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Property Sold to Benefit The Blake School


signed and dated 'Abercrombie 1955' (lower right)
oil on canvas
48 x 32 in. (121.9 x 81.3 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Dwayne Andreas, Chicago, acquired directly from the artist
Gift of the above to the present owner, 1964
Chicago, Magnificent Mile Art Festival, Summer 1955.
Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Gertrude Abercrombie: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1977.

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Julian Ehrlich
Julian Ehrlich Associate Vice President, Specialist, Head of Post-War to Present Sale

Lot Essay

“Inheritance, an image of an antique phonograph on a Victorian table covered by a blue cloth, has many elements characteristic of Abercrombie’s work. Like many of Abercrombie’s seemingly simple compositions, the table is set in a simple section of a room with a gray wall and a white baseboard; the top of the phonograph sits on a slightly darker gray floor next to the table. The only other object in the painting is an Edison cylinder box that held the record used in this vintage machine. The painting can be identified in records as Inheritance (Abercrombie’s title). It was exhibited in 1955 at the Magnificent Mile Art Festival in Chicago, priced at $1000, where Dwayne Andreas, the original owner, presumably purchased it for the asking price, perhaps the largest sum Abercrombie ever received for a painting. Already a successful midwestern businessman by this time, he went on to become the enormously influential chief executive officer of Archer Daniels Midland, a huge food production company, and was active in politics and many charitable activities. The painting was exhibited at the Gertrude Abercrombie retrospective at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1977, lent by The Blake School in Hopkins, Minnesota where Andreas had donated it in 1964. Andreas was born in Minnesota, which may be the reason the painting found its way to The Blake School. Abercrombie was very close friends with Dwayne’s brother Osborne (and his then wife Marian, one of her few close female friends), a writer and engineer in Chicago, part of a circle of artist friends established in the 1930s.

Like so many of the artist’s paintings, Inheritance contains a number of objects that were Abercrombie’s own possessions and appear in other paintings, becoming effective stand-ins for the artist herself. The table, for example, appears in numerous works beginning in the early 1940s, when she married and moved into a home with her husband, Bob Livingston. Even before 1944, when they moved into the house on Dorchester Avenue where Abercrombie would spend the rest of her life, they may have begun to acquire the furniture which starts to make an appearance in her work. In a 1948 painting called Where or When [Things Past] (Madison Art Center, Madison, WI), we see the artist in a typically austere interior in which there is a round marble topped table with a claw foot pedestal similar to the one in Inheritance. The artist stands in the center of the room holding a narrow ribbon that connects her to a small cat on one side and an antique phonograph speaker turned on its head on the other. Connecting herself to both the cat, a frequent alter ego for Abercrombie, who always had a number of cats in her household, and the phonograph speaker establishes the objects as personal emblems. In this image the speaker not only stands for itself (one of the Things Past) but elicits the idea of a peaked witch’s hat. Abercrombie, who took on a number of personae, one of which was the witch (a source of power for her, despite the negative connotations), often dressed in such a hat in real life. In Inheritance two of the objects that appear in Where or When take on significance because of the connection with the artist’s own life.

The name of the painting indicates that this object is a family heirloom (certainly not something that would have been used in 1955, particularly by someone as sensitive to music as Abercrombie), a reminder of family history. Like Abercrombie, both of her parents were deeply involved in music, and an object like this was a reminder of its importance in their lives. So this simple still life resonates with some of the themes of Abercrombie’s life: the sturdy table with its historical references (which may also have been a piece of furniture she grew up with, or something similar to it), the role of music in the lives of her family and herself and the allusion to her own power in the role of the witch.

Inheritance is also composed in a deceptively simple manner characteristic of the artist. Every element contributes to the structure of the composition—there is nothing unnecessary. Abercrombie’s mastery in creating inanimate objects shines in this painting, with the beautifully rendered perspective of the phonograph, the careful chiaroscuro of the speaker, and the precise placement of the objects in relation to one another to create a quiet dynamism that sparks the interest of the viewer. The details are rendered with the precision of a Northern Renaissance master. The elegant chain that holds the speaker in position, while connecting to the vertical support, creates a scalene triangle, while the presence and slight angle of the lid on the floor balances the heavy phonograph. Although Abercrombie often alluded to being self-taught, and her figures were often awkward or simplified, she had traditional training in creating non-living elements and was very good at it.

Inheritance is notable also for its large size, rare in Abercrombie’s oeuvre, particularly by the 1950s, when she produced many paintings as small as 1 x1 inch and most of her work is not much larger than 8 x 10 inches. The care and attention to each detail add to the importance this work occupied within her oeuvre. With its references to Abercrombie’s past and present, allusions to music and witches, it is a beautiful example of a work whose meaning goes beyond the simple image of an old phonograph to generate feelings of longing, reminiscence and magic.”

Susan Weininger
Professor Emerita, Roosevelt University

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