ALBANY Lucien Abrams’ star as a Texas impressionist had receded into the status of a black hole, but the current exhibition of his paintings at the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, “Lucien Abrams: An Impressionist From Texas,” is attempting to juice it back into luminosity.
Abrams was less an impressionist than he was impressionable; his paintings bear such a strong resemblance to works by more famous artists that touring the galleries in the Old Jail is a game of That-Reminds-Me-Of-A...(fill in the artist’s name here). Use Cezanne frequently, with an occasional reference to Renoir, Gauguin, Morisot, Pissarro, Whistler or Sargent, and you’d be right.
There is not an evident Abrams style, just a journeyman’s attempts at everyone else’s.
He’s at his best when he paints landscapes channeling Cezanne and Pissarro. His scenes of young women reading or sewing have the intimacy of Berthe Morisot and the soft colors and brushwork of Renoir, whom he greatly admired. Those influences put him all over the map and in many time frames.
In 1894, eight years after the last impressionist exhibition in France, Abrams arrived in Paris. The impressionists were well on their way to other “-isms,” and Abrams seemed happy to follow along without any strong conviction for the bold colors of the fauves, or the flattening plane of the cubists. He was content to look back at what had been done and borrow what appealed to him. He said he would let the subject matter dictate the style.
This artistic direction, or lack thereof, wasn’t going to make headlines in Europe, but a Texan painting in Paris in the radical style of the impressionists was a very big deal back home, and Abrams exploited this cachet, sending works regularly to Fort Worth and Dallas for exhibition. The first city to hang his work was Fort Worth, in one of the early Carnegie Library shows.
High society in Dallas
The Abrams family arrived in Dallas in 1883 when Lucien was 13 years old. His father, William Henry Abrams, worked as the land commissioner for various railroads, and then, with his knowledge of the Texas landscape, he leased thousands of acres in the Permian Basin and East Texas for oil and gas exploration. He made a fortune, which allowed the family to become entrenched in Dallas society.
His father helped found the Dallas Club, and his mother was the first president of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Club; she helped establish the Dallas Art Association in 1903. In less than two decades, the Abramses became old Dallas money.
Lucien wanted to be an artist, but to appease his father, he obtained an architecture degree from Princeton University. Then, with no desire to be an architect, immediately he hightailed it to New York City to become an artist.
He studied at the Art Students League with American impressionists William Merritt Chase and Frank Vincent DuMond and followed their example by moving to Paris with the intent to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The French institution rarely accepted non-native students, so Abrams enrolled in satellite schools taught by French academic painters. For a short while, he attended James McNeill Whistler’s Académie Carmen.
He was bankrolled by the family back in Dallas but eventually found success as the Texan in Paris.
His French period lasted from 1894 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, with yearly trips back to the U.S. In 1900, he lived for a while in Fort Worth; in 1907, he hopscotched from Mystic, Conn., to New York City, to Monhegan Island, Maine, and Rockport, Mass. He also traveled widely in Europe, visiting Algeria, Italy, Spain, Belgium and The Netherlands, painting at each stop in his varied itinerary.
In 1908, he settled in Provence for six years. Abrams moved to Old Lyme, Conn., in 1914, where a number of the New York impressionists had settled. He brought along his Parisienne fiance, Charlotte Gina Onillon, a graduate of the Sorbonne.
All the while, Abrams was exhibiting his work in the U.S. — at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1903 and 1911, and the National Academy of Design in 1908. His greatest market, though, was in Texas, where the impressionist movement continued to gain traction until the 1930s. He exhibited in the Texas Artist exhibitions in Fort Worth in 1913, 1914, 1916 and 1917; at the State Fair of Texas in 1908, 1909, with a one-man show in 1914, and 1923; and at the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936 with Garden on the Ledge.
Abrams’ work was well received when he exhibited, says exhibition curator Michael Grauer, of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. “Even in The New York Times, they were very positive.”
The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (as it was known at the time) gave him a solo exhibition in 1934, and it has two of his works in its permanent collection. There are regional institutions that have Abrams’ work — the Panhandle-Plains museum in Canyon and the McNay in San Antonio — and some are in private collections, but the majority of his paintings are owned by his granddaughter and with a few exceptions it is the family trove that is on display in Albany.
After Abrams’ death in 1941, his widow and daughter fiercely hoarded his works, as has his granddaughter. This has contributed more to his diminished stature in the art world than has his “flexible” painting style, says Grauer. “The paucity of works in the public domain has jeopardized his legacy. He was a giant at one time, but because of everything staying in the family, people don’t know who he is anymore.”
Abrams never dated his paintings or kept records of what he painted or where, so in mounting this exhibition, Grauer was at a loss as to their chronology. Since Abrams did not develop a personal style, it was impossible to ascertain when works were executed. He had a habit of substituting frames among his works, so exhibition tags that were affixed to the back often did not reflect the painting in the frames, making Grauer’s job even more difficult.
There are several display cases of Abrams’ ephemera in the exhibition, early sketchbooks from his teen years, photographs from his travels, some of which were obviously used for his paintings, and exhibition tags, but these bits were not helpful in creating a timeline of his paintings.
“When I first started this project, it was difficult to see his style. After a while seeing so many, and in working with his granddaughter, I am much better at it,” Grauer says.
But he, too, recognizes that the attraction in Abrams’ work is in its relationship to the French painters whom he emulated.
“Everything is all derivative,” he says. “I don’t think he was trying to be Cezanne or Gauguin. He was trying to be most effective. His is sort of an art history lesson, and that’s the cool part.”