On this day in 1931, American Impressionist artist Robert Spencer ended his own life at the age of 51. I saw his name in one of my “this day in art history” sources and was puzzled by the fact that despite his fairly impressive resume, I can’t recall ever hearing of him before. None of my American Art references mention him. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, which to me is the very pinnacle of obscurity these days. This seems a bit tragic to me because Robert Spencer, the artist who has no Wikipedia page, probably has more relevance to my life than Robert Spencer, the Second Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702), who DOES have his own Wikipedia page.
My own small contribution toward correcting this art historical oversight will be featuring Spencer’s work here, thereby insuring that at least 7 other people will see it.
On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)
A Nebraska native, Spencer ended up in New York early in the 20th Century and studied under both William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, possibly the two most important educators on the American art scene at the time. Rather than stay in New York, he drifted around for a little while and ultimately ended up in Pennsylvania, specifically Bucks County, in 1916, where he came to be associated with a group of painters known as the “New Hope School.”
The New Hope School practiced an art known collectively as Pennsylvania Impressionism. They were united more by geography than style. Of their creative output that I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t a lot, Spencer’s work stands out because of his workaday subjects and subtle, almost somber tones. He was a painter of the working class, not of the leisure class. The people in his paintings are usually features, not subjects, and they don’t often look like they’re having much fun.
Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)
He was well known and respected in his time and his work hangs in some of our finest museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Chicago Institute of Art, and our own Detroit Institute of Art, which owns the first of the paintings I’ve presented here; On the Canal, New Hope. If it’s currently hanging, I’ll hunt it down like I did John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar two years ago. Influential collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips compared Spencer favorably to Sloan (high praise indeed) and the museum Phillips founded owns eight of Spencer’s paintings.
Spencer was not a happy guy despite his relative success. He suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in his later years owing to a bad marriage and his work took a decidedly darker tone. The third painting here, On the Quai, is to my eye pretty disturbing and grows even more so the longer I look at it. I can only sense sadness in this image, the source of which is left to the viewers imagination. Given the choice, I’m not enthusiastic about entering the door Spencer has opened up for us.
On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)
Spencer was producing a body of intriguing work when killed himself in his studio on this day in 1931. He could have had a couple of decades of productive painting ahead of him had he not chosen to punch out early, so to speak. The artistic legacy he left us is competent and thought-provoking. If even one more person takes an extra moment to consider it, I will have done my job.