ADAM EMORY ALBRIGHT
Adam Emory Albright was one of the most successful painters working in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century. The charm and sentimental nature of his stunning depictions of barefoot country children struck a chord with Midwestern audiences and secured his artistic reputation. Widely collected by the finest institutions in America during his lifetime, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Toledo Museum of Art, today Albright’s delicately painted visions of carefree children enjoying the delights of nature remain as celebrated today for their timeless elegance and the innocent simplicity of their subject.
Born in Monroe, Wisconsin in 1862, the eleventh of thirteen children, the young Albright had early visions of becoming a painter. Albright grew up in grinding poverty on his family’s farm in Iowa and was determined to escape from dismal farm life that seemed to be beset by misfortunes. At the age of eighteen, Albright left home, determined to make his way as an artist. Funded through the sale of his drawings, art tuition and manual labour, Albright travelled to Chicago to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1882 where he studied still life painting, portraiture and life drawing. In 1883 Albright enrolled at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he became a student of the highly regarded realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) whose bright sunlit paintings of the outdoors greatly influenced the young Albright.
Albright completed his artistic education in Europe studying the finest examples of Western Art and working under established figurative painter Karl von Marr in Munich and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant in Paris. Impressionism was emerging as a new style of painting in Paris at this time, and it’s influence on Albright’s painting is evident from his work of 1899 onwards, when he began to embrace the technique of painting en plein air in conjunction with the application of loose, flickering brush strokes, a style that became the foundation to his evocatively carefree paintings of young children in natural settings.
Upon returning to America in 1888, Albright married his childhood sweetheart Clara and the newly married couple settled in Chicago. Albright struggled to support himself by painting portraits and moralizing images of newsboys, bootblacks, and other youthful urban figures. In around 1899, using his own family and neighborhood youths as models, he began painting young children in idyllic natural settings, a subject matter which would preoccupy him for the rest of his long career.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, many artists mirrored the public’s nostalgia for seemingly simpler times by depicting rustic subjects. Such subject matter had become enormously popular in the second half of the nineteenth-century and Albright followed in the footsteps of well-established American artists such as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) and Enoch Wood Perry (1824-1906) as well as the work of the French naturalist painter Jules Breton (1827-1906). Albright’s depictions of carefree, barefoot boys and girls idle at fishing streams, wander homeward from the fields, gather wild-flowers or fruit, and otherwise testify to country childhood as a fleeting moment of innocent pleasures under perpetually sunny skies.
Accompanied by his family, Albright traveled widely, visiting Wales and Venezuela as well as New England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California. The family moved around a great deal as Albright’s career progressed. They first settled in Edison Park, now a suburb of Chicago, before moving to Winnetka where Albright proceeded to build a large log studio residence in Hubbard Woods, and then Warrenville, Illinois. Throughout his career, and despite several moves, Albright’s studio remained a place where he introduced many people to his art.
Albrights charming and peaceful works of children enjoying the simple delights of nature appealed to contemporary Chicagoans and were also of interest to writers and poets such as John Whitcombe Riley and John Greenleaf Whittier whose written words are beautifully encapsulated in Albright’s charming childhood visions. Albright’s popularity is largely due to the feeling of nostalgia evoked by these paintings, and the feeling of innocence and idealized childhood pleasure they recall, so far removed from Albright’s own experience of childhood.
The Barefoot Boy by John Greenleaf Whittier
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy, ---
I was once a barefoot boy!
Albright was an avid practitioner of painting en plein air, often securing his canvases with stakes and ropes to protect them from strong winds. Albright’s method involved a three-colour palette of rose-madder, cobalt blue, and chrome yellow, mixing the colours to achieve other tones. While adhering closely to his signature subject matter throughout his career, as he matured Albright loosened his brushwork and brightened his colour under the influence of Impressionism.
In the face of more avant-garde trends of art in America in the early twentieth-century, Albright emerged as a staunch defender of traditional pictorial values. Ironically, his twin sons, Malvin and Ivan, became prominent modernist artists in their own right; the later of whom was noted by the late 1920s for figural images of scathing hyper-realism that contrasted sharply with his father’s cheerful sunlit scenes. Despite their different artistic tendencies, Albright and his sons often painted side by side in the studio and outdoors and exhibited together in 1950.
The Art Institute of Chicago honored Albright with five solo exhibitions where his work was met with great acclaim. Albright remained an active member of the Chicago art community into his old age and was a member of seventeen organizations including the Chicago Watercolour Club and the Chicago Society of Artists, of which he became president of both.