Harry Mathes (1882-1969) -- AKA Harry Aaron Mathes and Harry Arno Mathes -- was an American painter and illustrator whose works encompassed Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract Expressionism. Mathes was trained at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before studying in Europe during World War I. He returned to New York and was a lifetime member of the Art Students’ League, where he studied with significant tutors of the times. Mathes illustrated often in the early 1900s for Harpers Magazine and Scribners, as well as for several books and railroad publications. The recipient of many awards, he was regarded as “an established but neglected painter” (New York Times, 6-13-1956) who became best known for his Abstract Expressionist canvases.
Harry Mathes resided in Greenwich Village for much of his life and became a dependable contributor to the New York art community. Though working in oil and watercolor primarily, many of his pastel sketches and ink drawings remain. He experimented in semi-abstraction and abstract-non-figurative styles, as well as what his instructor Tschacbasov labeled “abstract surrealism.” His works are included in collections of the Huntington Library (Pasadena, CA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Watson Library, and the Glenbow Museum’s exhibit of American Illustrators in Calgary, Alberta. Mathes contributed to annual exhibits at the Whitney Museum in 1922-23 and 1926-27, and is included in the Peter A. Juley Collection of American Artists (photography exhibit) at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
1882 - Born in Russia, the third son of Eli Mathes and Sarah Stanislasky, Mathes emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri as a young child. His family became wealthy in the shoe business and encouraged his artistic talents from early years. A brief attempt at including him in the family business in his youth was a failure.
Ca.1899 – ca.1903 – After study at Washington University in 1902-1903 (Honorable Mention), Mathes attends the Academy of Fine Arts of Chicago. Family members (3) testify to this, but verification is being requested. A letter from fellow student artist Jim Masterson of Montana, praising Mathes’ student work, is contained in the Mathes archives (currently being donated to the Missouri Historical Society).
1905 – Mathes takes up residence in New York, where he supports his art by illustrating for Harpers Magazine and Scribner’s Magazine. “A Winter Butterfly,” by Louise Forsslund (Holt-Rinehart, May 1907) and “Michael’s Son” are works available from Scribner’s – the first serialized and the second a short story. The Lady and the Pirate, by Emerson Hough (Bobbs-Merrill Co., c1913) and Coxwain Drake and the Seascouts by Isabel Hornibrook (1920) are full-length novels.
Ca. 1911 – 1914 – Travels in Europe (Paris, London, Munich, Italy), studying with Leger and Derain in Paris. Experimenting with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Arrested as a “spy” while painting along the Thames in London. His family rescues him through diplomatic connections.
1918 – Bowing to the wishes of his supportive family, Mathes becomes the manager of a shoe store in Bartlesville, OK. He has married Parisian artist Josephine Langeneger, but the American plains are too much for this sophisticated urbanite and divorce ensues. Mathes paints in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles in the storeroom, absorbing some Native American influence.
1921 – Returning to New York, he matriculates into the Art Students’ League, studying with Robert Henri, “Stern,” Forbes Watson, George Luks and A. Boss. He joins the Society for Independent Artists and immerses himself in Post-Impressionism. He exhibits at the Whitney Museum Annual Exhibition 1922-23. Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975 (Vol. II, G-O, 1999) reports illustration for one of the domestic railroads.
1923-24 – Mathes is back in Bartlesville at the Mathes Shoe Co. store, now married to Betty Gershenhorn (later “Bronne”) and becomes a father. He names his daughter Regene (a major contributor to this entry). Family testify that he painted in the back storeroom while customers from the plains wandered in and out. His illustrations for the railroad are referenced in the Society for Independent Artists compendium of 1923. He was listed in Who's Who in American Art in 1924.
1925 ff. – Mathes is in St. Louis, MO, where he is a major figure in the group of “Blue Lantern Bohemians,” a menagerie of artists, writers and musicians (Joseph Heade Germone Chambers, Lyman Ross, Frank Hof, Frederick Ingalls, Leon Contristable, Eduart Wirtel, Monte Pylsor, Howard Hagan and Varnus Clystone, among others) congregating on the waterfront at the Blue Lantern Inn. Mathes paints a portrait of Hogarth Riverune, its owner, which is published in Helen Seevers’ April 3, 1969 retrospective in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (A letter in the Mathes archives from Ms. Seevers testifies to the loss of the painting and its provenance.) During this period Mathes is reported to have encouraged a very young housepainter named Joe Jones; several family members remember Jones claiming that Mathes “trained” him. Jones developed into a well-respected artist, a St. Louis “native son.” A Time magazine article (“Housepainter,” June 3, 1935) references their relationship.
Mathes has also retained his relationship with New York, as evidenced by his participation in the Whitney Museum’s Annual Exhibition of 1926-27.
1930 ff. – Mathes returns to New York to reside permanently. Resuming his membership in the Art Students’ League, he studies with Jan Matulka, Vaclav Vytlacil, Will Barnet, Cameron Booth, Tschachbasov, Byron Browne and Morris Kantor. ASL records (in archives) do not include membership for 1933-34 or 1938-45; family members attest to Mathes’ studying with Hans Hoffman (School of Fine Arts), very likely attending classes sporadically during one of these periods. This remains to be verified at the date of this writing. Mathes becomes a Life Member of the Art Students’ League, and is enrolled at least through 1961. He exhibits frequently in juried shows, professional exhibitions and private galleries. His daughter reports that means of support in early years consisted of odd jobs at hotels and through regular contributions from his St. Louis family, and that “rent parties” were a frequent occurrence. Bronne’s (derived from Jewish “Breindl”) friendships with Milton Avery and Louise Nevelson, among others, led to small three-man shows at Gallery 99 in Greenwich Village. ASL records indicate that he changed residences often. A post-war road trip to San Miguel de Allende (Mexico) artists’ colony was abandoned, and he returned to New York for good.
Mathes gains notability through regular citings in the New York Times (the Mathes archives contain seventeen), and reviews in The Villager, France-Amerique, and society newsletters (archives). His professional memberships (ref: archives) include:
The Society for Independent Artists
The American Watercolor Society
The National Society of Casein Painters
The Painters and Sculptors Society of New Jersey
The Art Students’ League (life membership)
Harry Mathes was most often reviewed in positive terms. In the 1950’s he gained the approval of New York Times art critic Dore Ashton, as well as the Herald-Tribune’s Emily Genauer: “among New York’s established painters” (NYT 10/22/1951), “established and neglected painter” (NYT 6/13/1956), “has consistently offered work of professional caliber” (NYT 11/22/1956), “HM’s lovely study of a nude” (1/10/1957), “HM’s subtle composition of birds – outstanding!” (NYT 2/8/1957, “HM’s ‘Harlequin’ – outstanding,” (NYT 6/16/1957, “HM – skillful” (NYT 3/13/1959).
Awards (known to date from archives):
1902 Honorable Mention, Washington University: sketch
1952 Second Place, Painters and Sculptors Society:Portrait of Miss B.
1952 prize, Village Art Center
1953 Honorable Mention, Ludwig Bauman in Oils, Modern World Ex.
1956 First Prize, New York City Center Gallery:Theatre
1957 Honorable Mention, American Watercolor Soc.:Figures
1958 prize, Village Art Center
1959 prize, Nat’l Soc. Of Casein Painters
1959 Jane Petersen, Painters’and Sculptors’:oil painting
Prize, Society of New Jersey
1960 First Prize, New York City Center Gallery:Watercolor
n.d. Honorable Mention, Artists’ Equity:Girl with Puppet
Mathes was known as remarkably unskilled in matters of business, relying rather on friendship and trust rather than normally accepted instruments. The Mathes archives include a letter to his “friend” and gallery owner Frank Pietrantonio beseeching the return of a number of paintings in the months prior to his death. Such exploitation had been recently acknowledged in the passage of a New York state law on September 1, 1967, the enforcement of which was unavailable to Mathes at the time. The whereabouts of the catalogued paintings are unknown to date. Numerous works were gifted to family members (and others) and (when identifiable) are included in the digitized “External Collections.” The preponderance of the works that remain are in the possession of the artist’s daughter, Ms. Regene Braun of San Diego, California – and consist of some forty-eight works in oil, seven watercolors, and approximately one hundred twenty pastels and sketches. Mathes’ family remains prominent in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, where many works are exhibited.
1903 Catalogue of Washington University 1902-1903 Nixon-Jones St. Louis p. 181
1984 Marlor, Clark The Society of Independent Artists Exhibition Record 1917-1944 p600
1985 Falk, Peter Hastings (Editor) Who Was Who in American Art Artists Active 1898-1947 p707 (p. 400)
1986 Larson, Judy L. American Illustration 1890-1925:Romance, Adventure and Suspense p159 (color image)
1988 Falk, Peter Hastings Dictionary of Signatures & Monograms p556 (p277)
1996 Courtold Institute of Art – London A Checklist of Painters c. 1200-1994 Represented in the Witt Library. 2nd edition.
1999 Falk, Peter Hastings (Editor) Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975 3 Vols p3724 Vol. G – O, p. 2213
2005 Davenport, Ray Davenport's Art Reference:The Gold Edition
2007 Levin, Gail Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. Updated and Expanded Edition. Rizzoli p. 597
2007-2008 Davenport, Ray Davenport’s Art Reference and Price Guide 2007-2008 Edition. LTB p. 1587
2005 AskART.com Inc. - Dunbier, Lonnie Pierson (Editor) The Artists Bluebook 34,000 North American Artists to March 2005 p479
Harry Mathes died in New York City at Trafalgar Hospital on July 5, 1969 at the age of eighty-seven. He was buried in the Jewish Cemetery on Staten Island. At the time of his death, he was survived by three brothers and a sister, and by his daughter, Ms. Regene Boutin (now Braun). His obituary was published in the New York Times on Tuesday, July 8, 1969. He was actively painting and exhibiting until the time of his death.
Researched, written and submitted by Kaye Sharon and Regene Braun, November 2008