William S. Schwartz
by Biko Knox
William A. Karges Fine Art
by Biko Knox
William A. Karges Fine Art
William S. Schwartz (February 23, 1896 – February 10, 1977) was born to a poor family in Smorgon, Russia, where he attended art school on scholarship in adolescence before immigrating to the United States at the age of 17. There Schwartz, who had “chosen his life’s work early on,” managed to support himself as an opera, vaudeville, radio and concert singer and painting houses in order to pursue his ultimate dream as a painter.
After moving to New York to live with his sister and then Omaha to study with J. Laurie Wallace at the Kellom School, Schwartz ultimately ended up in Chicago, where he studied under Ivan Trutnev and Karl A. Buehr at the Art Institute of Chicago. He graduated with honors in life drawing, portraiture, and painting before his career took off in 1926 when he had his first solo exhibition of three at the Institute in 1926.
Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches
He was well known as a distinctive character who sported a handlebar mustache with long hair and a thick accent and was known to frequent Riccardo’s Restaurant and Gallery with other well-known artists such as Ivan Albright, Malvin Albright, andAaron Bohrod. In 1921, Schwartz met and eventually married Mona Turner—then a married woman and mother of two—who he adored and benefited from greatly as she became both his muse and “least lenient critic.” Together they toured the US by car to visit friends as Schwartz painted the country en plein air.
Throughout the Great Depression he supported himself by painting murals in a regionalist style at numerous post offices for the Federal Art Project. He incited minor controversy with his nude lithographs, and his subject matter moved freely between genres to suit his vision. “I have painted in faith and in freedom,” wrote the artist, “faith that somehow what I have done will reflect the best that is in me—freedom to choose my own themes in my own way.” Ultimately Schwartz was most known for and worked most prolifically in symbolist and abstract styles, but he characterized the American scene as, “more colorful and challenging than I or any artist might hope to record in a hundred lifetimes.”
Identifying himself as a “romantic modernist,” he was heavily influenced by surrealism and incorporated influences from cubism and constructivism into his abstract works.
"Figures in a Rocky Landscape"
Oil on board, 10 x 12 inches
In the 1920’s he began his series Symphonic Forms, regarded by many as the height of his oeuvre. Marrying his two passions, art and music, the paintings from the series feature surreal biomorphic forms and bright colors recalling the fauvists. Punctuated by jagged cubistic shapes and tonalistic hues, his symphonic scenes evoke the timbre, notes, and compositional scale of the vibrating and evolving musical works they were inspired by, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 23. Recalling Kandinsky’s lyrical mysticism, Schwartz’s work seems to capture the spirit of music in its variegated form.
Writing for the Chicago Tribune in 1970, Schwartz put his work into his own words:
My subjects are the beauty and wonder, the laughter and poetry, the pity and terror of the present world, which is the only universe I know. My drawing, composition, color, and techniques are based on the best education I could come by and extended to the limits of my own creative invention and capacities. I do not imitate. Therefore I, and I alone, am responsible for the vision of the world I set before the viewer.”
Swimming between different styles and influences and inspired by the American landscape and subject matter, Schwartz’s surreal visual opuses stand out as stunning reminders of his work as a uniquely abstract modernist.
Schwartz, William S. “An Artist’s Love Affair with America.” The Chicago Tribune. April 5, 1970, Pages 64-65.