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 Charles Frederic Ramsey  (1875 - 1951)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: landscape- to modernist, portrait

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Charles Frederic Ramsey
from Auction House Records.
PINPOINT ABSTRACTION
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Charles Frederic Ramsey (1875-1951) was the earliest artist to champion the radical ideas of abstraction within the established Impressionist art colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania. Although some of Ramsey's innovative paintings were just as avant-garde as those of leading New York modernists, his work was virtually unknown outside of the New Hope colony. Omitted from all of the major exhibition catalogues devoted to American abstract paintings over the past thirty years, with the exception of one with regional focus, Charles Ramsey's ambitious and daring modernist work is now fertile material for criticism and acclaim.

As early as 1953 (if two years after his death can be deemed "early"), critic Frederick Walker recognized Ramsey's talent and importance when he wrote, "While little is known to the public at large because of his policy of not showing in popular exhibits, Mr. Ramsey in the later years of his life was one of the most brilliant innovators and technicians in advanced forms of painting that this country has yet produced."

Despite Ramsey's strong ties with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where his father, a prominent landscape and still-life painter, had exhibited frequently, he showed there only four times. Yet, he was hardly a recluse. A leader within the New Hope art colony, he opened its first art gallery, organized a regional art school, led in the formation of a local secessionist exhibiting group, and was a key figure in the Cooperative painting Project, whose members met from 1938 to 1939 in a studio in the rear of a New Hope hardware store. Unlike New Hope primitive painter Joseph Pickett, whose work Ramsey was instrumental in rediscovering, and whose paintings are now represented in major New York museums, Ramsey remains almost as obscure today as he was in 1953, when Frederick Walker wrote his article.

The artist's father, Milne Ramsey, was one of Philadelphia's leading artists during the 1880s. He studied in France, where he eventually returned with his wife, Annie, and first child, Ethel. On September 23, 1875, their second child, Charles Frederic Ramsey, called "Fred," was born in the quaint town of Pont-Aven.

Despite this poetic setting, the elder Ramsey moved his family back to Philadelphia in the early 1880s. Consequently, Milne Ramsey missed the artistic upheaval that occurred when Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin arrived at Pont-Aven in July 1886. Although Milne Ramsey might have experimented with Impressionism as the nineteenth century wore on, his art appeared increasingly conservative. In 1882, he opened a studio, and, at the same time, the Pennsylvania Academy mounted an exhibition of ninety-two of his paintings.

Charles's own formal art training began in 1893 at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (a forerunner to the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The young Ramsey attended for a year during which he was awarded the Weber Prize for work in design. Ramsey then went to France to attend classes at the Academie Julian in Paris from 1896 to 1898.

The Academie Julian was a private school that competed with the more prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Fortunately, the teaching practices, as well as some of the faculty, were identical. He studied under Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Jean-Paul Laurens, and Gabriel Ferrier whose Beaux-Arts aesthetic often focused on beautiful nude or semi-nude women.

Soon after returning to Philadelphia, Ramsey rented a studio on Walnut Street and began attending classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At the time, the Academy was one of the finest art schools in the country, and Ramsey must have been an advanced student after studying at the Academie Julian. William Merritt Chase, a figure painter acclaimed as one of the nation's greatest teachers of American art, was the most prominent of Ramsey's instructors. From 1899 to 1900, Ramsey studied the nude in Chase's advanced life class, thereby deepening his interest in the female figure as a subject.

In 1903, Ramsey took a walking trip to New Hope and subsequently spent the summer there. He became friends with William Lathrop and Charles Rosen, early seminal members of a group of landscape painters known as the Philadelphia Impressionists. The leading Impressionist in the area, however, was Edward Redfield, whose broadly painted snow scenes had earned him a national reputation. Although there is no record of any encounter between Ramsey and Redfield that summer, exposure to the art of Redfield, Lathrop and Rosen may have had some later influence on Ramsey's development as an Impressionist.

During the 1903-04 term at the Pennsylvania Academy, Ramsey enrolled in the "life and head course" taught by Chase and Cecilia Beaux. Beaux was a well-known Philadelphia figure painter, whose work occasionally approached an Impressionist manner. It is possible that Chase encouraged Ramsey to return to France and adopt Impressionist color and brushwork. The young Ramsey was awarded a prestigious Cresson Travel Scholarship by the Academy in 1904, which allowed him to return to France and Pont-Aven, his birthplace.

After arriving in Paris, and later at Pont-Aven, Ramsey began painting in the Impressionist style. His Parisian scenes tend to be small panels of 10 x 14 and 15 x 12 inches. "Paris Scene with Bridge and Crane," an oil reminiscent of Eugene Boudin and Claude Monet's early work, is rapidly, deftly executed, probably outdoors, with a moody and atmospheric gray sky, a crane motor releasing black smoke to the sky, a barge on the Seine and a bridge in the distance.

On returning to the United States in 1905, Ramsey became more closely linked to the Philadelphia Impressionists while staying at the New Hope home of his sister, Ethel Ramsey (later Davenport). In 1908, Ramsey was appointed Curator of Schools for the Pennsylvania Academy, a position he held until 1912. His duties included corresponding with students, supervising models and props, and handling routine faculty matters. During his time as Curator, Ramsey, accompanied by Ethel, traveled to Paris with students, acting as an Academy representative for the disbursement of funds for student emergencies and other expenses, while his sister lent a helping hand caring for the students. In 1910 and 1911, Ramsey attended classes at the Academy for the last time, taking an illustration course with Henry McCarter. McCarter would become a modernist, and one of the Academy's more radical teachers.

Shortly after the summer of 1909, Ramsey and the Impressionist painter Robert Spencer rented a studio at the Huffnagle Mansion in New Hope. Spencer had become a mature artist whose deep concern for the plight of manual laborers and the poor was reflected in his focus on local factories and tenements, unusual subjects for an Impressionist painter. During the period Spencer and Ramsey lived together, Ramsey produced his finest Impressionist works, an indication that the friends benefited from each other's company.

Also during this period with Spencer, Ramsey executed a group of ambitious local landscapes, each measuring about 40 x 30 inches. Many feature architecture, but Ramsey's interest was in geometry, rather than in social issues. The patterning in these landscapes echoes Spencer's more developed technique; however, Ramsey's tonalities are brighter than Spencer's, and Ramsey's landscapes lack human figures, giving them the feel of the famous French Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne's "Mont Ste.-Victoire" paintings.

It was probably at about this time that Ramsey completed a group of small oil studies on panel, which were stylistically more advanced than his pleasant Impressionist landscapes. Composed of tiny flecks of paint, two Pointillist sketches dating from around 1911, deliberately distort the visual clarity of a hazy evening on the Delaware. One seems to suggest the reflection of amber and scarlet lights from the opposite shore. The most remarkable work in this group is "Fauve Bridge on the Delaware," an expressive view of the New Hope/Lambertville Bridge painted during the evening hours and evocative of contemporary Post-Impressionist French painting. "Fauve Bridge on the Delaware" may well be the first modernist painting executed in New Hope.

From 1912 to 1916, Ramsey served as Curator of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, where he assembled paintings and sculpture for the well-known annual International Exhibitions. No works have come to light from the Pittsburgh sojourn. In fact, Ramsey was not a consistent producer of paintings in general. There were years when he produced nothing, and other times when he experienced bursts of creativity. While in Pittsburgh, he married Ethel Anderson Runnette, on January 22, 1914. A son, Charles Frederic Ramsey, Jr., was born on January 29, 1915.
After 1916, Ramsey accepted the position of Director and Lecturer at the Minneapolis School of Art. Apparently, after one of his early lectures, a trustee's wife asked him if he was a socialist. He said he was. The next day he was fired. He felt that he was blacklisted from then on.

Desperate for work in the midst of World War I, Ramsey served in a Navy camouflage painting project under the direction of the modernist artist Arthur B. Carles. Ramsey and other artists drew on their experience in abstract design to camouflage ships in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

In January 1917, Ramsey settled permanently in New Hope, where he and his family moved into a house on North Main Street. Having decided against pursuing a full-time job in an art institution, he was able to focus more on his own art, as well as on other local art activities, while refining his personal aesthetic.

In Europe, the artists of the Synchromist movement, spearheaded by Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright at Munich's Der Neue Kunstsalon exhibition of June 1913, were adding brilliant color to the subdued, almost monochromatic tonality of the Analytic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. In 1917, Ramsey began creating a series of Synchromist paintings that were not formally exhibited or widely known outside of New Hope.

One of Ramsey's earliest efforts in color abstraction is "Synchromist Delaware View." Using thick lines, he breaks the canvas into flat planes of color that cause spatial confusion by making it impossible to tell where the foreground of the riverbank ends and the background begins. Thick diagonal lines also break up the sky. But the work does display spatial recession through the use of the more distant river and background hills and clouds. There are no shading or shadows to indicate three-dimensionality of forms.

At this time, Ramsey also began to work with the abstracted female form. Several works from this period, including "Untitled (landscape)," depict female nudes in landscape scenes.

During the mid-to-late twenties, Ramsey established New Hope's first art gallery. Called The Blue Mask, it was located on Main Street. Ramsey never exhibited his Synchromist paintings from the late teens, so his gallery was the first place that modernist art was seen in the area. He must have exhibited some of his own paintings there as well as the work of a range of other artists. From time to time, he exhibited Asian and tribal art, both pivotal in the birth and evolution of modernist art. The Blue Mask hosted such artists as Ethel Wallace, a painter known for her batiks and cloth murals, lithographer and etcher Paul Cadmus, modernist painter Adolph Blondheim and stained-glass maker Valentine d'Ogries, who collaborated with Ramsey on some small stained-glass panels based on Ramsey's designs.
During the thirties, Ramsey produced some of his most outstanding abstractions. Although he never acknowledged any foreign influences, judging by his work from this period his most significant influences were probably the famous European abstractionists Piet Mondrian and Fernand Leger. Ramsey's compositions became more abstract and geometric, adopting crisp, linear contours.

During this period, Ramsey was also greatly influenced by Jay Hambidge's "Dynamic Symmetry: The Greek Vase." First published in 1920, it describes a compositional system based on proportional divisions and sub-divisions of rectangles that is inherent in nature and its components, like sunflowers and seashells. Hambidge's ideas influenced a number of American artists during Ramsey's time, notably George Bellows and Robert Henri.

Although the New Hope modernists never produced a manifesto laying out the concepts and practices underlying their work, Ramsey recorded some of his own ideas and discoveries, and hundreds of abstract drawings in a sketchbook covering the period 1936 to 1944. Ramsey illustrates ideas like a "system of balance modulation," based on ratios of diminishing squares in continued proportion. Basically, Ramsey was searching for a mathematical way to prove the aesthetics of abstraction, or to put it another way, looking for a formula to determine which arrangements of geometric shapes are pleasing to the eye and which are not.
The compositions Ramsey executed in the thirties focus on abstracted machine images, although some revisit older themes, such as the female figure. His forms, however, are not as easily recognizable. There is also a greater flatness related to Synthetic Cubism.

When Ramsey's work was exhibited and came under the scrutiny of critics, it generally earned enthusiastic praise. In 1940, he made his final public bow, exhibiting a series of four, very flat, very elegantly composed and colored geometric abstractions in a group show of New Hope artists held at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia. C.H. Bonte, a critic for the "Philadelphia Inquirer," wrote: "Among the various abstractions, there is a glorious superiority to the group of four by C.F. Ramsey, identified only by Roman and other numerals. In their own way they are as agreeable to the eye and to those mental factors which determine aesthetic appreciation as time-toned tapestries."

The modernist movement lost momentum in New Hope by the 1940s. Ramsey continued to create abstract compositions, such as "White, Black and Orange Abstraction," but these works are more reductive and decorative, and less complex and intellectual than his earlier abstractions. In his late sixties, Ramsey was perhaps getting too old to attempt an even more radical style.

Ramsey died suddenly on May 21, 1951, at seventy-five years of age. Within two weeks, artist friend Charles Evans mounted, in his New Hope studio, a memorial exhibition of Ramsey's work. Afterward, despite his groundbreaking leadership, Charles Frederic Ramsey was rapidly forgotten.

Source: Thomas C. Folk, American Art Review, April 2003

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Charles Ramsey is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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