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Gertrude Abercrombie

 (1909 - 1977)
Gertrude Abercrombie was active/lived in Illinois, Wisconsin / Germany.  Gertrude Abercrombie is known for surreal imagery, gloves, grapes, hats, block printing.

Gertrude Abercrombie

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Gertrude Abercrombie
Gertrude Abercrombie (February 17, 1909 - July 3, 1977) was an American painter based in Chicago. Called "the queen of the bohemian artists", Abercrombie was involved in the Chicago jazz scene and was friends with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan, whose music inspired her own creative work.

Abercrombie was born on February 17, 1909, in Austin, Texas. Her parents, Tom and Lula Janes Abercrombie, were traveling opera singers who happened to be in Austin on the day of Gertrude's birth. The family lived in Berlin in 1913 to further her mother's career, but the beginning of World War I caused the family to move back to the United States. Upon their return the family lived in Aledo, Illinois before settling in Hyde Park, Chicago in 1916. She was raised in a strict Christian Scientist environment at home.

She earned a degree in Romance Language from the University of Illinois in 1929. After studying figure drawing briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago, she took a year-long course in commercial art at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, leading to her first job drawing gloves for Mesirow Department Store advertisements. She also worked briefly as an artist for Sears. In the mid-1930s she moved out of her family's home and became active in the regional art scene.

In 1940 she married lawyer Robert Livingston, and in 1942 gave birth to their daughter Dinah. In 1948 the couple divorced. That same year she married music critic Frank Sandiford, with Dizzy Gillespie performing at the wedding. The couple were active in the bohemian lifestyle and jazz scene of Chicago hence their connection with Gillespie. They met musicians through Sandiford and through Abercrombie's own skills as an improvisational pianist. The couple would divorce in 1964.

Within Abercrombie's avant-garde social circle she was the inspiration for the song "Gertrude's Bounce" by Richie Powell, who claimed that she walked "just like the way the rhythm sounds in the Introduction", and she appeared as herself in James Purdy's Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue and as a fictional character in Purdy's Malcolm, Eustace Chisholm.

By the late 1950s her health declined due to financial trouble, alcoholism, and arthritis, and she became reclusive. After 1959 her paintings diminished in number as well as scale. She required a wheelchair and was eventually bedridden. In the final year of her life, a major retrospective of her work was held at the Hyde Park Art Center. She died in Chicago July 3, 1977. Her will established the Gertrude Abercrombie Trust which distributed her work and the work of other artists she owned to cultural institutions throughout the Midwest.

While studying at the Institute she began working at a department store drawing gloves for advertisements and in 1932 she began to focus strictly on her art. The following summer she made her first sale at an outdoor art fair in Chicago and received an honorable mention in the newspaper for the event. From 1934-1940 she served as a painter for the Works Progress Administration and in 1934 year the Chicago Society of Artists held a solo show of her work. During the 1930s and 1940s she also began creating woodcuts.

She painted many variations of her favored subjects: sparsely furnished interiors, barren landscapes, self-portraits, and still-lifes. Many compositions feature a lone woman in a flowing gown, often depicted with attributes of sorcery: an owl, a black cat, a crystal ball, or a broomstick. These works were often self-portraits, as she stated in an interview with Studs Terkel shortly before her death: "it is always myself that I paint". Tall and sharp-featured, she considered herself ugly; in life she sometimes wore a pointed velvet hat to accentuate her witch-like appearance, "enjoying the power this artifice gave her over others who would fear or recoil from her". The 1940s and '50s are described as her most prolific and productive period; a time when she no longer painted many portraits, but retained the themes mentioned above.

Abercrombie's mature works are painted in a precise, controlled style. She took little interest in other artists' work, although she admired Magritte. Largely self-taught, she did not regard her lack of extensive formal training as a hindrance. She said of her work:

"I am not interested in complicated things nor in the commonplace. I like and 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."

Her work evolved into incorporating her love for jazz music, inspired by parties and jam sessions she hosted in her Hyde Park home. Musicians such as Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Jackie Cain and the Modern Jazz Quartet were considered friends. Dizzy Gillespie described her "the first bop artist. Bop in the sense that she has taken the essence of our music and transported it to another art form".

Notable collections
    •    Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
    •    Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
    •    Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois
    •    Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, Peoria, Illinois
    •    Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, Wisconsin
    •    Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    •    Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois
    •    Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
    •    Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois

Notable awards & Exhibitons
    •    Prize, Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, 1936;1938, Art Institute of Chicago
    •    Featured prominently in the exhibition "In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012.

"Notable American Women-Gertrude Abercrombie", Wikipedia, (Accessed 9/14/2014)

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Gertrude Abercrombie
Portraits of Chicago Artists by Chicago Artists, Increase Robinson's Studio Gallery, Chicago, 1932
Grant Park Outdoor Art Fair, 1933
Annual Exhibitions, Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, Chicago, 1934, 36, 37.
Annual Exhibitions, Chicago Society of Artists, 1934-37.
Salon des Refuses, Davis Store Galleries, Chicago, 1935
International Water Color Exhibition, AIC, 1940
Traveling Exhibition of the Chicago Society of Artists , 1935-36
Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago and Vicinity Artists, AIC, 1935-1944, 1946-1951, 53, 55, 60, 67
Society for Contemporary American Art, AIC, 1945
Solo, Associated American Artists Gallery, NYC, 1946
Hyde Park Art Fair, Chicago, 1947-ca 1972.
Solo, Chicago Public Library, Art Room,1948.
Contemporary American Painting, 1948-51, U of Illinois, Urbana, 1951.
Solo, various galleries in Chicago, Milwaukee, Aurora, Winnetka (IL), 1952-64.
Solo, Retrospective Exhibition, Hyde Park Art Century, Chicago, 1977.
Gertrude Abercrombie and Friends, Illinois State Museum, Springfield (IL), 1983
Gertrude Abercrombie, State of Illinois Art Gallery (Chicago) and Illinois State Museum (Springfield), 1991
The New Woman in Chicago, 1910-1945: Paintings from Illinois Collections, Rockford (IL) College, Illinois
Art Gallery (Chicago), Illinois State Museum (Lockport), 1993

Joseph Eisendrath Prize, Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago and Vicinity Artists, AIC, 1936
Mr. & Mrs. Frank H. Armstrong Prize, Annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago and Vicinity Artists, AIC, 1938.
William and Bertha Clusmann Prize, AIC, 1946

Chicago Society of Artists, ca 1930s, '40s
Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, c1930s.

Burbank School, Chicago.
Millikin University, Decatur, IL
Private Collection of Powell and Barbara Bridges Collection, Wilmette, IL
Western Ilinois University Art Gallery, Macomb, IL
Illinois State University Gallery, Normal, IL
Lakeview Museum, Peoria, IL.
Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC
U of Illinois (BA, romance languages), Urbana, 1929.
SAIC, 1929
American Academy of Art, Chicago, 1929

Related To/Associated With:
Friend of Thornton Wilder
Friend of Dizzy Gillespie
Friend of Billie Holliday
Friend of artist Karl Priebe

Other Occupations:
WPA/Federal Art Project, 1934-40
Commercial artist, Mesirow department store, Chicago, 1931

Falk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who in American Art 1898 to 1947. Madison, CN: Soundview Press, 1985.
Gertrude Abercrombie.
Greenhouse, Wendy. Chicago Painting, 1895-1945: The Bridges Collection. Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1999.
Illinois State Museum. Gertrude Abercrombie and Friends,/em>. Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1983.
Illinois State Museum. The Emergence of Modernism in Illinois 1914-1940. Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1976.
Smith, Kent and Susan Weininger. Gertrude Abercrombie: an exhibition. Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1991.
Weininger, Susan. "Gertrude Abercrombie." Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Yochim, Louise Dunn. Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists. Chicago: The Society, 1979.

Illinois Women's Artists Project

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Gertrude Abercrombie
Gertrude Abercrombie, a Chicago painter also deeply involved in jazz music, has worked with highly personal surreal images.  She was a prominent surrealist in the 1930s through the 1950s in Chicago.  She argued that technique was not as important as ideas and developed a style emulating naive artists.

The tone of her paintings is foreboding and references the real and the imaginary with many of them intended as self portraits.  For many years she was associated with a group of artists who focused on depictions of their fantasies.

Her family, members of the Christian Science Church, was wealthy, lived on the North Shore of Lake Michigan, and was highly respectable---something she rebelled against.  She first married a successful lawyer and then divorced him and married a jazz musician, Frank Sandiford, at a ceremony where Dizzy Gillespie provided the music.

For many years, Saturday night sessions at her home in Hyde Park attracted entertainers such as Gillespie, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn and writers including Thornton Wilder.  She also spent much time communicating with the Wisconsin Surrealist artists led by Marshall Glasier, and was part of much visiting back and forth of these artists between Madison and Chicago.

She was primarily a self-taught artist but studied commercial art briefly at the University of Illinois.  In the 1930s, she worked on the Federal Art Project.

Some of her paintings were included in the Madison Art Center exhibit "Surreal Wisconsin" in the summer of 2000.

Charlotte Rubinstein, American Women Artists

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About  Gertrude Abercrombie

Born:  1909 - Austin, Texas
Died:   1977 - Chicago, Illinois
Known for:  surreal imagery, gloves, grapes, hats, block printing