Adam Emory Albright (1862–1957)
Escaping the grinding poverty of his family’s farm in Iowa, Adam Emory Albright arrived in Chicago in 1882 at age nineteen, determined to become an artist. He studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago’s school before enrolling in 1883 in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied with realist master Thomas Eakins. Albright then spent two years in Europe, working under established figural painters in Munich and Paris. By 1888 the newly married artist was settled in Chicago, struggling to support himself by making portraits and painting moralizing images of newsboys, bootblacks, and other youthful urban types.
Albright’s prospects changed following the births of his twin sons, Ivan and Malvin, and the family’s move to a newly built log cabin residence in northwest-suburban Edison Park. Around 1899, using his own family and neighborhood youths as models, he began painting children in bucolic outdoor settings. Albright’s carefree barefoot boys and girls idle at fishing streams, wander homeward from the fields, gather wildflowers or fruit, and otherwise testify to country childhood as a fleeting moment of innocent pleasures under perpetually sunny skies. These painted fictions—remote indeed from the artist’s hardscrabble youth—were the mainstay of a long and highly successful career. They appealed powerfully to contemporary Chicagoans, many of whom cherished nostalgic memories of their own rural origins, bemoaned the dizzying pace of the modern metropolis, and worried over the plight of urban child laborers and slum dwellers. The Art Institute honored Albright with five solo exhibitions (more than any other artist in the first half of the twentieth century) and he was noted among Chicago artists for never having to supplement his income from art-making by teaching or other activities. Renowned as the “farmer artist,” Albright was active in numerous Chicago art organizations and championed local artists.[i]
In 1910, with Edison Park losing its rural character, Albright built a much larger log studio-residence in the Hubbard Woods section of Winnetka, and in the mid-1920s he moved again, to Warrenville, Illinois. Accompanied by his family, Albright also traveled widely, visiting Wales and Venezuela as well as New England, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California. While adhering closely to his signature subject matter, he loosened his brushwork and brightened his color under the influence of impressionism. In the face of more avant-garde trends, however, Albright emerged as a staunch defender of traditional pictorial values. Ironically, his twin sons became prominent modernist artists in their own right: Ivan, in particular, was noted by the late 1920s for figural images of scathing hyper-realism that contrasted sharply with his father’s cheerful sunlit scenes. Yet father and sons often painted together, and they even exhibited together in 1950. Established as one of Illinois’s “best conservative artists, untouched by modern influences,” Adam Albright died at age ninety-five. [ii]
[i] William Vernon, “Fine Exhibits are Shown at the Art Institute,” Chicago American, Oct. 3, 1902.
[ii] “Fine Exhibits are shown at the Art Institute: ‘Farmer-Artist’ and his Chief Canvas Now on Exhibition,” Chicago American, Oct. 3, 1912, in AIC Scrapbooks, vol. 17, p. 41.
Adam Emory Albright, Cherries Are Ripe, circa 1903
Oil on canvas, 35 by 74 inches
Cherries Are Ripe typifies Adam Emory Albright’s idyllic paintings of rural youth. Armed with empty baskets and a ladder, six smiling children dally across an open field, evidently in pursuit of a pleasurable outing as much as a bountiful crop. Varied by age, gender, and height, they are barefoot and dressed in practical bonnets, straw hats, and somewhat ragtag outfits. Emphasizing the autonomy of a rural child’s world, the composition is scaled to the youthful figures; they dominate the scene, with the high horizon creating a sheltering refuge of the surrounding fields and distant fence, trees, and house. Low sunlight illuminates the figures, highlighting their happy faces; two glance directly toward the viewer as if in invitation to join them. Gestures and expressions link the children together, with the eldest boy holding the youngest’s hand protectively while another two join in pulling a wagon that bears an additional empty basket, the promise of a rich harvest. The painting’s airy, casual brushwork, reflecting Albright’s on-site working method, underscores his theme of joyful contentment. The artist often hand-carved his own frames for his paintings; in this example, he embellished the corners with luxuriant images of slender cherry tree leaves and clusters of fruit.
Albright probably painted Cherries Are Ripe in the summer of 1903, soon after two successful solo exhibitions of his work appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later that year, the painting also appeared in the Art Institute’s annual exhibition of American art, where its generous size and striking frame may have been calculated to maintain his public visibility amidst a host of nationally prominent artists. Cherries Are Ripe was reproduced in the Chicago Evening Post, where critic Lena McCauley hailed it as a “transcript of merry childhood from his collection of paintings illustrating the life of the American country child.”[i] The following year, the painting was shown in the Society of Western Artists’ eighth annual exhibition and it was reproduced in the review of the show published in the journal Brush and Pencil in January 1904. In Cherries Are Ripe, Albright followed a compositional formula developed earlier in his Coming Shower of about 1902 (location unknown) and to which he would return repeatedly: figures are arranged in a friezelike procession against the background in a narrow horizontal format. The effect lends the image what one critic recognized as a “feeling for decoration,” a quality enhanced in Cherries Are Ripe by Albright’s harmonious palette of soft, cheerful tints. [ii]
[i] Lena M. McCauley, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, Oct. 24, 1903.
[ii]Chicago Record Herald, Oct. 5, 1902, in AIC Scrapbooks, v. 17, p. 42.