|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Charles Henry Fromuth was born February 23, 1858, the oldest of nine children, to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Germany. His father Caspar, after several failed years seeking gold in California, married a woman named Christiana Freund. The couple settled in Philadelphia in 1866, where Caspar worked in a carpet factory. Philadelphia was rapidly being transformed into an industrial city, its growing factories fed by waves of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, Poland, Greece, and Germany. Many of these workers moved into the 19th Ward. There the Fromuths settled in a row house at 2101 North Front Street at Diamond Street. Their home was near city refuse dumps, brick factories, and weedy abandoned fields soon to be swallowed by factories and identical brick row houses, distinguishable from one another only by a number. |
Charles Fromuth recalled a melancholic childhood, deprived of aesthetic stimulus. Two tracks ran down Front Street for steam trams, a feature that transformed the street into a commercial thoroughfare, with shops and saloons occupying the first floors of many buildings. Noise was continuous until late at night. By the time young Fromuth left Philadelphia, the family house was the only noncommercial house on the street. Shade trees could only be found bordering the sidewalks of nearby Norris Square. As a young boy Charles watched with horror as the sugar maples were chopped down because they encroached on the street line. An army barracks occupied a large clunk of land nearby.
Fromuth’s earliest memory was of the end of the Civil War: animated argumentations, soldier uniforms, planting flagpoles, cannon firing around vacant land around me with the stars and stripes hoisted upon every home and then suddenly within a week every habitation draped in black . . . My father’s newspaper appeared with a pictorial image, my first encounter with such a thing. It was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with a thick black border. My age was seven years, with scissors I cut out this portrait and have preserved it since. In that April 1865 I awoke to observations of hearing and seeing and when summer came upon the heated land of weeds and ponds with brick yards about, sight and hearing . . . began seriously to attract my attention. The singing of grass hoppers in the weeds on a hot day, the frogs in the ponds at night, a distant locomotive whistled in the night were to me sounds mysteriously melancholic while my sight curiously was attracted by the makers of bricks and their building of kilns for making them. I also began that summer observing sunset glories invading this daylight poverty to which I was fated.*
At age fifteen, after seven years of school, Fromuth got a job in a carpet factory as a card stamper. He had to arise at 5:30 in the morning to catch a horse-drawn tram to Germantown and would only return home at seven in the evening. He had been drawing from the age of nine and felt his artistic bent would lead to a position designing carpets, but that plum job was awarded to a member of the factory owner’s family. Discouraged, Fromuth left to become apprenticed to a lithographer. But the establishment burned to the ground, and after futile efforts to find another apprentice job in the field, Fromuth discussed the situation with his old boss, who suggested that he enter the new Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which did not charge tuition.
Fromuth had visited the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition several times and studied the fine art exhibition, but what most impressed him was Thomas Eakins’s (1844–1916) Gross Clinic (1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), which had been exiled to a field hospital mock-up because of the shocking blood and scalpel in the portrait. It was with surprise that he learned that Eakins was the teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy, when he was admitted to its life class in January 1880. His four years of instruction under Eakins constituted a rich gift that Fromuth would remember with reverence his entire life. Rather than spending a year sketching antique casts in charcoal, as was regimen at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Eakins’s students were introduced immediately to painting in oil. The nude model was to be treated plastically; as Fromuth wrote, “his theory of instruction was a sculptural one, that is a plastic sense applied at once with brush and pigments and [to] build up a figure on sculptural line and apparent contours.”
Dissection of human corpses was part of the curriculum, with Dr. Keen acting as anatomist. A year after enrolling, Fromuth became assistant demonstrator of anatomy. Horse dissection was also mandated. Eakins encouraged his students’ originality, insisting on anatomical accuracy, but not stifling one’s creative bent. When a student felt stymied, Eakins would tell him to go study the plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze—not copy them, just study them. Fromuth spent four years of night and day classes at the Academy. His painting The Soldier’s Widow (private collection) won the Toppan Prize in 1884 and brought him the not inconsequential sum of $200. He fell in love with a fellow student, Miss Dohn, one of the “Western girls” from Chicago, with whom he attended a lecture by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904). When Miss Dohn returned home, the agonizing heartbreak from this romance was allayed by her letters from Chicago. Fromuth attended a ball once in Greek costume and posed so attired, as well as nude, for photographs made by Eakins and fellow students.
Always eager to see collections, Fromuth was acquainted with the very fine Gibson Collection in Philadelphia, where he found Jean-Francois Millet (1814–1875) and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875) the most appealing painters. He visited New York to see the Vanderbilt and August Belmont collections.
After leaving the Academy, Fromuth worked on portraits of his brother and his father in charcoal, a medium he had not worked in at the Academy. When he showed a portrait of his father to Eakins, he said, “Fro, you surprise me, you are producing in portraiture something with the penetrating tendencies of Rembrandt.” But landscape interested him more, and he spent many dawns and twilights catching the effects of raking light in oil paintings, produced in forty-minute time spans.
The realistic novel Guenn, a Wave off the Coast of Brittany, written in the early 1880s by Blanche Howard in the studio of the American artist Edward Emerson Simmons (1852–1931) at Concarneau, France, had lured many an American art student to that town. The novel was based on Simmons, his artist milieu, and his Breton model, a teenage girl who bid on the sardine catch as it arrived in port. Fromuth wrote in his diary that the novel Guenn inspired him to go to France. With a project offered by Henry B. McCarter (1866–1942), a fellow student at the Academy with whom he had shared a studio, Fromuth managed to save enough money to realize his dream. McCarter had garnered a commission to build a vast replica of the Philadelphia Centennial and asked William Miller and Fromuth to join the effort. The pay of twenty dollars a week over thirteen months yielded a good nest egg. With his earnings supplemented by a donation from his brother William, Fromuth had the sum of $1,200 to launch his trip. (McCarter applied his own earnings to the same goal and wound up assisting Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864–1901] in painting murals in a Paris brothel). Fromuth wrote that he had inverted Horace Greeley’s adage, “Go west, young man,” to “Go east, young man.” He never regretted his reverse emigration. The rapid changes to his neighborhood and the shrunken lives of its inhabitants, the ugliness of industrialization, and the limited support for the arts in a city that refused to recognize its greatest artist, Eakins, would leave Fromuth with a lifelong impulse to avoid commercial enterprise, including art dealers. He would come to regard Americans as generally money-grubbers with philistine tastes.
In 1889 Fromuth sailed to Amsterdam to see works by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). The Rijksmuseum proved a revelation to the American: the Rembrandts exceeded his expectations and brought tears to his eyes. He discovered Frans Hals (1580–1666) and was struck by the naturalness of the portraits, the lack of pretense and bombast in the Dutch masters who could render fruit and flowers with a wondrous plasticity. He visited Haarlem, Leyden, Delft, the Hague, Rotterdam, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels, looking at museums and churches. But he had to hurry to Paris to see the Exposition Internationale before it closed.
“Paris,” he wrote, “capital of art, culture, elegance!”
A perspective organized marvel of infinite variety and animation everywhere in her innumerable highway arteries alive with people and I reflected how our cities animation was reduced to one main street in Philadelphia, New York and Washington . . . Traveling Paris in a cab at night from north to south to my destination through innumerable highways I found them all brilliantly illuminated and animated by a pleasure loving people with the wherewith of attractive enjoyments everywhere at hand. This people love the open air life day and night and the liberal freedom allowed to a boisterous manifestation of the joys of life offered and this was Sunday night! What a comparison with our dead Sundays . . . I saw many groups of young people carrying lanterns singing, back in Paris from a gay Sunday excursion in the country. I realized I was in the most beautiful and cosmopolitan attractive city in the world.
Visiting the Exposition Internationale’s contemporary art exhibition, Fromuth found the academic contemporary works uninspiring, and he could find no pictures in the impressionist vein which he had vaguely heard about. But the retrospective exhibition of nineteenth-century French painting rewarded him with works by Millet, Corot, Theodore Rousseau (1812–1867), and Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863). The Louvre Museum proved more enticing. Fromuth spent a month in that cold, dimly lit palace, studying its marvels. Staying from opening to closing time he would bring prunes, two buttered rolls, and a bottle of wine for lunch to be eaten in a dark corner out of view of guards. This experience, however, confused him, and for a while afterward he found he made the mistake of abandoning Eakins’s methods.
In deciding to study at the Académie Julien, Fromuth was forced to abandon that method. The old building contained a series of interlocking atelier rooms presided over by various masters. How superbly designed, well-lit, and modern the Pennsylvania Academy was in comparison to this rat hole! Fromuth chose the atelier of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) because it was nearest the stair in case of fire and offered two nude models instead of one. In the smoke-filled room with its tiers of easels and walls smeared with paint scrapings, he drew the model, but the atelier’s academic method was wholly different from what he had been taught. The model was to be drawn in a week starting at the top of the head, linearly, with the student slowly working downward to the feet. “So I drew according to my education and . . . was most mercilessly criticized by Bouguereau who said ‘where did you learn to draw like that’ and demanded that I draw from the cast.” After a month of cast drawing he was allowed back in the atelier, but at the end of his prepaid six months of instruction Fromuth left Paris for Brittany. It was July 1890.
Brittany was much cheaper than Paris and was the favored summer retreat of art students seeking a country motif to work up as a painting for prospective acceptance to the Salon the following spring. Peasants were still a popular subject, and the art colonies of Pont-Aven, Concarneau and Duarnanez had plenty of Bretons willing to pose cheaply as models. But Fromuth found peasants an overworked genre.
The Pont-Aven colony had been founded in the 1860s by the artist Robert Wylie (1839–1877), formerly a curator at the earlier Pennsylvania Academy building. He moved as an expatriate to that Breton town, formed a secret liaison with his landlady, Mlle. Julia, and attracted a number of American painters who clustered around his charismatic figure. Wylie died of consumption in Pont-Aven in 1877. Mlle. Julia, however, always remained protective of artists, and expanded her hotel, making its new annex the tallest building in the town. Concarneau became an art sketching ground for Russians in the 1860s, but Americans and English soon discovered it. By the time Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) arrived in 1886, baseball games between teams of American artists in Pont-Aven and Concarneau had become a spectator sport for the local Bretons.
Fromuth chose Concarneau with its ever-present aroma of rotting sardines (dubbed “Sardineopolis”). The town’s main feature was its original medieval town, the walled Ville Close, situated on a small island connected to the town square by a short bridge. “When I came the old treatment was in power and controlled by the Salon, but some youths were Impressionists, and Gauguin at Pont-Aven, or rather, Pouldu—unknown—was evolving a contre impressionism or symbolism.”
When he rented a room at the Hotel de France from Mme. Coatalen that first rainy week of his arrival, Fromuth never dreamed that the hotel would be his home for the next forty-five years. Mme. Coatalen was a good cook and was willing to rent on credit. For the next twenty-five years Fromuth’s thriftiness permitted him to live there on one hundred francs a month. This included his art materials, frames, meals, studio rental, and his favorite tipple absinthe, which he drank every evening at a café. In lean years, when there were no sales, Mme. Coatalen would extend credit for as long as two years! She found him a studio nearby at No. 7, Avenue Thiers. The building was owned by M. Hascouet, a carver and frame maker who produced many of the frames for Fromuth’s works. Over the years Fromuth added three skylights to the structure.
The landscape on the south coast of Brittany offered many picturesque walking paths, called chemin creux, flanked by walls overgrown by vegetation. Fromuth delighted in walking along these paths, trap on his back, to his painting sites, admiring and noting the different species of trees, particularly pleased by the magnolias and palms that survived in that moist, temperate climate. He produced a number of landscapes in oil. In 1893 he bicycled to Barbizon to paint there. This excursion was followed by a bicycle trip in England later that year.
Fromuth’s main focus, however, was boats: fishing boats in the port, beached in the mud at low tide, immobilized, perfect for study of their “anatomy.” Eakins had drawn exhaustive perspective diagrams of reflective angles of water, and had drummed into his students the necessity of perfection in perspective. Fromuth was familiar with the rowing pictures and the importance of proper perspective in rendering a boat. With his methodical bent, he conquered the problem by spending three years rendering boats.
In 1895 all six charcoals he submitted of the harbor of Concarneau were accepted for exhibition by the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris at the Champs de Mars Salon and given a coveted place “on the line” in the exhibition. His ten oils were rejected, however, leading him to concentrate further on charcoal and in the same year, on pastel. Pastel as a medium was gaining popularity toward the end of the century, but ignorant of this, Fromuth had passed up the exhibition of works in pastel at the Exposition Internationale. Pastels were cheaper than oil and offered a more immediate result. Given that his subject was illusive and constantly moving—sardine and tuna boats bobbing, their sails blowing by wind, water with its constantly moving ripples, changing reflections in the water, fishermen in constant motion. Quick action was required for such a difficult and ever challenging subject. Having studied the “anatomy” of beached boats for some time, his mastery allowed him to portray them in the water with a quick facility and great assurance.
In his diary Fromuth wrote:
Having acquired an acquisition of matter with the harbor of reflective reports, I began my attack again in charcoal at the sea pier capturing notations of all the sailing tactics to which winds or no winds, the ebb and flow of the tides yet offered a supplementary sailing complication of zigzag sailing because of rock heads, for the coast is rock ribbed. It was after six years of preoccupation within the harbor that I attacked the sea sailing problem. In those times a fleet of about 800 boats daily came sailing in loaded with sardines from 10 a.m. till evening and when winds were favorable they came in for many hours according to the catching luck but in case of a sea storm interruption it became a continuous procession from off the pier for me of a chase for home and shelter.
There was also the problem of anchoring the easel on the stone quay against winds, the jostling of passing fishermen, sprays, and sudden showers. Water spots will ruin a pastel. Fromuth devised a cotton sling with ballast, which he fastened to the lower part of his easel. On the upper part metal rods held a hood that shielded the paper from sun and rain. His array of pastels he kept in a shallow aluminum tray with a cloth cover.
Mme. Coatalen, Fromuth’s kind landlady, died of consumption in the 1890s. The Hotel de France was bought by M. and Mme de Bris who didn’t even raise the pension and who came to treat Fromuth as a member of the family.
In 1896 Fromuth was elected an associate member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and that same year received an invitation to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At last he had hit his stride in the art world. In 1897 he exhibited a picture of snow on boats at the Cincinnati Museum Association and was represented in the exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York, as well as the International Kunstaustellung in Munich where he won a gold medal, second class. That same year he exhibited at the St. Louis Exposition and the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where he continued to exhibit for a number of years. Later on, in 1905, Fromuth won the gold medal at the International Exhibition in St. Louis.
The fishing season from early July through October overlapped the artists’ season. This was the time Fromuth received visits in his Concarneau studio from fellow artists and tourists. As a year-round fixture Fromuth was no recluse and enjoyed the friendship of fellow expatriate American artist John H. Recknagel (1870–1940) and the Russian artist Emile Benediktoff Hirschfeld (1867–1922) and his wife Emmy. His American friends called him “Fro,” the Europeans called him “Mut.” He took an automobile trip around Brittany with the Florances from America. Fromuth made excursions to nearby Pont-Aven and took long walks to neighboring villages such as Le Pouldu to work on new motifs. He enjoyed visits from his dear Polish artist friend Mela Muttermilch (1876–1967). In 1912 he wrote:
Mela Muttermilch my beautiful Polish friend and talented artist came here to see me with a party of seven of her country. As I arrived in the Hotel dining room she ran towards me shouting “Fromuth.” We embraced and kissed, and joyed over our mutual affinities. Nature just threw off her finest day. Arm in arm we visited the harbor, fortifications, beach and my studio. Admiration and all eyes observed the beautiful woman on my arm. We stopped to greet all the artists our friends all out like mushrooms basking the sunshine painting. New heart pang! O melancholy, what might have been? At 7:23 pm I see them off to Paris.
Constitutionally incapable of promoting himself and suspicious of dealers, Fromuth sold paintings to tourist visitors to his studio, and to artists who knew of him by reputation, some of whom promoted his work. One such dedicated friend was Frits Thaulow (1847–1906), the Norwegian impressionist whom Claude Monet (1840–1926) had visited in Norway. The Canadian James Morrice (1865–1924) was impressed by the marine pastels, as was Fromuth’s Philadelphia expatriate friend Alexander Harrison (1853–1930), a visitor to Concarneau since the early 1880s. Harrison’s sister had posed for Eakins’s Pathetic Song (1881, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
In 1898 Fromuth exhibited La Libre Esthétique with the Les XX group in Brussels at the invitation of Octave Maus, and that same year showed at the “Secession” in Munich and later, the “Secession” Society in Vienna. The following year he became a founding member of the London Pastel Society and exhibited in Reims, France, and Tournai, Belgium, at the Exposition du Cercle Artistique.
Fromuth’s submission to the World’s Fair in Paris, the Exposition Universelle held in 1900, earned him a silver medal, and the same year he exhibited at the Berlin “Secession” and at the International Exposition in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Fromuth in his maturity had developed a unique style, entirely distinguishable from that of any other artist, and in pursuing the multitudinous colors and changing light effects and moods of his motif he continued to refine his approach. Since student days when he had shared a studio with McCarter in Philadelphia, where Japanese prints were pinned to the wall, he had admired Japanese and Chinese art. Not until the exhibition of oriental art at the Trocadéro in 1900 could Fromuth fully revel in the splendors of Asian art. “The art conception of the far east is based upon a marvelous achievement therein but their ancient art has other qualities from the point of view of artistic aesthetics which they carried into realms far beyond our realistic restrictions . . . I confess they possessed a physical conception of land, sea and atmosphere far superior to ours, for as a law regarding nature our output is limited to the hazard of personal observation of each individual artist, accordingly nature is presented [by them] after the humor of thousands of personal insights.” After seeing the exhibition, Fromuth produced a number of works in a long, narrow format with a tilted Japanese perspective and high horizon. In his personal possession was an original manga, a book of black-and-white line prints by Hokusai (1760–1849), many extremely droll, which had belonged to John Lafarge (1835–1910). Though he eagerly absorbed lessons from oriental art and considered it the most refined art ever produced, Fromuth in his own work was never imitative.
During 1901 Fromuth exhibited at the third Berlin “Secession,” the London Pastel Society, and the International Exposition des Beaux-Arts in Dresden. A high point of that year was a visit of the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) and Thaulow to his studio. Fromuth must have felt proud walking with these two artists on the quay, where they admired a spectacular “art mood” in the harbor after enjoying dinner at Mlle. Julia’s hotel in Pont-Aven. Three years later Fromuth in turn visited both Rodin and Thaulow in Paris. The generous Thaulow died just two years later, in 1904, and his death was a real blow to Fromuth, who later wrote:
My thoughts suddenly recall dear colossal Frits Thaulow, dead these three years I think, and already his reputation seems forgotten. What a dear large souled man with a nature as popular as his work! Here was a man unknown to me and in this state he recommended my work, induced sales, and finally called upon me here and bought two of my pastels. Dealers, popularity, and forced production held him to red roofs and running water. To me a year before his death, while dining he confided his fears about his work, his art immoled to dealers. Condor, Morrice, Miller and myself he lifted the first out of obscurity. He talked of my work to Rodin, Carriere, Besnard and others, presented me to Rodin here, in my hotel, proposed a presentation to Georges Petite [sic], howled my name to the Carnegie Institute and the Americans while I modesty waited to do better to accept so worthy an advantage and in the meantime he died.
Winters in Concarneau, after the artists and tourists were gone, could be depressing. Fromuth described the dullness of the winter season: “A melancholy invasion visits my spirits just now. This visitor is familiar in the life experience. The daily sameness of existence, the lack of exhilarating contacts and the harbor’s insignificance at the season and my want of working inspiration in these dark dreary stormy days are causes enough.” in contrast, the height of the summer season, when the harbor was most alive, made the creative juices run; “my harbor has suddenly become dramatically animated by a change of weather—the sky has become a drama of laboring clouds, the waters have an oily fluidity, a rhythmic mobility. Far out on the sea a pressure has arisen whose reports animate the harbor. Everything is afloat and unstable condition from which I extract inspirations.” Fromuth did not always finish a work in situ on the quay, however. Preliminary compositions and impressions could be worked up in the studio. Sometimes impressions from years earlier would be finished inside. What Fromuth hated most was a windless day of cloudless sunlight. No movement, no interesting color effects, no atmosphere. Clouds were portrayed as dramatic forces in the sky but also as beautiful, subtle color reflections off the sea’s surface.
The sale of one of Fromuth’s works to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, through a fortuitous mistake, brought him a large sale price, the Academy having mistaken the 800-franc price on the pastel for 800 dollars. This windfall the artist used on a trip to Italy in 1902 where he passed through the Lake District, Milan, Bologna, and Florence on his way to Venice. There he was joined two Canadian painter friends, Morrice and Maurice Cullen (1866–1934). Ever a connoisseur of water, Fromuth on his first ride down the Grand Canal found it wanting, “dead without animation of color,” but at a later hour he experienced a “fine evening and a wonderful impression, Venice needs the sunset and the night to become really beautiful.” He worked on pastels in Venice and on side trips to Chioggia, which he described as “the most wonderful picturesque place I’ve ever seen in my life,” and to Bragora. Enjoying the cafes in the Piazza San Marco and listening to the orchestras, the three artists were joined by a fourth, the sculptor John Donoghue (1853–1903), who had been a fellow student with Fromuth at the Pennsylvania Academy. In mid-July, after a month in Venice, Fromuth had planned to return to Concarneau, but the lure of that watery city proved too great. His extended stay had a dramatic climax—the crashing collapse of the campanile in the Piazza San Marco. As Fromuth described it, “[I] get up late 9:30 enter St. Mark’s place, look at the tower, the crack has widened . . . I had no thought that the tower was to fall within 10 minutes. I go to take my coffee in the first side street back from St. Mark’s. As I drink it I hear a roar of low thunder. It is the tower. I drop my coffee without paying and rush out against a crowd coming my way in panic . . . all this happened at 9:55 am.” Back in Paris a week later. he wrote, “Since I am back from Venice I feel like a man that has been crossed in love.”
Fromuth exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1906 and 1908. American art institutions, however, soon began to restrict exhibition entries to oil paintings. Frustrated by this narrowness, Fromuth decided to cease submitting to institutions in his native country. Nonetheless, in 1910, persuaded by a fellow artist that American taste and sophistication had grown, he agreed to several one-man shows, at the Folsom Gallery in New York, the Art Club in Philadelphia, the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, and the City Art Museum in St. Louis. This venture caused him bitter disappointment. “Oh the melancholy of my visit to Philadelphia I arrived on the closing day of my exhibition in the Phil. Art Club after a 20 year absence. A general tramway strike was on—no sales—a barbarous gallery artificially lighted, greeted me. A fiendish heated gallery stifled me, heat flues running along the walls upon which the pictures hung causing the wood breaking of the frames, so carefully done, to split.” He received good reviews, including an excellent one in New York that appeared on the last day of the exhibition. The thousand-dollar expense for transportation was a blow, and was presumably borne by his brother August, who had moved to a large estate in Mount Airy.
A consolation to Fromuth was the several months he spent with family at August’s house, which was shared by his mother, two bachelor brothers, and an unmarried sister. One night he visited the old house on North Front Street and in the darkness could not read the house number, so had to count from the end of the block to establish which house it was. In contrast to memories of the ugliness of that childhood neighborhood, Fromuth found August’s Philadelphia suburb, Mount Airy, astonishingly beautiful: “having had experience of comparisons and a summer rambling in Germantown, Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill and the valley of the Wissahican [sic] so near I found the conviction of a respected nature offer of beauty without comparison in America or Europe close to a great city . . . Hedges of rambling rose everywhere, honeysuckle odor at night . . . the consolations of magnificent trees lining the lawns of prosperous occupants.” The artist carried a pad on which he traced the leaves of trees, trees so much larger than those of France. He visited his old master Thomas Eakins, whose wife Susan told him that Eakins had given up hope of ever achieving recognition. Returning to France, Fromuth exhibited at the International Exposition of Art and History in Rome in 1911.
World War I brought changes to the harbor of Concarneau. The fishing fleet still went out—a decent amount of the catch being shipped to Switzerland, where Fromuth surmised it went to feed the German army—but the commercial activity was much reduced. There were German U-boats near the Glennan Islands nearby. Although for years a fixture on the quay, Fromuth did not work as much outdoors during the war. Charcoal he frequently worked in, producing many finished works in this medium.
Fromuth’s technique and use of his preferred medium, pastel, evolved over the years. By 1908 Fromuth had begun manufacturing his own pastels. It saved money and permitted him to achieve a wide gradation of colors. The high oil content of his pastels gave his works the appearance of oil paintings, but he had to work at achieving a consistency in his pastels that was neither too hard nor too soft so as not to impede his swift strokes. By 1915 his palette consisted of 241 colors, all made by himself. In that year he wrote, “I was a lover of low colors. They harmonized naturally. I found pathos and artistic color sympathy. There was something emotive in the retiring scale of colors. Brief—nature suggested my color scales.” This palette changed in the early 1920s when, thoroughly familiar with his subject, he frequently painted from earlier charcoals and studies using a narrower, lighter, and brighter palette, limited to about fifty colors. Now he could create from memory: “I find my powers, such, my memories so stocked that I transport these originals into far more vitality, simplicity and movement than the originals.” These later works are highly expressionistic, distilling the essence of speed, power, wind—all the restless energies of nature. He always tried to capture what he considered the emotive aspect of his subject. In 1923 he wrote, “Today I saw the landscape beset with gems, pearls of moisture like in a nimbus seemed in the desire of festivities while the liquid air was silver lighted.”
By the 1920s Concarneau had also revived as a popular place for painters. With dismay Fromuth eyed the spectacle of dozens of painters on the quay all aiming their easels at his harbor, the harbor to which he had remained faithful for three decades, winter and summer alike. Nevertheless, he was pleased to receive in his studio a group of Pennsylvania Academy students who had learned of his reputation. Fromuth threw a banquet in 1920 celebrating his twenty-fifth year in Concarneau. His artist guests included Sydney Lough Thompson (1877–1973), Théophile-Louis Deyrolle (1844–1923), and Emile Hirschfeld. The menus were decorated with charcoal drawings he had made for the occasion.
Fromuth always considered himself American, nor would any Frenchman mistake him for anything other than that, given his accent and imperfect French. On the Fourth of July he would hang out his large American flag. His brother August would send him American magazines, such as the Atlantic. In 1919 August came over and joined Fromuth on a trip to Switzerland, where they both were greatly impressed by the drama of the mountains. A well-read man, Fromuth thought nothing of plowing through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which supplemented his extensive reading of classic Greek and Roman literature and history. He also liked to read artists’ biographies. In 1905—a year in which he exhibited works in Manchester, London, and Bradford, England—Fromuth began his diary, inspired by Delacroix’s Journal. Sitting in the cafe of the Hotel de France over an absinthe in the evening, he would write in his notebooks, later partly revising them. His habit of taking an evening constitutional around the port was so regular, the locals could gauge the time of day by his outing. He had his absinthe every evening, and when the liquor was banned, he was pleased to discover a liquid designed to be added to tooth powder, which was in fact absinthe.
The artist’s usual attire was jacket, knee britches, knee socks, and wooden shoes. He had several affairs, but discreetly withheld the full name of his lovers in his diary. He never married. Still working well into the 1930s Fromuth died in 1937 at a retirement home in the old walled Ville Close, which had served as the background of many of his works. He is buried in the Concarneau cemetery, in the family plot of the Hirschfelds.
Extremely systematic, Fromuth gave all his works opus numbers, which are sometimes discernible as numbers on a boat in his paintings, accompanied by letters designating the location—usually CC, if the subject had been done in Concarneau. Like Whistler, he made stamps that could be impressed on his works—one, a stylized sailboat, the other, his initials within a bullet shape.
Fromuth was accurate in predicting that recognition of his work would take fifty years. Between 1988 and 2004 he was the subject of no fewer than three one-man exhibitions in France and America. He was not, however, ignored in his own day: he exhibited his works in France, England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Italy, and Russia, as well in major American cities, receiving medals at international exhibitions and invariably favorable mentions in the press. It is fitting that Fromuth’s works have returned to his native Philadelphia in the year of the seventieth anniversary of his death.
* All quotations from Fromuth are from his diaries, now in the Library
of Congress, Washington, D.C., unless otherwise attributed. Bibliography
Fromuth Diaries, Manuscript Department, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Elva. “C. Fromuth et Concarneau, les premières années.” In Artistes
Etrangers: Pont-Aven, Concarneau et autres lieux de Bretagne, 101–114.
Arts de l’Ouest. Rennes, 1989.
Puget, Catherine. Charles H. Fromuth. [Exh. cat., Musée de Pont-Aven.] Pont-Aven, 1989.
Catherine. Journal d’un Américain à Concarneau. [Exh. cat., Musée de la
Peche.] Concarneau, 2004. Edition by Galerie Gloux with translations by
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