Edouard Antonin Vysekal (1889-1939, Czech – American)
“Back of House”, about 1917
oil on canvas, 11 1/8 in. x 14 1/8 in.
framed dimensions: 19 in. x 22 in. x 2 ¼ in.
unsigned, retains old typewritten label reverse with artist’s name, address, title of painting and price
*this painting sold at Sotheby’s, New York sale #1410 of American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture on September 25, 1992, lot 273. A copy of the Sotheby’s catalog is included with the painting. Also included is a copy of the catalog from the 2011 exhibition “Love Never Fails” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
It is difficult to put Edouard Vysekal in a box, but I’ll call this painting Post-Impressionist. Vysekal was among a group of Los Angeles Post-Impressionist “modernists” who had an interest in bright colors or treating solid forms on a two-dimensional surface. The unusual subject matter in this painting, titled simply “Back of House” (on an original old label reverse), is presented to the viewer in a prismatic display of colors. Varying shades of cerulean and cobalt blues, yellows, pinks, ochres, and greens are laid on with thick, painterly brushstrokes which are arrayed in rows side-by-side. The bright mid-day southern California sunlight pours down from above, casting pulsing blue shadows straight down underneath the eaves and stairs. While form is not abandoned in this bravura performance, the array of vibrant colors and lively brushstrokes combine to create a painting with an animated surface and interesting composition of geometric shapes and dramatic diagonals. At the same time, the pigments capture the light and atmosphere of the scene, making the viewer feel as if transported back over 100 years to be standing in that rather nondescript spot in Los Angeles, at that time, next to the easel of this young and earnest painter.
The painting depicts the back of the house and studio occupied by Edouard and his wife Luvena (also an accomplished artist) from 1916 to 1922. Built in 1900, the house is located at 1945 Magnolia Avenue in Los Angeles; the same house with gabled ends and the zig-zag rear exterior stairs also appears in Vysekal’s painting “Sunshine and Laundry” (*18”x23”, that painting sold at auction in 1992 at Butterfields in San Francisco and could well be the painting “Humphrey’s House” which Vysekal exhibited in 1919 – his neighbors at 1941 Magnolia were Francis and Elsie Humphreys). Today, the property remains quite similar with some changes (the upper gable has been extended all the way back with new porch and stairs); by using online maps and street views one can view both the front and rear of the house, including the rear stairs. The Vysekals, who were married on January 1, 1917, soon after moved to Magnolia Avenue and lived and maintained their studios there. In 1922, when they moved to 3912 Cumberland Avenue, about 5 miles to the north in the Hollywood Hills (in 1926 they would move one last time to 1978 Lucile Avenue, Los Angeles).
The California Impressionists valued skill and discipline in the replication of nature as well as the bright colors and light of the Impressionists. The paintings they produced were a compromise – the retention of the ‘facts’ of nature with the intense light derived from working out of doors and a high-keyed palette of direct observation. I would date the present painting to about 1917, shortly after Vysekal had left Chicago for Los Angeles. To some degree, Vysekal had absorbed the avant-garde theory of synchromism from fellow painters Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Put simply, the short-lived movement was based on the idea that color and sound are similar phenomena and that the colors in a painting can be orchestrated in the same harmonious way that a composer arranges notes in a symphony.
Here, Vysekal blends California Impressionism with a touch of synchromism into a compelling image that displays his own unique and controlled form of modernism. Painted with a sure feel for color and design, one can sense the artist’s comfort level and inner emotion in finding beauty in something as mundane as his own small back yard. It demonstrates Vysekal’s ability to combine careful draftsmanship with new explorations of color and composition as in many of his most beloved paintings from this period such as “Joy” (1917, The Irvine Museum), “Sisters” (1922, The Irvine Museum), and “Costume, Life and Still Life” (1922). Indeed, Vysekal managed to win acclaim from both conservative and avant-garde critics because his paintings demonstrated an ability to retain a command of traditional draftsmanship while exploring the potential of abstract color and form.
I think it possible that Vysekal exhibited this painting at the Hollywood Woman’s Club exhibition of 300 thumb-box paintings in December of 1917 (the Woman’s Club at that time was located immediately across the street from the current location of Elvis Presley’s star on the Walk of Fame). I base this on a contemporaneous statement from the Los Angeles Times art critic about that exhibition in which he states that “Edouard Vysekal also takes his place among the men of tomorrow, not so much in his harmonious ‘Melody’ as in his study of ‘Our Back Yard’. The artist had made subject matter of his back yard previously, as he exhibited a painting titled “Autumn in the Back Yard” at a solo exhibition held at the Los Angeles Museum in December, 1916.
The Vysekals, always active within their community of artists, enjoyed living at the Magnolia Avenue address where they worked, exhibited and hosted events. In May 1918, the couple hosted a reception for British artist Maxwell Amrfield, which was attended by a few dozen people including at least 25 artists such as William Wendt, Arthur Dodge, Dana Bartlett, Roscoe Schrader, J. Duncan Gleason and Donna Schuster.
Toward the end of 1918, Edouard was briefly enrolled at officers training school in the U.S. Army before the end of World War I allowed him to return to his wife and his craft.
In June of 1919, Edouard and Luvena held a joint exhibition of their paintings in the second-floor gallery of the house at 1945 Magnolia. The Los Angeles Evening Express noted that private viewing for friends would be followed by an opening to the public for a month and that “they will show goodly sized thumb-box sketches, and this exhibition promises to be both novel and interesting.” One week later, the Express again reported on the Vysekal’s home exhibition under the title “Beauty in Back Yards”:
“The Vysekals … have exhibited some daring canvases in past exhibitions, but this showing of their sketches holds a far more interesting note, carrying with it the breadth of the great outdoors. Frankly surprising to many persons are the subjects … oil wells, the derricks, and even back-yard scenes with the family wash in sight. That beauty exists in many unlooked-for places has been proven by them … Fascinating in color problems and the drifting shadows as seen in back yards, are some of these little sketches … As the Vysekals themselves frankly express it, these sketches are painted in the modern spirit without being ‘crazy’ ”. The Express noted the fact that these artists who could be very modern and yet still comprehend there is a point which may be “crazy” indicated that the Vysekals would go far in their journey to “artistic success”.
L.A. Times critic Antony Anderson also commented very favorably on these paintings “now showing in the upper gallery of their studio home, 1945 Magnolia Avenue, make up an exhibition of much vividness and charm. Don’t fail to see them … Really, nothing in exhibitions could be more attractive than this showing of a hundred sketches … The Vysekals are alive to the poetry and loveliness of the visible world. They are … always in search of the new idea in art.” Mr. Vysekal “confesses that he has become saturated with light and that he is thoroughly aerated” (with Southern California light as opposed to his earlier Chicago work).
In October of 1919, the L.A. Evening Express art critic Alma May Cook thoughtfully analyzed two paintings by Vysekal then being exhibited at L.A.’s Exposition Park. Her words could well apply to “Back of House” painted about the same time:
“His ‘Good Morning’ is one of the lovely bits of color in the exhibition. It is a sketchy canvas, lacking all detail … Mr. Vysekal is not striving for the finished – he is another soul groping toward that magnet which we call atmospheric quality, or the impression of the moment … The passing effects … appeal to this artist, and he has striven to catch the opalescent coloring and the flitting movement of the light of early dawn, when one does not stop to analyze each line, but to rather enjoy the wonderful color of the moment. Again in his ‘Humphreys House’ he has shocked many of the extremely conservative – for it is a wash on a line in a back yard … Today we have come to consider that there may be brilliant light in the back yard and that the clothes on the line may be full of motion as when these same garments are on their respective owners. All artists do not paint back yards; all artists would not be interested in these subjects, yet Mr. Vysekal has proved that they have their artistic merits. More and more our artists are seeing the beauties of things near at hand .. to bring beauty into the common things of life …” (Vysekal would continue to find inspiration wherever he lived – he won 1st prize for his watercolor “Lucile Avenue” in 1936 when the couple were living on that street).
Dating from about the same time period, Vysekal’s Impressionist painting “Joy”, in the collection of the Irvine Museum of the University of California, bears comparison to “Back of House” with regard to his use of sunlight and paint application if not subject matter. Both the little girls in “Joy” and the back yard in “Back of House” are painted in the intense light of a sunny California afternoon. The paint surface is similar in both paintings. In “Joy”, the background is a marvelous, rippling pattern of painterly brushstrokes, handled in large daubs of pure color, much as we see in “Back of House”.
A contemporary article of the time noted that Vysekal “became a regular prize winner in the California Art Club exhibitions at the museum, his rich-colored, well-designed figure pieces often dominating the gallery by their force and personal quality. His work was never conventional, and despite the many careful studies that preceded each picture, had a spontaneous appearance that captivated juries and spectators.” He was said to be painstaking, making sketch upon sketch, constantly arranging and rearranging in preliminary sketches before “he finally works on his canvas with a swiftness born of surety, an inspiration of conviction. The result is a conception which evokes an equally live, spontaneous feeling in the beholder.”
Edouard and Luvena’s first joint show in January 1916 aroused the attention of critics and the art community. In November that same year Edouard held a solo exhibition at the Daniell Gallery.
As Luvena said of Edouard, Southern California gave him “all the room to grow in and finally to find himself surrounded by what his nature demanded. This land of sunshine and spaces has been a veritable land of unfettered growth to him”. She also spoke about his working style:
“He paints with an absolutely sure hand. Every detail is calculated with exactness and precision, and the result is thoroughly spontaneous; thrillingly vibrant in color, powerful in form, complete in composition, rich in design. His pictures are startlingly alive and have the effect of having been dashed off in an ecstasy of abandon. To attain that dynamic result he makes many preliminary sketches before attacking his final canvas, and works on that quickly and without fumbling.”
We have another account of Vysekal at work, provided by Marguerite Houghton, who wrote in the L.A. Times in July 1922 about watching Vysekal paint at his studio:
“One can scarcely associate his cherubim simplicity with his work, which possesses strength, dashing color and vigor. With his cunning brush he reveals beauties of our hills and landscapes. Watching him at work you are impressed with his masterly stroke and absolute concentration. With his brush in hand his personality undergoes a complete change. Everything is blotted out from his mind but the impression he is transferring to the canvas.”
Born 1889* into a family of artists in Kutna Hora, Czechoslovakia, the young Vysekal studied at the Industrial and Art Polytechnic School before leaving Prague in 1907 and emigrating to the United States to join his father (an artist-decorator) in St. Paul, Minnesota, studying at the Art Institute of St. Paul. Later he would study at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was awarded the John H. Vanderpoel Scholarship in 1913. Vysekal experimented with Post-Impressionism and Ash Can realism in the manner of Robert Henri prior to studying with the aforementioned painters Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. Edouard also taught at the Art Institute from 1912 to 1914 and it was there that he met Luvena Buchanan, one of his students, who was to prove his perfect complement. (*many sources list his birth as March 17, 1890 but his World War I draft registration card written in his own hand and signed by Vysekal shows a birth date of March 17, 1889).
When Luvena received a commission in 1914 to paint murals in the Hotel Barbara Worth in the town of El Centro at the southern tip of California, Edouard accompanied her and assisted (alas, the 4 lobby murals were destroyed when the hotel burned in 1962). The Vysekals remained on the West Coast, establishing a studio home in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. The couple found the opportunity to grow and achieve artistic independence in their new home, and they married on January 1, 1917. After their honeymoon, the couple took up residence at 1945 Magnolia Avenue.
Both Luvena and Edouard, who turned from figure painting to urban landscape, came under the influence of Stanton Macdonald-Wright soon after he returned to California in the fall of 1918. Macdonald-Wright led the progressive group known as the Modern Art Workers and both Vysekals participated in the group’s exhibitions in 1925 and 1926. (In 1919, Edouard and Luvena had joined a new association, the California Progressive Group which held only one exhibition that summer). Most Southern California artists in the 1920s were either traditionalists or still influenced by Impressionism. The growth of modernism there in the 1920s was limited to a small group of artists that included Edouard Vysekal. The 1920s was a vibrant and pivotal decade for Los Angeles art. It was a time when artists in that city were self-consciously aware of themselves as forging a dynamic art community and a new art, not for any gain but just for the sheer joy of the adventure.
Always at the forefront of progressive tendencies, in 1921 the Vysekals joined the newly formed Group of Eight - who were a forward-thinking group of local Modernist painters who veered away from the predictable standards of the California Art Club. The group included Edouard, Luvena, Mabel Alvarez, Henri de Kruif, Donna Schuster, Roscoe Shrader, Clarence Hinkle and John Hubbard Rich. The Group exhibited together in 1921 and 1922 and again in 1927 and 1928. The figure, landscape, and still life imagery of these artists included bold distortion and simplification of form.
Also in 1921 Edouard Vysekal, Marion Wachtel, Carl Oscar Borg, William Ritschel, John Cotton, Charles L.A. Smith, Crafts Watson, Max Wieczorek, Karl Yens, Donna Schuster, Henri de Kruif, Hanson Puthuff, Birger Sandzen and Dana Bartlett formed the California Water Color Society. They held their first annual exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art that year.
About 1922, Vysekal began teaching at the Art Students League of Los Angeles, joining Macdonald-Wright, who had become the school’s director. Already a progressive artist known for his vivid and bold use of color and his daring and dynamic approach to form, Vysekal became more progressive and was regarded as one of California’s eminent Modernists. From 1922 to the late 1930’s, Vysekal, along with Donna Schuster, taught life drawing and painting at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he would contribute greatly to the school’s reputation for experimentation and camaraderie, inspiring many Southern California painters.
Edouard was a well-liked bridge figure between the various modern and conservative groups in Los Angeles. Standing at 5 foot 3 inches, was described as being round, chubby, with cherubic lips (friends called him “The Cherub”) as he was always breaking into spontaneous smiles between his red moustache and Whistlerian goatee. He was described as if he seemed “always on the point of cutting a caper on tiny, pointed feet; Luvena one expects at any moment to square up in best ring manner, fighting light in her eyes, capable fists clenched and working.” Articles of the time commented about Edouard that “the light that breaks over his canvases is irrepressibly gay in color”.
On December 2, 1939 Edouard died suddenly, leaving Luvena devastated - she would never really recover from her loss. “Love Never Fails” was a favorite song of the couple, having been sung at their wedding and it was again sung at Edouard’s memorial service (on both occasions by Minnie Hayes Hastings), a hymn that aptly described their devotion to their marriage and to their creative endeavors. Edouard was remembered by Macdonald-Wright and other friends at his memorial service as an influential teacher and painter.
In 1942, Luvena opened the Vysekal Studio Gallery at 8911 Sunset Boulevard, holding exhibitions of the couple’s paintings and those of their contemporaries until it closed in 1950. She found strength in her memories of her life with Edouard and their accomplishments. In less than a quarter century after they had arrived on the scene, the couple established themselves as vital components of, and left their imprint on, the early development of modernism in Los Angeles.
In December 1951, a public sale at auction was held of oils, watercolors and drawings by Edouard Vysekal. His old mentor, S. MacDonald-Wright, served as auctioneer for the sale which was for the benefit of Luvena. She would pass suddenly in 1954 at her then studio-home at 1007 West 21st St., Los Angeles, survived only by a niece.
Most recently, Edouard Vysekal’s paintings have been featured in exhibitions at both the Pasadena Museum of California Art (“Love Never Fails: The Art of Edouard and Luvena Vysekal”, 9/8/2011-1/8/2012) and the Laguna Art Museum (“Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight”, 6/10/2012-10/7/2012). Before that, in 1998 Edouard and Luvena were featured with other California husband and wife teams in the exhibit “Painting Partners” at the Irvine Museum in the summer of 1998.
Exhibitions: Art Institute of Chicago (1911, 1912, prizes, 1923); Palette & Chisel Club, Chicago, IL (1912-1914); First Exhibition of Work by the Alumni of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (1918); California Liberty Fair (1918); Vysekal home studio, 1945 Magnolia Ave., Los Angeles, CA (1919); California Water Color Society, Los Angeles (1921, 1922); Painters and Sculptors of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA (1921); MacDowell Club, Los Angeles, CA (1921); Galleria Real at the Los Angeles Biltmore (1923); Modern Art Workers exhibitions, Los Angeles, CA (1925, 1926); Bernays Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (1926); Stendahl Galleries (1929); California Art Club, Los Angeles, CA (1916, 1917, 1922, 1927, 1929, 1930); Friday Morning Club, Los Angeles, CA (1916 joint ex. With Luvena, 1920, 1930); State Agricultural Society, Sacramento, CA (1925); Los Angeles Public Library (1917, 1924); Hollywood Woman’s Club (January 1917; December 1917 Thumb-Box exhibition; 1920, 1929 joint w/ Luvena); Hollywood Library, Los Angeles, CA (1925); Laguna Beach Art Association (1929, 1935);Los Angeles County Fair (1938); Los Angeles Art Club (1921); Los Angeles Museum (1924, 1927); Hollyhock House Opening Exhibition, Los Angeles, CA (1927); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (solo: 1916, 1921, 1940 Memorial posthumous; w/ Mabel Alvarez 1926; with B. Deutsch 1929); Oakland Municipal Art Gallery, Oakland, CA (1931); Little Gallery at City Hall, Sierra Madre, CA (1933); Stanford Art Gallery, Carmel, CA (1937); Chouinard School of Art (joint with Luvena, 1922); San Francisco Art Association, San Francisco, CA (1930); Group of Independent Artists of Los Angeles (1923); First Pan American Museum of Oil Paintings, Los Angeles Museum (1925); Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA (1933); “Painting & Sculpture From 16 American Cities”, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY (1933); Los Angeles Art Association, Los Angeles, CA (1929); Recreation Park Clubhouse, Long Beach, CA (1933); Ebell Club, Pomona, CA (1934); the Artists’ Barn, Fillmore, CA (1937); Pioneer Museum & Haggin Memorial Galleries, Stockton, CA (1938); “Painting Partners”, The Irvine Museum, Irvine, CA (1998); “Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art 1910-1930”, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA (2000); “All Things Bright & Beautiful”, Dayton Art Institute (2010); “Love Never Fails: The Art of Edouard and Luvena Vysekal”, Pasadena Museum of California Art (2011-2012); “Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight”, Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA (2012)
Awards: Frederick Magnus Brand Memorial Award for Composition, Art Institute of Chicago (1912); John Quincy Adams Prize, Art Institute of Chicago; “Dreaming”, First Prize, Los Angeles County Fair, Pomona, CA ; “Palms and Cypress”, First Prize, California Water Color Club Eighth Annual, Los Angeles, CA (1932); “The Sisters”, William Carter Harrison prize (1923); “Indian and Leaves”, Second Prize in Water Colors, Santa Fe Art League; “Joy” Prize of $100 the Los Angeles County Fair, Pomona, CA (1923); “Alicia R.” arrangement in violet, the Ackerman Prize for Best Figure Painting, California Art Club (1916, 1918, 1919, 1922, 1923, 1924); “The Sisters”, William Preston Harrison Prize, California Art Club (1922); Bronze Medal, Society of Western Artists (1925); Gold Medal, California Art Club (1926); Honorable Mention, Painters & Sculptors Society (1927); “The Herwigs” Prize of $50, 4th Annual Exhibition of Southern California Art, San Diego, CA (1929); “Girl” 2nd Prize, Los Angeles County Fair (1925); “Indian with Leaves” $100 prize for Best in Water Color, Santa Cruz Art League, Santa Cruz, CA (1928); Decorative Art and Woman’s Exchange prize of $50 for Best Water Color, Santa Cruz Art League (1935)
Member: Chicago Palette & Chisel Club; California Art Club (treasurer, 1922; first vice president 1925); Modern Art Society (treasurer); Academy of Western Painters, Los Angeles; California Water Color Society; Laguna Beach Art Association
Collections: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Hilbert Museum of California Art, Orange, CA; The Irvine Museum Collection at the University of California, Irvine, CA; Mission Inn, Riverside, CA; University of California, Los Angeles; State Exposition Building, Los Angeles, CA; Thomas Starr King & John Marshall High Schools, Riverside, CA
Condition: The painting has been cleaned and wax relined in the past on what appear to be new stretcher bars. The paint surface is in remarkably good condition. I see no inpainting under blacklight and no paint loss. There is virtually no craquelure present – just the faintest horizontal craquelure in the extreme upper right quadrant to the right of the gabled roof. The paint colors are vibrant, and the brushstrokes look like they were painted yesterday. Amazing.
The painting is beautifully framed in a contemporary, fine quality, gold-gilt Arts & Crafts style frame which is in excellent condition.
The painting retains on reverse the original type-written label of the artist, consistent with other known Vysekal labels. Also present on upper stretcher bar is the Sotheby’s label with lot number 273 from the 1992 sale.
Bears a Petersen Galleries stamp on upper stretcher bar (Petersen Galleries, of Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, specialized in Western, American, and early European art and closed in 1980).
Also bears a conservation label with the familiar crest of Deru’s Fine Arts, formerly of Laguna Beach, California (Deru’s specialized in the sale and conservation of 19th & 20th century American art with an emphasis on early California Impressionism).
I suspect that Petersen Galleries had the conservation work done at Deru’s, to include cleaning and wax relining and apparently new stretcher bars.
I am happy to provide photos of the painting out of the frame or any other additional photos.
Edouard Vysekal, "Back of House", oil on canvas (Los Angeles, abt 1917) California Post-Impressionist / Modernist
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