Albert Fleury (1848–1924)
Albert François (or Francis) Fleury was born in the French port city of Le Havre and studied decorative painting and architecture in Paris. Around 1888, he arrived in the United States to assist his former teacher Emile Rénouf on a large-scale painting of the Brooklyn Bridge. Shortly afterwards, Fleury was in Chicago with a commission to contribute to the decoration of the new Auditorium Building, a combined hotel, theater, and office building designed by the firm of Adler and Sullivan. In addition to a series of panels for the hotel dining room, he painted two large landscapes for the theater inspired by verses written by Louis Sullivan; the young painter Oliver Dennett Grover assisted with the execution. Thereafter Fleury completed numerous other mural projects in private homes and public buildings in several midwestern cities as well as in New Orleans, and he was in charge of decorations for the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis in 1904.
In addition to large-scale works, Fleury painted easel-size landscapes, first exhibiting with the Chicago Society of Artists and at the Art Institute of Chicago beginning in 1898, the year he joined its faculty. He conducted summer outdoor sketching classes, then the only form of instruction in landscape painting available to Chicago artists. Turning his artistic attention to the city itself, Fleury showed a Chicago River scene in his debut at the Art Institute. There, his 1900 solo exhibition of forty-five oil and watercolor paintings, Picturesque Chicago, caused something of a sensation. The artist, critics enthused, had proven that even Chicago’s most typically prosaic scenes, such as the polluted river and smoke-shadowed street canyons, could be artistically—even poetically—interpreted. “It has remained for an academician of France to reveal Chicago’s picturesque side to her most patriotic citizens,” remarked one writer, no doubt ignorant that the obscure James Bolivar Needham had been painting the river for a decade.[i] Fleury’s images were widely reproduced in newspapers, journals, and postcards and his work set an example for local artists, who subsequently competed to paint their city.
Chicago remained the primary subject of Fleury’s landscape painting. Active in several local artists’ organizations, he was among the founders of the Chicago Water Color Club in 1907. Fleury taught still-life painting and architectural rendering in the Art Institute’s school until 1918. By that date, the artist had largely ceased exhibiting, although he continued to paint until shortly before his death at age seventy-five.
[i]Chicago Journal, Oct. 13, 1900.
Albert Fleury, Goose Island, dated 1898
Oil on board, 17 ⅞ x 23 ⅞ inches
Albert Fleury’s Goose Island captures the intensely industrial character of the Chicago River at the turn of the twentieth century. Working vessels ply the waterway and crowd the shore, which is lined with cargo hoists and massive utilitarian buildings. Fleury presents the scene in the cool light of morning, which combines with the smoke from chimneys and boat funnels to dissolve distant forms into ghostly silhouettes. Loose horizontal strokes render the flickering surface of the water under a luminous fair-weather sky.
The river was the meeting-place for two of Chicago’s engines of commerce: transportation and raw-materials processing. By the end of the nineteenth century, the river was widely condemned for its filth and stench, making Fleury’s appealing portrayals all the more noteworthy when presented in Picturesque Chicago, his 1900 solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Goose Island was featured in that show, which then traveled to the Detroit Museum of Art (now the Detroit Institute of Arts); a smaller selection, also including Goose Island, appeared at the Saint Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts (now Saint Louis Art Museum) in 1902.
Goose Island is a man-made land mass on the north branch of the Chicago River, where in the 1850s a canal was dredged to detach a section of the riverbank at a westward curve in the waterway. The area was developed for both residential and industrial use, with shipyards, lumberyards, coal yards, and grain elevators concentrated at its southern end. “Abstractly speaking, Goose Island has never been deemed a picturesque spot,” admitted one reviewer, “yet M. Fleury has painted it in both sunshine and rain, in the early morning light and when the orange sun sinks into its cradle of dark smoke. . . . Residents of Chicago that have heretofore remained blind to the picturesque attractions of the city should see and study M. Fleury’s pictures.”[i]
[i]Chicago Times Herald, Oct. 14, 1900.