New York

Leon Kroll

Danenberg Galleries

It is difficult to exaggerate the pleasure one feels at the Leon Kroll exhibition, “The Undiscovered Years,” by which name its organizers mean the production from about 1908 to the end of the 1920s. Several notable issues are alluded to in so simple a phrase, particularly the misapprehension, even revulsion that we feel vis-à-vis later Kroll, who, in the 1930s, as our preeminent National Academician, came to purvey a slick, quasi-Ingriste nude to enormous public reception. It is ever to our discredit that in 1936, when the Carnegie International awarded Kroll the first prize, Pierre Bonnard came to our shores to accept its second prize.

Early on, at the turn of the century, Kroll had been opened to the possibilities of Impressionism, first at the Art Student’s League under Twachtman, and later in Paris, where he came to know the more emotive evolutions of Neo-impressionism as it burst forth in the premier coup painting of later Divisionism as well as in its ultimate form, Fauvism. I don’t mean that Kroll was ever a Fauve; only that, after leaving the scholastic tutelage of Jean-Paul Laurens and the social commentary of Steinlen at the Académie Julien, Kroll’s vision had been freed. Both in France and in America he began to paint several strong Expressionist landscapes in an intimate scale, improvisations, sketches for larger more “finished” works. These date from 1908 on. For more than a half century these small fantasies have deteriorated, lain neglected in the recesses of the artist’s Gloucester storage racks only now to be resuscitated. Their agile coloristic freshness is a wonder. It was only in the mid-1920s, after close study of French masters, notably Cézanne, that Kroll’s color-drenched palette was profoundly narrowed. While never a member of the Ashcan School, Kroll—like his close friend Bellows with whom he shared strong stylistic affiliations—painted in an analogous manner and employed analogous themes. His painting of about 1908 through 1912 suggests an awareness of the loose and painterly work of Glackens of about 1905–06 and across Glackens to Henri, and ultimately back to Manet.

The First World War ended his long French-inspired apprenticeship and, triumphing at the Armory Show, Kroll turned to strong declarative cityscapes for the war’s duration. The painter’s fluent presentations of 42nd Street—high key and impetuous—are among the finest paintings of the city I have ever seen and they date from 1916.

After the First World War Kroll returned once more to France, his affection for the country heightened through his marriage to a Frenchwoman. In a remarkable painting My Wife’s Family of 1925 some of the slick ingratiations typical of his later work begin to appear. The foreground reclining female, the artist’s sister-in-law, stylizes rather than observes in a way that calls many period figures to mind such as Guy Pène du Bois and even Eugene Speicher. From about 1923 on Kroll’s assiduous study of Cézanne had adapted the schematic surfaces of parallel strokes to a more suave and monochromatic surfacing. Still, the study of the head of the artist’s mother-in-law is breathtaking as is the firm and uncompromising drawing of his father-in-law; and these superbly rendered figures are counterpoised by the elegantly painted male drinkers of the left-hand middle ground. In short I take the family portrait to be one of the elect figure pieces of American painting—on a par with Edwin Dickinson’s An Anniversary of 1921—for all the factitiousness that it adumbrates. The possibility emerges that if the unknown Kroll can elicit such strong responses will a decade hence come to admire the sticky academic nudes? It seems likely.

Robert Pincus-Witten