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 Gardner Hale  (1894 - 1931)

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Lived/Active: New York/California/Illinois / Italy/France      Known for: frescoes, sketches-landscape and figure painting

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Gardner Hale
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Credited as the artist who revived fresco* painting in the modern era in the true and earliest meaning of the term, Gardner Hale, living in Paris and Italy for many years, was described in a New York Times review, July 8, 1917, as having "discovered the mechanics of pure fresco, which has been a forgotten art since the fourteenth century.  . . .The artist is an idealist: one of his chief reasons for loving fresco as he does is the purity and simplicity of the means employed---the earth colors mixed with water and applied to the lime or cement. Also it is the ideal combination of physical and brain work.  Fresco demands an artisan quite as much as an artist, and Mr. Hale, to succeed with it, practically as he says, learned the job of mason. 'If we had more artisans and fewer artists' he declared 'art would be the gainer.  It is glorious to feel that one holds every thread, is master of every detail, controls equally the perfection of the materials and the idea. And there is a feeling of peculiar jubilation rising to a day of physical as well as mental labor' " .

Adhering to the methods of the fourteenth-century fresco artists, he "sifts the sand finely, slakes lime if he is using it, makes the mortar, applies it to the rough surface, follows his prepared pencil design and color sketch, working very rapidly---only undertaking what can be finished each day.  The painting, powdered colors ground in water only, is applied to the fresh mortar, exuding a crystalline substance which gives it a peculiar brilliance and freshness. Impurities such as oil and glue are absent."

In this context and the method used by Hale, the Italian word fresco means "fresh and can properly be applied only to a painting done on fresh mortar." It is invulnerable to weather and ravages of time. In Italy, he studied the Giotto frescos in the Arena Chapel in Padua and at Assisi, and after seeing them began his study of the ancient art. A breakthrough was finding in one of the bookshops along the Seine River an old volume by Cennino Cennini titled Traite de la Peinture.  Cennini was a pupil of Agnolo Gaddi, who was a son and pupil of Taddeo, who in turn was a pupil of Giotto. In the time of Cennini, cement was unknown and lime was used.

Inspired, Hale began by finding the "right sand, right proportions, colors that could be used with lime---in fact had to create his materials rather than buying them. He ground his own colors because of the impurity of modern colors, and in Southern France and Italy found the pure earth for these colors, ochres* and light reds and pure mineral colorings such as cobalt*, emerald green and ultra marine." He also adapted the application of gold and silver leaf, doing a series of fruits of the earth to showcase gold and silver leaf. 

The overall result was that "Gardner Hale's adherence to fresco is based on the pure, luminous quality of color produced, and upon the unity achieved between the surface decorated and the picture. The effect is not that of paint applied to a surface but of the material itself blossoming into forms and colors.  It looks as if the surface could be lifted off and the picture remain as before. The freshness and purity of the color effects are remarkable, a result of their being so inherent a part of the material decorated."

In America and working from his New York studio, he was able to put his method dating back hundreds of years to contemporary use in American houses of cement and concrete. Achieving portability, he made frescoes on reinforced slabs of cement, which could be moved. With this method, he decorated a chapel in France, covering the nave and choir with scenes from the life of St. Louis with five or six-hundred figures, and scenes from the crusades with ships and costumes.  He also decorated homes and family tombs in France.

Gardner Hale was from a cultured family New England family, which had ties to some of the most revered educational institutions. His father was William Gardner Hale (1849-1928), American classical scholar and Harvard graduate who became head of the Latin Department at the University of Chicago, and first director of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome. Gardner's mother was Rhode-Island born Harriet Swinburne, who graduated with the class of 1873 at Vassar College. Gardner studied at Harvard University, and spent many years in Europe, perfecting his fresco method, aided by studying with Onorato Carlandi in Italy and Maurice Denis in Paris.

During the 1920s, Gardner had a studio in New York City at 23 Charlton Street, and had much professional credibility as a muralist and easel painter. He was a member of the Architectural League* of New York, National Society of Mural Painters*, American Federation of Arts*, Salons of America* and Society of Independent Artists*. Exhibitions included the Art Institute of Chicago, Society of Independent Artists and Salons of America.

In 1927, he married Dorothy Hale (1905-1938), an American actress from Pittsburgh, who became known for her great beauty and charm, but mostly for her popularity among the high-society persons she met through Gardner.  The couple were in California briefly in 1931, and in December, Gardner was killed when his car went over a cliff in the Santa Monica area. Dorothy, suffered depression from losing her husband, got sexually involved and then rejected by several prominent men, and also became financially dependent upon friends including Henry and Clare Booth Luce, Time/Life publishers. On October 21st, 1938, Dorothy killed herself by jumping out of the sixteenth-story of the Hampshire House building in New York City. In her memory for Dorothy's mother, Clare Booth Luce commissioned Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo to paint a portrait of Dorothy. But instead of creating a painting of Dorothy as a beautiful, young woman, Kahlo depicted her with two bodies, one tumbling through the clouds in the throes of suicide and the other lying as a bloody corpse on the ground. The frame of the painting appears to have trickles of blood.  Luce was horrified, and hid the painting until years later, she donated it to the Phoenix Art Museum, where The Suicide of Dorothy Hale is a valued and very famous part of their collection.

As a result of these dramatic, much publicized events, Dorothy Hale's name is as well known if not better known than her husband. Of her it was written: "We all believed that a girl of such extraordinary beauty could not be long in either developing a career or finding another husband. Dorothy had very little talent and no luck."(wikipedia, Hale).

Of Gardner Hale, the man whose death led to such tragedy with his wife, it was written that "he was one of America's foremost young painters of murals and frescoes." (Falk)


The New York Times, July 8, 1917 "Fresco Painting Art Revived by American: Giotto's Works at Padua Inspired Gardner Hale of Chicago to Go and Do Likewise." (New York Times archives)

IMDb Mini Biography By: Tangelline

 Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

The Official Dorothy Hale Blog,

"William Gardner Hale", Wikipedia, (Accessed April 28, 2013)

"Dorothy Hale", Wikipedia: (Accessed April 28, 2013)

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary http://

Biography from Crocker Art Museum Store:
Painter. Born in Chicago, IL on Feb. 1, 1894. Hale graduated from Harvard University and studied art in Rome, Paris, and Venice before settling in NYC.

He had only been in California briefly and planned on staying six months to paint and tour the state. His body and the wreckage of his car were found at the bottom of a 500-foot cliff near Santa Maria, CA on Dec. 28, 1931. In: Illinois Merchant Trust (Chicago). AAA 1929; SF Chronicle, 12-29-1931(obit).
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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