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Bringing to Light: Theodore Wendel (1857-1932) October 19, 2019 - December 7, 2019

Turkeys on a Wall, Giverny, circa 1887-1888, oil on canvas, 11 3/4 x 21 1/4 inches

An Unsung Impressionist

By Courtney S. Kopplin

Theodore Wendel (1857-1932)

For generations, Vose Galleries has welcomed the opportunity to shine a light on the work of ‘unsung artists’ throughout art history, and in the sphere of American Impressionism there is perhaps no artist more deserving of this attention than Theodore Wendel. As part of the first wave of Americans to visit Giverny in the summer of 1887, joining John Leslie Breck, Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson, Wendel became one of the earliest painters to apply impressionist principles to his plein air interpretations of the French countryside; sources later reported that the master himself, Claude Monet, who limited his interactions with the Americans, thought highly of Wendel’s work.

In March of 1889, shortly after settling in Boston, Wendel organized a three-day viewing of his pastoral landscapes at a studio on Boylston Street, coinciding with Metcalf’s exhibition of foreign paintings held nearby at the St. Botolph Club. Both artists garnered positive reviews from the local press, and over the next several years Wendel maintained an active exhibition schedule, including a two-person show with Theodore Robinson in 1892, featuring both oils and pastels; several solo and group shows with his fellow Boston artists at the St. Botolph Club; and a solo show at Chase Gallery in 1894 which inspired the following reaction from the Boston Evening Transcript:

“Mr. Wendel has been influenced by Monet and his ilk very much, but his work is the least mannered and the most conscientious of any of the so-called impressionists on this side of the ocean, and it appears to us to have more of nature in it than the majority of the ultra modern landscape painters.” (1)

Image, left: Blossoming Trees, Giverny, oil on canvas on wood panel, 16 1/4 x 20 1/2 inches, signed lower right: Theo Wendel

The Harvest Gleaners, Giverny, circa 1887-1888, oil on canvas on wood panel, 13 1/4 x 16 3/8 inches

As the decade progressed, Wendel began adapting his new technique to subjects closer to home, specifically those found at Gloucester, where he taught summer classes in the early 1890s. Critics again lauded his paint handling and intuitive color harmonies, and were charmed by his unique brand of Impressionism as it applied to the clearer sunlight and rich tapestry of the New England landscape.

Fishermen's Houses along a Cove, Gloucester, 1916, oil on canvas mounted to panel, 25 x 37 inches, signed and dated lower right: Theo Wendel 16
Image, left: Figure along a Rocky Shoreline, Gloucester, oil on canvas 24 1/4 x 21 1/4 inches; Image, right: Breaking Waves, circa 1892, pastel on paper, 17 1/2 x 23 1/4 inches, inscribed and signed lower left: To my friend F. Handle / Theo. Wendel, verso: Lobster Shacks
Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts, 1894, pastel on paper, 20 x 26 inches, signed and dated lower right: Theo. Wendel 94

Wendel’s teaching post in Gloucester was not his first; he gave lessons to women artists in Newport, Rhode Island, in the mid-1880s, before going abroad to France, and from 1892 until 1897 he was an instructor at Boston’s Cowles Art School, where he met his future wife Philena Stone. The extra income teaching provided, combined with his steady roster of exhibitions, allowed Wendel to feel more financially secure in his profession and in 1897 he and Philena were married, with artist and lifelong friend Joseph DeCamp serving as best man.

Marriage certificate of Theodore Wendel and Philena Stone

Image, left: Newport, 1884, oil on canvas on Masonite, 16 5/8 x 20 1/2 inches, signed lower left: Theo Wendel 84

Image, left: Peonies in a Brass Container, circa 1915, oil on canvas mounted to Masonite, 23 x 19 ½ inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel; Image, right: Portrait of the Artist's Wife Philena, Venice, circa 1897, oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 16 1/8 inches
Women Gathered around Fountain, Venice, circa 1897, oil on canvas, 21 x 31 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel
Image, left: Italian Fisherboy, circa 1897-1898, oil on canvas mounted to board, 17 1/4 x 14 1/4 inches, signed lower right: Th. WENDEL; Image, right: The Sails, Venice, circa 1897-1898, oil on canvas mounted to Masonite, 9 1/2 x 15 inches

Following a year-long honeymoon spent exploring France and Italy, the Wendels relocated to Philena’s ancestral homestead in Ipswich, where the village and the family’s lower and upper farms on Argilla Road would serve as the artist’s personal version of Giverny for the latter part of his career.

Image: Theodore Wendel painting daughter Mary, Upper Farm, Ipswich, circa 1915.

The Lower River, Ipswich, circa 1908, oil on canvas mounted to panel, 30 1/2 x 37 1/2 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel
Woman in Flower Garden, Cape Ann, oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 18 1/4 inches
Haying in Front of Heartbreak Hill, Ipswich, oil on canvas 30 1/2 x 40 1/4 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel
Image, left: Trees along the Marsh, oil on canvas 22 x 30 inches; Image, right: Trees at Heartbreak Hill, Upper Farm, circa 1915-1920, oil on canvas 25 1/4 x 30 1/8 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel
Letter from Theodore Wendel, 1927, Vose Galleries Archives.

Although firmly planted in Ipswich, Wendel remained involved with Boston’s exhibition circuit for the next two decades, soon adding the Guild of Boston Artists to his résumé in 1914, and earned the respect of the era’s foremost Impressionist artists. Edmund Tarbell applauded his abilities, commenting in 1909:

“I know of no landscape painter whose work represents so many of the effects of nature…or who can put down what he sees with greater truthfulness.” (2)
Image, left: Hydrangeas, Ipswich, circa 1915, oil on canvas, 38 x 31 1/8 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel; Image, right: Rose Arbor, circa 1905-1915, oil on canvas mounted to wood panel, 30 1/2 x 21 1/8 inches, signed lower right: Theo. Wendel
Autumn on Main Street, Ipswich, circa 1900, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches, signed lower right: Theodore Wendel
Tennis Player (Dan Wendel), oil on canvas 18 x 21 inches

Wendel also sent work to venues outside of New England, including annual displays at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which awarded him the prestigious Jennie Sesnan Gold Prize for Winter at Ipswich in 1908 and acquired the painting for its permanent collection.

Image, left: Girl Seated under a Canopy of Trees, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 18 1/4 inches

Sledding in Ipswich, Massachusetts, circa 1908-1915, oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 23 1/4 inches, signed lower left: Theodore Wendel

Despite this personal triumph, Wendel never quite attained the same level of name recognition bestowed on his impressionist peers, particularly those who had established strong ties to New York City. He took part in a few annual shows of the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design in the early 1890s, but this was the limit of his own interaction with the city. Years later, Wendel and several Boston painters were overlooked by the Academy when conferring associate memberships, causing Philip Leslie Hale to counter:

“there is not a better painter of landscape in America than Theodore Wendel, and yet one sees pitiful fakers succeeding in a material way where he only scores ‘un success d’estime.’” (3)

Working steadily among the picturesque environs of the North Shore, Wendel became the embodiment of the painter’s painter; his transcriptions of the New England landscape, rendered in all seasons and with an eye for capturing the essence of nature, found no shortage of admirers among those who truly know the craft.

Moonrise on the Farm, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 40 1/4 inches
Image, left: Argilla Farm, from Upper Farm, Ipswich, oil on canvas 25 x 30 inches; Image, right: Salt Marsh and Haystacks under Low Clouds, Ipswich, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30 ¼ inches
Letter from Theodore Wendel, 1922, Vose Galleries Archives.
Image, left: Ploughing the Field, Ipswich, oil on canvas 17 7/8 x 28 inches; Image, right: View of Lower Farm, Ipswich, oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches

Wendel’s inherent modesty may have played a role in his relative obscurity today, an opinion best surmised by his friend Frank Benson in a letter to Philena upon hearing of the artist’s death:

“He was really a true artist, and a very fine one, only he did not know what it meant to make his candle shine in the world.” (4)

Furthermore, the artist suffered and eventually recovered from an infection of the jaw in 1917, after which his output was markedly curtailed until his death in 1932. This, combined with a studio fire at the turn of the century in which a collection of early landscapes may have been lost, leads to a scarcity of paintings on the market from which one can grasp the true breadth of Wendel’s talent.

Exhibition catalog, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1976

After his death, his work was tucked away by the family until a 1976 collaboration between the artist’s son Daniel and John I. H. Baur, director emeritus of the Whitney Museum in New York, reintroduced Wendel to the art world in his first solo show in generations.

Exhibition label, verso 'The Lower River, Ipswich'

At the time, Vose Galleries was privileged to assist Daniel with the logistics of lending several paintings to the exhibition, including three featured in this catalogue: Haying in Front of Heartbreak Hill, Ipswich; The Lower River, Ipswich; and Pitching Hay, Upper Farm.

Pitching Hay, Upper Farm, circa 1915, oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 33 1/2 inches
Image, left: The Hay Wagon, Ipswich, circa 1912, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 1/8 inches; Image, right: Corn Sheaves on Castle Hill, circa 1905-1913, oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 26 1/8 inches

Since the 1970s, Vose Galleries remained close with the Wendel family and we have been fortunate to handle and place his work in important private and public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This connection now extends to Wendel’s great-grandchildren, who have entrusted us with the nearly thirty landscapes and figural paintings comprising this exhibition, the first in decades in which the merit and quality of Wendel’s Impressionism can be observed and appreciated. We are grateful to take on stewardship of their great-grandfather’s work. The majority of these paintings have never before been offered for sale and we hope discerning collectors of American Impressionism will embrace the opportunity to restore Theodore Wendel to his rightful place among his contemporaries.

Our efforts would not have been possible without the dedication of Laurene Buckley, Ph.D., Museum Consultant and Art Historian. Her recently-published monograph on the artist, Theodore Wendel: True Notes of American Impressionism, is the culmination of years of research and an invaluable source for this introduction. Our gratitude is equally beyond measure. Available through the Artist Book Foundation, the 172-page volume offers an in-depth narrative of the painter’s life and legacy, from his Midwestern upbringing and early training under Frank Duveneck in Germany, to finding his calling in Giverny and his years faithfully interpreting the scenery of Gloucester and Ipswich. It has reaffirmed our belief that Wendel deserves to be better known, and we hope to do our part in bringing his brilliance to light.

(1.) “The Fine Arts,” Boston Evening Transcript, April 2, 1894, 6. (2.) “Honors and Praise for Mr. Wendel,” Boston Evening Transcript, January 30, 1909, 5. (3.) “New Associates of National Academy,” Boston Herald, June 7, 1908, 1. (4.) Letter dated December 25, 1932. Wendel Family Archives.

Bringing to Light: Theodore Wendel (1857-1932) is viewable October 19th - December 7th, 2019.

Click here to view the entire exhibition online.

VOSE GALLERIES

238 Newbury Street, Boston, MA 02116 • (617) 536-6176 • info@vosegalleries.com • www.vosegalleries.com

Writing: Courtney S. Kopplin; Digital Catalog Design: Catharine L. Holmes; Photography: Tyler M. Prince, Gabe J. Chevalier. © 2019 Vose Galleries, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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