Arthur B. Carles was among the most innovative and virtuosic practitioners of early American Modernism, establishing himself both as a highly successful painter and teacher. Born in Philadelphia and living much of his early life in the same neighborhood as Thomas Eakins, Carles embodied much of the same contrarian and daredevil spirit of the elder painter. While he was beloved by students and his paintings were prized in their day, he often found himself in conflict with authority and disdained conventional avenues. If this spirit dimmed his financial prospects, it also elevated the success and ambition of his paintings well beyond many of his cohort, for his brightly-colored pictures that verge on abstraction, he is sometimes classified among the Synchromists. His involvement with Philadelphia art circles earns him membership in brief modernist flourishing of that city. Still, his friendship with Alfred Stieglitz and European connections puts him also on the forefront of a more cosmopolitan modernist movement than Philadelphia offered. He never moved entirely into abstraction, remarking “I think that when a painting gets so concrete, that it looks so much like itself that it doesn’t look like anything else, ‘abstract’ is a hell of a word for it” [as quoted in The Orchestration of Color, 2000, p. 63]. Nonetheless, his explosive canvases show the broad influence of Wassily Kandinsky, as well as post-impressionists, Fauves, and, late in his career, a move toward Cubism. A painter of broad technical and aesthetic gifts, he is one of the category-defying visionaries of American art. Influential in many channels, Carles produced a tremendous body of work and left a wake of profound influence.
Carles studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1901 to 1907, a time at the prestigious school of shifting allegiances. Thomas Anshutz, as well as William Merritt Chase, instructed him there. His early work reflects this realist education: tonalist portraiture approach, distinctly nineteenth century in temperament. Early success in this manner, such as the prize winning Portrait of Mrs. Carles and Sara (1907, promised gift, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia) demonstrate his superfluity of talent in draftsmanship, form and light. It also demonstrated that his first trip to Europe in 1905 had not yet converted him to the new way of seeing and painting that would arrive in his next trip. How Carles came to live with Alfred Maurer in Paris in 1907 is unknown, but it is certain that the older painter introduced him to the key players of rising modernism, including Gertrude and Leo Stein, the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and, importantly, to the American expat painters Eduard Steichen and John Marin. These last became Carles’s best friends in Paris, completing a ring of enterprising painters that would be the first proponents of a brisk avant garde growing in New York around Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. While Marin was still forming his lexicon of forms and colors, Steichen would serve as Stieglitz’s chief lieutenant abroad, serving both as a guiding light for pilgrimaging New Yorkers and also funneling talent and vision back to Stieglitz in New York. Carles made great use of both of these functions. While he was swept up into the current of modernism along with Max Weber, Arthur Dove, Marin and Steichen, he was never swallowed by Stieglitz’s wake. (The gallerist-dealer showed Carles’s work on several occasions, but neither the artist nor art historians considered him a member of the inner Stieglitz circle. Carles had his own trail to blaze.
Blaze he did. His conversion to a modernist idiom was not instantaneous, but a measured and thoughtful realignment. While he devoured Matisse and the Fauves, he simultaneously toiled at a commissioned copy of Raphael’s Transfiguration. Faithful in its execution, the copy was completed in 1910, around the same time Carles’s first fauvist canvases appear. His commitment to a lineage since the Renaissance never waned: modernism was not a radical break or a revolution, but an extension. He continued to paint nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, albeit in increasingly daring idioms. In the early teens, he continued to use classical chiaroscuro to model form. He would later move toward a color modeling technique following Cézanne, and would gracefully vary these devices through the 1920s. By the mid 1920s, Carles was dismissed by the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, a dismissal motivated at least in part by Carles’s lifelong struggle with alcoholism. (After drinking liquor of questionable origins, the painter even became partially blind for a period.) In the following decade, Carles took up a cubist idiom, combining his ringing colors with a Braque-Picasso prism of sharply delineated planes. The late pictures garnered extensive critical attention, but won few sales. The deaths of friends and the difficult economic climate turned the artist once more to the consolation of alcohol. Depression and drink may have contributed to his stumbling accident in 1941 which left him partially paralyzed. He lived to see the next decade, when many of his radical ideas, chromatic and structural, would be embraced by the exploding New York School of painting, but he had completed his last pictures in 1935, decades ahead of his time.
The present work is among his finest still lifes. Painted in the heart of his career, Still Life with Flowers evinces the painter’s unabating mastery of color. Here he has moved away from the Cézanne-Matisse mode, eliminating characteristic bounding lines to give light free reign through unbridled color. Floral arrangements were among the artist’s favorite subjects, one to which he returned multiple times in the 1920s. Just as he never left observation as the cornerstone of his painting practice, he considered the still life as a vehicle for engaging dramatic painting technique. Some still lifes are simple entitled Color Arrangement, suggesting that the dominant subject of the canvas was the paint itself. The present case, with its mirror in the background, and carefully articulated individual blossoms, remains clearly an arrangement of flowers, but it readily gives way to Carles’s adventurous eye. While many artists of the era worked up the surface in a uniform application of paint, Carles hewed to an older tradition of building up paint in a variety of volumes. The viridian ground is applied very thinly, almost as a stain, while the vibrant flowers are built of generous daubs. John Marin wrote of Carles, “He must have sensed, as those capable knew, that he had a beautiful color sense – which he put down in flowing streams – a real lover of paint – as paint” [quoted by Henry G. Gardiner in Arthur B. Carles (1970), p. 181]. This love for paint as paint reaches full expression in these and other canvases of the middle twenties.