His story sounds like the stuff of novels or movie scripts. Young artist from privileged family enjoys early success but career is halted by war. Returns to America, moves to New York, becomes a star among a vanguard of painters in the most significant movement of the second half of the 20th century. Leaves New York to live in Italy, forsakes the spotlight, makes mostly religious art and keeps it mostly to himself. Dies in Italy and is remembered obscurely as a successful abstract expressionist.
This is William Grosvenor Congdon, and you can view an exhibition of his work at the McAvoy Gallery at the Portsmouth Abbey School on May 14, from noon to 3 p.m., the only public viewing.
Born in Providence in 1912 to a family of wealthy industrialists, Congdon also benefitted from an artistic lineage. He was the cousin of the poet and actress Isabella Gardner, the great-niece of Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of the museum in Boston named for her. Congdon received a degree in English Literature from Yale University in 1934. He later took drawing, painting and sculpture lessons for six years from accomplished teachers. Then the war came.
In 1942, he joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver and served with the British Ninth and Eighth Armies. He was one of the first Americans to enter the Bergen Belsen Nazi concentration camp during its liberation near the end of the war. A few of his sketches from the horrific prison are in the Abbey exhibition, including a portrait of a man that bears a note: “Died the following day.”
He stayed with the AFS and did rehabilitation work in war-stricken areas of Italy. Prolifically recording his travels in diaries, he made hundreds of drawings documenting his experiences.
In 1948, he returned to the United States, settling in the Bowery section of New York City. Congdon quickly gained fame as a painter and was a notable part of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. While you can see similarities to other famous names from the New York school, Congdon’s style is clearly his own. Scratching the paint with palette knives and other tools to create cross-hatching, vague outlines of structures and people, he added to the dripping paint made famous by Jackson Pollock. Yet he was most appreciated for his sense of light. Art collector Peggy Guggenheim included several of Congdon’s works in her gallery and compared him to J.M.W. Turner.
Perhaps because of his post-war experience in Italy, Congdon moved to Venice in the 1950s even though he was being hailed among the best American artists of that decade. He was written up in Life magazine in 1951, had his work purchased by prestigious museums and galleries, and achieved a standing alongside figures like Mark Rothko and others of that time. He traveled extensively in the 1950s and continued painting.
The exhibition in Portsmouth includes several examples based on his travels, including an image of the Pantheon, a few from Venice, and some from other parts of Europe.
Frequent visits to Assisi while he was wrestling with his own success led him to convert to Roman Catholicism, move to the hometown of St. Francis, and pursue a change in his work. More profoundly, by the mid- to late-1960s, he had cut himself off from the materialistic post-war rush of the United States and embraced an artistic life free of commercialism.
He exhibited very little after 1960 and painted mostly religious iconography in his abstract style. Part of the fascination with a recent revival of his reputation comes from the fact that he continued to travel throughout the 1970s and created paintings and drawings that documented those travels. In 1979, Congdon moved to a monastery near Milan, where he would live and remain an active painter for the rest of his life. He died there in 1998.
The work on display at the McEvoy Gallery ranges from 1935 to 1996, with the majority produced over a 25-year span until 1960. Congdon’s sculptures and drawings reveal his most fundamental skills as an artist, just as his paintings take you on a journey from those fundamentals to the artist’s vision and particular style. Certain forms repeat in several of his paintings, whether it is a perfectly round moon illuminating a night sky against a dark, abstract foreground full of swirling paint or primitive looking scrapes and lines emerging from waves of color.
In “Rome No. 4” and “Piazza San Marco,” for instance, he scratched dome shapes into an abstract field that require attentive study that then pulls you deeper into the painting and his technique.
The Portsmouth Abbey School holds several shows each year to feature students and faculty as well as outside artists. This exhibition was made possible by loans of Congdon’s work from Richard Berkemeier, Emmylou and Evangeline Bush, and the Portsmouth Abbey Monastery.
Brother Joseph, one of the monks at the Abbey, stewards Abbey owned art pieces, including two Congdon paintings. He brought Berkemeier, a private collector of Congdon, into the planning for the show.