Like others of writer Ernest Hemingway’s so-called “lost generation”—artists who left the United States at the start of the twentieth century in search of a more bohemian and modern lifestyle—Patrick Henry Bruce went to Paris in 1904 and remained there for more than thirty years. His...
Like others of writer Ernest Hemingway’s so-called “lost generation”—artists who left the United States at the start of the twentieth century in search of a more bohemian and modern lifestyle—Patrick Henry Bruce went to Paris in 1904 and remained there for more than thirty years. His first heroes were Henri Matisse [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?artist=Henri%20Matisse&objecttype=54] and Paul Cézanne [http://www.mfa.org/search/collections?keyword=Paul+C%C3%A9zanne&objecttype=54]; his early work explores the sights and forms of France with a coloristic exuberance inspired by Matisse and a search for structural rigor emulating Cézanne. By the end of World War I, however, Bruce’s world had contracted, as the international community of artists and collectors he had found so stimulating drifted apart. He began painting still life, a solitary and contemplative genre, concentrating on the objects gathered in his spartan rooms near the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His subject matter has been identified from photographs of the apartment. Here, on the tilted-up top of an antique table, Bruce has arranged carpenter’s tools, scrolled pieces of wood and architectural moldings (he supported himself by dealing in antique furniture), and possibly a piece of fruit. In emulation of Cézanne, who advocated rendering nature by means of simple shapes,  Bruce reduced his commonplace objects to abstract geometric forms. These he painted as weighty solids that nonetheless seem to interact dynamically. He constructed them with carefully calibrated perspectival accuracy but undermined their stability by showing each of his forms from a different vantage point; they threaten to tumble over one another and spill out of the picture space. Bruce painted meticulously, using careful gradations of color. Here he employed a whole spectrum of blues, augmented with deep green, a salmon hue, and black and white. Preoccupied by these color relationships, Bruce painted layer over layer. As he revised one area he saw the tonal balance of the whole composition shift, obliging him to then alter other areas (for example, all the black areas in this painting were previously blue), resulting in a thickly built up surface. By the 1930s lack of recognition, increasing isolation, and the elusiveness of the perfection he sought in his art drove Bruce to despair. He destroyed many of his works and in 1936, shortly after returning to New York, he committed suicide. His tragic intensity and his belief that his art could provide an opening onto the realms of the imagination are revealed in a poignant letter written in 1928 to his friend the novelist Henri-Pierre Roché: “I am doing all my traveling in the apartment on ten canvases. One visits many unknown countries that way.”  Notes 1. “Deal with nature as cylinders, spheres and cones, all placed in perspective so that each aspect of an object or a plane goes towards a central point.” Paul Cézanne to Emile Bernard, April 15, 1904, in Correspondance, ed. J. Rewald (Paris, 1937, rev. 1978; English trans., New York, 1984), 296. 2. Patrick Henry Bruce, letter to Henri-Pierre Roché, March 17, 1928, quoted in William C. Agee and Barbara Rose, “The Search for Patrick Henry Bruce,” ARTnews 78 (Summer 1979): 75. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
About 1919, the artist. Henri-Pierre Roche (1879-1959), Paris. By 1955, with New Gallery, New York; 1955, sold by the New Gallery to William H. Lane (1914-1995); 1955, held by the William H. Lane Foundation, Leominster, Mass.; 1990, gift of the William H. Lane Foundation to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 18, 1990)
Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation