The winter exhibition coming to the Flagler Museum this January is a rescue mission of an obscure classically trained artist with no direct ties to Henry Flagler – although he would have loved the works.
Masterfully Human: The Art of Gaugengigl examines the highly evocative body of work of Boston painter and etcher Ignaz Marcel Gaugengigl through 75 pieces that include portraits, landscapes and amusing historical scenes. This is the largest exhibition ever done on his work since 1929. It opens Jan. 23 and closes April 29.
Born in Bavaria and trained at the Royal Academy in Munich, Gaugengigl specialized in small-scale everyday scenes often depicting musicians immersed in the playing experience, lovers courting, connoisseurs and artists appreciating art. At 23 years old, he experienced great popularity and success after settling in Boston in 1878 and receiving an abundance of commissions from high society. Unfortunately, World War I delivered bad news for anything of Germanic heritage and demand for “old-fashioned” art declined with the turn of the 20th century. The Gilded Age artist died in 1932, forgotten by most except a few friends and supporters whose commissions sustained him in his final years.
Ahead of the Jan. 23 opening, ArtsPaper spoke with Chief Curator Tracy Kamerer about her experience organizing the exhibition and what makes Masterfully Human masterful and human.
How did Masterfully Human come about?
It wasn’t an artist that I was familiar with. The idea came about with one of our museum members, Peter Heydon, who has a number of pieces in the exhibition. He is a collector with very good and interesting taste. He said to me that he had discovered this artist, Gaugengigl, and that I should take a look at it. I did and I thought: Wow! How did I not know this guy?
I started looking around. Meanwhile, Peter was collecting Gaugengigl paintings and couldn’t stop buying them. He loved every one of them that he came across. I did too and I thought: No museum has ever done an exhibition of this artist’s work. I thought he really deserved it.
Gaugengigl had a great sense of humor and he was such a great storyteller, a master of human expression. The critics of the period raved about how he could tell an entire story with the single gesture of a figure or a look on the figure’s face. And it’s true. When you take the time to look at the paintings, an entire narrative will unfold. Sometimes they are very funny. I think of them like the way a poem is constructed. You will read it and then it evokes a whole world in your mind; that’s what these little paintings do.
Looking at his work, it is surprising to hear he hasn’t received much attention.
I know. Not only has he not have a museum exhibition to himself but there also has not been a major exhibit catalog. We decided here is an opportunity to show an artist in a way that hasn’t been done before but also to put out the first major book on him.
You put it together?
No connection to the Flagler Museum?
His work is very similar to the type of work Flagler collected. Flagler loved historical genre painting. These are little everyday life scenes set in the past, oftentimes in 18th-century France. They are anecdotal, charming pleasant scenes of courtship, love, honor and duty; all these great themes.
But it’s not an artist that we know Flagler collected. My guess is that’s because Gaugengigl was most popular in the 1880s and 1890s, and Flagler had already formed his collection by then. He wasn’t buying a lot of contemporary art during that period except for some Florida artists he was supporting in St. Augustine.
His story has a sad ending, doesn’t it?
It is sad. When I was looking at all the newspaper coverage around the time of his death and the probate papers related to his estate, it’s really kind of a sad tale. When he died, he was in debt. He was so popular and so beloved and to end up struggling at the end of his career and trying to make ends meet…
Take me through the gallery rooms. What can the viewers expect to find?
The paintings are rather small, what they would have called at the time small cabinet paintings. Rarely ever did he paint a painting more than 14 or 16 inches, unless it was a portrait. But the genre scenes are tiny. Some of them are 4 ½ and 5 inches in diameter. They are very precious and have beautiful frames.
The Chess Players is really just a wonderful little painting. It belongs to Peter. It’s not just a scene of people participating. One of the players looks so engaged over his next move while his opponent has given up hope. His body language is just priceless; he is not even impatient anymore. It’s so funny. He doesn’t think there is ever going to be a next move. Even the dogs have fallen asleep on the floor.
There are courtship scenes as well. We have Scherzando, a pre-Revolutionary piece of a man and woman who appear to be courting and you see this little flirtation going on. Small Audience is another good one. One man is reading something aloud with vigor and another man is leaning forward with his mouth open, just hanging on every word.
And then there’s a whole section of historical genre paintings where he represents dandies. That was his favorite historical subject. They are all from a very specific period at the end of the French Revolution called The Directory. I have a whole chapter on it in the exhibit catalog; lots of politics wrapped up in this too.
But he was a terrific portraitist and could really capture the personality of the sitter. If you look at Portrait of James Freeman … It’s not your typical man-on-a-suit portrait from the period. He’s a very powerful business man but it’s a really compelling portrait. I think it’s very sensitively painted. You get the feeling that there is a personality behind the skin, that the person is kind of warm.
He doesn’t look very pretentious, no.
No. None of the sitters do. One of the critics of the period remarked that with his portraits, you always get a sense that there was a warm conversation beforehand. He seemed to have a way of getting rid of the stuffiness, you know? That’s probably why he was in such demand, because people saw that.
The little panels, he didn’t paint more than eight or nine portraits a year. They were in such demand, they immediately sold all the time and most of them went into private collections, like the portraits did. That’s one reason why nobody knows who he is today because the paintings sold mostly locally and they went into private collections and, in most cases, they stayed. The ones that are in institutional collections were given by personal collections as gifts. Not a lot of these things hit the market when he was alive.
How did you even go about locating the pieces?
It’s really hard. And you know what’s always frustrating is that, after the catalog is printed, things will continue to come out of the woodwork and you go: Oh, I wish I had that one! But it’s been all networking for this one. Talking to curators. Talking to dealers. The internet helps when you can find out when things went to auctions. Most of them are still in New England, which is where they have always been. But then I found some in Europe and California.
That’s a lot of networking. There are 70-plus pieces here.
Are you finding or do you get the sense that there is a renewed interest here or is the Flagler Museum hoping to trigger that?
We are hoping to bring new interest to the artist. He has always been known in the Boston area, but it’s always been regionally knowledge. The last big exhibit of his work was in 1929 at a private club in Boston. It was 63 pieces, I think. Ours is bigger. There hasn’t been a big exhibit since. We are hoping to bring some attention to him.
The time is right to reconsider traditional academic art. People are far more receptive to that art now than during much of the 20th century. These artists fell out of favor with modernism and it took a long time for people to see the value in these works again. In general, I’d say, there’s really been a renewed interest in recent decades in academic art.
What do you hope visitors walk away with?
I’d be happy if they discover a new artist that they enjoy. It’s been a lot of fun for me to discover Gaugengigl and to look very closely at these paintings. The more you look at them, the more you learn. They are multi-layer.
I particularly like The Painter. Do any pieces call out to you, personally? Do you have a favorite one?
I like the whimsy. I particularly respond to the ones with the sense of humor. Some of them are even sarcastic.
Now that you mention it, do you think he meant funny in a disrespectful way?
No. No. No. He was an observer of human nature. I think that he thought every type of human expression was worthy.
MASTERFULLY HUMAN: THE ART OF GUAGENGIGL, opens Jan. 23 at the Flagler Museum, Palm Beach, and runs through April 29. Museum prices: Adults: $18; $10 for youth ages 13-17; $3 for children ages 6-12; and children under 6 admitted free. Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 561-655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us.