Morgan Russell (b. New York City 1886-d. Broomall, PA 1953)

Morgan Russell (1886-1953)
Garden of Gethsemene
(St. Luke 27: 42-46)

Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 12 inches

Morgan Russell was one of only three American painters who figured in the beginning of abstract art. The others were Patrick Henry Bruce, who later renounced and burned his work, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Russell and Macdonald-Wright invented the art movement, “Synchromism,” the only art genre created by Americans, launched at Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie. in Paris in 1913. (Art scholars have credited Russell with the original idea, after his study of color theory with the Canadian artist Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart) Synchromism, opposite to the usual approach to painting, relied on the use of pure color first, with form following later, if at all.

After first studying architecture in New York, Morgan Russell was a student of “Ashcan” painter Robert Henri and of Matisse. He settled in Paris in 1906, where he soon joined the circle of artists that surrounded Gertrude and Leo Stein. Among these artists were Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, the poet Apollinaire, and Modigliani (whose portrait of Morgan Russell was in Henry Ford II’s collection at the time of Mr. Ford’s death.).

Russell first exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1910, and later at the New York Armory Show (1913), Neue Kunstsalon, Munich (1913), Salon des Artistes Independents, Paris (1913), Stendahl Gallery, Los Angeles (1932), Museum of Modern Art, New York (1951 and 1976), and many others in Europe and North America before the massive Montclair (New Jersey) Museum retrospective in 1990. The Morgan Russell archive resides at the Montclair Museum.

About 1916, Russell turned from Synchronism and returned to figurative painting and, after conversion to Roman Catholicism and a pilgrimage to Rome, included in his work some beautiful symbolic interpretations of scenes from the Bible.

Russell worked under the patronage of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the early years and later, through the 1930s, with financial assistance from his friend and fellow artist Mabel Alvarez in Beverly Hills, California. His first wife, Emilie Francesconi, died in the late 1930’s; his second wife, Suzanne, was a niece of Claude Monet. In his 3 January 1946 letter to Mabel Alvarez announcing their marriage the day before he mused, “Strange you will find it that her oncle (sic) was a person named Claude Monet! Yes, when she was a little girl in 1906 playing in his Giverney gardens, I was in Paris hot-crazy over the founder of modern painting. Life is curious isn’t it?”

It was to the Pennsylvania estate of Suzanne’s daughter, Denyse, Mrs. Atwater Kent, Jr., (herself a former student of Russell’s), that they retreated in 1946, after their hard war years in the tiny French village of Aigremont, Yonne, and it was there that Russell died in 1953.

Note from Glenn Bassett:

In the late 1980s, during a trip to Montclair, NJ, in connection with my giving them the 20 years of letters from Russell to Mabel Alvarez, I also looked up Herman Cherry (subject of Mabel Alvarez’s painting “Man with a Beard”), the artist who was one of the New York group that included Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, etc. Over lunch near his loft in Soho the fascinating Mr. Cherry told me a delightful story about this picture. He and Russell were in Los Angeles at the same time in the early 1930s and knew each other. One day he drove up to the house where Russell was staying, and there in the open garage facing the street was Morgan, dressed in flowing women’s clothes, high heels, his long hair falling down all over the task at hand hammering away trying to make a frame for one of his pictures. Of course, Russell could never afford to have frames made. Neither did he have a clue how to do it himself. The thing turned out so badly mitered that one could see daylight around one corner of the picture

I asked Mr. Cherry if he remembered what the picture was, and he described this one! When I told him I had the picture and it was working its way up my priorities list for a new frame he exclaimed, Oh no! I shouldn’t remove Morgan’s frame.