Italian-born artist Rico Lebrun was a key figure in the early Los Angeles modern art scene. Lebrun was a classically trained artist and a well-versed draftsman. Many of his murals and paintings address issues that deal with the human condition.
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Rico (Frederico) Lebrun was born in Naples, Italy on December 10, 1900. At the age of 17, he graduated from secondary school and began a two-year service in the Italian Army during World War I. Upon his discharge, he attended the Industrial Institute in Naples and began his first formal art classes at the Naples Academy of Beaux Arts. Through his work as a designer for a stained-glass factory in Naples, Lebrun was offered a contract to work at the Springfield, Illinois branch of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.
After his contract ended, he moved to New York City, where he found work as a commercial artist drawing advertisements and fashion plates for such magazines as Vogue, Fortune and The New Yorker. Earning a moderate salary, Lebrun was able to take an extended trip to Italy where his passion for fine art was rekindled. During his six-year stay abroad, he studied the fresco paintings of Italian Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli (1441-1523). In 1936, he returned to New York City, where he took a teaching position at the New York Art Students’ League.
This year marked a turning point in Lebrun’s career as he decided to stop working as a commercial artist and return to the fine art of mural painting. Soon after this decision, Harvard University commissioned Lebrun and his fellow artist friend Lewis Rubenstein (b. 1908) to complete a mural on the top level of the Fogg Art Museum. Though the mural was removed shortly after its completion, the designs earned Lebrun a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1936, which he won again in 1937.
In the following year, Lebrun moved to Southern California. Once in Santa Barbara, he found a great deal of support from the local art community. While spending time with artist friend Channing Peake (1910-1989), Lebrun gained the friendship of Donald Bear, who was the new Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA). Bear was responsible for organizing Lebrun’s first solo-exhibition, which was later followed by a successful string of national exhibitions. Between 1938 and 1944, Lebrun taught in Los Angeles at the Chouinard Art Institute and the Walt Disney Studios. During this time, Lebrun became a leading modernist figure in the Los Angeles area, even gaining the strong support of conservative Los Angeles Times critic Henry J. Seldis. Moreover, Lebrun was offered a prominent position as artist-in-residence at SBMA.
In 1947, he began to devote his art to themes dealing with religious experience and human suffering. For the next three years, Lebrun worked on the Crucifixion series, preparing well over two hundred drawings and paintings. The series culminated in a large exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that later traveled to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, while the Crucifixion triptych ultimately found a home at Syracuse University in New York. After an extended trip to Mexico, Lebrun returned to Los Angeles, where he worked on a series based on the horrendous atrocities that took place at the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Lebrun later commented that this series was a “form of remembrance and prayer… changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured.”1
In 1958, he spent a year as a visiting lecturer at Yale University before returning to Italy to become artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. During his time abroad, Lebrun outlined his ideas for a commissioned mural at Pomona College. In little less than half a year, he completed the enormous Genesis mural, which still stands on the college campus today. Following the project’s completion, Lebrun took on a position as faculty member at the University of California at Santa Barbara and for the first time devoted his career to sculpting. In the midst of this new endeavor, the sixty-three year old artist died quite suddenly at his Malibu home, after being diagnosed with cancer the previous year. His wife Constance and their son, David, survived him.
- 1. Rico Lebrun quoted in Oppler, Ellen C., Rico Lebrun: Transformations/Transfiguration- ‘…changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured, Syracuse University, 13 November 1983- 18 January 1984, p.10.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Much of Rico Lebrun’s art is somber in appearance and often addresses death and human suffering. Devoting a large portion of his career to themes such as the crucifixion of Christ and the Holocaust, Lebrun transformed these events into the grandest of dramatic tragedies. As Lebrun stated, they tell a story of “man’s blindness and inhumanity.”2 Evident in the very line of his disfigured forms and the dark, monochromatic appearance of much of his work, Lebrun adhered to his own artistic philosophy that “the very fact that a great work of art depicts the negative side in the fight for humanity is in itself a fulfillment.”3
For Lebrun, drawing remains at the heart of his work. He made hundreds of studies in preparation for his large-scale paintings and murals. Lebrun’s Crucifixion cycle was the most recognized work of his career. His Magdalenes and Women of the Crucifixion are regarded as the most striking images of the series and take prominent positions in the original installation. For Lebrun, Mary Magdalene was the pivotal figure to express his humanist philosophy; surrounded by evil and decay, she finds herself in perpetual grief over the absence of lasting good. Lebrun emphasized that his “crying women are, like all mothers, empty houses pierced by screams, for I have never seen pretty sorrow.”4
In 1962, Lebrun turned his full attention to sculpting stating, “there was no place to carry images except into a third dimension.”5 Through bronze casts and reliefs, he translated his dual philosophy of despair and hope. Contrary to the idealized, opulent bronze sculptures of antiquity and the Renaissance,
Lebrun’s fragmented and partially formed figures are the tortured ruins of a doomed world. His headless bodies and bound figures appear to bear the transgressions of humanity, while his busts carry their eyes towards the heavens in search of a merciful savior. Up to the last moments of his life, Lebrun continued to fulfill his duty as an artist believing that it was up to his profession to express a criticism about the world around.
- 2. Lebrun, Rico, “Notes by the Artist on the Crucifixion Theme,” in Valentiner, W.R., Rico Lebrun: Paintings and Drawings of the Crucifixion, Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum, Exposition Park, December 1-28, 1950.
- 3. ibid.
- 4. ibid.
- 5. Rico Lebrun quoted in Murray Schumach, “Painter Lebrun to Exhibit Sculpture on Coast: California Gallery Will Open Show on Wednesday,” The New York Times Western Edition, January 13, 1964, p. L6.
1900 Born in Naples, Italy
1914 Graduates from the National Technical School, Naples, Italy
1917 Graduates from the National Technical Institute, Naples, Italy
1917-19 Serves in the Italian Army during WWI
1919-1921 Attends Industrial Institute in Naples and takes life drawing classes at Naples Academy of Beaux Arts.
1922-24 Works as a designer in a stained-glass window factory
1924 Moves to Springfield, IL to work for Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.
1925 Moves to New York City to work as a commercial artist and fashion illustrator
1930-36 Visits Italy and studies frescos of Signorelli. Returns to New York and completes a mural for the New York City Post Office.
1936 Teaches drawing, mural design, and fresco painting at New York Art Student’s League. Stops doing commercial work.
1938-39 Lives in Southern California and teaches at Chouinard Art Institute
1940 First solo-show is arranged by Donald Bear in Santa Barbara, CA
1940-42 Works in Los Angeles
1942-43 Teaches at Newcomb College for Women, Tulane University, New Orleans
1944 First solo-show in New York takes place at the Julien Levy Gallery
1945 Teaches at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
1945-46 Artist-in-Residence at Santa Barbara Museum of Art
1947 Begins Crucifixion series
1948 Marries Constance Johnson
1952-54 Lives and teaches in San Miguel de Allendo, Mexico
1954-58 Works in Los Angeles. Paints Buchenwald and Dachau series
1958-59 Teaches at Yale University
1959-60 Returns to Italy to teach at the American Academy in Rome. Completes Genesis mural at Pomona College. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters
1960-62 Teaches at the University of California at Santa Barbara
1963 Dies at his Malibu home after being diagnoses with cancer the previous year
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Denver Art Musuem, CO
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Mills College Art Gallery, Oakland, CA
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, NY
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
Phillips Academy, Addison Gallery, Andover, MA
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
St. Paul Gallery and School of Art, St. Paul, MN
University of Hawaii, Honolulu
University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, IL
University of Nebraska Art Galleries, Lincoln, NE
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
W.R. Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, Kansas City, MO
New York City Post Office
Joe and Emily Lowe Art Center, Syracuse University
1940 Faulker Memorial Art Wing, Public Library, Santa Barbara, CA
1940 San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, CA
1940 San Francisco Museum of Art, CA
1942, 1947, 1951, 1952, 1956 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
1942, 1947, 1951, 1956 M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco
1942 San Francisco Museum of Art
1944 Julien Levy Gallery, NY
1945, 1950 Philadelphia Art Alliance, PA
1945 Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
1947, 1949 Jepson Art Institute, Los Angeles, CA
1948-50 American Federation of Arts, Washington, D.C.
1948 Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills, CA
1949 William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, MO
1950, 1951 Jacques Seligmann Gallery, NY
1950 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1950 Salt Lake Art Barn, UT
1951, 1955 Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA
1951 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1951 Tacoma Art League, WA
1954 Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
1955 Art Institute of Chicago, IL
1956 Pomona College Art Gallery, Claremont, CA
1956 Whyte Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1958 De Cordova and Dana Museum and Park, Lincoln, MA
1958 The Art Gallery of Toronto, Canada
1958 University of Utah, Salt Lake City
1958 Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
1959 Occidental College, Eagle Rock, CA
1959 Boston University Art Gallery, Boston, MA
1959, 1962 Boris Mirski Gallery, Boston, MA
1960 University of California at Santa Barbara, CA
1960 Esther Bear Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
1961 Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ
1961 Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1961 University of Southern California, Fisher Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1962 Obelisk Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1962 Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA
1962 Joe and Emily Lowe Art Center, Syracuse University, New York, NY
1962 Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY
1962 Nordness Gallery, Inc., New York, NY
1962 Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
1962 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
1963 Philadephia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, PA
1963 Silvan Simone Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
1960 Member, National Institute of Arts and Letters
1936-37 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship
1937-38 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship
1947 Norman Wait Harris Silver Medal and First Prize, Fifty-eighth Annual Exhibition, Chicago Art Institute
1948 First Prize, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
1949 Purchase Prize, University of Illinois
1950 Second Prize, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1952 Award of Merit, The American Academy of Arts and Letters
1953 Temple Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1962 Lippincott Prize, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1962 Purchase Award, Pasadena Art Museum
1963 Jospeh Pennell Award, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1962-63 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship
- 1. Lebrun, Rico, Rico Lebrun, New York: The Art Students League of New York, 1936.
- 2. Nordness, Lee, Rico Lebrun: Sculpture, New York: Lee Nordness Galleries, 1963.
- 3. Oppler, Ellen C., Rico Lebrun: Transformations/Transfiguration- ‘…changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured, Syracyse, NY: Syracuse University, 13 November 1983- 18 January, 1984.
- 4. Rico Lebrun: Paintings, Boston, MA: Boston University Art Gallery, April 25- May 23, 1959.
- 5. Schumach, Murray, “Painter Lebrun to Exhibit Sculpture on Coast: California Gallery Will Open Show on Wednesday,” The New York Times Western Edition, January 13, 1964, p. L6.
- 6. Seldis, Henry J., Rico Lebrun (1900-1964), Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5 December 1967- 14 January 1968.
- 7. Seldis, Henry J., Rico Lebrun, Newport Beach, CA: Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor, 1964.
- 8. Seldis, Henry J., Rico Lebrun: Lithographs, Drawings and Paintings, Santa Maria, CA: Allan Hancock College Art Gallery, 12 September- 13 October, 1977.
- 9. Seldis, Henry J., “Rico Lebrun Emerges as Stirring Sculptor,” Los Angeles Times, Sun., January 19, 1964.
- 10. Staff Writer, “Muralist Rico Lebrun Dies at Malibu Home,” Los Angeles Times, Sun., May 10, 1964, sec. B.
- 11. Valentiner, W.R., Rico Lebrun: Paintings and Drawings of the Crucifixion, Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum, Exposition Park, December 1-28, 1950.
IX. WORKS FOR SALE BY THIS ARTIST
Still Life with Watermelons
Study for The Magdalene