Decades After his Death, a Realist Painter Finds Recognition as a “Visual Philosopher”

Feb 17, 2016 12:50AM

We generally think of philosophy—“The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence,” says the dictionary—as an academic pursuit. “Visual Philosopher,” a new exhibition of works by the American Realist painter R. H. Ives Gammell, suggests that these studies needn’t be limited to written texts or university debates.

The exhibition, at Childs Gallery in Boston, brings a private collection into public view, offering ample evidence that over the course of his long, varied career, Gammell (1893–1981) contributed to the field through his ruminative, deeply layered paintings.

After serving in France during World War I, Gammell returned to Boston and became a student of William Paxton, a key figure in the Boston school. Gammell eagerly borrowed from that tradition: Paintings like Figure With Totem (circa 1980) and Panel 13 (often referred to as a “Puppy Panel”) reveal the artist’s interest in natural scenery as well as his attention to light and its interplay with the human form.

But, unlike many painters associated with the Boston school, Gammell was neither a landscape painter nor a portraitist. His paintings go further than capturing a moment, postcard-style. Instead, his works are allegorical, often dark and suggestive of myth, hinting at undercurrents of human emotion.

Study for Intruders, 1973
Childs Gallery
Study for Panel VI, The Hound of Heaven Series
Childs Gallery

In Study for Intruders (1973), cheerful balloons and colorful mimes stand in contrast to a cavernous chamber and solemn religious iconography, forming an unexpected juxtaposition of classical and modern,  piety and entertainment, whimsy and danger. There’s even more to unpack in Study for Panel VI of “The Hound of Heaven Series,” a 23-panel sequence based on Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Finished in 1956, the series is what Gammell called a meditation on the human condition, with imagery drawn from centuries of philosophical and mythological thought.

There’s no one way to read these works. Rather, as philosophy should, they invite contemplation and offer inroads to a deeper conversation about reality and existence.

Bridget Gleeson

R. H. Ives Gammell: Visual Philosopher” is on view at Childs Gallery, Boston, Jan. 14–Mar. 12, 2016.