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Gertrude Abercrombie

(1909-1977)

Midwestern Surrealist

by Carol J. Huston

Gertrude Abercrombie was an American illustrator, painter and musician. She was born in Austin, Texas, on Februrary 17th, 1909, but spent most of her life in Chicago. She studied art at The Art Institute of Chicago as well as at The American Academy of Art, where she learned figure drawing and commercial techniques. Her work combines both fantasy and reality. Abercrombie was influenced by European Surrealists but identified herself as a Midwestern artist.




Table Of Contents

I. Biography

Abercrombie was born in Austin, Texas, on February 17, 1909. She was the only child born to Tom and Lula Janes (Jane) Abercrombie, who worked in a traveling opera company. Her mother's work as the prima donna in the opera company moved the family to Berlin when Gertrude was four years old. Remarkably, young Gertrude was the only member of her family to learn to speak German fluently and acted as a translator for her parents. Promptly returning to the United States at the onset of World War I, her family moved to the small town of Aledo in western Illinois, where her father's family lived. After she began attending elementary school in Aledo, Jane Abercrombie developed a life-threatening goiter which damaged her voice and ultimately ended her career as an opera singer. In search of new job opportunities, the Abercrombie family moved to Chicago where her father worked as a salesman. The family settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, the city where Abercrombie would spend the rest of her life.

At the age of 20, Abercrombie earned a bachelors degree in Romance Languages from the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. Skilled as a writer, her university professors urged her to pursue a career as an author. After graduation however, she chose instead to attend classes in figure drawing and commercial techniques at the Chicago Art Institute and the American Academy of Art. In her interviews, Abercrombie emphasized that she was largely self-taught as an artist. In 1931, she worked as an illustrator doing glove advertisements for $15 a week at Mesirow department store. Later, Abercrombie drew illustrations as a revamp artist for the Sears' catalog. While working for Sears', she met Tom Kempf, who encouraged her to paint seriously.

Although Abercrombie worked briefly as a commercial artist, her career as a painter did not begin until 1932, when she was persuaded to try painting by Tom Kempf, brother of sculptor Tud Kempf. The latter later became her good friend and mentor. Her first public exhibit was in 1932 at Increase Robinson's Studio Gallery, in which she displayed a portrait of Tud Kempf. The following year, she participated in the second annual open-air art fair held in the Congress Street Plaza south of the Art Institute. Resulting from the Depression, this and other open-air fairs allowed artists who did not have professional training an equal opportunity to sell work. Here she sold her first painting and received attention in the newspaper. Abercrombie began exhibiting with progressive Chicago galleries starting in the early thirties.

When she was 26 years old, Abercrombie was selected for employment by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal relief program for struggling artists. By the time she was hired by the WPA in 1934, Abercrombie had already established her name in the Chicago art community. Still, she credits her appointment to the WPA with giving her the validation and income she needed to become a professional artist and gain independence from her parents, who were conservative Christian Scientists. Her commission with the Public Works of Art Project gave her a monthly salary of $94. With her new income, Abercrombie moved out of her parents' home and into her first apartment.

While living in her new apartment, Abercrombie met writer Wendell Wilcox, artist Karl Priebe, and writer James Purdy, who would become her close, life-long friends. Purdy, then a student at the University of Chicago, later included Abercrombie as a character in several of his Chicago-based novels, including her as painter Eloisa Brace in Malcolm, painter Maureen O'Dell in Eustace, and as herself in Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue. These friendships marked the beginning of her large circle of bohemian friends, which included both famous and unknown writers, visual artists and musicians. In 1935, Abercrombie met Gertrude Stein through mutual friend Thornton Wilder, who told Abercrombie that her paintings were “very pretty but girl you gotta draw better.” Upon hearing this advice from Stein, whom she adored, Abercrombie went home abruptly and began painting There on the Table (1935), for which she later won a $100 prize at the Art Institute.

In 1940, Abercrombie married a handsome lawyer named Robert Livingston and, two years later, she gave birth to her only child, Dinah. In 1944, The Abercrombie-Livingston family moved to 5728 South Dorchester, the house where Abercrombie would live until her death. She decorated the house in Victorian-era furniture upholstered in beige and purple fabric and painted the walls dark gray. This locale soon became known for the Saturday night parties and Sunday afternoon jam sessions that Abercrombie regularly hosted. Known by her peers as the “Queen of Chicago,” jazz-enthusiast Abercrombie was a gifted improvisational piano player and played with her jazz musician friends including Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Sarah Vaughan. She loved to sing bebop and scat and claimed that she could hum and whistle simultaneously in harmony.

The forties and fifties were Abercrombie's most productive years as a painter. In 1945 alone, she painted more than 60 paintings. After her rocky marriage relationship with Livingston, the marriage ended in divorce. Abercrombie married again in 1948 to Frank Sandiford, a music critic, ex-con, and writer who used the pen-name Paul Warren. Dizzy Gillespie led the orchestra that played at their wedding. An eccentric woman, Abercrombie drove a 1920's Rolls-Royces- she owned three during the course of her life- and sometimes dressed in dark clothes and pointed velvet hats which caused the neighborhood children to call her a “witch.” In 1964, Abercrombie separated from Sandiford. Her health was beginning to deteriorate and she suffered financial setbacks.

On July 3, 1977, at age 68, Abercrombie passed away at her home in Chicago. In the last years of her life, she suffered from pancreatitis and severe arthritis and was eventually confined to a wheelchair. Her weakened physical condition was exacerbated by her inability to quit drinking alcohol, which she had been using heavily for the last 20 years of her life. Before her death, a retrospective exhibition of her work was held at the Hyde Park Art Center, displaying over 100 of her pieces. Since her passing, Abercrombie's reputation as an artist has grown as her paintings continue to be exhibited. On behalf of a grant awarded by the Judith Rothschild Foundation in New York, Abercrombie's paintings were featured in a 2005 group exhibition at the National Academy of Design Museum titled Surrealism U.S.A.

II. An Analysis of the Artist's Work

The artist's depiction of an alternative, dream-like reality evokes the Italian pittura metafisica (metaphysical painting) of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). The simplified compositions combine both fantasy and reality, with the stillness suggesting an uneasy détente between the two realms. Elements such as a painting within a painting and exaggerated or non-existent shadows echo the ideas of the European surrealists who pre-dated Abercrombie's work.

Like other surrealists in Chicago during the forties and fifties, Abercrombie did not describe her work in terms of European surrealism; only retrospectively would her work come to be labeled as “surrealist.” Rather, Abercrombie identified herself as a Midwestern artist, with her roots deep in the state of Illinois. Working in the same vein as contemporaries, Ivan Albright (1897-1983)) and Julia Thecla (1896-1973), Abercrombie's regional magical realism illustrates the hidden world of her subconscious.

Reflecting the isolation of her inner world, Abercrombie's paintings rarely include any humans other than herself. Shortly before her death in 1977 she said, “It's always myself that I paint, but not actually, because I don't look that good or cute. Everything is autobiographical in a sense, but kind of dreamy.” In her large self-portrait, Self-Portrait of My Sister, the accessories she depicts are based on her actual possessions, as are nearly all objects in her paintings.

Abercrombie developed her style of sharply defined figures and objects in the late 1930's. When she began painting in the early 1930's, her style of painting was more impressionistic with thick, painterly brushstrokes. Self Portrait (1935) and her early still life paintings, There on the Table (1935) and Head on a Plate (1936) demonstrate this blurred effect made with thick, visible brushstrokes. She later refined her brushstroke into a more clean, linear style as seen in The Pump (1938) and Pink Carnations (1939). In these paintings, the props are clearly defined and have the illusion of a smooth surface.

While Abercrombie's technique remained consistent throughout the rest of her career, her color palette evolved. In her early paintings, she worked in mostly dark, earthy tones with a lot of dark blues, dark reds, and browns. According to Abercrombie's only child, Dinah Livingston:

“In the 1950's, her paintings were lighter in tone and less symbolic in content, the gloomy dark greens and blacks clearing to the cheery pinks and pale grays of her second marriage. These paintings are happier, but also more superficial, displaying more trivial concerns, more casual social engagements.”

In the early fifties, along with painting more humorous, light-hearted scenes such as Fortune Teller (1951) and Picture in a Picture in a Picture (1955), she developed a preference for creating small-scale paintings. She began to make tiny paintings like K.P. (1951). Some of her paintings were so small that she mounted them onto pins and gave them away as gifts.

Through her use of elongated figures and nontraditional arrangement of commonplace objects, Abercrombie's paintings illustrate another, often mystical, dimension of reality. Typically, she painted simple interiors or landscapes portraying a solitary woman accompanied by a few everyday props. Of her mother's paintings, Livingston said that the “emotional significance is contained in static, arranged objects, the most central of which is usually herself.”

Characteristic of her interiors is the room and woman depicted in Gertrude and Christine (1951), which contains an enclosed room occupied by a lone woman, a broomstick, and a black cat on a leash. Like all the rooms in her paintings, this room is immaculate, with the exception of a single leaf in front of Abercrombie's figure. Curiously, the rooms Abercrombie depicts were in contrast to her actual living conditions; she notoriously hated housework. Minimally furnished, pristine, and haunting, rooms like Past and Present (Weintsein Interior) (1945) and Intermission (1952) give the viewer a sense of recent activity. In Intermission, Abercrombie included an echo of her presence in the room with a self-portrait of herself hanging on the wall. Even though no one is actually present, the presence of absence is acutely felt. A chair knocked over, a phone dangling off the hook, and a note left behind by someone unknown accentuate the emptiness of the room.

In line with the desolate appearance of her interiors, Abercrombie's isolated landscapes are distinctively barren and dark, embellished with only a few intermittent objects. The ubiquitous wooden broomstick of her interior rooms has been replaced with sad, barren trees. Indecision (1948) connotes an emotionally frustration with its extreme darkness, closed door, and blind-folded woman. The artist's landscapes have a distinct sense of place and suggest a rural Midwestern childhood. Aledo's slaughterhouse, in ruins and overgrown by grass, appears as the dominating structure in Self Imprisonment (1948) and The Parachutist (1945). Another motif is a single road cut into the wasteland and leading to the unknown, as in In Search for Rest (1951).

The cast of archetypical, personal emblems which pervade Abercrombie's repertoire include cats (usually black), closed doors, chalices, Victorian furniture, broomsticks, full or crescent moons, white towers in the form of a castle or a lighthouse, sea shells, and effects of magic or sorcery. The crystal ball, game cards, palm reading diagram on the wall, and the seemingly enchanted horse allude to magic in The Fortune Teller (1951). With her frequent use of paranormal imagery such as broomsticks, black cats, and rooms which appear haunted, Abercrombie was often touted as having a witchlike persona. Even so, she never took this notion seriously. In 1951, she said, “I am not interested in complicated things nor in the commonplace. I like to paint simple things that are a little strange. My work comes directly from my inner consciousness and it must come easily. It is a process of selection and reduction.”



STILL LIFE - SHELL
1951
3" x 3.5"
Oil on board
Available for acquisition

Still Life - Shell is from a period in Abercrombie’s career when she became interested in creating small-scale paintings. Evocative of a classical tromp l’oeil painting, a single shell carefully rests upon a dark turquoise surface. In the background are the initials “K.P.” which is fastened against a mysterious black wall with a threadlike pin. The “K.P.” is believed to stand for Karl Priebe (1914-1976), a fellow Midwestern Surrealist and life-long friend of the artist.

III. Chronology

  • 1909 Born on Februrary 17th in Austin, TX
  • 1913 Moves to Berlin, Germany with parents
  • 1929 BA in Romance Languages, Univ. of Illinois, Champagn-Urbana
  • 1931 Illustrator and accessory designer at Mesirow Department, Chicago, IL
  • 1932 Begins oil painting and exhibits for the first time at Increase Robinson's Studio Gallery in Chicago
  • 1934 Hired by the WPA for painting
  • 1940 Marries lawyer Robert Livingston
  • 1942 Gives birth to her only child, Dinah
  • 1944 Moves to 5728 South Dorchester, Chicago, where she lived until her death
  • 1948 Marries Frank Sandiford, a music critic and writer, after divorcing Livingston
  • 1964 Separates from Sandiford
  • 1977 Dies in Chicago, IL
  • IV. Collections

  • Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
  • Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL
  • Lakeview Museum of Arts and Science, Peoria, IL
  • Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI
  • Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL
  • National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Private Collection of John and Shirley Wilde, WI
  • Private Collection of Powell and Barbara Bridges Collection, Wilmette, IL
  • Western Illinois University Art Gallery, Macomb, IL
  • V. Awards

  • 1946 William and Bertha Clusmann Prize, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • 2005 Judith Rothschild Foundation Grant
  • VI. Solo Exhibitions

  • 1944 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Room, Illinois
  • 1946 Associated American Artists Gallery, New York
  • 1948 Chicago Public Library, Art Room, Illinois
  • 1952 Leonard Linn Gallery, Winnetka, Illinois,
  • 1952 Edwin Hewitt Gallery, New York,
  • 1952 Newman Brown Gallery, Chicago, Illinois,
  • 1952 Stevens-Gross Gallery, Chicago, Illinois,
  • 1952 Bresler Gallery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • 1953 Contemporary Arts Gallery, Evanston, Illinois
  • 1953 Design Center, Chicago
  • 1953 Newman Brown Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1953 John Fordon Gallery, Aurora, Illinois
  • 1954 Irv Benjamin’s Restaurant, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1954 Marshall Field and Company, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1955 Esquire Theater, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1956 Chess House, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1960 Devorah Sherman Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1964 Gilman Galleries, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1977 Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, Illinois
  • 1991 Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois
  • VII. Memberships

  • 57th Street Art Colony, Chicago, Illinois
  • Chicago Society of Artists
  • Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists
  • Works Progress Administration
  • VIII. Education

  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Chamgaign, Springfield, or Chicago, Illinois, B.A. in Romance Languages, 1929
  • Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  • Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, Chicago, Illinois
  • American Academy of Art, Chicago, Illinois
  • IX. Bibliography

    1. 1. Berman, Greta and Jeffrey Wechsler, Realism and Realities: The Other Side of American Painting, 1940-1960. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Art Gallery, Rutgers, 1981.
    2. 2. Duncan, Michael. Heretics of the Heartland..Art in America. Feb. 2006.
    3. 3. Golden, Deven K. State of Illinois Gallery, Chicago; exhibition.New Art Examiner. June 1991.
    4. 4. Kennedy, Elizabeth. Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
    5. 5. Sill, Robert. Portraits by Illinois Artists Past. In: American Art Review. Feb. 2004.
    6. 6. Southwest Art, ed. News Beat- On the Scene.Southwest Art. June 2004.
    7. 7. Vine, Richard. Where the Wild Things Are. Art in America. May 1997.
    8. 8. Weininger, Susan and Kent Smith. Gertrude Abercrombie: An Exhibition. Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1991.
    9. 9. Yochim, Louise Dunn. Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists. Chicago: The Society, 1979.

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