Making Modernism

Sherwood Anderson’s Watercolors, 1920s

Sherwood Anderson is best known as a writer, and yet he grew up painting and often envied painters their craft.  In the small town of Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson was raised, he often helped his father, a sometime sign and barn painter.  Anderson’s brothers were adept with paint and his older brother Karl had become a quite successful painter and magazine illustrator.  One of Karl Anderson’s paintings, in fact, had been chosen for the 1913 Armory Show.  Sherwood Anderson later reminisced that he and Karl visited the Armory Show every day during its 24-day run at the Art Institute of Chicago, while simultaneously reading aloud to one another the work of Gertrude Stein. 

Exposure to the explosive, radical works by the European and American avant-garde came at a pivotal time in Sherwood Anderson’s life.  Just two months before the Armory Show, he had walked out of his office at the Anderson Manufacturing Company in Elyria, Ohio, abandoning his life as a businessman, as well as his wife and three children.  Anderson moved to Chicago to pursue life as a writer and artist.

At least until 1924, Anderson worked in paint, completing lush portraits and abstract watercolors that reflect the style of his peers, especially that of Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work he saw at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery during a 1917 trip to New York.  He became friends with both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and sometimes saw the world he wanted to represent through their eyes.  “You or O’Keeffe would get something from it,” Anderson wrote to Stieglitz in 1923 about the flamboyant soil of the Reno desert, “make it live.  I’ve tried, but can’t seem to catch it."

In Chicago, Anderson had exhibitions of his own paintings in October 1920 at the Walden Bookstore (previously the Radical Bookshop) and shortly after at the Arts Club.  There is very little record of these exhibits, but for a skeptical, condescending review by Eleanor Jewett, the conservative art critic for the Chicago Tribune.  The paintings reproduced here illuminate the appeal of abstraction for Anderson: fluid, bright swaths of desert color; organic greenish-yellow stalks and leaves.  The paintings are provocative not for their excellence but for what they suggest about Anderson’s belief in the crosscurrents between writing and visual art.

Liesl Olson, Newberry Library

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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