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Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical.

Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical

by Constance Kimmerle

James A. Michener Art Museum and University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008

Elsie Driggs has long been well known to Americanists, though her reputation was based largely on just a few works, most notably her stunning canvas, Pittsburgh (1927; Fig. 1). The process of reclaiming her work and career began on these pages in 1986 with an article by John Loughery. (1) This was followed in 1990 by an exhibition catalogue authored by Thomas C. Folk which accompanied a show of 59 works organized by the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. (2) This handsome new volume by Constance Kimmerle completes the process of fully restoring this talented individual to the chronicle of American art history.

Elsie Driggs's (1898-1992) story is a familiar one. Like so many of her female contemporaries, "Mrs. Gatch" was usually "found" when others came to visit her artist husband, whose career she wholeheartedly supported at the expense of her own. (3) Driggs herself would receive little attention until after his death in 1968. Thus the chronicle of her career, which commenced with considerable promise, follows a sadly typical course. When she first approached the Charles Daniel Gallery in 1924, his assistant advised her "not to sign her name" (7) so the owner would not know she was female. But Daniel clearly recognized her talent, and not only included her in group shows but in 1929 gave Driggs her first one-person exhibition. (4) When her work was purchased by notable modernist collectors, including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Ferdinand Howald, she appeared poised for great success. But with her marriage at the age of thirty-seven in late 1935 to the abstract painter Lee Gatch (1902-68), her gradual erasure from the art world began. The year after they married, the couple settled in Lambertville, New Jersey, a town on the Delaware River across from New Hope, Pennsylvania, the latter the center of an important colony of Pennsylvania Impressionists. The old three-room stone house on the edge of town that was their home for the next thirty-one years was both isolated and "primitive" (7). When they moved in, it lacked running water, and they carried in buckets from the nearby brook. In winter, Driggs melted snow to wash dishes.

In the first of her two major essays, "'Something in the Air,'" Constance Kimmerle, Curator of Collections at the James A. Michener Art Museum, considers the "ideological and emotional richness" (13) of an artist who, although a modernist, had a deep appreciation for the "structure, order, and simplicity" of the Old Masters whom she copied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (12). Both the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca and Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne remained significant influences, with Piero reinforcing the "fresh and vibrant" classicizing vision of the later French painter (25). The balance Driggs achieved between tradition and modernism she characterized as "the quick and the classical" (13). Shaped by the "awesome dynamic forces" and the "social energies" of the Machine Age (14), her late 1920s works embody the spirit of the era. Fascinated with structure, she found in her art "an instrument of insight and discovery" as well as experimentation (15).

Kimmerle's biographical account, the subject of her second essay titled "Elsie Driggs," places the artist's work and career within a rich period context. Driggs studied at the Art Students League with Robert Henri, George Luks (who sketched her sister Elizabeth), and Maurice Sterne, as well as privately with John Sloan. Driggs's earliest surviving paintings are still lifes dating from her student years. Other women artists portrayed these subjects during this period--Georgia O'Keeffe and Helen Torr are among the most noteworthy--and Driggs's oils, Leaf Forms (1918) and Chou (1923), as well as several beautiful pastels on paper, Gloxinia (1925) and Cineraria (c. 1926), compare strongly with those of her contemporaries.

During a three-year period, from 1927 to 1929, she created the six major Precisionist paintings for which she remains best known: Pittsburgh, Blast Furnaces, and Queensborough Bridge (all 1927), Aeroplane and River Rouge Plant (both 1928), and Saint Bartholomew's Church (1929). During this time she was both closely aligned with a significant period movement and based in New York City, and these works marked a brilliant start to her career. They linked "the sharp-edged simplified qualities of modern industrial forms" with the "architectonic structure and form of classical Renaissance artists" (30). She made exquisite drawings as studies for several of these paintings. The Precisionists favored the unusual beauties of industrial subjects, especially buildings (generally workers are not present and the labor that took place inside did not interest these artists). After Driggs was included in "The Precisionist View in American Art," a 1960 traveling exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, these paintings from the twenties--historically her most important work--were often reproduced in publications and remain her most recognized images.

Driggs's earlier, figurative works include ethereal watercolors of animals and people. Their delicate wobbly lines and loose washes of splotchy pigment, a technique she called "spotting" (29), suggest the earlier vaudeville images of Charles Demuth as well as the rhythms of Paul Klee. Driggs could be a powerful figure painter, and among her portraits dating from the first half of the twenties is one of artist Natalie Van Vleck (1901-1981), a student from Sterne's class who favored masculine clothing. (5) Her animal paintings are unusual, and works like The Oxen (1926) reveal her quirky visual sensibility. Figural pieces such as The Mob (c. 1925) and Riot (1929) anticipate the social realism prominent in American art during the 1930s.

The Depression was a difficult time for all American artists, and Driggs was no exception (her once wealthy family was bankrupted by the stock market crash). The Daniel Gallery, where she first showed her work in 1924, closed in 1932. She received government support under the New Deal, including a commission for a Post Office mural in Rayville, Louisiana.

Kimmerle's book includes four appendices that enrich the content of her text. The first, "Remembering Elsie," is by Thomas C. Folk, who met the artist in 1985. He commissioned her last two works, The Javits Center (1986) and Hoboken (1986), and hoped she might complete a third canvas of the Pulaski skyway.

A detailed chronology succinctly presents the major events of the artist's life. Especially helpful is the "Selected Exhibition History and Critical Responses" that lists group and one-person exhibitions, with references to reviews and quotations from them. It is invaluable in charting her reception in the art world, beginning with her debut at the Daniel Gallery in 1924. Her second solo show was at the Rehn Gallery in 1935, followed by a third in 1938. Subsequent reviews were positive, but the record reveals a gradual withdrawal from the art world. A review of her show at the "Artists Gallery" in 1948 identifies her as being the "wife of painter Lee Gatch" (139), and responding to her fourth one-person show at Rehn in 1953, a critic notes her brief return "after some years' absence from the art shows" (139).

In 1923, while she was still a student, Driggs visited Italy, where the work of Piero and other Renaissance artists captured her imagination. This stayed with her, and her essay, "The Search for Piero della Francesca," written in the late 1970s for a class she took at New York University, is reprinted here.

Many women entered the field of illustration, which could be done remotely, but unlike her contemporary Wanda Gag, Driggs did not pursue this field. During the mid-thirties, Driggs made illustrations for a potential children's book about a tiger titled "Benji-Ben-Ali-Bengal." It was never published but the typescript is reproduced, along with one of her brightly colored watercolors.

The text is accompanied by 110 excellent reproductions (77 color and 40 black and white), and the high quality of the color plates reveals the strength of Driggs's talent. Also included are archival photographs, as well as works by her better-known Precisionist contemporaries Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. A five-page bibliography will guide the interested reader to other sources.


In addition to giving the fullest account of her life and career, one of the most significant contributions of this book is how poignantly it conveys the texture of what Folk characterizes as a "toxic marriage" (130) and the effect this difficult relationship had on Driggs's career, the shocking nature of which was missing from previous accounts. It makes for painful reading to see how, thoroughly isolated from the art world, Driggs falls into a co-dependent pattern imposed by her husband's conflicted nature. Driggs genuinely admired Gatch, regarding him as "one of the greatest artists that ever hit this country" (127). But he had no such respect for her achievements, nor was he sensitive to her needs as an artist.

Negotiating the sexual politics of a dual-artist household challenged many women, forcing them to deflect their ambitions and readjust their goals so as not to compete with their spouses. Driggs subordinated her career to Gatch's, even though hers was launched first (he did not participate in his first group exhibition until 1928, and had his first solo show in 1932). Gatch took over the only studio on their Lambertville property, and Driggs had no space of her own until the early 1960s, with the result that she gave up the medium of oil in favor of watercolors and collages that could more easily be made on the kitchen table. Such media were well suited for someone for whom time was "shredded" (44). She exhibited only sporadically, and not until 1980, a dozen years after her husband's death, was her work brought forward through the efforts of Martin Diamond Fine Arts with her first significant one-artist show in fifty years. (6)

Loughery had earlier observed that although her "name was out of circulation" for nearly three decades, Driggs "was content," by her own admission, "to work in the privacy of her country home, exhibit at rare intervals, and help her husband achieve some measure of the renown she had enjoyed earlier." Further, she "felt alienated from the ever-changing post-war New York Art world," (7) though this was something felt by both men and women as styles changed over time. Despite this, Driggs was not bitter, and as Folk recollected, "She did not have a huge ego--she was grounded and down to earth" (127).

Her art career was further truncated because of Gatch's intense professional jealousy and suspicion that the men she encountered in the art world were sexually interested in her. Although they went to the city for his openings, he did not want Driggs to attend her second one-person show in New York in 1938. Thus was a promising career short-circuited.

Children and their care altered the delicate balance of many two-artist households, and the birth of their only child, a daughter, in 1938, placed further burdens on Driggs. In his earlier catalogue, Folk noted that she produced little in the forties and fifties "because the role of wife and mother was so time consuming."8 Driggs herself noted with gentle understatement that the birth of her daughter "sort of slowed things up for a while" (48).

Driggs's isolation was not, however, solely the result of their rural residence, even though she characterized their location as being "divorced from everything" (43-44). Despite not living far from the many artists who formed the New Hope art colony, the couple socialized little. Gatch suffered from depression, unpredictable mood swings, and alcoholism, and while he could be "social and approachable," if he had been drinking heavily, he would become "hostile" to his wife and daughter (130).

After Gatch's death, Driggs sold the Lambertville house and with her daughter moved to New York, where she remained until her own death in 1992 at the age of ninety-three. Reinvigorated, she returned to oils and her work increased in scale. However, it is in her late drawings with collage, such as Audubon (c. 1978), Cobbler (1979) and The Red Cabbage (1980) that the fascinating quirk of her early talent flashes once again.

If her art world presence withered over time, this volume gives ample evidence that her creative spirit did not. Driggs remained "an adventuresome artist who remained open to change," ever alert to "the next turn" (7). Ironically, Gatch's star has faded, and it is Elsie Driggs whose position in the history of American art is finally secure.


(1.) See John Loughery, "Blending the Classical and the Modern: The Art of Elsie Driggs," Woman's Art Journal 7:2 (Fall 1986/Winter 1987): 22-26.

(2.) Thomas C. Folk, Elsie Driggs: A Woman of Genius (Trenton: New Jersey State Museum, 1990).

(3.) Her contributions have been written out of her husband's chronicle. See Adelyn D. Breeskin, Lee Gatch, 1902-1968 (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971). Her text does not mention that Driggs was also an artist.

(4.) For more on this important gallery, see Julie Mellby, "A Record of Charles Daniel and the Daniel Gallery" (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, Hunter College, 1993). Daniel operated his gallery between 1913 and 1932. Mellby lists shows which include work by Driggs in her appendix, including a number missing from Kimmerle's list (p. 262).

(5.) For more on Van Vleck, see Marian Wardle, ed., American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2005), which includes Driggs, also a student of Henri.

(6.) There was a small show at La Boetie in New York in 1971.

(7.) Loughery, "Blending the Classical and the Modern," 25.

(8.) Folk, Elsie Driggs: A Woman of Genius, 37.

Betsy Fahlman is Professor of Art History at Arizona State University. Recent publications include Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster (2007) and an article on Muriel Draper in WAJ (2005-06).
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Author:Fahlman, Betsy
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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