Artists as Couples

Artists as Couples

An Essay by Catherine Little Bert

Artists as couples pose one of the most complex of human psychological drama. They make Freud’s Oedipus complex seem like child’s play. Just think of international Abstract Expressionist artist couples such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner or Elaine and Willem de Kooning. Bert Gallery is exhibiting two twentieth century artists couples in the September/October show “Artists Who Marry Artists”. For both Rhode Island artist couples, bridging two generations, there was a competitive yet successful pairing. Percy Albee (1883-1959) and Grace Albee (1890-1985) balanced early 20th century traditional marital pressures with their careers while Florence Leif (1913-1968) and Gordon Peers (1909-1988) enjoyed less rigid cultural expectations when it came to their marriage by the mid 20th century.

How did these artist couples negotiate home life and the world of art? Did they exhibit together or paint together? Does one artist dominate or influence the other? Jim Lane in a 2001 essay on the Humanities Web points out that artist marriages are really a 20th century phenomenon mostly due to the fact that women were rarely professional artists prior to the 20th century and “few male artists would have had the nerve to marry one.”

Percy & Grace Albee
In the case of Percy Albee and Grace Albee we see the unusual example of the woman artist achieving more notable acclaim than that of her husband. Grace Albee has been the subject of two recent museum shows, the Brooklyn Museum in 1976 and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1999. She is in over thirty-three museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, RISD Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. By comparison Percy Albee is in few if any museum collections. Grace was voted unanimously into the National Academy of Design and Percy was never admitted to this prestigious institution. In the publication Who was Who in American Art 1564 – 1975, 400 years of artists in America – Grace has 42 lines dedicated to her accomplishments, Percy 18 lines. Grace was a much more accomplished artist than her husband and with a legacy of five sons there is ample feedback about how this artist couple related. Grace herself spoke to the challenge of managing a career with family in 1946. In an excellent new article on “The Early Career of Grace Albee” by Christina Moisant Weyl in the Print Quarterly, xxiv, 2007, 2, Weyl cites an American Artist magazine article on the topic:

Grace Albee is not a “career woman” in the accepted connotation of the term. Unlike those who with singleness of purpose completely sacrifice domestic life to professional pursuits, Mrs. Percy F. Albee first distinguished herself as the mother of five sons. For about fifteen years of her marriage in 1913 to Percy F. Albee, mural painter and lithographer of Providence, her art had to take second place. That period was pretty much occupied with home and family duties.

Son P. Frederick Albee in a private publication, “Grace Albee: Anecdotes of her Search for the Renown She Achieved”, tells of his great admiration for his mother and the challenges she faced in the art arena with her husband Percy Albee. One of the areas of artistic contention was subject, Mother told me that Percy told her she couldn’t handle figures. Figures, he said, were his strength, and she should stay away. To keep family peace, she obeyed. Furthermore, there was evidence of tension over her success as an artist. Fred goes on to write of his father…

He was jealous of her success… he sought many times to be voted into the National Academy. Mother lobbied for him; did her best, but to no avail.

Despite the artistic tensions that existed for Grace and Percy, they both went on to have successful careers and a marriage of 54 years. Together they negotiated the traditional marital roles of the time and evolved as artists. A well trained and accomplished artist in his own right Percy Albee studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Rhode Island School of Design. Percy Albee during the first years of marriage supported his family through his mural commissions while Grace concentrated on the children. He became a prominent mural painter in Providence and a respected lithographer in a regional venue.

Florence Leif & Gordon Peers
Florence Leif and Gordon Peers married in 1941, without children their artistic careers melded together easily. While Peers had the more impressive resume, he never doubted that Florence was a “better” painter. Evidence of this acknowledgement came with his devoted promotion of her work following her early death of a brain tumor at the age of 55. Peers set up a painting scholarship at their alma mater, RISD, in her name as well and organized several exhibitions of Leif’s work during the remainder of his lifetime. Florence was firmly dedicated to excelling in her painting profession after she graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1934. A quick succession of two one-woman exhibits at Pembroke Hall and the Providence Art Club caught the attention of colleagues and critics. Marriage was not part of her career plan as noted in a 1939 article, “she says she doesn’t expect to get married because she does not believe it is possible to paint for hour after hour, as she does now, if a house and family are clamoring for attention, too.” – Providence Journal, 1939

Yet it appears she succumbed to the charms of Gordon Peers fourteen years her senior. He was a graduate and professor at Rhode Island School of Design and significant artist who studied further at the Beaux Arts Academy in NYC and with noted American scene painter, Thomas Hart Benton. Both exhibited together in group exhibitions in Rhode Island as well as national competitions. They fell into an artistic rhythm where summers were spent at their Cape Cod home in Truro intensively painting winters in the Providence studios. Leif followed Gordon on his travels when he became RISD Department Chair and Director of the European honors program. Italy, Spain and Portugal were among the many locations they painted expanding their subject matter and fine-tuning their craft. Subject matter and locations were similar, the evolution of their styles progressed in parallel but the difference lay in their painting technique – Leif more spontaneous and slashing with vivid color versus Gordon’s plodding heavy palette knife resulting in carefully orchestrated canvases.

There are distinct differences between the two artist couples. Unlike the Albees’ of a previous generation, Leif and Peers enjoyed a focused artist life and both husband and wife achieved similar artistic status in their community. Peer’s determination that Leif was a more accomplished painter than Gordon has yet to be validated beyond personal conviction in a wider artistic arena. Whereas, with Grace Albee it is clear that even her late entry into a full time artistic pursuit, she quickly superseded Percy’s career and her family came to terms with her significant accomplishments. Where both couples coalesce is that no matter what artistic tensions encountered during their careers they stayed married and productive. They remained artists married to artists.

Photo Pictured at Right:
Percy Albee, The Kiss, 6 1/2″ x 8 3/4″, Etching
Albee family passport photo, 1933