EUGENE SPEICHER (1883–1962)
Eugene Speicher enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a portraitist. A painter who eschewed abstraction in favor of realism, he was at the height of his popularity during the 1920s and 30s; indeed, in 1936, a writer for Esquire magazine described him as “America’s most important living painter.”
Speicher was born in Buffalo, New York, where, as a youth, he sold newspapers and worked as a shoe shine boy as a means of contributing to his family’s income. During his high school years, he was a star basketball player and all-round athlete. He initiated his formal studies at the Buffalo Art Students League in 1901, attending classes there until 1906. He then received a scholarship that enabled him to continue his training at the Art Students League of New York under the tutelage of the painters William Merritt Chase and Frank Vincent DuMond (1907-08). Speicher was subsequently awarded the Kelly Prize for his portrait of a fellow student, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In 1908 he attended the League’s summer classes at Woodstock, New York, where he received instruction from the Tonalist landscape painter, Birge Harrison.
In 1909, at the suggestion of the painter George Bellows, Speicher enrolled at Robert Henri’s School of Art, where his penchant for representational realism was nurtured by Henri’s own aesthetic philosophies, including his belief that a painter should seek to convey the dignity of his subject. One year later he traveled to Europe, studying the Old Masters and familiarizing himself with the work of contemporary French painters such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. Returning to the United States, Speicher thenceforth divided his time between New York City and Woodstock, where he helped found the local artists’ colony.
Speicher began taking portrait commissions around 1910, going on to execute likenesses of such notables as art critic Helen Appleton Read, the Cleveland-based surgeon George Crile, Edwin A. Alderman, president of the University of Virginia, and the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. In 1913, he had another opportunity to see key examples of vanguard painting at the famous Armory Show in New York. In the ensuing years, he continued to study the work of the French moderns, such as the aforementioned Cézanne, as well as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, taking a special interest in their handling of form and color. He also continued his portrait work, submitting his deftly rendered likenesses to the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, where he was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Thomas R. Proctor Prize for portraiture, which he won in 1911. The artist was elected an associate of the academy in 1912 and an academician in 1925.
Speicher continued to support himself through portraiture commissions until 1925, when he was invited to join the Frank Rehn Gallery in New York. Feeling secure about his financial prospects and inspired by the example of Henri, he began painting non-commissioned portraits of people that he found interesting. The artist found many of his subjects in and around Woodstock, where he painted depictions of everyday types such as local farmers and hunters, as well as women and young girls, combining the simplified forms of modernism and the monumentality of artists such as Renoir with a realistic portrayal of his subject. Speicher imbued his sitters with a sense of poise and self-possession that, along with the clarity and directness of his style, appealed to critics and the public and reflected his dictum that a painting should be “at once vital and subtle, well made and fresh in spirit. Something that will be a tonic to stir the imagination, a pleasure to the eye and reflect my sense of quality in life. Above all it must have rare flavor and strong grace, be warm, simple and well ordered.”  While portraits remained his forte, Speicher also painted landscapes, nudes and floral still lifes that were equally vigorous and robust.
As well as exhibiting at the Rehn Gallery—where his 1934 solo exhibition attracted thousands of visitors—Speicher was a regular participant in the national annuals, including those of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (gold medals 1920 and 1938), the Art Institute of Chicago (gold medal 1926), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (silver medal 1928, gold medal 1935). In addition to the National Academy of Design, his professional memberships included the Woodstock Art Association, the National Association of Portrait Painters, the Boston Art Club and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Speicher died in Woodstock in 1962. Examples of his work can be found in major public collections throughout the United States, including the Brooklyn Museum; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Academy of Design, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; and the Woodstock Art Association, Woodstock, New York.
©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery LLC and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery LLC.
Harry Salpeter, “Big American: Speicher,” Esquire 6 (December 1936): 73.
Eugene Speicher, “My Credo,” in Eugene Speicher (New York: American Artists Group, 1945), unpaginated.