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Providence, Rhode Island

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Providence, Rhode Island

Artist: Oscar Bluemner (American, 1867 - 1938)

Date: 1923
Medium: Charcoal on dark cream-colored wove paper
Overall: 4 7/8 × 6 3/16in. (12.4 × 15.7cm)
Signed: '
Markings: Left center: "WHITIN..."
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "Providence Jy - 23 O / B" (in monogram)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 90.27
Text Entries

Although Oscar Bluemner is best known as a colorist and landscape painter, a commitment to drawing marked every stage of his artistic development. When he was a child in Germany, his father, a builder and amateur artist, encouraged him to sketch local landmarks, and during five years of architectural training at the Konigliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin Bluemner pursued the habit more intensively. After moving to the United States, he worked for two decades as an architect and designer, but his growing distaste for commercial standards compelled him to seek compensation in long sketching trips across the countryside and, finally, to quit “architekturkram” for more compatible ties with Alfred Stieglitz’s insurgent group of early modern artists. Painting henceforth became his primary focus, but his carefully conceived and executed oils, caseins, and watercolors were never undertaken without preliminary quarter-, half-, and sometimes full-scale drawings based upon a sketch (often made years earlier) of the original subject. Even the basis for Bluemner’s last project, an unrealized series of paintings inspired by fantasy poet Eirene Mungo-Park, endures in the form of twelve uniformly sized and styled “sonnet studies” in black crayon and wash.(1)

Like numerous other “impressions” Bluemner rendered but never transformed into finished paintings, Providence is a fragment of reality that the artist cropped and edited to suit his ultimate compositional objectives. The scene divides evenly at the darkened waterline where the transparent depth and loose gradation of the harbor are countered by the height, density, and structure of the city. Bluemner achieved lateral balance by the clustered forms on each side of a central gap in the skyline, by the rhythmic alternation of squared and diagonal surface contours, and by the two tallest buildings which securely frame the vista. Years before, Bluemner defined the value of such a sketch in patently modern, reductivist terms:

The more simply the sketch shows the principal effect, either the arrangement of figures (not persons) or the balancing of a few colors or values (in black- white), the better it is. . . . The sketch must have the important thing right and leave off all that does not pertain to it. Undecided minds, unclear eyes cannot make a good sketch.(2)

In another sense, however, Providence is a rare and surprising image for Bluemner, who produced no paintings and very few drawings in 1923. Sporadic diary entries from that year evidence his alarming loss of gallery representation and income, constant fear of eviction, and reluctant return to architectural piecework. His letters to former dealer Stieglitz bitterly report burning “frames to heat the kitchen” and peddling his “last art and architecture books.”(3) Amidst these trials, Bluemner made a brief, unexplained trip to Boston by Way of Providence, Rhode Island. Yet his buoyant drawing of the latter’s flourishing downtown waterfront not only denies any hint of personal hardship but contradicts his usual preference for representing smaller ports where nature and settlement coincide in healthy equilibrium. Providence, which features the historic spire of the First Baptist Meeting House as well as the recently erected Turk’s Head and Hospital Trust office towers,(4) portrays urban pride and evolution without apparent qualification. As such, it mirrors the assertive Machine Age cityscapes of Charles Sheeler, Louis Lozowick, and other so-called Precisionists, and it also may reflect Bluemner’s keen interest in Henri Bergson’s avant—garde philosophy which, he noted, “gives us the key to a new creativity and view of the world: duration as progress . . .élan, vitality, impulse, force.”(5)


1. All but one of these studies are reproduced in Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery ofArt, 1988), 80- 81, fig. 123.

2. Oscar Bluemner, “Own Principles of Painting," December 23, 1908. Author’s copy of unpublished set of essays and notes, Milwaukee, Wisc.

3. Bluemner to Stieglitz, November 27 and December 26, 1923, Alfred Stieglitz Archive, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

4. The author is grateful to the Rhode Island Historical Society for identifying these buildings.

5. Oscar Bluemner, “Painting Diary," August 16, 1923, Oscar Bluemner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm 340, frame 1205. Author’s translation from the German.


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