Originally titled “Midnight,” There Were No Flowers Tonight was painted in Laguna Beach, California, in 1929. Its morbid imagery is the product of Ivan Albright’s obsession with beauty and decay, which compelled him to represent the ravages of age on the human form with uncompromising detail. This image of a ballerina well past her prime was painted during a trying time in Albright’s own life, when he mistakenly believed that he was suffering from a terminal illness.
Albright’s penchant for representing the processes of aging and decomposition in his meticulous, magic realist style often elicited negative responses from critics. This was especially so for his representations of women, which one writer denounced as “a horrible satire on the female species, painted by a bitter misanthrope.” Despite the challenges of its difficult subject matter and style, There Were No Flowers Tonight garnered significant attention for the artist and represents an important turning point in Albright’s career.
Ivan Albright executed this painting sometime between January and April 1929, when he took an extended working vacation to Laguna Beach, California. At the time he was suffering from severe back pain that he mistakenly believed was symptomatic of a fatal illness. He had just completed what he feared would be his last work, Heavy the Oar to Him Who is Tired, Heavy the Coat, Heavy the Sea (1929, The Art Institute of Chicago). During this period of uncertainty Albright began to produce the subjects for which he is best remembered today: dark and disturbing full-length representations of bedraggled men and women whose physical flaws are painstakingly delineated in a hyperrealist manner. These imperfect and unflattering images often engendered public controversy. Woman (1928, Museum of Modern Art, New York), for instance, offended viewers when it was exhibited at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, in July 1929.
The unknown author of “Did Its Beauty Cause Toledo to Ban This?” Art Digest 20 (Sept. 1929): 1, pointed out that Woman was not banished because of its modernism, and noted that the artist wondered “if the citizens of Toledo found fault with his model’s peculiar and individual style of beauty.” When it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1928, Albright’s The Lineman (1927, The Art Institute of Chicago) had been criticized as representing an “uncouth, down at the heel booze-fighter”; see “A Storm,” Art Digest 2, no. 18 (July 1928): 1, 23.
Albright’s model for this work was Lady Frances Curie Milburne, a niece of the Duke of Northumberland, who was in Laguna Beach acting in amateur theatrical productions. The Art Institute of Chicago’s press bulletin noted Albright’s odd, singular approach: “The modeling of this young woman is remarkable. There is a sculptural quality about the painting that gives the arms, bosom and legs a genuine third dimensional quality. But there is something peculiar and individual about the painting which arrests the visitor at once. It is the color. There is only one painter in the United States using that strange color and that meticulous technique.”
“Chicago Sets an Example in One-Man Shows,” Art Digest 5, no. 19 (August 1931): 8.
Eleanor Jewett, “On Exhibition at Art Institute,” Chicago Tribune, Aug. 23, 1931.
C. H. Bonte, “In Gallery and Studio,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 1930, Ivan Albright Archive, Scrapbook vol. 1, n.p.; quoted in Susan F. Rossen, ed., Ivan Albright (Chicago, 1997), n.p.
Albright presents the aging ballerina in a moment of introspection after a performance. Pressed up against the picture plane and filling the composition, she leans forward to remove her left ballet slipper and seems to intrude into the viewer’s space. A small sketch of the painting in one of Albright’s notebooks
Ivan Albright Archive, Notebook 7, Jan. 1929, 25.
Teresa Carbone, in her essay “Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration,” in Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, ed. Teresa A. Carbone (Brooklyn, 2011), 92, discusses the painting’s strange color: “an image of an aging and unattractive dancer undressing after her performance . . . showing Albright’s emulation of the Spanish baroque painter El Greco in his use of an odd, off-key palette and harsh, flickering modeling. Thoroughly mannerist in feeling, the color suggests ill health, from the purples and greens that tinge the flesh to the turquoise glow that appears to emanate from the heavily muscular arms and legs. The blackness of the shadows completes the effect, enclosing the figure and conveying an emotional weight as oppressive as the exhaustion embodied in its form.”
Irwin St. John Tucker, “Skillful Contrasts Mark Art Institute Summer Exhibits,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, Aug. 23, 1931.
In accordance with his habit of composing titles that encourage viewers to imagine a narrative and contemplate the philosophical meaning of his unconventional subjects, Albright first titled the Gallery’s painting Midnight before changing it to There Were No Flowers Tonight. The painting’s original title suggested a fading performer whose day in the limelight was ending. There Were No Flowers Tonight similarly indicates that the older dancer no longer receives accolades or bouquets of flowers for her performances. She is instead left to consider the imminent demise of her career and, by extension, her own mortality.
There Were No Flowers Tonight dates from Albright’s critical formative period in the late 1920s and marks an important point in the development of his magic realist style.
Michael Croydon, Ivan Albright (New York, 1978), 46, unaccountably objected that “the scale and composition are atypically clumsy; and the figure in spite of its convincing drawing posture, fails to compensate for these structural weaknesses.”
Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr Jr., eds., American Realists and Magic Realists (New York, 1943), 25.
August 17, 2018
lower left: IVAN LE LORRAINE ALBRIGHT
The artist [1897-1983], until at least 1947. Lawrence A. [b. 1925] and Barbara Fleischman, Detroit, at least by 1960, to 1965. (Kennedy Galleries, New York); purchased 24 March 1967 by Robert H. and Clarice Smith, Washington, D.C.; gift 1972 to NGA.
- [Albright exhibition], Walden Gallery, Palmolive Building, Chicago, 1930.
- Paintings by George and Martin Baer and Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Art Institute of Chicago, July-October 1931, no catalogue, as Midnight.
- Thirty-Fifth Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, Art Institute of Chicago, January-March 1931, no. 5, repro., as Midnight.
- 130th Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1935, no. 254, as There Were No Flowers To-nite.
- American Realists and Magic Realists, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; San Francisco Musuem of Art; Art Gallery of Toronto; Cleveland Museum of Art, 1943-1944, no. 27.
- First Joint Exhibition: The Albright Twins, Associated American Artists Galleries, New York, 1945, no. 14.
- 121st Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, January 1947, no. 72.
- The Twentieth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., March-May 1947, no. 200, repro.
- American Painting 1760-1960, A Selection of 125 Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence A. Fleischman, Detroit, Milwaukee Art Center, 1960, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- American Painting 1765-1963, Selections From the Lawrence A. and Barbara Fleischman Collection of American Art, University of Arizona Art Gallery, Tucson, 1964, no. 1, repro.
- Ivan Albright: A Retrospective Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1964-1965, no. 7, repro., as There Were No Flowers Tonight (Midnight).
- Solitude: Inner Visions in American Art, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, 1982, no. 17, repro.
- Museo de los Museos: arte universal a través de los tiempos, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1984, no. 44, repro.
- Extended loan for use by Ambassador Madeleine Albright, Representative of the U.S. to the United Nations, office at the U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., 1993-1997.
- Ivan Albright, Art Institute of Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, no. 15, color repro., as There Were No Flowers Tonight (Midnight).
- Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest, Massillon Museum, Ohio; Riffe Gallery, Columbus; Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, Portsmouth; Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, 2010-2011, no. 13, repro. (shown only in Massillon, Portsmouth, and West Bend).
- Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, Brooklyn Museum; Dallas Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art, 2011-2012, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 68.
Exhibition History Notes
 The painting, as Midnight, was illustrated in Art World (9 September 1930); the caption reads: "In Albright's current exhibition in the Walden gallery in the Palmolive building" (copy in NGA curatorial files, from the vertical files of the Library, Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery).
 The painting was illustrated in a review of the exhibition in Parnassus 3, no. 2 (February 1931): 15.
The medium-weight, plain-weave fabric support is unlined and remains mounted on its original stretcher with its original tacking margins. The pre-primed fabric was coated with a commercially prepared, warm, yellowish, off-white ground. The painting was executed prior to being stretched, evidenced by original paint covering all of the tacking margins except at the top. Examination of the painting in infrared found some fine outline drawing in the area of the subject’s right eye. The artist began by blending pasty applications of light and dark paint over a well-defined drawn outline. He then used glazelike applications in transparent, acid-colored tones to accentuate the modeling. The x-radiographs show a change of position in the top of the sitter’s head. Other than some minor areas of retouching in the upper left corner and in the background above the back of the dancer, the painting is in very good condition. The surface is coated with a glossy layer of natural resin varnish that has become discolored.
- Croydon, Michael. Ivan Albright. New York, 1978: 46, color repro. 26.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 19, repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: color repro. 220, 227-228.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 20, repro.
- Southgate, M. Therese. "The Cover: Ivan Albright, There Were No Flowers Tonight." Journal of the American Medical Association 276, no. 15 (16 October 1996): cover, 3223, color repro.
- Rossen, Susan F., ed. Ivan Albright. Exh. cat. Art Institute of Chicago, 1997: no. 15, 26, color repro.