Why has the work of Robert Vickrey, one of the last living masters of egg tempera, remained so obscure?
After J.D. Salinger passed away on January 27 the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. put on display a painting of the author by Robert Vickrey. The work, which Vickrey did for a 1961 Time magazine cover, offers a detailed examination of Salinger’s long, thin face and dark, prominent brow. Salinger is 42 at the time and his finely rendered crest of jet-black hair is graying at the sides above his large, oval-shaped ears. Behind Salinger stretches a golden field of what we must assume is rye. In the distant background, a child, young Holden Caulfield, guards a dangerous cliff edge, protecting the other children from falling into the abyss of adulthood.
The painting was hung in honor of Salinger, to invite viewers to nostalgically study the reclusive author’s face and to remember his books that shaped our adolescence. But for those familiar with the image itself, the National Portrait Gallery’s curatorial decision is a chance to revisit the work of Vickrey, an American realist painter and one of the last living masters of egg tempera, whose relative obscurity in today’s art world is largely incongruous with his contributions to 20th century art. Vickrey’s portrait of Salinger was only one of 78 covers he painted for Time magazine from 1957 until 1968. His other sitters included Martin Luther King, Jr., John Updike, Nikita Khrushchev, Walter Cronkite, and William Faulkner. Forty-eight of these portraits are housed in the National Portrait Gallery. Prior to Time, throughout the 1950s, Vickrey was a central figure in the magical and lyrical realism art movement and he participated in nine Whitney Museum of American Art Annual Exhibitions (now called the Whitney Biennial). As his prominence as a painter rose, his work was grouped in exhibitions alongside artists like Andrew Wyeth, Paul Cadmus and George Tooker, to whom Vickrey is often compared.
This is only a fraction of what Vickrey has accomplished in his long career, yet he is not a household name mainly because of the timing of his ascension. As history has shown, the realists, especially magical realists, faced insurmountable odds in the middle of the century. They fought to keep a toehold in the American artistic zeitgeist, but as they did American abstraction was fast becoming the novel and influential movement of the period and it sidelined other art movements in its path.
Vickrey witnessed this firsthand as a student in Yale’s BFA program in 1948. Though American abstraction was known by 1948, it had not yet penetrated Yale’s academic walls and so the program’s emphasis remained on studying the history of art and producing art from this base of knowledge. Two teachers in particular, Lewis E. York and Daniel V. Thompson, espoused this didactic path and taught Vickrey the Renaissance techniques of egg tempera by introducing him to Cennino Cennini’s Il libro dell’arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), a 15th-century guide to painting and art. It helped, of course, that in 1933 Thompson had done a landmark translation of the book that was required reading for his students. It was from this book that Vickrey was first attracted to using egg tempera and he sought to learn to use the medium in the vein of Renaissance masters like Giotto.
Then, in 1950, Yale’s art school had a philosophical upheaval. Josef Albers, who had most recently been an instrumental figure at Black Mountain College, was invited to head the program and there began the school’s great shift toward design, modernism, and abstraction. The academic establishment no longer supported Vickrey’s artistic inclinations. Vickrey recalls Albers looking over his shoulder as he worked and suggesting with disapproval, “Why don’t you try something more abstract?” Albers’ suggestions went unheeded. Vickrey pursued realism and egg tempera and endeavored to develop the central themes that have characterized his work for over 60 years. The art world, on the other hand, went the way of Albers at that time.
Sixty years later, however, Vickrey’s steadfast adherence to realism and egg tempera has the potential to come full circle. The contemporary art landscape is now dotted with more than a few realist painters who look to the past to influence their work. Au current artists like Kehinde Wiley and John Currin have made strides in adapting Renaissance and Mannerist style for a modern art palate. Walton Ford, who paints lushly-detailed wildlife scenes that often tell the tale of man’s abusive relationship with nature, is a contemporary realist in the mold of Audubon. One can see slivers of Vickrey in Ford’s artwork. In Vickrey’s supra-real canvases, shoots of grass are individually aware. Each strand of hair is filament-thin and traceable. The quality of every line is anchored in the real, they obey the laws of our world, and when depicted in the thousands on a Vickrey canvas, the effect is of having exceptionally acute vision. These same indulgences with detail can be seen in many of Ford’s works.
Even the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum has adapted a figurative and surrealist style that is a conscious step away from non-objective painting. Then there is the group of realist painters highlighted in Phoebe Hoban’s April 22 piece in The New York Times. The article traced the artistic lineage of Alice Neel through contemporary painters like Marlene Dumas, Elizabeth Peyton, and Eric Fischl. Both Dumas and Peyton, though not artists that would directly lend new popularity to Vickrey, send a message to the tastemakers that realism and figurative painting are to be considered hip again.
If there is a parallel to be drawn between an artist like Peyton and Vickrey, it is in their focus on subject matter. Peyton has painted cultural and pop icons for over twenty years and Vickrey has had a similarly figuratively fixated career painting nuns and children. For the past fifty years these nuns have been the Daughters of Charity of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an apostolic order formed in Paris in 1633 who are distinct for their habits and cornettes, the latter of which are the Sister’s dramatic, stark-white headwear that extends horizontally like a bird in mid-flight. The artist claims he first happened upon images of the pious women in a photography annual at Yale. Ever since, they have provided a replenishing source of inspiration that has metaphorical weight while presenting endless possibilities to portray changes in light and angularity. (Vickrey shares this compositional trait with Edward Hopper.) Vickrey’s treatment of children in his paintings—it is his own children in many of the works—operates in a similar fashion. He has a fondness for portraying young children at play outside and, conversely, indoors in states of quiet solitude. In both settings, Vickrey introduces deep shadows and slicing geometries of light that add complexity and psychological profundity to the implied innocence of childhood. In essence, Vickrey is well aware that children are the perfect vessels, bright, exuberant, and uncomplicated, onto which adults can project their psychoses. But Vickrey is careful to include some measure of magic in his paintings, either in the bursting quality of the light or in whimsical patterning, and so rather than feeling bogged down by a cerebral torpor, there is an ethereal pleasantness present.
In Robert Vickrey: The Magic of Realism, Philip Eliasoph’s adoring book about the artist, Vickrey himself extrapolates on the meaning of his work. “I am searching to transform the harsh and unsightly aspects of the everyday into newly realized forms of beauty. It’s a certain emotion I am seeking—how an observer reacts to seeing radiant light hitting a windowpane or the shadows of leaves floating across a surface. I guess it’s just my way of finding the magic in the commonplace.” To this day, Vickrey’s search for transformation, for the commonplace magic, continues. At 84, he is still painting, returning each day to his easel to mix his medium from egg yolk and pigments. The hope now is that with the growing reputation of many of today’s realists and those artists channeling the past, the stage is set for a rediscovery of Vickrey, beyond the image of Salinger that hangs in Washington, D.C.