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MORGAN RUSSELL

(1886 - 1953)

Pioneering American Abstract Painter

by Arilysse O’Hayon-Crosby

While living in Paris in 1912, Morgan Russel and Stanton MacDonald-Wright developed the first American non-objective theory of painting, called Synchromism. After meeting the influential art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein, Russell became an important member of the Parisian avant-garde along with Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Russell remained in France for most of his life, with the exception of 1931 when he taught briefly along side MacDonald-Wright at Chouinard Art School .




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Morgan Russell was born to Antoinette and Charles Jean Russell in New York in 1886. Charles Russell passed away when his son was only nine years of age. Miner Antoinette remarried three years later. When she died in 1909, the young Russell found himself without any family; his stepfather showed no interest in him and ignored all correspondence from Russell. Rumor has it that his mother may have seduced him as a young boy. This may or may not be the reason why he took to cross-dressing and portrayed himself as a woman in some of his paintings.

Upon leaving home, Russell found employment as a model for James Fraser’s sculpture classes. He attended the Art Students League from 1903-1905, where he studied sculpture with Lee and James Fraser. It was in this same class where he encountered his future benefactor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an important patron of the arts. He enrolled in an architecture school in 1904 and studied there for two years. His studies in architecture influenced his artwork. Throughout his career Russell would visualize his compositions in three-dimensions, always using color properties to render depth.

With the encouragement and financial support of Whitney, Russel traveled to France and Italy in 1906. This trip had a great impact on the young artist. He marvelled at the many old Italian Masters such as Bronzino, Bernini and Giotto. Though it was Michelangelo’s work that captivated him the most. After his voyage to Europe, he returned to New York and studied painting at the Art Students League with Robert Henri.

The young artist left New York in 1909 and decided to return to Paris. There he discovered the Fauve’s brash use of primary and secondary color and Gauguin’s intriguing pigments. He encountered the famous American art collector and writer Gertrude Stein along with her brother Leo Stein. Through his association with the Steins, Russel introduced to a circle of prominent avant-garde artists, such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and the poet-critic Guillaume Apollinaire. He attended Matisse’s Art school that same year where he learned new color principals.

In 1911 he met Stanton Macdonald-Wright in Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart’s classes in color theory. Their encounter had an enormous impact on Russell’s artistic career. Their collaboration and constructive critique of each other’s work was very productive. Russell and his colleague were primarily interested in the abstract use of colour. Together, they developed an abstract painting style they called Synchromism, meaning “simply color.” This movement was based on the idea that color can be orchestrated like music. The idea of musical analogy in painting was also central to the work of Wassily Kandinsky, who was developing his own synesthetic paintings, or compositions, in Europe around the same time.

Macdonald-Wright and Russell had their first exhibition of Synchromist paintings in June of 1913 at the Der Neue Kunstsalon in Munich, followed by the Gallery Berheim-Jeune. Russell also exhibited this work at The Armory Show in 1913, the first international exhibition of Modern Art in the United States. It displayed some 1,250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 avant-garde European and American artists. This historic exhibition exhibited Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist works in the United States for the very first time. Russell and Wright’s paintings were the first American non-objective painters in art of the avant-garde movement. Russel also exhibited his work regularly in the major salons of Paris, including the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon d’Automne, and the Salon des Tuileries.

By the end of 1915, he was ready to move on to something else, and his work became more realist than abstract. Meanwhile, Stanton Macdonald-Wright decided to stay true to Synchromism. Russell went back to the United States in 1916 to exhibit his work at the Anderson gallery in New York City.

On September 28th, 1918, he married Emilie Francesconi and the couple returned to France. After living briefly in Nice, Russel returned to Paris, where he found himself overwhelmed by the pace of the urban life style. On July 4th 1921, he bought a farm and settled in Aigremont, France, a village in Burgundy. However after being isolated for so long, Russell was forced to return to the urban chaos tend to his career. He exhibited in Salon des Independants in Paris each year from 1922 to 1925. Russell didn’t like the art business and believed art dealers had too much power over the success of the artists. In a continual limbo between artistic freedom and the necessities of his artistic career, he ended up making trips back and forth between the countryside and Paris. The lack of public appreciation for his figural compositions tortured the artist. Finding himself obligated to move on to Still Lifes, portraits and landscapes, Russell became increasingly depressed.

However, by fall of 1922, things were looking a lot brighter for Russell. He overcame his depression and went back to painting abstract Synchromies, calling them ‘‘Eidos,’’ or ‘‘form’’ in Greek. Russell wanted Eidos works to be accompanied by a kinetic light machine. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the means to build one. By the end of the 1920s his paintings returned to mainly figurations with strong Expressionists colors and Cubist technique and boldness. However, the artist never truly abandoned Synchromies. Later in life he combined figural painting and Synchromies.

In 1931 he went to California and worked with Stanton Macdonald-Wright at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles. They were continuously exchanging aesthetic ideas. Russell was very much appreciated by the art community in California, and was welcomed by the Art Students League. Once he had completed the academic year in Los Angeles, he decided that he would return to France. For the next three years Russell would spent his winters in working in Rome and the rest of the time in Aigremont.

Through the last half of the 1930s Russell’s work demonstrated a desire to express religious meaning. His relationship with his mistress Suzanne Binon, a Catholic may had some influence on the focus of this work during this time. He painted several religious themes such as Christ’s Resurrection. After the death of Emile in 1938, Russel married Suzanne and upon the end of the Second World War, the two settled in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Russell converted to Catholicism in 1947. By this time Russell’s health had begun to fail. In 1948 Russell experienced a paralyzing stroke which forced him to learn to write and paint with his left hand. In the first few years of the 1950s Russell’s work was exhibited in New York at the Rose Fried Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art. Morgan Russell died in a nursing home in Broomall, Pennsylvania, in 1953.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Morgan Russell is considered one of the true pioneers in the development of abstraction art and color theory. The artist was impressed by Gauguin’s use of vivid and bold colors and made notes about them when studying in Paris. Matisse and Michelangelo’s work inspired him as well. His handling of sculptural volumes was based on the spiraling forms of Michelangelo. While his breach of physical forms was derived from Picasso’s Cubism. For Russell, color and form were the most important factors determining composition.

In 1913, Russell and Macdonald-Wright had formed the Synchromism movement. The fundamental elements of Synchromism are the use of color alone to define form and space; warm colors appear to advance, while cool colors recede in the visual field. As an artistic philosophy, Synchromism has a lot in common with Orphism developed by Robert Delaunay. Orphism aimed to gradually dispense with recognizable subject matter and to rely on form and color alone to communicate meaning.

The first Synchromist work, Russell's Synchromy in Green (1913), was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1913. Russell’s art of 1911-15 is at the heart of modernist drive toward painting abstractions based on the physical and emotional qualities of color. In 1913, the Synchromists held their first exhibition in Munich, followed by one in Paris at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. In March 1914 their works were shown at the Carroll Gallery, New York City. However, the public wanted still lifes, landscapes and portraits at that time. Russell wasn’t inspired by Still Lifes and landscapes but felt obligated in order to earn a living. Russell was cognizant of the color theories that by now were second nature to him thus, in his still life paintings, he concentrated on the color and form of the fruit, and show the influence of Cezanne.

After a submitting to the public’s desire for more representative paintings in the years following the First World War, Russell returned to the Synchromistic aesthetic in 1922, and started a series of paintings he called ‘‘Eidos’’. Russell was also interested in the relation of color and light, and he experimented periodically with a light machine. This machine was meant to project mobile rays of light controlled by a dimmer. The paintings became a sort of imaginary vision of a light show. From then on its purpose was to serve as a synthetic transcription and as a subjective temporal process. Synchromism was based on the foundation of scientific harmony, invoked by the assumption of predefined chromatic range, and alternatively on the play of complementary contrasts.

Though the Synchromist movement was short-lived, the importance of the work produced as part of this movement cannot be overstated. Together with Santon Maconald-Wright, Morgan Russell’s development of Synchromism proved pivotal in the development of Modernism, and Russell’s Synchromist paintings from 1913 mark the first American response to abstract art.

III. COLLECTIONS

  • Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York City
  • Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute
  • Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
  • Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Ithica, New York
  • Jack S Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
  • Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute
  • Museum of Art at Brigham Young University
  • National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
  • Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York
  • New York University Collection/Grey Art Gallery
  • North Carolina Museum of Art
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • State Museums of Florence, Italy
  • The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia
  • The Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • The Newark Museum, Newark New Jersey
  • Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
  • Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1910 Salon d’Automne, Paris
  • 1912 Salon des Independants,Pais
  • 1913 Armory Show, New York City
  • 1913 Exhibits a Synchromy for the first time, Salon des Independants, Paris
  • 1913 JDer Neue Kunstsalon, Munich
  • 1913 Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
  • 1914 Salon des Independants,Paris
  • 1914 Carroll Gallery, New York City
  • 1915 Galerie Chaine et Simonson, Paris
  • 1916 The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, Anderson Galleries, New York
  • 1920 September:Galerie Cheron, One man show, Paris
  • 1920 Salon d’Automne, Paris
  • 1920 - 1925 Salon des Independants
  • 1923 Galerie La Licorne, Paris
  • 1927 February:Synchromism Show, Los Angeles Museum
  • 1930 Salon des Tuileries, Paris
  • 1931 Gallerie G.& L. Bollag Zurich
  • 1931 California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco
  • 1932 New Stendahl Art Galleries, Los Angeles
  • 1932 Los Angeles Museum
  • 1933 - 1935 Salander-O’Reilly Galleries
  • 1942 New Stendahl Art Galleries, Los Angeles
  • 1946 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
  • 1950 Rose Fried Gallery,New York
  • 1951 Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
  • 1951 Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • VII. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. Hughes, Edan, Artists in California, 1786-1940, web address: http://www.askart.com/askart/artist.aspx?artist=28578
    2. 2. Kushner, Marilyn S. Morgan Russell, Hudson Hills Press: New York, 1990
    3. 3. South, Will, Color, Myth, Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism, North Carolina Museum of Art: Raleigh, NC, 2001
    4. 4. Falk, Peter Hastings, Ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975. Madison, CT: 1999.
    5. 5. Ask Art: The Artists’ Bluebook. “Morgan Russell” http://www.askart.com/askart/artist.aspx?artist=30097

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