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Exhibit Showcases Works By ‘Dean Of Cleveland Painters’

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887–1964) Shore of White Island, Maine, c. 1923 [Wolfs Gallery]
painting by Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887–1964) Shore of White Island, Maine, c. 1923 [Wolfs GAllery]

It was the kind of day art gallery owners like Michael Wolf of Cleveland’s Wolfs Gallery dream about at night.

The grandson of Frank Wilcox came paid a visit to his gallery with three of his grandfather’s watercolor paintings, and Wolf made arrangements to go see more of them at the grandson’s home, according to Case Western Reserve University Professor of American Art Henry Adams.

Wolf was taken into the basement where boxes and cupboards were filled with carefully stored paintings by Wilcox, who is often called the “Dean.” Wilcox was part of a group of painters known as the “Cleveland School,” who were prominent in the first half of the 20 th century.  A 1910 graduate of the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), Wilcox was a master of watercolors. He also taught for more than four decades at his alma mater.

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887-1964) Bustling Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, 1912 [Wolfs Gallery]

Wilcox's steady job as a teacher relieved the pressure to sell his works to provide income, allowing these paintings to remain in the family.

Many of these previously unseen pieces were painted in the 1920s and 30s, when Wilcox was emerging as an artist. They have been combined with other Wilcox paintings for the Wolfs Gallery exhibit, “The Dean: Frank Nelson Wilcox (1887-1964),” which Adams said is “the definitive Wilcox show.” 

Wilcox was born in Cleveland in 1887, the son of an attorney, who was also a playwright and poet. Both of Wilcox’s parents, who had deep New England roots strongly encouraged their son’s interest in art. 

Many of Wilcox’s paintings depict the family farm in Brecksville. Art historian Marianne Berardi said the farm was an important touchstone for Wilcox.

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887-1964) The Reunion, Brecksville, Ohio c. 1927 [Wolfs Gallery]

“It was a place where he would go and really be in touch with the land and with the people there and with many generations of his family. It’s where they had family reunions. He was able to watch the farming that was done there. There were quarries that were on the property and there were quarry men from all over the world who came there to cut the stone. He would be in the realm with these workmen and learn exactly what those skills were like. He had kind of an encyclopedic interest in all sorts of things, including science and archaeology. For example, while he was on the farm, they would plow and he would follow in the furrows behind the plow and pick up the arrowheads that were turned up in the land. There was always a sense of a continuity between the past and the present, and that informed his art and the books that he eventually wrote and illustrated, including ‘Ohio Indian Trails,’ and the book on the Erie Canal,” Berardi said.

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887-1964) The Hay Field, Brecksville, Ohio c. 1916 [Wolfs Gallery]

Wilcox attended the Cleveland School of Art from 1906 -1910, where he was influenced by two highly respected instructors who were often at odds, Frederick Gottwald and Henry Keller.

“Gottwald was an extremely conservative sort of Prussian drill-master teacher. Keller was more interested in modern art. If Gottwald liked one thing, Keller had to like the other thing and vice versa. I think between the two, he got a pretty remarkable training,” Adams said.

Like many of the artists who made up what became known as the “Cleveland School of Painters,” Wilcox was drawn to watercolors.  Adams explained their appeal to Adams

“I think there was something about the spontaneity of it and a bright color. It's also a medium that was used quite a good deal for illustration in that period. So I think that may have had something to do with it. I think that Wilcox loved the quickness of it and the idea of capturing this scene immediately,” Adams said.

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887-1964) Stevedores, Ohio River, c. 1920 [Wolfs Gallery]

After he completed school, Wilcox went to Paris, where he spent nearly two years. Unlike many aspiring artists who went to France and studied at art academy, Wilcox spent each day painting, capturing the end of the La Belle Époque before WWI. When Wilcox returned to the United States, Keller was less than complimentary about his work.

“He was drawing a lot and then using these delicate washes to fill in the forms. By the time he got home, there had been newer developments in modern art to which he was slightly oblivious. Things were changing. The Armory Show in 1913 brought European modernism to the United States. Americans were exhibiting in it as well, things like fauvism and cubism. Abel Warshawsky, a post- impressionist, was showing here with his brilliantly colored landscapes. Keller was sort of turning in that direction. Keller said to Wilcox, ‘these are OK, but, they're colored drawings.’ That hit Wilcox really hard. He eventually went back, where you could see that his work started to get more vivid. It responded to these higher chromatic experiments that were going on over there. Wilcox took the criticism hard, but he took it to heart,” Berardi said.

While Wilcox’s work reflected some of the changes that were happening in the art world, he didn’t wholly embrace every experimental movement, according to Adams.

“At a certain point, modernism got too wild and crazy for Wilcox. In some ways, he pulled back. His later work of the late 1930s and ‘40s tends to be more nostalgic and looking back to agrarian life at Brecksville and that kind of thing,” Adams said.

Frank Nelson Wilcox (American, 1887-1964) Rocks of White Island, c. 1923 [Wolfs Gallery]

When Wilcox returned from Paris, he thought he would work as an illustrator, but instead he took a job as an instructor at the Cleveland School of Arts in 1913, remaining there for the next 44 years.

Throughout his career, Wilcox focused much of his attention on documenting what he saw in Northeast Ohio.

“Wilcox was quite a historian. His book on Indian trails, which actually became a bestseller in the period gives you an extraordinary sense of the early development of Ohio. Many modern highways were once Indian trails. Wilcox patiently did research and tracked that down and traveled all over Ohio ,” Adams said.

Wolfs Gallery took a different approach to presenting Wilcox’s work than most exhibits that showcase watercolors, Berardi said.

“Because it’s a work on paper, it’s presented in a fairly good sized mat and then framed. Michael decided to frame the watercolor tightly without a mat and put a rather large frame around the outside of it in a presentation that is more indicative of how you would display an oil painting. With oil paintings, you just put the frame up against it and let the colors sink against the frame. These watercolors are presented with a kind of seriousness that you see with oil paint. There a tendency in the art world overall, that oil paint is up here in the hierarchy. As you go down, you have watercolor and drawings and so forth. But since watercolor is such a primary vehicle of expression in the Cleveland school, he presented the works in that way. It's kind of a game changer in the way you look at Cleveland watercolor,” Berardi said.

Frank Wilcox in his Studio 1929 [Wolfs Gallery]

Adams has high praise for the exhibit.

This is an extraordinary trove. Michael Wolf deserves great credit. This is a unique event that's very much at the same level of quality as the shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Michael has also published a very significant catalog, which at this point is the major publication on Wilcox. It really shows Wilcox at his best in every phase of his career from this extraordinary early works when he was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art right up to the end of his career ,” Adams said.

ideastream's Dan Polletta, Case Western Reserve University professor of American Art Henry Adams, art historian Marianne Berardi [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

Marianne Berardi and Henry Adams will discuss the Wilcox exhibit at Wolfs Gallery Thursday at 7:00 p.m. 

“The Dean: Frank N. Wilcox (1887-1964)” is on view at Wolfs Gallery through November 30.