Emile Gruppe was born in Rochester, New York on November 23,1896. His father, Charles, was a pretty darn good painter himself, in the style of the Dutch painters. When he moved his young family to Holland for several years, Charles was regarded as a wonderful artist by the locals. They even nicknamed him the “modern Mauve, after the great Dutch painter, Anton Mauve (1838-1888). Through his associations with the Dutch artists, he became their sales agent to American collectors. (Click images to enlarge)
When the Gruppe family returned to the United States, Emile was elementary school age. His father already had plans for all his children…each would become an artist: Paulo became a noted cellist; Karl, a sculptor; Virginia, a watercolorist, and Emile, an oil painter.
Emile’s art training was diverse; he claims he learned almost everything from studying the work of others, but that’s not entirely true as he studied under John Carlson at the Art Students League while in his teens. He also studied under, knew personally, or was influenced by some of the great American artists of the day: George Bellows, Edward Redfield, Walter Schofield, Daniel Garber, Birge Harrison, George Bridgeman, Robert Henri, and Charles Hawthorne.
Speaking specifically of some of these men, he says from John Carlson he learned values and composition; from Charles Hawthorne, color; and from George Bridgeman, drawing. Of Bridgeman, Gruppe recalls a fascinating and amazing demo given by Bridgeman in one of his classes; Bridgeman startled his class by drawing a human figure upside down, in perfect proportion, beginning with the feet.
Emile was an out-going, self-confident guy. One can easily see that in his work as it showcases his bold, fearless approach. This personality portended his success as a salesman for his work…and he sold a lot of work. He didn’t consider his work “precious.” He was most interested in having his paintings enjoyed by as many people as possible…and hanging on their walls rather than his own. Therefore, he purposefully kept his prices low so that almost everyone could afford them. That model worked well for him because he was extremely prolific. In his lifetime, it is estimated that he created close to 12000 paintings…200 a year for over 60 years.
Most of the year was spent in Rockport and Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he taught workshops each summer for over 50 years. He generally spent Autumn in Vermont and winter’s in Florida. He was a great teacher. He loved sharing his knowledge but pulled no punches with his students. He was direct, honest and critical. Encountering a fearful, tentative student who would only put out small droplets of color on the palette, he’d say, “Paint like a millionaire, put out twice as much paint as you think you’ll need and use it all.”
Knowing how to draw was a big deal. “The most important thing to remember is that you should try to draw what you see. Don’t think you’re doing a ‘horse,’ or a ‘tree,’ or a ‘boat.’ As soon as you start thinking about the subject, as such, you’ll get lost in drawing what you think it looks like. Think of a shape, first – then you won’t get into trouble. Once you’ve gotten to the point where you can draw what a thing looks like, you can begin to interpret it. You can begin to draw your feeling about it.
“As you draw, look for the way objects come together – how they link up and what kind of pattern they make. Squint at the scene and the details will disappear; you’ll just see the interesting masses. Go outdoors and do sketches, concentrating only on the forms and drawing so that they make interesting shapes on your page – shapes that your eye enjoys looking at.”
Emile was a passionate plein air painter, photos to him were worthless and dead; he just couldn’t work from them. “As a landscape painter, you must go to nature to learn and to get your inspiration. Outside you see and feel the character of your subject. The problem is knowing what you want to say in a picture and then picking just those elements that help you say it.”
Gruppe was a hard-working, high-energy guy, so when he suffered a stroke in his late 70’s, it was a setback. Although he tried hard to overcome its effects, he never fully regained his sensitivity with the brush. He died on September 28, 1978 at the age of 83 after a short illness. He left a tremendous legacy. One can easily see the powerful influence that John Carlson had on his work, and how he impacted the work of Charles Movalli, editor of the book, “Gruppe on Painting”, and the source for most of the material for this article. (American Art Review, 1997)
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