Ralph Clarkson (1861–1942)

Ralph Clarkson, from a photograph reproduced in Richard Teutsch, Ralph Clarkson: A Tribute (1942).

A native of Amesbury, Massachusetts, Ralph Elmer Clarkson began his art training in 1881 at the school of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and then spent four years in Paris at the Académie Julian. In 1887, his last year in Paris, Clarkson was represented in the annual Salon and was encouraged to show his work in Chicago’s upcoming Interstate Industrial Exposition annual art exhibition. Returning that year to the United States, he lived successively in Hartford, Connecticut, and in New York City, where he exhibited in the National Academy of Design’s annual shows. Between 1892 and 1895, he was back in Europe, painting and studying independently. Following a visit to Chicago late in 1895, Clarkson decided to settle there, encouraged by abundant local opportunities for portrait commissions.

Chicagoans, more accustomed to departures than arrivals of artistic talent, welcomed the accomplished, well-spoken, and Paris-trained Clarkson. Having made his reputation for outdoor figural scenes and European landscapes in watercolors as well as oils, Clarkson soon established himself as one of the city’s most respected portrait painters. His sitters included prominent local artists and architects, society women, University of Chicago dignitaries, and other members of the city’s elite. His best-known work, however, remains the exotic Nouvart Dzeron, A Daughter of Armenia (1912; Art Institute of Chicago), a portrait of one of his students. Clarkson won several important awards, and in 1910 he was elected an associate member of the National Academy. He taught at the Art Institute of Chicago, served on numerous exhibition juries, lectured to popular audiences, and occasionally wrote about art; in 1921, he compiled one of the first histories of painters in Chicago for a special issue of the national journal Art and Archaeology.

At least as important as his suave portrayals of Chicagoans were Clarkson’s tireless endeavors to promote art in his adopted city. Almost from the start, his studio became a gathering-place for artists and their supporters, particularly when, in 1898, he became one of the first to occupy the newly opened Fine Arts Building. At the center of an elite artistic coterie that included Charles Francis Browne, Oliver Dennett Grover, and Lorado Taft, among others, Clarkson was a founder of such influential groups as the Cliff Dwellers Club, the Art Institute’s Friends of American Art support group, and Eagle’s Nest, the art colony in Oregon, Illinois, where he often summered. He served in many local and national organizations, notably the Municipal Art League and the Chicago Society of Artists, and he was a founding member of the New York Water Color Club. At his death, Clarkson was hailed as “the helmsman” for his tireless leadership in the Chicago art world of his day.[i]

[i] Richard Teutsch, “Ralph Clarkson 1861-1942,” Tri-Color Magazine (May 1942): 6, in Union League Club of Chicago curatorial files.

Ralph Clarkson, Café au lait au frais, circa 1892-94
Oil on canvas, 27 by 21 inches

Ralph Clarkson, Café au lait au frais, circa 1892-94

At the center of Ralph Clarkson’s summertime image of an open-air (au frais) breakfast is a slender young woman, gowned in white, pouring coffee at a small white-draped table in the dappled shade of a large tree. A second coffee cup, a straw boater hat hanging from the seat back of an empty chair and, on the ground nearby, a folded copy of the French daily newspaper Le Figaro all testify to the recent presence of a male companion. The woman’s loose white gown and lack of a hat—an accessory once considered essential for appearing in public—mark the setting as one of private domesticity, as underscored by the house in the background.

The painting’s bright colors and contrasts of light and shade evince Clarkson’s awareness of impressionism; in contrast, its blended brushwork and solid rendering of forms demonstrate his grounding in traditional representation. During his student years in Paris in the mid-1880s, according to biographer Richard Teutsch, he was inspired to paint outdoors by the “luminosity” of the paintings of Claude Monet and Edouard Manet.[i] On a visit to Switzerland, he painted an ambitious work titled The Arrival of the News in the Village (location unknown; painting reproduced in a newspaper in 1901) that set a precedent for this outdoor image of a figure on a tree-shaded bench with a building in the background. Clarkson returned to Switzerland sometime between 1892 and 1894, when he painted this open-air breakfast scene in the village of Bex, a few miles from the French border, as indicated by the inscription below his signature at the lower right. The painting later was reproduced in an unidentified newspaper with the title In a Swiss Garden.[ii] The artist was accompanied by his wife, Frances Rose Calhoun, whom he married in 1890. The daughter of a Hartford, Connecticut, judge, she was described as a cultivated woman who played a supportive role in her husband’s career, and she also may have modeled for him perhaps for this painting.

Café au lait au frais was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago’s seventh annual exhibition for American artists in late 1894, when the artist was still abroad. It was the first painting Clarkson showed in Chicago, marking the beginning of his successful career in the city. Thereafter, he exhibited few figural scenes, concentrating instead on landscapes and, ultimately, portraits.

[i] Richard Teutsch, “Ralph Clarkson 1861-1942,” Tri-Color Magazine, vol. number unknown (May 1942): 6-7, 36, in Union League Club of Chicago curatorial files.
[ii] Unidentified clipping dated May 26, 1901, courtesy of Illinois Historical Art Project.