Books for Sale
Interesting and relevant links
Rolph Scarlett was born in 1889, in Guelph, Ontario, fifty miles northwest of Toronto. Like many similar towns of the era, Guelph’s populace tried to embrace the ideals of a classical education and appreciation of the higher arts, and this was particularly true of the section in which Scarlett lived.
Scarlett was first introduced to painting at age five when his grandmother showed him how to use a small paint set. At seven he entered and won a local drawing competition. A Catholic nun (from Loretto Academy, a local girl’s school) saw the piece and offered to tutor Scarlett privately, which she did for several years. She had been trained as an artist at the Roman Catholic Academy in Rome. By the time he was twelve, the private tutoring combined with Guelph’s excellent educational system left Scarlett well trained in the basics of academic art: form, perspective and color. These were the foundations to which Scarlett would return again and again.
In his fourteenth year Scarlett announced to his father that he was going to be an artist. Instead, his father insisted that he learn a trade and apprenticed him for four years to his Uncle, a jewelry maker. As a young man he worked for a variety of jewelry stores and distributors. This vocation was to serve Scarlett in varying degrees throughout his life (Scarlett made jewelry until his death).
Scarlett's first trip to New York in 1908 started on a lark when he was 18. He and a friend saw an advertisement for inexpensive train fares from Toronto and on the spur of the moment decided to visit for several weeks. Four years later at the start of World War I, he returned to Canada, with a wife and child. New York was to exerted a powerful influence on him throughout his life.
While living in Canada, Scarlett continued to travel to New York, although for shorter stays, probably on jewelry related business. In 1913 while on a trip to New York when he was 24, Scarlett saw the Armory Show. It would prove to be an important event in his artistic career and he came away fascinated with the modern and abstract art he saw.
A decade later in 1923, Scarlett would receive another big push toward abstraction. While working for P.W. Ellis, a large wholesale jewelry business based in Toronto, Scarlett visited Switzerland. At a dinner party on a large estate Scarlett noticed a man who kept drawing on a pad throughout the evening. The man was Paul Klee. Klee was making small abstract sketches. When Klee discovered that Scarlett was an artist, he suggested that Scarlett try to make some of the small abstractions. After several unsuccessful tries Scarlett realized then it was harder than it looked. Scarlett returned to his room where he spent the rest of the night trying to make abstract compositions. It was after this experience that Scarlett moved away from realism in his own work and towards abstraction.
In Toledo, in 1926, again working for a jewelry firm, Scarlett who was then 37 purchased for the first time, a box of French pastels. Fascinated with the brilliant colors and without any plan in mind he began to experiment one night with them. The next morning when he came back to his easel and saw the experiment of the night before, he was staggered. It was a completely abstract drawing unlike anything he had done before. He was overwhelmed and deeply impressed. At that same time Scarlett was exhibiting in local shows and at the museums. His pastel was accepted into the Toledo Art Museum’s Juried show and won first prize. So radical and modern was his composition that a puzzled curator from the museum asked Scarlett to come to the museum to explain his abstract work. The pastel was featured on the front of the Toledo Blade! According to Scarlett the newspaper article generated so much curiosity that when the show opened three policemen had to help control the flow of people into the exhibition.
The most important influence on Rolph Scarlett’s art came when he was in his forties through the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, (which was founded in 1936 and later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum). While Scarlett was traveling abroad, his wife learned of the Museum’s interest in seeing the work of American artists who were painting in an abstract style. She took some of his canvases to the Museum and was met with instant acceptance. Upon his return to New York, Scarlett met with and became a close friend and confidant of the founding director Hilla Rebay.
Rebay thought one of the most important functions of the museum was to educate the public as well as other artists. As part of her quest to educate people on the importance of non-objective painting (Rebay’s term for abstraction) she would bring in groups and have people such as Scarlett at the museum to explain the paintings. Scarlett became her main spokesman and spoke at the museum on weekends. Rebay employed a number of artists as a way to keep them interested and painting in a non-objective style. Scarlett, for example, received scholarships for four years from the museum and was employed for 15 years; other artists similarly employed included Jackson Pollack, John Sennhauser and Jean Xceron.
Rebay would introduce him as “Rolph Scarlett, my great find.’ So considerable was her enthusiasm for Scarlett, that she and Solomon Guggenheim bought over sixty of his paintings and monotypes for the museum. After Kandinsky and Bauer, more of Scarlett’s work was in the collection than any other artist’s. Rebay also helped Scarlett in his painting by offering constant encouragement and occasional suggestions on the painting of individual works. It was she who encouraged Scarlett to create small works on paper before executing the composition on canvas.
Scarlett was profoundly affected by the Rudolf Bauer’s that he saw at the museum, more so than by any other artist’s work. While he was at the museum he had constant exposure to Bauer’s work and wrote about Bauer extensively in his memoirs, while making scarce mention of Vasily Kandinsky whose work was extensively featured at the museum. After Bauer moved to the United States, Scarlett would take his studies and show them to Bauer. Bauer would then make suggestions about how to change the compositions often with only the most minor of adjustments. In his memoirs Scarlett wrote,
He took his time with each piece and exercised great care in appraising my work. He would look at them.. ‘move that square over there and make it black, and it will all come together:’ and it would. He never hinted at any change that would alter the spirit of the study...
When Rebay suggested changes in a composition, she would chalk them onto the painting, but Scarlett would wipe off the chalk and re-submit them in a few weeks. With Bauer, he was always very appreciative of the insight and subtlety of his suggestions.
Although Rebay was Scarlett’s great supporter, he did not subscribe fully to her beliefs. For Rebay the creation of a work of art was divinely inspired. She was mystically inclined and felt non-objective art was done with the hand of God directing the artist. Scarlett played along with this notion but kept one foot firmly anchored in his ear her training in esthetics.
The problem is to create an organization that is alive as to color, and form, with challenging and stimulating rhythms, making full use of one’s emotional and intuitive creative programming and keeping it under cerebral control so that when it is finished it is a visual experience that is alive with a mysticism, inner order and intrigue and has grown into a new world of art governed by esthetic authority.
While he cedes to Rebay the intuitive (mystical) component, he maintains in his work a strong underlying reliance on esthetic foundations.
When Solomon Guggenheim died, Rebay and the artists she supported and championed were forced out of the museum and their paintings no longer displayed. This was a great tragedy for Scarlett’s artistic career and for non-objective art in general. As Scarlett said in his memoirs:
Through the years Mr. Guggenheim had bought about sixty of my paintings. He told me these were for the permanent collection. I considered them my life's best work, and I was proud to have them in this wonderful collection. However, after the death of Mr. Guggenheim, my pictures, Bauer’s and Kandinsky’s were all deliberately put in storage... This caused me great financial hardship, loss of prestige and loss of artistic recognition.
Deeply affected by the loss of patronage and encouragement from the Museum, Scarlett looked around himself and saw the great successes of Abstract Expressionism. Despite Rebay’s insistence that Scarlett adhere strictly to non-objective painting, Scarlett began to experiment with more expressionistic forms in the 1940s. For Scarlett it was in many ways similar to the work he had been doing before he became so deeply involved with the Guggenheim foundation.
In 1951, when Scarlett was 62, he was called by a curator from the Whitney Museum asking if he wanted to have a painting in their annual exhibition and if they could come to his studio to make a selection. The painting the curator selected had been done by puncturing holes in the bottoms of paint cans and letting the paint drip onto the canvas. When the curator came from the Whitney, he selected the drip painting over the other paintings which were in Scarlett’s more usual geometric style. Scarlett labeled these paintings “Lyrical,” Today these would be labeled as Abstract Expressionist.. Scarlett’s painting was featured in the Times and other newspapers in articles about the Whitney annual. Motivated by the response Scarlett continued in a “Lyrical” style for a decade.
In the early 1960s Scarlett moved to Woodstock, New York, where he would remain until the end of his life. By this time he had returned to geometric abstraction and left the more expressionistic “Lyrical” style. When he returned to these more geometric works) he brought to them a greatly brightened palette and a denser composition. He was greatly influenced by Op-Art works.
Rolph Scarlett’s artistic career embraced over 90 years. Scarlett was remarkably adaptable and able to assimilate the best from many different sources, including his own earlier work. Scarlett’s boldest experiments were often recognized by the critics and newspapers, as in the pastel reproduced on the front page of the Toledo Blade and the piece chosen for the Whitney Annual and reproduced in the Times. Events of this kind encouraged him to continue in his explorations and produced broad changes in his work. Scarlett saw wide swings in his stature as an artist, from the adulation that Hilla Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim gave him in the late 1930s and 40s to the virtual anonymity of the late 1950s. He felt that a great wrong had been done to Rebay, the intent of Guggenheim, and non-objective painting in general. Despite everything, Scarlett never wavered in his commitment to abstraction and continued to explore it until his death in 1984.
Chicago 1990, 2002
It makes a good case for Rolph Scarlett's unfair fall from fame.
A very positive review of Scarlett's work from the New York Times
All artworks are offered subject to prior sale and although we regret any errors or omissions, we reserve the right to change anything.
keith @ struve.biz (leave out the spaces)
All artwork is offered subject to prior sale and although we regret any errors or omissions, we reserve the right to change anything.