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 Morton Livingston Schamberg  (1881 - 1918)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: cubist images-machines, photographer

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Morton Livingston Schamberg
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (Landscape with Bridge)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Trained both as an architect and painter, Morton Schamberg lived a short but productive life, and earned a reputation for being a visionary who foresaw machines as both dehumanizing and contributing to good living.   Throughout his life, he was fascinated by what he perceived as beauty in their shapes and lines, and in 1916 began a series of still lifes paintings of machine objects.  He was also an accomplished photographer, concentrating primarily on portrait subjects.

Schamberg was born in Philadelphia and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and beginning 1903, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  At the Academy, he was a student of William Merritt Chase and was best friends with Charles Sheeler, future Precisionist painter with whom Schamberg later shared painting and photography studios in Philadelphia and Doylestown.  Chase regarded Sheeler and Schamberg as favorite students and later went to Europe with Schamberg, traveling with him in Spain, Holland and France.  However, when these former students began exploring abstraction, Chase was appalled and became so distraught that he got to the point of never speaking again to either one of them.

As a mature painter, Schamberg was a modernist who reflected his interest in machines through Cubist imagery.  From avant-garde styles he observed in Paris such as Fauvism and Synchromism, he did color-rich abstract landscape paintings.

He devoted his career to both painting and photography, earning a living much of the time as a photographer.  Alfred Stieglitz, New York photographer and promoter of modernist styles, was a key person in urging Schambert to express his art talents through photography.  Experimenting with new techniques, Schamberg became the first photographer to use a silver paper screen for a background to achieve many subtle effects of light and shade.

He traveled abroad several times, and in 1910 discovered modernist art in Paris where he was specially influenced by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse.   These artists espoused Cubism and Fauvism, and their influence and that of other avant-garde painters re-directed Schamberg away from the influence of his former teacher, Chase, and from Impressionism that had gained a strong hold in America.  Schamberg also experimented with Synchromism and Precisionism.

Returning to Philadelphia, he depicted abstracted human figures, experimenting with color planes.  By 1915, he was painting landscapes and doing bold color canvases.  His work, influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, became increasingly abstract and hard-edged and experimental.  He did assemblage, and in 1916 created God, which was made from plumbing pipes and was one of the first examples in America of Dada-style sculpture.

He also assembled Philadelphia's first modern art exhibitions.  In 1913, he exhibited paintings at the 1913 New York Armory Show, which for many Americans was their first exposure to abstract art.  Schamberg seemed quite enthusiastic for this exhibition.  Upon receiving an invitation to that exhibition, he wrote to fellow artist Walter Pach:  "It is rather funny as I have just gotten to the point where I don't care whether anyone sees my pictures for years to come . . . However, this thing sounds as though it might be worth while."  (Brown 64).  His Armory-Show entries included three figures and a landscape.

In the flu epidemic of 1918, Morton Schamberg died.  He had "promise as one of America's foremost modernists" (Zellman 770) but his life was cut short.  His funeral was on his 37th birthday.


Sources:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, S-Z):
The tragedy of Morton Schamberg’s early death at the age of 37, succumbing to the influenza pandemic, has often overshadowed discussions of his artwork. In a posthumous exhibition of the artist’s work in 1919, the art historian Walter Pach looks beyond the artist’s biography to the works themselves as testimonies of an already successful career: “the pictures before us are a record of achievement. They add something to the world’s sources of thought and happiness, and so, from one standpoint, they pass from the category of the experimental into that of the creative, the definitive.”(1) Indeed, Schamberg’s work exerted an important influence on the early history of American vanguard art, fusing inspirations from a variety of sources into the evolution of a distinct artistic style.

Born in Philadelphia on October 15, 1881, Schamberg was the youngest of four children. He grew up in a household of relatives on Broad Street following his mother’s early death. From 1899 to 1903 he attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating as a Bachelor of Architecture. Schamberg entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1903, remaining there until 1906. He formed a close friendship with Charles Sheeler--both coming to the attention of William Merritt Chase, one of their instructors--and they were among his student group to join up for summer tours to Europe from 1902 to 1904 to study the old masters. In 1906 Schamberg departed for Paris, and it was during this time that he absorbed the European vanguard developments.

The artist’s landscape paintings, in particular, exhibit hallmarks of his early style: loose painterly brushwork, a vivid explosion of color, rhythmic composition, and a break away from naturalism. Having studied under William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Schamberg and his friend and fellow student Charles Sheeler traveled to Europe in an exploration of Old Masters and avant-garde developments. France, especially, captivated the young artist, who was inspired by Paul Cézanne’s structured compositions, Vincent Van Gogh’s energetic brushstrokes, and the Fauves’ experimental and non-naturalist use of color.

After returning stateside, the artist and his friend Sheeler rented a house in rural Doylestown to paint on weekends; they often took their bucolic setting as the subject for paintings, and produced numerous meditations on the theme. During this period, Schamberg’s paintings were beginning to attract attention: he had a solo exhibition at the McClees Gallery, Philadelphia, and was receiving local press. In 1913, Arthur B. Davies invited the artist to contribute five paintings to the Armory Show. Following his participation in the landmark exhibition, he exhibited in a group show at the Montross Gallery in New York. A vocal proponent of avant-garde aesthetics, Schamberg persuaded gallery owner James McClees to exhibit a group of pictures from the Armory Show in "Philadelphia’s First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art—"a courageous act in view of McClees’ friendship with William Merritt Chase and Chase’s antipathy to this controversial art. (Following Sheeler’s and Schamberg’s participation in the Armory Show, Chase never spoke to his former students again.)
Influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, whose acquaintance he made at the Arensberg salon in New York in 1916, Schamberg turned to the machine for inspiration, predating Sheeler’s Precisionist works by five years. The artist was also a pioneer in photography; although he and Sheeler had initially adopted the medium as a source of income, Schamberg produced some of the earliest photographs of the modern industrial city, and was one of the first to use a silvered background to reflect muted light.

Unlike many artists who die young, Schamberg’s works were collected during his lifetime. The prescient patrons of American modernism, Walter Arensberg and John Quinn, both acquired Schamberg’s paintings for their collections.

1. Walter Pach, “The Schamberg Exhibition,” "The Dial 66" (17 May 1919): 505, cited in William C. Agee, "Morton Livingston Schamberg: Color and Evolution of his Paintings" (Washington, D.C.: Board of the Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1984), n.p.

© Copyright 2012 Hollis Taggart Galleries

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Morton Schamberg is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
New York Armory Show of 1913
Fauves/Fauvism
Modernism

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