The Paintings of R. H. Ives Gammell
Born into a wealthy Providence, Rhode Island family in 1883, Robert Hale Ives Gammell was an American artist, one of the last American artists who were trained in the French Academic tradition of the late nineteenth-century. His work shows the influence of French Neoclassical painters Jacque-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, as well as Academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Gammell was also inspired by the work of his teachers: William Sargeant Kendall, with whom he studied from 1906 to 1914, and Boston artist William McGregor Paxton who mentored him from 1928 to 1930.
R. H. Ives Gammell attended Groton School, a private college-preparatory boarding school, where he spent much of his personal time drawing. His formal art education began at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts under Impressionist painters Joseph DeCamp, Edmund C. Tarbell, and Philip Leslie Hale. Gammell later studied in Paris at the Académia Julian and the Atelier Baschet under genre painter Henri Royer and portrait artist William Laparra. Although he had intended to stay five or six years in France, these studies in Paris were interrupted by his service in the United States military during World War I.
Upon his return to the United States, Gammell briefly returned to his studies at the Boston Museum School. However, he was frustrated as he felt that, although the standards established by the great nineteenth-century painters were generally accepted and understood, the procedures and principles for the construction of large figural compositions and imagined scenes were not being taught. Trained as an impressionist, Gammell was interest in painting decorative subjects in the academic tradition. He began his career in the Boston tradition with portraits, nudes and interior scenes with primarily female figures. As he matured, Gammell turned to ancient history, Greek mythology, literary and religious scenes, and psychology particularly that of C. G. Jung, for his subjects.
R. H. Ives Gammell produced many works in the 1930s; however, the recognition that he was working against the current trend in art and other stress factors led to a nervous breakdown in 1939. While recovering, Gammell read Carl Jung’s “Psychology of the Unconscious” and discovered an approach to a series of paintings based on poet Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”. Read while a sixteen-year old student, this poem had held Gammell’s imagination and formed the basis of a number of sketches. He now saw Jung’s work as a link between myths, symbols, poetry and the recurring emotional patterns of human life.
Gammell had begun planning in 1941 the sequence of images that would embrace many of the themes he had considered throughout his career. His “Hound of Heaven” series consisted of twenty-three large format oil on canvas paintings, each being 200.7 x 68.6 cm in size. These illustrations of Thompson’s poem contain images and symbols drawn from various ancient and modern sources and conjure up deep human responses. The series, completed and exhibited in 1956, is considered by many to be Gammell’s greatest achievement, one which represented his artistic aims and ideas.
Starting in the 1940s, R. H. Ives Gammell taught at the Fenway Studios in Boston. His classes included the study of anatomy, memory drawing and the sight-size method, a technique that ,when viewed from a set vantage point, presents the drawing and subject with exactly the same dimensions. Among his many students were painters Robert Cormier and Richard Frederick Lack, the founder of Classical Realism; Robert Douglas Hunter known for his academic still lifes; and Samuel Rose known for his realistic and surreal subjects.
Gammell publish a book of art criticism in 1946 entitled “Twilight of Painting”, in which he argued that the tradition of European craftsmanship was undermined by modern art with its emphasis on abstraction. He also wrote a monograph on the Boston painter Dennis Miller Bunker, one of the first biographies on this innovator of Impressionism, and the 1961 book “Shop Talk of Edgar Degas”, a discussion of Degas’s connection to the act of painting. Gammell wrote a book of essays entitled “The Boston Painters: 1900-1930”, an examination of the genesis, contributions and motivations of the Boston School artists, many of whom Gammell knew personally. This volume was published posthumously.
Robert Hale Ives Gammell died, at the age of eighty-eight, in his Boston home in April of 1981. His papers, diaries, and notebooks with sketches are housed in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Museum.
Note: A transcript of an 1973 Oral History interview with painter Robert Douglas Hunter, in which he discusses his years as a student of H. R. Ives Gammell, can be found at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art sit located at: https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_212739
Second Insert Image: R.H. Ives Gammell, “The Predicament”, 1958, Oil on Canvas
Third Insert Image: R. H. Ives Gammell, “William” 1915, Oil on Canvas, 74.9 x 59 cm, Provincetown Art Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Robert Ives Gammell, “The fates”, circa 1930, Oil on Paper, 26.7 x 28.6 cm, Private Collection