The Decorative Impressionism of Richard E. Miller

2011/05/18 § Leave a comment

"The Pool" by Richard E. Miller

Richard E. Miller

The Decorative Impressionism of the Giverny School

National Academy of Design

California Art Club

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Although Richard Edward Miller (1875-1943) only spent a short time in California, his distinctive painting style and teaching appointment at Pasadena’s Stickney’s School influenced younger southland painters.  Miller’s works are characterized by a strong decorative element. Although he was a member of the art colony that sprang up around Claude Monet in Giverny, Miller never fully rejected the academic principles he learned in Paris and dissolved form into color and light. He never abandoned formal pictorial elements, favored compositions centered on beautiful women who are lost in thought and are dramatically back-lit by intense sunlight streaming through French doors.

Strongly influenced by James Whistler and the Aesthetic Movement, Miller rejected the Victorian-age emphasis on narrative content and worked instead at conveying what he described as a ‘pleasant optical sensation.’ Miller’s were never haphazard arrangements of elements that he painted alla-prima- they were carefully composed. Miller once said, “Atmosphere and color are never permanent. Paint won’t remain the same color forever. But the design will stay. And that is the creative part of it.” As artistic styles changed, Miller never strayed from his conviction that art was about ‘the creation of beauty.’

The artist Richard E. Miller

Richard Miller was born in the waterfront city of St. Louis in 1875. He grew up in a culturally rich environment  and bean painting seriously at an early age. Initially, Miller worked as a helper for the portrait painter, George  Eichbaum and received encouragement from his neighbor, ,Oscar Berninghaus (1874 – 1952).

Despite his father’s reluctance, Miller enrolled at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University. He studied at the St. Louis School with Edmund H. Wuerpel (1866 – 1958), a tonalist painter who had recently returned from France. To support himself during his studies, Miller worked as as commercial artist. Concluding his St. Louis studies in 1897, he saved money and sailed for Paris in 1899 with a scholarship in hand.

Like many other American artists, Miller went to the Parisian art capital to build on the knowledge he had obtained in the United States. First, he enrolled at the private Academie Julian, where he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens (1838 – 1921) and Benjamin Constant (1845 – 1902). After a year of study ‘working from the nude,’ Miller had a painting accepted at the Salon and won a third place medal.

"Sunlight" by Richard E. Miller

Miller struggled financially in Paris and even returned to St. Louis to teach for a year between 1901 and 1902. Back in Paris, Miller came under the spell of Whistler, whom he admired for his emphasis on design, his tonal and color harmonies and the eccentric painter’s ‘art for art’s sake’ ideal. Like Whistler, the young St. Louis painter was influenced by the simple sophistication of Japanese prints. Miller’s early French works exhibit these influences with their beautiful quality of line and quiet tonalities.

As me matured, Miller began to explore more dynamic color relationships. His works became bolder, though still harmonious, with a bravura brushwork that may show the influence of the Spanish artist, Joaquin Sorolla (1863 – 1923). By 1907, Miller had become a member of the Giverny colony of American Impressionists, where his friends and fellow artists, Guy Rose and Lawton Parker (1860 – 1954), had settled. Miller reached his mature style in Giverny, adopting a flatter, even more decorative approach to the figure.

Miller and his Giverny friend, Frederick Frieseke (1874 – 1939) , had a triumphant exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1909. Miller’s rich, colorful paintings, with their exotic fabrics, found a steady market in America. He taught at the Academie Colarossi in Paris and sent paintings back to New York galleries. Like many other painters, Miller was driven home by the outbreak of World War I, when his career was at his peak.

"Cafe de Nuit" by Richard E. Miller

Back in America and at loose ends, Miller painted portraits and served on an Advisory Committee for the Panama-Pacific Exposition and was elected to the National Academy. He joined his friend, Guy Rose, in Pasadena, where they taught at the Stickney School. Miller had great difficulty in finding a studio to paint in, so he borrowed that of Eva Scott Fenyes (1846 – 1930), the present site of the Pasadena Historical Society and Museum. At the Fenyes mansion, Miller painted several characteristic works, some featuring the estate’s lush gardens and fountain.

Miller put down roots in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a picturesque fishing village on Cape Cod, where many other painters had already settled. He became a leader of the more traditionally minded art community in Provincetown, as well as one of its most sought after teachers Miller returned to France briefly, but remained in Provincetown for the rest of his career, returning to the nude and a series of naturalistic portraits late in his career. He died in Cape Cod in 1943.  Copyright 2001-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.

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