A lifelong passion for his initial profession, architecture, along with a deep interest in German thought and the emotionally expressive potential of color informed Oscar Bluemner’s approach to his innovative paintings. Like other American modernists, he was strongly influenced by contemporary movements in European art and utilized rich hues and abstract shapes to celebrate the varied landscape of his adopted country.
Executed near the end of his life and part of a series he called Compositions and Color Themes, Imagination exemplifies Bluemner’s singular approach to his subject matter. Instead of portraying an urban scene or tranquil rural vista, Bluemner has created a hybrid of the two, setting a vibrant red building in a lush green landscape and surrounding both with a night sky interrupted by flamelike passages. Just three years before composing this work, the artist had written a lengthy article in which the word imagination recurs and is linked closely to the power and beauty of painting. In his treatise, Bluemner wrote passionately about the color red and adopted the pseudonym “the Vermillionaire.” Imagination was included in Bluemner’s critically acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful exhibition at New York’s Marie Harriman Gallery in 1935.
Oscar Bluemner was an innovative modernist painter who, along with
This entry is a revised version of text that was originally published in Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011).
See Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (New York, 2005); Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner (Cambridge, 1991); and Judith Zilczer, Oscar Bluemner: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection (Washington, DC, 1979).
German thought and art were important sources for Bluemner’s expressive use of color in paintings like Imagination. Following the lead of 18th-century author, philosopher, and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and 20th-century expressionist painters
Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (New York, 2005), 98.
In the 1920s Bluemner’s work continued to garner support and encouragement from the art establishment, but the artist also encountered challenges, including the death of his wife in 1926, which precipitated his move to Braintree, Massachusetts. Roberta Smith Favis has suggested that his early paintings have more political meaning than might be obvious at first sight and that anti-German sentiment in the war and interwar years may have had a negative impact on the reception and sale of his work.
Roberta Smith Favis, “Painting ‘The Red City’: Oscar Bluemner’s ‘Jersey Silkmills,’” American Art 17, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 33–41.
Bluemner’s later works, including his series Compositions for Color Themes (of which Imagination is part) exhibited at the Marie Harriman Gallery in 1935, increasingly veered toward the mystical and abstract. (Bluemner created the colorful and whimsical cover of the Harriman Gallery exhibition catalog, depicting silhouetted patrons and their printed exclamations and featuring Imagination at the upper right
Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (New York, 2005), 98.
In Imagination, the red hues of the house and sky stand out so intensely against the green foliage and inky night that they assault the viewer’s senses, as if the pigment were burning from within. The artist likened his use of color in this series to music’s ability to elicit emotional states: “Look at my work in a way as you listen to music—look at the space filled with colors and try to feel; do not insist on understanding what seems strange.”
Oscar Bluemner, introduction to Oscar Florianus Bluemner (Minneapolis, 1939), n. p.
The dreamlike quality of Imagination invites the subjective interpretation that the artist advocated. Jeffrey Hayes has noted that Bluemner’s late works best embody the artist’s mature theories about art’s purpose.
Jeffrey R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner (Cambridge, 1991), 185.
Without imagination painting fails of its greatest power and beauty: intensity—the maximum inner tension of divergent experiences, emotions, conflicting moods as expressed by dramatic contrast of color and tone and lines. . . . Without intensity, there is no true painting, because painting does not, as poetry and music do, conduct us slowly towards a climax. It rather is the reality of a single isolated, emotional, ecstatic moment, into which it catapults us with an instantaneous and immediate bounce.
Oscar Bluemner, What and When Is Painting? Today (South Braintree, MA, 1929), reprinted in Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (New York, 2005), 197–198.
That Bluemner writes about his painting in terms of movement —“catapult” and “bounce”—also speaks to the spatial tensions created by the artist’s use of color. The heat of the central red form projects forward, while the cooler green and blue recede. This painting, thanks in part to Bluemner’s tireless research into the permanence of different techniques and materials, has the same capacity to jolt viewers toward “a single . . . ecstatic moment” today as when it was first exhibited in 1935.
Guided by a concern for longevity, Bluemner experimented extensively with paints, binders, and supports. He used casein as a binder for his watercolors because he believed it would make them more permanent and lightfast. Ulrich Birkmaier, “In Search of Permanence: Oscar Bluemner’s Materials and Techniques,” in Barbara Haskell, Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (New York, 2005), 181–191.
Bluemner’s 1935 Harriman Gallery exhibition was an overwhelming critical success. The art critic Emily Genauer wrote that, for Bluemner, “a landscape is . . . only a springboard from which he dives into a sea of color. Nor does he sink there. He emerges a veritable Neptune, king of the brilliant hues into which he has dipped.” Despite the positive press, however, and the fact that the critic Henry McBride called the paintings “eminently buyable,” the gallery did not sell a single picture, and Bluemner continued to struggle to make ends meet.
Excerpts from Emily Genauer’s review in the New York World-Telegram, Jan. 12, 1935, and Henry McBride’s review in the New York Sun, Jan. 8, 1935, are reprinted in Oscar Bluemner, “What the Critics Say . . . ,” in Oscar Florianus Bluemner (Minneapolis, 1939).
September 29, 2016
lower right, the Ü formed by L and left edge of M, the outer edge of B extending down and below BL then up through M to form N, the ER in monogram: BLÜMNER; upper center right reverse: 'Imagination'
The artist [1867-1938]; his estate. Robert C. Graham Jr., by 1969; his son, Robin Graham; purchased November 1978 by (Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York); purchased 26 March 1979 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2015 by the National Gallery of Art.
- New Landscape Painting by Oscar F. Bluemner: Compositions for Color Themes, Marie Harriman Gallery, New York; Arts Club of Chicago, 2 January - March 1935, no. 23.
- Oscar Florianus Bluemner, University Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2-28 March 1939, no. 11.
- Oscar Bluemner: Paintings, Drawings, New York Cultural Center, 16 December 1969 - 8 March 1970, no. 71, repro.
- Collector's Gallery X, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, November-December 1976, no catalogue.
- Acquisitions Since 1975, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1982-1983, no catalogue.
- Oscar Bluemner: Landscapes of Sorrow and Joy, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, 10 December 1988 - 3 September 1989, no. 105.
- Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 7 October 2005 - 12 February 2006, unnumbered catalogue.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unnumbered checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Bluemner, Oscar. Painting Diaries 1932-1933. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Oscar Bluemner Papers, Washington, D.C., 1933: Reel 340, Frames 2172-2173.
- Breuning, Margaret. "Paintings by Bluemner at Harriman Gallery." New York Post (12 January 1935): 2.
- Salisbury, Frank. "Oscar Bluemner: Marie Harriman Gallery." Art News 33, no. 14 (5 January 1935): 5.
- Hayes, Jeffrey Russell. "Oscar Bluemner: Life, Art and Theory." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, College Park, 1982: 361-63, 377, 397 no. 164, 397 no. 165, 397 no. 167, 530 repro.
- Richard, Paul. "Acquired Art: Corcoran Shows Its Best Since 1975 [exh. review]." The Washington Post (23 November 1982): D:2.
- Hayes, Jeffrey. Oscar Bluemner. New York, 1991: 154, 157 repro., 169, 185.
- Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 196 repro.
- Wingate, Jennifer. "Oscar Bluemner, Imagination." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 242-243, 282, repro.
The painting is executed on a paperboard with what is probably Whatman paper adhered by the artist to the surface of the commercially prepared board. Bluemner applied a thin, opaque white ground over the paper that does not conceal the paper’s rough surface texture. Beneath some lifting paint along the lower left edge of the gray shape it is possible to see a line of transparent gray wash on the white ground. This could be underdrawing. Bluemner is known to have gone over this drawing with an inklike liquid. The paint layer is thin but very opaque. Bluemner blended his paint so that there is little evidence of individual brushstrokes and there is no impasto, only slight ridges of paint at the outer edges of shapes. The artist appears to have drawn or underpainted the primary design elements on the white ground and then painted the black background around them. Other design elements were then painted over the black background. The red house was painted before the green grass, and both of these were painted before the gray tree. A darker red paint is apparent under the bright red paint of the house. Around the perimeter of the painting beneath the rabbet of the frame there are traces of dark blue paint added to the black. The black background is in sound condition, but other colors exhibit signs of insecure paint and cleavage in the form of extensive cupping in the islands of paint between the fine network of cracks. Before the painting was acquired by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a natural resin varnish layer was removed and replaced with a synthetic one. Dare Hartwell, the conservator at the Corcoran, re-adhered lifting paint in 1988.
Conservation report in NGA conservation files. Hartwell later prepared a comprehensive technical summary for Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, ed. Sarah Cash (Washington, DC, 2011). A copy of this summary is also available in NGA conservation files.