William J. L'Engle (1884-1957)
Nightclub Dancer (Harlem)
Oil on canvas, 60 x 30 inches. Unsigned
Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.
Hittner, Arthur D., "Art of the Thirties: Rediscovered Masters of the American Scene," Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn/Winter, 2009, p. 168; Enduring America (catalogue); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 89.
Vevers, Tony, Lucy and William L’Engle (catalogue for exhibition at Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1999); Myers, Julie R., entry for catalogue no. 44 in Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery (catalogue for SITES traveling exhibition, 1981), pp. 114-115; "William and Lucy L'Engle" website maintained by the artist's grandson at http://www.lenglefinearts.com/index.html
Acquired at Shannon’s Fine Art auction, April 23, 1999 (lot 151, catalogued as “Harlem Renaissance School: The Nightclub”).
Unsigned. Removed from original plywood support, relined, restored and remounted on new stretcher. New four-inch carved white gold frame. Label from original support preserved on present stretcher reads:
“F.A.R. Frame Shop/ 154 East 64th Street New York 21, N.Y.
TE 8-1890.” Location is near the studio maintained by the artist
during the later 1920s and 1930s (151 East 53rd Street
beginning in 1925 and 305 East 63rd Street beginning about 1936). File contains email correspondence dated September 24, 2000 from Daniel L'Engle Davis, grandson of the artist, unequivocally confirming L’Engle as artist of this work.
Fig. 1 - William J. L'Engle, Harlem, 1928. Watercolor, 20 x 13 1/2 inches, Collection of Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Gift of Dr. & Mrs. Henry Fogelman.
Though unsigned, this monumental work can be firmly attributed to the talented Provincetown, Massachusetts artist William Johnson L’Engle. Born into a wealthy New Orleans family and a 1906 graduate of Yale, L’Engle spent the years 1909 through 1914 in Paris, where he studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Academie Julian and met and married fellow artist Lucy Brown. Following the outbreak of World War I, the L’Engles returned to America, spending their summers in Provincetown and their winters in New York City or points south. Although exhibiting frequently at New York City galleries (including Forum Gallery and Kraushaar Galleries) over the next four decades, L’Engle is most closely associated with the modernist faction of the Provincetown Art Association, which included progressive artists such as Karl Knaths and William and Marguerite Zorach.
Dancers were a recurrent theme in L’Engle’s art during the Twenties and Thirties. During this period, the L’Engles wintered at the Park Avenue apartment of Lucy’s father, a few blocks from the dance studio of Martha Graham. They were fascinated by modern dance, enrolling their daughters in the children’s dance group of legendary choreographer Isadora Duncan. L’Engle completed a number of drawings of members of the Martha Graham dance troupe and other pioneers of modern dance.
In addition to the works described above, Nightclub Dancer (Harlem) relates closely to a series of paintings and drawings by L'Engle which capture the life and spirit of the Jazz Age, which emerged after the First World War and found its zenith in the nightclubs of Harlem in New York City. Harlem, a watercolor by L’Engle in the collection of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (see Fig. 1), and a study for the same work (Girls Dancing, Harlem, 1930, National Gallery of Art (transferred from the Corcoran Gallery), Washington, D.C.), are extremely similar to Nightclub Dancer (Harlem) in both subject matter and composition. A description of the study in the National Gallery of Art applies equally to Nightclub Dancer (Harlem): “In tight clothes, very sexy, and moving to a rhythmic beat, [L'Engle’s] dancers epitomize the then current view of blacks as primitive, exotic, and highly sensual.” *
Nightclub Dancer (Harlem) is undoubtedly among L'Engle’s finest accomplishments. Neatly framed by the nightclub patrons in the foreground and the musicians in the background, L'Engle's principal subject, a beautiful dancer, dominates the canvas. Cubist elements in the center of the composition illuminate her like a spotlight. The beat of the music and the movement of the dancer are accentuated by subtle curves, from the French horn in the upper left of the painting to the patron’s arm in the lower right. The result is a lyrical work which epitomizes the art and culture of urban black America in the decades following the First World War.
* Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery (exhibition catalogue, 1981), p. 115.
It was less than a year after acquiring our first American Scene painting, Jerry Farnsworth’s Working Girl, that I attended an auction preview at Shannon’s, a fledgling fine art auction gallery on the Connecticut coast. I was drawn by the striking Internet image of a lovely dancer in a diaphanous turquoise dress framed by a trio of café patrons in the foreground and a formidable band in the background. All of the dozen or so figures were African-American, and the scene screamed of the Jazz Age in Harlem. Catalogued as Harlem Renaissance School: The Nightclub, the painting was unsigned and unattributed. It was also five feet high, its canvas surface dubiously adhering to a large slab of plywood. Even worse: evidence of water-staining was visible along the bottom edge of the plywood and there was no frame.
A babe-in-the-woods in the relatively uncharted field of Depression era art, I did the inconceivable. I bid on the painting. The stunning image, and the conjecture that the work was the product of an as-yet-unidentified African-American artist, drove up the price. In the end, the race or identity of the artist was less important than the incredible image peeking out from that compromised length of canvas. When the bidding was over, I realized I had spent over $9,500 on a reclamation project by an unknown artist. Was I crazy?
The purchase was just the beginning. The painting needed restoration and a frame. That meant, of course, doubling down on my already questionable investment. I was either an idiot or a genius. At the time, I was leaning toward the former.
I took the painting to Mark Sirdevan, a very capable fine art restorer in Waltham, Massachusetts. The plan was to remove the canvas from the plywood support, reline and remount it to a new aluminum stretcher, and clean and retouch where necessary. I’ll never forget the phone call from Mark a few weeks later in which he informed me of the substantial possibility that the adhesive binding the painting to its plywood support was lead-based, rendering the process particularly problematic both because of the extreme hardness of the adhesion layer and, more critically, its toxicity. If the adhesive was indeed lead-based, Mark informed me, he wouldn’t be able to perform the restoration.
As luck would have it, the adhesive was not, in fact, lead-based, and the restoration went forward as planned. I recall my sense of utter amazement when I retrieved the painting. It was absolutely sensational. And, of course, it needed an equally sensational frame (ka-ching!). In consultation with framer Sturdy Waterman of Page Waterman Gallery in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a beautiful white-gold frame was selected to enhance the fully-restored artwork.
One last issue remained. Could we ever determine the identity of the artist? Despite my efforts, attributing authorship was a needle-in-a-haystack undertaking. But once again, we were fortunate. A chance conversation with art dealer David Cowan of Acme Fine Art on Boston’s Newbury Street, with whom I shared a photo of our painting, yielded the impossible: a strong conviction (based on his familiarity with the Provincetown school of artists) that the work was by William J. L’Engle. David put me in contact with L’Engle’s grandson, Daniel L’Engle Davis, who reviewed an emailed image and assured me that the painting was "absolutely done by William, my grandfather," pronouncing it "a great painting!" With this information, I was able to relate the painting to other works produced by L’Engle in New York City during the same period (see, e.g., Fig. 1 above).
In the end, my courage (or recklessness) paid off: our sow’s ear has become a silk purse.