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 Chester "Chet" Lyle Engle  (1918 - 1994)

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Lived/Active: California/Illinois      Known for: portrait, figure-genre, landscape painting, illustration

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Chet Engle is primarily known as Chester "Chet" Lyle Engle

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Chet Engle
An example of work by Chet Engle
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Chet Engle (American Artist 1918 - 1994)

He was born in Illinois in 1918.  Had he a choice, he probably would have made his birthplace Zanzibar, Capri, or some other romantic place.  He had a reasonably normal childhood, except that his family moved about the Midwest quite a bit.  His father sold advertising for newspapers, and occasionally did layout for the ads; so from the time Chet was very young, he had drawing materials available.  And, early on, he has an interest in drawing and painting.  Even as a child, he spent considerable time roaming about the art museums in Midwestern cities where he lived.  He was fascinated with the paintings of the Flemish, Dutch, and Italian Renaissance painters.  Their influence is evident in his work.  He taught himself quite a thorough history of art through these museum trips, and by reading art history.  He was always interested in the history of man, and art is an important part of man’s development.

Before entering the army, Chet worked in advertising on newspapers and did freelance art work, while he continued to paint subjects of his own choice.  Chet met Marian Jolliffe, his first wife, during this time.  Marian was teaching art in public schools.  Their individual approach to painting was different and they were able to teach each other a great deal.  They both attended a term at the Academy of Art in Chicago just before Chet was inducted into the Army.

During the war, Chet was stationed at Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan.  He was in charge of personnel for the station hospital.  Marian supposed the reason that he was never transferred was that his bookkeeping methods were very accurate and yet so personal that no one else could interpret his books.  Chet and Marian married in 1941 and took an apartment in Battle Creek, so he was able to live off the post.  They had a studio and Chet painted evenings and weekends.  During this time, he painted a great many portraits of soldiers.  He had a system.  The subject came home to dinner with Chet and after dinner and a short period of relaxation, Chet started to work.  He worked directly in oil without any preliminary sketches.  He would work from about seven o’clock until midnight painting the subject’s head.  In the meantime, Marian would sketch the uniform and next Marian would paint it in.  And as soon as the paint was dry, the soldier had a portrait to send to his family.  Prices varied according to rank – a private paying the least amount.  This work was wonderful training for Chet, as he had to get a likeness of the subject immediately because he did not have time to rework the painting.

The army hired a civilian artist to set up a center to encourage men to paint in their spare time.  He was Sidney Seely, a former art teacher from nearby Western University, and a fine artist. He soon discovered that there were many fine artists in the army.  So a program which might have degenerated into a hobby center soon became nationally known for its exhibitions.  It was with this group that Chet first began to exhibit paintings in the leading art museums of the country.  Critics called his work “poetic surrealism, magic realism, etc.”  The paintings done during this period were mostly egg tempera, and were moody and tragic, as this was Chet’s reaction to war and the army.  Most of these paintings sold from the exhibitions.  Chet had only meager records of the owners, and only a few newspaper prints of some of the paintings.

At this time, too, Chet began to enter competitive regional and national exhibitions.  Both Chet and Marian exhibited at the Michigan Annual Show at the Detroit Institute of Art several times. For a number of years, Chet showed at the American Water Color Exhibition that used to be one of the big events at the Chicago Art Institute.  His paintings were always chosen each year to tour the leading art museums of the country.  Several sold from these shows.  He also entered exhibitions at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Ohio, several times and the Butler Museum Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio.  He won a first prize there in 1943.  Also in 1943, some of his paintings were exhibited in the National Gallery, London, England with an army show. That show was later hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Two of his paintings sold from that show.  Other army shows were hung at the Museum of Modern Art, and at all the leading art museums of the country.  In 1943, too, the group published a book of paintings, called “As Soldiers See it.”  The book received good reviews on the art pages of all the newspapers.  A quote from Iris Barry of the New York Herald, “Chet Engle’s The Source packs as much magic realism as anything ever hung at the Museum of Modern Art.”

During Chet’s four years in the army, Chet and Marian met a very unusual woman, who decorated many of the beautiful homes of central Michigan.  She was well educated in the arts and the social graces.  Her clients depended on her judgment not only in furnishing their homes, but in buying art.  She was fond of Chet and felt he had a great future in painting.  She made those war years pleasant for Chet and Marian by seeing that they met the right people and by selling a great many painting for them.  She arranged commissions for both Chet and Marian, and sold his war paintings and most of the watercolors that Marian painted during that time.  She made it all seem so easy that they assumed it would always be easy to sell paintings.  They were saddened by the loss of their friend and missed her very much when she was killed in an automobile accident a few years later.

After Chet was released from the army, he and Marian traveled to Los Angeles where he enrolled at Art Center School.  There he studied with Stanley Reckless, Lorser Feitelson, and Edward Kaminsky for three years.  He also continued to work on paintings, and showed at the Los Angeles and Vicinity Annual Show at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, the American Annual Show at the Chicago Art Institute, and was a tour winner in the Pepsi-Cola 5th Annual.  Homer Saint-Gaudens saw Chet’s painting in the Chicago show and invited him to exhibit in the Carnegie Invitation Exhibition of American Painting in 1949.  That year, too, he won the $1000 first prize in the California State Fair Show.  He painted portraits, completed some commissioned paintings, and created some work for advertising agencies.

Up until this time he had not had to cope with the buyer who wants a painting to match her living room, and Chet and Marian sorely missed the woman who sold their work in Battle Creek.  Early on, they had decided that they would not live the hand to mouth existence that many artists endure, so they began to look around for various outlets for their art work.  About this time, Chet began to do promotional painting for Lockheed.  He sold the company the idea that it would be profitable to present a painting with large aeronautical sales rather than a model or other commercial gimmick.  These paintings were large oils usually 32 x 40 inches and beautifully framed for exhibitions.  The portraits are of particular planes flying over the environment where they would fly.  He did considerable research for these paintings, and had complete freedom to create a work of art.  The company especially did not want a commercial rendering.  He learned to paint an airplane like a jewel.  These paintings now hang in airline offices, in government buildings, military installations of our country and our allies all over the world.  Several hang in the Pentagon, and Chet received letters from many famous people expressing their thanks and appreciation for having received a painting.  He painted two portraits for the National Air Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.  One is of Jacqueline Cochran, the other of Colonel Charles Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier.  The Congressional Record for June 8, 1965 records the remarks of the Honorable Jennings Randolph in which he notes the presentation of these two portraits “painted by the noted artist, Chet Engle," to the Smithsonian Institution.  Chet also has paintings in the National Archives.  Prints of his paintings have appeared in a great many publications.

Early in 1957 Chet began an affiliation with the Cowie Galleries in Los Angeles.  He had a one-man show there in 1958.  In the fall of 1959 and again March of 1961, Chet had one-man shows at Manhattan Galleries in Pasadena.  In October of 1963 he had one-man show at Maxwell Galleries in San Francisco.

Marian passed away in 1976.  Chet continued to live and paint in Sherman Oaks.  He would often travel to visit Margery and Donald King in Northern California, near Manchester.  The Kings owned a vacation home there where they invited friends to join them.  During a visit, Chet met Dorothy Merrell.  She was a friend of the Kings and often visited them. Chet and Dorothy married in 1981.  They sold their respective homes in Sherman Oaks and Montclair (Oakland). They built a home with a studio in Irish Beach (Manchester) overlooking the Pacific Ocean where Chet continued to paint.  Many of his paintings depict this area.

About Chet’s Paintings
Chet’s early paintings were mostly in egg tempera and casein, but his interest in texture soon led him to oil.  He used copal painting mediums and varnishes to give rich lustrous color to his work, paintings were done on masonite panels covered with many coats of gesso.  He preferred this ground to canvas because he liked to create his own textures rather than be influenced by the weave of the canvas.  A painting done on firm ground is less vulnerable to damage too.  His rich color was achieved by many glazes.  This is a long process, so he had several paintings in process at one time.  His palette had no limitations except that he kept in mind the chemistry of his pigments, so that his paintings would stay brilliant in color and sound in medium.  His style and method of work evolved mostly through his own study and experimentation.  Critics like to put labels on artists.  Most of them call his work “magic realism or poetic surrealism.”  To Chet, a painting seldom came alive unless there was a figure in it.  He used figures in many ways.  However, the moods are similar, and express his philosophy that each person no matter how close he is to people around him, has a core of " loneness."  This "loneness" involves thoughts and feelings that can never be completely shared with anyone else.  Many people fear this "loneness" and constantly seek other people in an effort to escape it.  Others enjoy it, and realize that this is the real essence of their individuality.  These are the ones who like Chet’s paintings.  But there is something a little pensive about the mood.  Whether Chet painted a pretty girl looking in a mirror, a lonely figure in an old western town, a small figure in an open landscape, or statue, or even a clown, the realization of "loneness" is in the expression or gesture of the figure and in the source of the light.  It even seems to be in the buildings, trees, and mountains.

Chet had a wide range of interests, which are necessary to an artist if he is to portray or interpret anything of much importance.  Fortunately his interest in fine music, literature, philosophy, history, science, etc. as well as painting was natural.  As soon as an idea began to germinate, it could take days, weeks, even months until he could decide how best to portray it.  This is much like a stage director deciding where to place his characters, set the props, and what backdrop to use.  Much of his imagination came from the natural beauty of the west, and the first efforts of building here.  But he also enjoyed working out new approaches to Greek and Roman mythology; interpreting the poetry of William Shakespeare, Robison Jeffers, and Dylan Thomas.  Sometimes the inspiration came from the great classic composers.  No matter what the subject, Chet tried to give his paintings a feeling of timelessness or universality, so that should they survive this age, they would still keep the mood he intended.

Selected Exhibitions:
The following are some of the public museums and art institutes where Chet’s paintings have been exhibited.
London National Gallery, London England
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, Illinois
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
Carnegie Institute of Fine Art, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (Invitational Show)
Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit Michigan
National Academy of Design, New York City
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
Butler Art Institute, Youngstown, Ohio
California State Fair Gallery, Sacramento, CA  (First Prize)
Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA
Milwaukee Institute of Art, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York
Kalamazoo Art Institute, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Battle Creek Arboretum Gallery, Battle Creek, Michigan
Taos Art Gallery, Taos, New Mexico
Challis Galleries, Laguna Beach, CA

One-man Shows:
Cowie Gallery, Los Angeles, California
Manhattan Gallery, Pasadena, California
Maxell Gallery, San Francisco, California

Two portraits hang in the permanent collection of the National Air Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC:
Jacqueline Cochran
Colonel Charles Yeager
One Painting in the National Archives in Washington D.C.
One Painting hangs in the permanent collection of the State of California in Sacramento.

Listed in Who’s Who in American Art, 1976

1963 Biography from Maxwell Galleries, San Francisco, CA (One-man Show October 7 – 26, 1963)

Chet Engle is a native of Danville, Illinois, now living in Southern California. He began his art studies in Chicago at the American Academy of Art, and later in Los Angeles at Art Center. Since finishing his schooling, he has exhibited widely throughout this country and abroad. Some of his exhibitions include the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as the Los Angeles County Museum.

A lover of the outdoors, he and his wife (Marian Jolliffe) spend much of their time exploring the remote areas of California, Nevada, and Arizona, gathering material for his paintings. This interest and invaluable knowledge of the human figure combine to give his paintings a super realism, rarely found in contemporary paintings. His technical ability is only equaled by his power to create mood. By placing his figure in remote landscapes and building dramatic lights and textures, the viewer is invited to participate in the painting.

1957 Biography from a Challis Gallery Show, Laguna Beach, CA

Chet Engle, a native of Illinois, is now living in Southern California. He began his art studies at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and later at Art Center in Los Angles. He has exhibited extensively throughout the United States and abroad. Some of his more important shows include representation at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Chicago Art Institute, the National Gallery in London, England, as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mr. Engle is a painter of moods, often pensive and provocative. Chet and his wife (Marian Jolliffe) spend much of their time exploring the remote areas of California, Nevada, and Arizona gathering material for his works. Old mining towns, desert, mountains, and the sea become a backdrop for the human figure around which he creates dramatic lighting effects, colors, and textures. Each painting invites the viewer to participate in its story.

The many awards he has won have assured Chet Engle a permanent place in American Art.

Biographical information submitted by Peggy Watson. This information is gathered from a biography written by Marion Jolliffe Engle, Chet’s first wife. The biography was published as part of a gallery showing at the Taos Art Gallery, Taos, NM.  Copies of the show brochure were obtained from his 2nd wife, Dorothy M. Engle. Additional biographies are from two shows in which Chet participated. Peggy Watson is a personal friend of Dorothy and had access to the show brochures. Dorothy passed away in March 2010.

These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
Chester “Chet” Lyle Engle was born in Illinois on June 25, 1918.  He died in Mendocino, CA on October 8, 1994. 

Exh:  Art Institute of Chicago, 1944, 1949.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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