Biography of Ivan Albright
Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, and his identical twin Malvin Marr Albright, were born prematurely (weighing only three pounds each) to mother Clara Wilson, a well-educated graduate of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, and father Adam Emory Albright, in the Chicago suburb of North Harvey, Illinois. Adam, a descendent twice removed of immigrant German Moravian gunsmiths, was a modestly successful Impressionist painter who studied under American realist artist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), with Carl von Marr in Munich, and Benjamin Constant in Paris. He became especially well known on the Chicago art scene for his unblemished landscapes and idealized portraits of children, with young Ivan and Malvin often modeling for their father.
When Ivan and Malvin were eight years old (also, they had an older brother, Lisle Murillo Albright, who had no interest in art) their father began giving Ivan and Malvin lessons in drawing and painting, placing great emphasis on anatomical precision. He took the twins on frequent visits to the Art Institute of Chicago (he himself had a one-man exhibition at the Institute in the early twentieth century), where they were introduced to American Impressionist and Realist painters such as Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Tarbell, and John Twachtman. Following several house moves, the family settled finally in the affluent Hubbard Woods suburb of Chicago, where the twins attended New Trier High School.
Education and Early Training
By his teenage years, Albright was pushing against the pressure he felt to step into his father's shoes. As the art historian Robert Cozzolino writes: "Albright formed an early repugnance for the politics and commercial ambitions that he saw operating in his father's artistic circle; he was determined not to become an artist. He called [his father] a 'short term artist,' believing him interested only in sales" Albright himself recalled: "At that period my father was known in the city. And we entertained one summer ... I think we had 3000 club women out there [in our suburban home] in the matter of a month and a half and they always say, 'little boy, are you going to be an artist when you grow up?' And I got to hate it ... I said 'I'll never be an artist. I'll be an architect, an engineer, anything. I'll dig a ditch, plaster a wall, but I don't want to be an artist'".
However, Albright came to realize that, while he didn't want to make "pretty pretty" pictures like his father, painting was in fact his strongest suit and he enrolled at the College of Liberal Arts of Northwestern University in 1915. His brother enrolled at the same school shortly after. Ivan, however, dropped out of the program in 1916 and transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana. The twins remained close and built adjoining studios in Warrington, Illinois (even though they forbade the other from entering his own workspace).
When World War One broke, Ivan and Malvin joined the US war effort. After military training in Iowa, the brothers were posted to a Base Hospital in Nantes, France, with the American Expeditionary Force Medical Corps.. Malvin was placed on Guard Duty while Ivan became a "medical drawer". Albright recalled how, having arrived in France, he began making sketches of local scenery which he sold to serving doctors so he might earn enough money to "buy a little wine or something". He was duly approached by a base Captain to draw scenes from the operating theater.
By the time the brothers returned to the US in the fall of 1919 (following a "two day and two night" period of study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Nantes) Albright had completed a total of eight journals of graphite drawings and watercolor paintings of medical and surgical illustrations. As critics such as Robert Torchia and Zoë Samels have surmised, Albright's time at the hospital was "an experience that surely shaped his later aesthetic". But, as Cozzolino records, "Albright consistently downplayed the medical ward as an artistic influence throughout his career [and] even emphatically denied its impact. He did [however] admit he found x-rays to be a great revelation, excited on 'seeing right through the body' and called it the 'best art training' ever'".
On his return, Albright returned to his architectural studies at The University of Illinois but lasted just one week before moving to Chicago where he worked briefly for the architect firm Dwight Heald Perkins. He also took on freelance advertising work for the hotel firm Albert Pick and Company but accepted his true calling by enrolling (with Malvin) at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in January 1920. According to art historian Chloe Bowers, the brothers flipped a coin to decide which of them would study painting and which would study sculpture. Malvin became a successful sculptor (and also landscape painter), working for a time under the pseudonym 'Zsissley', while "Ivan took the coin toss seriously and painted all his life".
Albright graduated from the Art Institute in 1923, receiving the "Faculty Honorable Mention" for his portrait and still life painting. However, he had felt restricted in Chicago. Albright said later in an interview, "In Chicago all I inherited was a whole crowd of my dad's enemies ... I couldn't compete for scholarships ... they'd eliminate me ... They didn't like my dad, so they took it out on me". The brothers arrived in New York In January 1924. Albright wanted to study at the Art Students' League under George Bellows but the Ashcan School painter was on sabbatical in Europe and so he elected to continue his studies at the more traditional National Academy of Design. There he came under the influence of the conservative portrait painter, Charles W. Hawthorne. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Hawthorne proved to be a most inspirational teacher instructing his pupils, "Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision - it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace". It would become Albright's mantra.
In 1925, the Albright brothers rented a studio space in Philadelphia, again, erecting a makeshift partition so they could work privately. It was here that Albright's signature style was beginning to take shape and his sketch and notebooks from this time tell us that he was studying the works of El Greco, Rembrandt, Holbein, Ferdinand Hodler, and Abbot Henderson Thayer. Indeed, Cozzolino notes that "Albright discredited the history of modernism in a review of 'Modern French Painting,' by stating that France had never birthed an artist equal to El Greco and Velazquez in Spain, Rubens in Belgium, Rembrandt in Holland or Dürer in Germany, suggesting that together the moderns were but a tiny blip in the history of art". His biographer Michael Croydon describes these early pieces in fact as "Baroque" and characterized by half-length portraits executed in a "sharp-focus style". They marked the point at which Albright's paintings were starting to attract reviews (not all of them favorable) which he collected and pasted into scrapbooks.
In late 1926, the Albright brothers visited California for three months, spending most of their time in the area around San Diego. Cozzolino notes that "Before leaving California, Albright began another pivotal early work at the San Luis Rey Mission in Oceanside. It was his largest and most powerful figural work to date. An elderly Irish monk named Brother Peter Haberlin posed for I Walk To and Fro Through Civilization and I Talk as I Walk (Follow Me, The Monk). The octogenarian monk stands in prayer, his hands clutching a crucifix. Behind him, light bursts and he seems to levitate as if in a state of purity [...] The selection of Brother Peter as a model made explicit Albright's fascination with spirituality, the aging of the body, strong solid form and narrative, poetic titles. It also showed a growing interest in the total art object, as a hand-carved frame surrounds the canvas. One of the most distinguished aspects of Albright's art making practices was his well-crafted consideration of the impact of a completely unified object: in title, content, composition, and in its frame".
By the time the twins returned to Warrenville in late 1927, their father had transformed a Methodist church into the Albright Gallery of Painting and Sculpture. Once more the brothers could enjoy their own studio space. Ivan saw it as the beginnings proper of his mature style. He stated, "My painting calls for far greater study... in value, color, design and conception". Indeed, he dismissed his previous works as "very sloppy", "careless", and showing a "lack of knowledge". Albright became so obsessive about lighting, he painted his studio matte black, wore all-black clothing (as a way of eliminating any potential for glare) while lighting his sitters through a skylight (which he controlled). Croydon likened Albright's studio environment in fact to the interior of a camera. The building also doubled as an exhibition space for the Albright clan, and as a gathering place for other local artists.
As the decade neared its end, Albright's challenging style had still not won over the public. But critics, though ambivalent still towards his choice of subject matter, began to see some quality in his work. As art historian Elizabeth Lee put it, Albright "was praised by critics for his precise, meticulous forms and yet also reviled for his off-putting approach to the human figure". In 1929 his painting Woman (1928) was exhibited at the Toledo Museum of Art as part of the 17th Exhibition of Selected Paintings by Contemporary American Artists. He presented his model as a frail, flabby and gray, old woman, in an old fur coat which she wears inside-out. As New York's Museum of Modern Art described, "decay of the human body pervades this painting [and] rather than transforming her into an idealized image of femininity [Albright] treated her as a dour symbol of the aging body and the enervating forces of life". A local audience group found the painting so objectionable they succeeded in having it removed from display. Soon, however, a second group of pro-Albright protestors brought enough influence to have the painting re-hung.
Albright was soon to exhibit to acclaim with fourteen pieces (alongside the portrait and landscape painters George Baer and Martin Baer) at the Art Institute of Chicago in July 1931. He received a Gold Medal form the Chicago Society of Artists for his portrait of an elderly woman, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (1929-30), of which art critic Robert Archambeau said: "Albright's image implies that we are lost souls that, trapped in the flesh of dying animals, have forgotten what we are, and where we belong. This world is irrevocably fallen, a place of death and decay, and we have lost our connection with a better one".
By the early 1930s the artist had effectively established the wholly unique "Albright style". Cozzolino writes, "Albright himself supported the idea of his work existing in a vacuum. He constantly denied any influence on his work and even denied his context with the very contemporaries he competed with in exhibition. He consciously positioned himself in a manner that might be perceived as anti-modernist, yet his statements and his practice anticipate or run parallel to those approaches considered canonical avant-garde territory". In fact, his (relative) success continued throughout the 1930s, despite this being the period of economic depression. Albright himself later reflected, "people bought my paintings whether times were good or bad [so the Depression] didn't make a bit of difference".
Like so many of his contemporaries, Albright participated in the WPA (part of President Roosevelt's New Deal) for which he executed two paintings between 1933 and 1934 (despite being promised thirty eight dollars per week in the program as a "class A" artist, he claimed he have never received payment). Later, in May 1939, Albright's mother passed away, which profoundly affected both brothers. Over the next few summers, they spent time together in Maine working on their art. Albright entered a highly productive period and by 1941, the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago Daniel Catton Rich was hailing Albright as "one of the most original artists in America today". Albright would receive the patronage of the museum throughout the rest of his career.
In 1942 Albright received new recognition for an 8-foot-tall work called That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door) (1931-41). It shows a dilapidated and weathered door on which is hung a funeral wreath and it had taken Albright some ten years to complete. The painting won both the Temple Gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the medal for best picture in the "Artists for Victory" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His growing reputation was accelerated with his Picture of Dorian Gray (1943-44) which showed Oscar Wilde's eponymous antihero as a decaying figure in the final stage of life. It was commissioned for a Hollywood film of the same name. As critic Jackson Arn writes, "In 1943, film director Albert Lewin - then in the early stages of adapting Wilde's macabre tale for the big screen - went in search of an artist suited to paint a version of the famous picture. The artist he commissioned for the task was [Albright] and the image Albright completed would become one of the jewels of his career, not to mention the film's most memorable highlight".
In 1946 Albright married a divorcée and heiress named Josephine Medill Patterson Reeve. Reeve's family had founded the Chicago Tribune and the couple eventually settled in the city (having spent short spells in Ten Sleep. Wyoming and Billings, Montana). Reeve had two children from a previous relationship, and they were adopted by Albright. The couple also had two children together: a son in 1947, Adam Medill (and future spouse of Madeleine Albright, the first female United States Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton between 1997-2001), and, in 1949, a daughter, Blandina Van Etten. Throughout their marriage the couple found time to travel the world, visiting Russia, China, Japan, Iran, Greece, Kenya, Alaska, and England. Albright produced numerous sketches and drawings on his travels, but at the suggestion that new and exotic locations may have influenced his studio works, Albright surprisingly stated: "Actually one place is just as good as another for me. Traveling around the world wouldn't move me any more than sitting right here in my studio. It's the meaning that you bring to your painting that's important".
Late Period and Death
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Albright turned from large-scale works to smaller portraits and self-portraits. The Albright's moved several times: to Aspen, Colorado, a plantation near Jacksonville, Georgia, and a ranch in Dubois, Wyoming. The plantation and the ranch belonged to Josephine's family and these proved to be inspirational settings for Albright's art. The plantation and surrounding area saw Albright produce several "swamp themed" subjects, while the ranch inspired several Western-themed works. It was also around this time that he fell out, and lost touch, with his brother, for reasons that remain unclear.
In 1957, Albright's father passed away. Then, in the early 1960s, the city of Chicago tore down his Ogden Avenue studio to erect a shopping mall. This, as well as the fact that artistic tastes of the time were turning toward Abstraction, Pop Art, and Minimalism, left Albright feeling unappreciated and irrelevant within the Chicago art community. In 1963 the Albright's moved to Woodstock, Vermont but his eyesight began to deteriorate significantly, leading him to be registered as clinically blind. Fortunately, a corneal transplant in 1967 restored his vision and he was able to resume working.
The first major work Albright produced in Vermont was The Vermonter (1966-77). His model was a retired member of the Vermont House of Representatives and maple farmer named Kenneth Atwood. Albright stated that he had selected Atwood because he "has lived and feels as tired as I do". Indeed, the painting was seen a precursor to Albright's late career defining self-portraits. But Cozzolino argues that, "The true and overlooked context of The Vermonter lies with contemporary paintings by Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti [...] Albright and Giacometti, not to mention Bacon, shared similar views about the role and participation of models in painting, and the transformative experience before them as working through the painter. The Vermonter bears close resemblance to images of popes, depicted by artists from Raphael to Velasquez to Francis Bacon, and reinforces Albright's own claims for the sense of the spiritual in this late work". Cozzolino suggests in fact that his interest in spirituality found its most explicit manifestation in his "near obsession with the legendary Shroud of Turin, which became the inspiration for several works of art through the 1970s until his death".
Because of his family's comfortable financial situation, Albright enjoyed the luxury of no longer needing to sell his art. Indeed, he never had a dealer and was not affiliated with a dedicated gallery. In 1977, having held on to so many of his (150-or-so) works, Albright donated nearly all of his paintings to the Art Institute of Chicago and hundreds of travel sketches and drawings to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College. That same year he and his brother reunited (on their birthday) for the first time in nearly twenty years. Between 1981-83 Albright produced a series of self-portraits at the invitation of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. Deeply flattered by the invitation, Albright produced the twenty-four small scale works in a range of media. In 1983, and having recently suffered a stroke, Albright completed the last of his self-portraits before passing away on November 18, 1983, just a few short months after the death of his brother Malvin.
The Legacy of Ivan Albright
Albright became (in)famous in the early-to-mid-twentieth century for his finely detailed portraits (and a smaller number of still lifes) that, through a combination of extraordinary attention to detail and stark lighting singled him out as true one-of-a-kind. The art critic Jackson Arn describes Albright's style as "a peculiar synthesis of his formal training" (through which he acquired a "formidable knowledge" of European art history) and "his grisly days in France" (as WWI medical orderly). One can trace in his attention to detail and light application of color, the influence of El Greco, Albrecht Dürer, and the late-career self-portraits of Rembrandt. Indeed, Albright's technical mastery is beyond dispute, but his moribund worldview - what curator Sarah Kelly Oehler described as "both enticing and repulsive at the same time" - may have proved too disconcerting to be widely accepted by the public. For example, critic Irwin St. John Tucker asked ironically why an artist would want to "paint a woman with flesh the color of a corpse drowned six weeks [ago]?"
Given his morbid obsession with the "expiring" condition of the human body, his painting has been described as Magic Realist; that being, in the words of literature and arts professor Matthew Strecher, "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe". Albright did exhibit at the 1943 exhibition Realism and Magical Realism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, but the artist himself never associated with the Magic Realists, nor any art movement for that matter. As art historian Robert Cozzolino summarized, "Unaffected by the world around him, influencing no one and devoid of external artistic contamination he pursued an intensely personal vision". Indeed, while great fame might have eluded him, Albright can still lay claim to a genuinely unique position in the pantheon of twentieth century American artists.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 21 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly