Gustave Wolff

In the Afternoon Sun

oil on canvasboard
8 x 11.75 inches
signed lower right

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Provenance: Estate of the artist; Hawthorne Fine Art, NYC

In the Autumn of 1913, the German Association for Culture featured the work of Gustave Wolff (1863- 1935) in one of the artist’s first New York City exhibitions held at the Yorkville Library. The New York Times stated, “Mr. Wolff is better known in the West and in Europe than in New York, and this is the first opportunity to see a collection of his work in this city.” A painter of Impressionist and Tonalist landscapes, Wolff arrived in New York most likely within the year prior to this exhibition. However, by the 1910’s, the American art scene was witnessing a shift toward modernism. American Impressionism, which began as a rebellion against conservative academic artistic standards, was now endorsed by the National Academy of Design, while urban realism and abstraction became the new form of artistic protest. Having matured artistically around the turn of the century, just before this major shift, Gustave Wolff remained committed throughout his career to capturing the everyday poetry of the rural and urban landscape.

Raised in St. Louis after his family immigrated to the United States in 1866 from Berlin, Germany, Wolff studied at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and with Paul Cornoyer, F. Humphrey Woolrych, and Frederick Oakes Sylvester.  By 1901, Wolff had become the preeminent painter in St. Louis and a frequent exhibitor with the St. Louis Artists’ Guild, the Society of Western Artists, and the Two-By-Four Club, leading one critic to write:
“If the maxim that artists are born, not made, be true, it applies most decidedly to Mr. Wolf [sic], whose training was as unsystematic and interrupted as his career was subjected to influences most unfavorable to his artistic development. But in spite of all difficulties he has forged his way to the front until his work has become of such importance that an exhibit of Western Artists would be incomplete without his admirable landscapes.”

By 1906, Wolff was considered one of the leading landscape painters in St. Louis. It was in that year that two of his paintings were accepted to the Paris Salon. One humorous and rather cynical article discussed Wolff’s success:

“Gustav[sic] Wolff of St.Louis,who does the fine art decoration of the billboards behind which you threw the tin cans this spring, has just had a bit of luck . . . [T]he people who sniffed when they saw Mr. Wolff sitting under a screen and daubing the billboards are surprised to learn that two pictures of his have now been accepted by and are hung conspicuously in the Paris salon. He is known in Paris as a landscape painter of ability and exquisite workmanship.”

Like many American painters in this period, Wolff traveled to the Netherlands for further artistic training. In the late nineteenth century, there was a growing fascination in the United States with Dutch Art of the seventeenth-century, which became widely collected. At the same time, more affordable works by contemporary Dutch artists working in The Hague were increasingly collected especially by patrons in St. Louis. Guided by Dutch Old Master depictions and romanticized literary descriptions, American artists visiting the Netherlands produced images of domesticity, strong communities, and religious values. Having trained in St. Louis, where Dutch artistic influence was strong, Wolff had already adopted the loose, confident brush- work and atmospheric effects that characterize Dutch painting.

When Wolff arrived in New York City in the early 1910s, he would have encountered the group of urban realist painters who dominated the New York art scene. The Eight, or the artists of the Ashcan School, were known for their frank, un-idealized depictions of common people and the industrial energy of New York. Their works presented the appealing, yet gritty reality of this urban environment and the transitory nature of the city. Wolff’s paintings of everyday life often depict scenes of leisure, typical of the Impressionist manner. However, expressing the character of the modern metropolis was also a significant statement of his work.

Wolff’s light-filled images such as Washington Heights Bridge, New York; and Approaching the Wheelock Mansion, West 160th Street, New York express the joy of leisure and relaxation that was sought amid the density and grittiness of New York.  Like the paintings of American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, who had spent the early 1870’s active in the St. Louis art scene, and who was considered one of the most important artists and teachers in New York by the turn of the century, Wolff’s scenes of urban leisure are populated by New York’s fashionable elite. Approaching the Wheelock Mansion, West 160th Street, New York depicts well dressed New Yorkers walking along a path that cuts neatly through a field, the lushness of which is enhanced by Wolff’s loose and rapid application of vibrant tones of green. Wheelock Mansion was built in the 1860’s in Audubon Park by William A. Wheelock and remained an important monument to Victorian style architecture amid the rapidly changing city until its demolition in 1939. Wolff’s meditation on this fleeting moment of urban life and the anonymity of the figures on the path can easily be compared to the Ashcan artists’ illustration of interactions between strangers in New York’s public spaces. 

In contrast to his scenes of leisure, Wolff also produced paintings of New York’s commercial activity. Typical of the Impressionist mode, A Winter Day, 79th Street Boat Basin, New York displays Wolff’s mastery of color and light effects in the lavender and orange clouds juxtaposed against the crisp blue sky, and the rippled shadows of the boats on the water.

Wolff’s confidence and control is revealed in the sweeping brush- strokes of the water and the rough texture of the sky, demonstrating the influence of artists like Chase and John Singer Sargent. His grittier scenes reveal the industrial activity along the shores of New York. In Harlem River Factories, New York, Wolff balances the flourish of Impressionist brushstrokes in the bright white clouds with the browns and grays of the murky water. The artist has noticeably omitted any figures from this image, instead focusing on the stark beauty of this commercial waterfront. A decade after his arrival in New York, Wolff continued to exhibit his river and harbor scenes to favorable reception from the press.

The selection of works in this exhibition reveals the striking breadth of Wolff’s oeuvre, which ranges from light-filled Impressionist works (for example, A Quiet Field; Portrait of the Artist’s Wife and expressive Tonalist compositions (Close of Day, Harlem Tenements; Through the Clouds to darker urban subjects: Across the Hudson, Northern Manhattan; Dyckman Street Docks, Manhattan. As the demand for city scenes relevant to urban dwellers increased in the 1910’s, Gustave Wolff was able to continue his study and depiction of the built environment. And as modernist trends such as abstraction infiltrated American art, Wolff maintained an allegiance to the tenets of Impressionism and Tonalism, which better portrayed the texture of the modern urban experience.


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