint application all suggested a time from the 19-teens through the 1920’s. I focused on that period and found a fascinating account from November 27, 1916, when the painter Robert Henri visited his former student Tittle’s studio in New York City. Walter clearly valued the older man’s opinion (Henri was 51, Tittle 33) and he listened closely to Henri’s comments, later transcribing them into his diary.
Of the paintings that Henri commented on, two are intriguing. The first was a profile portrait of a woman named Frances Myers. As Tittle related it: “The profile portrait of Frances Myers he [Henri] approved highly from every standpoint. As an object lesson in composition he analyzed this one (the composition of which he said was good), in the following interesting way: ‘Consider the picture as a problem in harmonious arrangement of five masses, No. 1, the background; No. 2 the hair; No. 3 the flesh, No. 4 the mass of the dress, and No. 5 the pink note under the low neck. In the first place consider the placing of the figure in the background so that the background will of itself be a beautiful shape. Then push the various masses around so that each will be beautiful in shape, and in relation to the shapes of the others. Also the various five masses must be beautiful in color, and form a beautiful color relation with each other.’” Tittle drew a quick thumbnail sketch of the Myers profile in his diary to accompany Henri’s words (**see attached photo from Tittle’s diary). Tittle had started this profile portrait of Frances Myers that summer on August 8 when he was back home in Springfield, Ohio, and had finished it August 29. Back in New York, on November 9, Tittle “did a little retouching on profile picture of Frances Myers, done some time ago – last summer”.
It seems Miss Myers was more than just a model to Tittle – in addition to posing sessions at his studio, the then-single artist took her on multiple outings that summer of 1916 in his automobile – for picnics, day trips and evening rides. Myers, who lived in Morristown, New Jersey, was in Springfield, Ohio that summer to serve as maid of honor in her brother Phineas’ wedding. Tittle went out of his way to say goodbye to her the evening of Aug. 31 before she departed for Morristown the next day. The Springfield Daily News account of the wedding offered me the only hint at her appearance, saying of maid-of-honor Miss Frances Myers that “her blond coloring showing to advantage in her gown of white silk net …”.
I cannot say with certainty that this painting is the “Frances Myers” profile, but it is a possibility, and I would say that it certainly meets the five points outlined by Robert Henri. Then too, there is the diary sketch which closely resembles this painting; while the diary sketch does not show the subject’s hand, both sketch and painting show a low scoop dress and similar outlines and negative shapes. Most likely later that night in his apartment, Tittle would have sketched this image into his diary in mere seconds, paying little attention to detail and simply using it as a template to illustrate Henri’s comments.
On November 28, on Henri’s advice, Tittle sent the Frances Myers painting and two others to the National Academy of Design to be considered for the winter exhibition. The Academy accepted one of the paintings to display – “Blanche” a portrait of his sister in a green dress. Tittle was pleased to have a painting accepted in his first time sending to the Academy (he would again exhibit “Blanche”, along with a “Portrait Study” the following spring 1917 at the Society of Independent Artists.) There are conflicting newspaper accounts that the Myers picture was also displayed at the Academy in New York, but Tittle does not say that in his diary.
The other interesting Henri comments were regarding a “bust of Nellie Timmons”. Tittle had started this painting on November 11 when he was still in Springfield, Ohio. He described it as being a “bust, in a cross light, both artificial & daylight” and by November 14 he wrote “Worked on Timmons painting, which is coming very well in color”. As Tittle took Henri through his studio on that November afternoon, he “showed him the bust of Nellie Timmons , partly finished only, and done just before I left home; he smiled and shook his head with considerable surprise on his face, and said ‘That is a very skillful thing. The color is good, the background goes well with it, and the way it is done is remarkable’.”
Again, I believe these comments could apply to the painting offered here. However, I feel that the Frances Myers theory is more likely.
After Henri had singled out three of Tittle’s paintings, all completed in the summer and fall of 1916, to submit to the National Academy, Walter exhibited these same paintings twice in Ohio in early 1917 - once in Springfield and then again in Dayton. The paintings were the bust portrait of his sister titled “Blanche”, the second being the profile bust “Frances” and the third a painting titled “Cross Lights” which I suspect was the portrait of Nellie Timmons which Tittle had said was done in a cross light of both natural and artificial light. The Springfield Daily News reported that “the latter two are perhaps the most noteworthy. The one bearing the name ‘Frances’, has been hung in the New York exhibit [this, seemingly in error], and was borrowed from that collection to display here. The other, ‘Cross Lights”, is something our of the ordinary in light-tones. The light is cast upon it from two angles, but the effect is one of striking beauty.”
Tittle was known to hold on to favorite paintings and exhibit them at various venues. Another interesting reference I found, possibly this painting, is from a solo show for Tittle at the Kleeman Thorman Galleries in New York City in January, 1929. Helen Appleton Read, art critic for the Brooklyn Eagle, reviewed the exhibition. Seemingly unaware that Tittle had painted numerous oils before 1929, she said that “It is not so easy to make a success of portraiture in oils when all the mental processes heretofore have been concerned with line.” She takes note of one painting: “Such portraits … as the one designated merely as ‘Portrait’, a woman with red hair, has both a sensitive characterization and the painting quality”. Tittle made note of the review in his diary (he rarely missed a review). The January 1929 exhibition was a financial success, selling $4,000 worth of prints off the walls along with some paintings (just 9 months before the country’s financial crash). Toward the end of the exhibition on January 29, Tittle noted in his diary that “Childe Hassam came to my show this afternoon and praised my stuff most generously. We had a long talk.” Over his career, Tittle would exhibit extensively including at such prestigious venues as The National Academy of Design, The Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery, the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Museum, the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum (please see more extensive list at end of this biography).
Born in Springfield, Ohio, Tittle left for New York City at the age of 18 to study at the Art Students League under William Merritt Chase, studying life drawing and painting. He would afterward study with Robert Henri, F. Luis Mora, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. His classmates included George Bellows and Edward Hopper (Hopper once pranked his fellow student by painting bedbugs, trompe l’oeil style, on Tittle’s pillow). Hopper and Tittle would rent adjoining studios at 3 Washington Square, North in Manhattan from 1914 - 1927 and the two men would become close friends. It was Hopper who first persuaded Tittle to take up etching, a medium that would bring the latter much fame and fortune (Hopper created an etching of his friend Tittle working at his easel titled “The Illustrator”).
During his years in New York, Tittle became a well-known and prolific illustrator. His illustrations and short stories appeared in numerous novels and magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening among many others. At the same time, he painted portraits, landscapes and floral still lifes in both oils and watercolor. Eventually, Tittle would abandon illustration work altogether to focus on portraiture in both oils and drypoint. In doing so, he would become one of the United States’ greatest portrait artists. Among his more famous portraits were those of the writer Joseph Conrad with whom he would become very close friends. He would become best known for his drypoint etchings, which he would draw onto copper plates and print himself. His sitters included writers, actors, and political leaders such as United States Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt (Tittle wrote a 1948 book about his sittings with FDR) as well as playwright George Bernard Shaw and author Willa Cather. The poet Robert Frost wrote to Tittle in 1924 with wit that must have appealed to the artist: “Mrs. Frost and I would be happy to have you stay with us. I know your work and, though a citizen of a free country, should be proud to become your subject” (there is no record that this sitting ever occurred however). The artist also completed portraits of many celebrities of the time including Billie Burke, Geraldine Farrar, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. Tittle also utilized his family as sitters, completing portraits of his father, mother, sister Blanche, as well as friends whose names appear regularly in his diaries such as “Frances”, “Maria” and “June” and even the occasional self-portrait.
Tittle gained a reputation as a skilled portraitist. The New York Tribune art critic in 1921 put it thus: “He conveys forcible impressions of his sitters, and, while leaving the latter plenty of freedom as regards pose or gesture, he contrives to secure a certain pictorial unity. He is a good draftsman, too, swiftly expressive … His portraits have character and they have artistic quality … and an unmistakable sincerity”. His fame increased considerably when he was appointed as the official portrait artist for the Washington Arms Conference held in Washington, D.C. from November, 1921 to February, 1922, creating portraits in dry-point, from life, of 25 leading statesmen of various countries. This set of drypoints was acquired by numerous museums and wealthy private collectors.
While portraiture was his forte, Tittle also enjoyed creating engravings depicting his favorite hobbies of fishing and golf (he once remarked that he “would rather fish than paint”) as well as nighttime Manhattan scenes which remain highly desirable today and command premium prices. He always painted in oils as well, once complaining that his reputation as an etcher had almost swamped his painting. Tittle also managed early in his career to author two picture books, which he illustrated himself, titled “The First Nantucket Tea Party” and “Colonial Holidays”.
Walter lived quite the cosmopolitan lifestyle in Manhattan. His days were filled with time in his studio, frequently eating out with friends at lunch and dinner, going shopping and to movies, theater, parties, and long afternoon walks in the city with his sister Blanche. One day typical of his life, excerpted from his diary, was November 24, 1921:
(He) started day at studio, then sold 100 stock shares (for a $555 profit), then to the house of Cardinal Hayes to sketch him (he was out), then to Scribner’s to discuss potential article on his George Bernard Shaw portrait, out to lunch and then to Ehrich Galleries to search through frames in basement for his upcoming exhibition, then to Sherry’s to buy 2 lb candy to send to Willa Cather for a lost bet, back to studio .. later went out with Connie Dickson for cocktails at the Plaza, then dinner at Sherry’s, then to see the live musical “Rose Marie” after which he ended the night at “a dance at the Ritz given by some rich people in honor of their daughter who is soon to be married. I forget the names of the people, as usual.”
Tittle had an uncanny ability to make friends. As Helen Wright said of him in Art & Architecture Magazine in 1925: “His great personal charm and the sincerity of his manner prove quite irresistible to most people… There is something very sensitive and appealing in the modeling of his face and tall, slender figure and in the whimsical expression of his big grey eyes.” As noted earlier he had become fast friends with Edward Hopper, Joseph Conrad and so many others and he easily mingled with Presidents and celebrities.
In May 1922, the artist took his first trip abroad. Over 8 months he visited Paris, London, Venice, Rome, Belgium, and Holland. He married his first wife, Helene (a native of Belgium), in Paris in 1925, returning with her to New York City in January 1926. The couple did not fare well – in 1933, Tittle filed for divorce claiming that his wife was extravagant, demanded large sums of money for travel, and had deserted him less than a year after the marriage (he would refer to the marriage as “disastrous” in his diary). Despite his efforts to keep his divorce private, the details were widely printed in the newspapers. In October 1933, Tittle married his 2nd wife, Miss Helen Salisbury Carr of Berkeley, California, a correspondent - a union that would last happily for the rest of their lives.
In 1937 the couple bought an 18th century home in Danbury, Connecticut, where they would live for 27 years. In 1964 they sold the Danbury farmhouse and bought a charming, renovated house called “Felicidad” in Carmel, California, where Walter would live out his final two years.
Tittle’s great journey in life ended in 1966 in a nursing home at Pacific Grove, California and he was interred at the Monterey City Cemetery, Monterey, California. Helen continued to live in Carmel where she would pass in 1994.
In 1982, the Marbella Gallery in Manhattan’s upper east side held a solo retrospective exhibition. The exhibition, titled “Walter Tittle (1883-1966): The Artist and His Influence”, showed 26 oils, 9 watercolors, and 11 prints.
More recently, in 2016, Wittenberg University had a show dedicated to Tittle called “Lost in the Archives: Rediscovering the Life and Works of Walter Tittle” which was organized by Alexia Barkdoll.
Member: Brooklyn Society of Etchers; Chicago Society of Etchers; Society of American Etchers; Salmagundi Club, New York, NY; Print Makers Society of California; The Royal Academy, London; The Royal Society of Art, London; Dutch Treat Club, New York, NY; Society of Independent Artists, New York, NY
Illustrations in: (by no means is this a complete list) American Magazine, Hearst’s Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar , Judge , The Ladies’ World , Life ; McCall’s , Pictorial Review , Scribner’s , The Green Book Magazine , Harper’s Weekly , Woman’s Home Companion , Success , Collier’s , Ladies Home Journal and The Illustrated London News
Museum collections: Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH (multiple oils, pastels, drypoints); Fine Art Museums of San Francisco; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA; National Portrait Gallery, London; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Portland Art Museum, Portland OR; Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, CA; Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, Detroit, MI; Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; Daytona Art Institute, Daytona FL; The British Museum, London; Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury CT; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland OH; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, ON; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; The Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, CA; The Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; National Portrait Gallery, London; Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Art Institute of Chicago; The New York Public Library, New York, NY
Exhibitions: National Academy of Design, New York City (1916); Society of Independent Artists, New York City (1917); Grand Central Art Galleries, New York City (1932 1940: Best Hundred Prints of the Year); Brooklyn Museum (1933); Art Institute of Chicago (1918, 1934: Century of Progress Exposition* - Tittle won top prize for portrait “Augustus John”); Levy Galleries, New York City (1920); The City Club, New York City (1929); National Arts Club, New York City (1930*, 1932 *Tittle won Arts Committee Prize for etching “In the Tate Gallery, London”); Philadelphia Print Club; Kennedy Galleries, New York City (1924, 1934, 1940); Ehrich Galleries, New York City (1922); Duval Gallery, New York City (1921); Philip Suval Galleries, New York City (1921); Marie Sterner Galleries, New York City (1928); Venable Gallery, Washington D.C. (1922); Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C. (1923); Smithsonian, Division of Graphic Arts (1944); Anderson Galleries, New York City (1920); Salmagundi Club, New York, NY (1939); Los Angeles Museum (1933); Print Makers Society of California (1933*, 1952, 1954 *Tittle won Silver Medal for pair of drypoints “Madonna” and “Joseph Conrad”); Kleemann-Thorman Galleries, New York City, one-man show (1928, 1929, 1936: watercolors); Zanesville Art Institute, Zanesville, Ohio (1972); Leicester Galleries, London (1922); Galerie Dezamber, Paris (1923); British Museum, London (1925); Victoria & Albert Museum (then The South Kensington Museum) (1925); Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY (1930); Courvoisier Galleries, San Francisco, CA (1932); Chicago Society of Etchers Prize (1934* won prize); University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (1950); Marbella Gallery, New York, NY (1982: retrospective “Walter Tittle - The Artist and His Influence”); Monterey Museum of Art, Monterey, CA (1985)
Overall, the painting is in very good original condition and presents quite nicely. The canvas appears unlined and what I believe to be the original tacking nails are visible underneath a layer of papertape applied some time ago. There are no repairs other than a few small touches of inpainting: in the shadow of the subject’s hair and in the dress along the neckline (see attached images). In raking light, scattered areas of craquelure are visible across the canvas. I stress to point out that this is very stable and unobtrusive when viewed under normal viewing light. There are faint stretcher bar creases visible in areas, again under raking light and not visible under normal viewing. The paint surface is clean and the colors are vibrant. There is one very minute spot of paint lifting – this is just left of the subject’s nose (see attached image). This is not noticeable under normal viewing, but I must mention it. I would leave it as is. It can easily be conserved when or if needed.
The gilt cove frame with egg and dart detail is of nice quality and condition and does have some age. There is a pencil inscription on the rear of the frame, possibly in Tittle’s hand, that reads “H. Bielin” [sic], which is probably a reference to Manhattan art dealer Howard Beilin (or Beilen) who operated in New York from about 1960-1984. Perhaps Tittle had held on to this painting and sold it from Connecticut through Beilin in the early 1960s. I am speculating; I have seen this same “H. Bielin” pencil inscription on Tittle still life. Also, a recent auction sold a portrait of Wallis Simpson painted by Tittle which had “Howard Beilin” inscribed on its frame (the still life was exhibited at the Marbella Gallery exhibition in 1982). There are other markings on this frame including an old Christie’s label which reads “AF/135” (matching a larger inscription on the painting stretcher “NYAF 135”). I tried but it is difficult to track down old Christie’s sale records.
Finally, there is a label verso from the Santa Fe Art Foundation. The Foundation was formed in 1981 by art dealer Gerald Peters and his wife Katie. It is now known as the Peters Family Art Foundation, an organization that raises and distribute funds for organizations within the Arts, Culture, and Humanities.
Walter Tittle, "Lady With Blue Ring", possibly Miss Frances Myers, ca. 1916
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