DescriptionHENRY LYMAN SAYEN (American, 1875-1918)
Cubist Composition, 1917
Casein tempera on paper
20-5/8 x 17 inches (52.4 x 43.2 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: H. Lyman Sayen / 1917
PROPERTY FROM THE KING COLLECTION, TEXAS
Pfeifer Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York;
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Hollis Taggart Galleries,New York, "Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936," November 28, 2001-January 12, 2002;
Hollis Taggart Galleries,New York, "Celebrating 25 Years," March 10-April 23, 2005;
El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, "Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection," September 8, 2013-January 5, 2014, no. 62.
Hollis Taggart Galleries, Inheriting Cubism: The Impact of Cubism on American Art, 1909-1936, exhibition catalogue, New York, November 2002, p. 45, no. 29, illustrated;
Hollis Taggart Galleries, Celebrating 25 Years, exhibition catalogue, New York, March 2005, p. 57, illustrated;
A. Davidson, five-page essay on the artist's work, filed in the King archives;
"Discovering the American Modern 1907-1936: The King Collection," American Art Review, December 2013, pp. 80-87, 127, illustrated;
P.S. Cable, Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection, exhibition catalogue, El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, Texas, 2013, pp. 156-57, no. 62, illustrated.
An inventive scientist and groundbreaking artist, Henry Lyman Sayen is one of the most obscure yet important Americans to adopt the principles of Fauvism, and one of the most committed. He was captivated by the possibilities of color, by its ability not simply to represent emotions, but to embody them completely. Ever the scientist, he developed theories of color vision, believing that an individual's perception of colors depended on the context in which they were viewed; paired with various hues, colors would register differently to the eye. Cubist Composition is an extremely rare work by the artist in private hands, as many of his early modernist works are now lost, and in 1967 his daughter gifted her father's collection to the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D. C. The present work is one of only four known Cubo-Futuristic works ever created by Sayen.
Born in Philadelphia in 1875, Sayen exhibited a predilection for science as well art. At eighteen, he was cited by the Columbian Exposition of Chicago for his design of an induction coil while he was employed at Queen and Company, a manufacturer of scientific equipment. A few years later, he patented a self-regulating X-ray tube, and during this time he also worked alongside a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania's physics laboratory, perfecting diagnostic radiography.
Enlisting in the army during the Spanish-American War, Sayen was sent to Fort McPherson in Georgia to construct and man the first military X-ray laboratory. After contracting typhoid fever, he was discharged to convalesce. It was during this recovery period that his art interests took precedence over his scientific ventures.
In 1899, Sayen enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study with Thomas Anshutz, who would become a good friend; he also took night classes with sculptor Charles Grafly. To earn a living, he combined the study of commercial art with scientific design. In 1901, Sayen was awarded the silver medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, for an improved design of his self-regulating X-ray tube. He also won a competition to execute four allegorical murals for a committee room at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
In 1903, Sayen married a fellow Academy student, Jeannette Hope, who produced fashion designs for the department store Wanamaker's in Philadelphia. It was Jeanette's employer, Rodman Wanamaker, who funded the couple's 1906 trip to Paris with the expectations that they would design and supervise the printing of catalogues and posters for his stores in New York and Philadelphia, and would report on the latest French fashion trends. There the artist studied briefly with Charles Cottet at the Salon de la Nationale, but after meeting Leo and Gertrude Stein and viewing their collection, he soon became a regular at the Stein's home, and his art reflected his engagement with French vanguard painting.
He submitted examples of his new, Fauvist inspired work to the Salon d'Automne between 1909 and 1913. His work was so favorably received that he was invited in 1912 to become a member of the Salon, which allowed him to exhibit without jury approval. Unfortunately, the Sayens were forced to leave France in 1914 due to the onset of World War I.
Back in Philadelphia, Sayen was instrumental in promoting modern art in his native city, just as Alfred Stieglitz was doing in New York. Philadelphia had been a major artistic center for the development of modern American art since the mid-nineteenth century. It continued to be an important player in the development of modernism as Sayen maintained contact with Stieglitz through Philadelphia artists Charles Sheeler, Morton Livingston Schamberg and Charles Demuth. In addition, he collaborated with Schamberg in organizing Philadelphia's First Exhibition of Advanced Modern Art held at the McClees Galleries in 1916.
In Philadelphia, Sayen's wife, Jeanette, continued her illustrations for Wanamaker's, and Sayen himself turned to commercial work for financial support, illustrating for The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. He used pencil for sketching in the composition and then pen and ink, and some of these sketches are reminiscent of Matisse, with a similar emphasis on sunlight and shadow. He received his first one-man show at the local Sketch Club in Philadelphia in 1914, where he exhibited some of the paintings he had done in Paris. The critics, not yet familiar with French advanced painting, reacted unfavorably to what they deemed his "futurist" paintings. One reviewer commented, "He introduces strange color combinations and obscure forms... which are disquieting to the understanding" (as quoted in A.D. Breeskin, H. Lyman Sayen, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1970, p. 18).
After 1916, the artist developed an interest in American Indian art. He began to work in pottery, and an admiration for Picasso now overrode his passion for Matisse. He also began studying Futurism, and in works such as Cubist Composition, he shows an inventive use of collage. He employed wavy, stippled patterns and heavy lines segregating patterned, rounded triangular areas, probably derived from his study of American Indian art.
By 1917, "Sayen's Cubist explorations were anticipating devices that would later appear in Picasso's evolving dialogue with Cubism...here the dramatic displacements of features and the large color areas inscribed by thick black lines prefigure Picasso's Cubo-Surrealist pictures of the 1930s. Another notable feature of the painting is the decorative background patterning of wavy and parallel color lines, likely inspired by Sayen's study of Native American art. And ultimately, one cannot help but wonder if the artist's familiarity with X-rays informed the ossified structures like the knotted 'joint' at the center of the painting" (P.S. Cable, Modern American Painting 1907-1936: The Maria and Barry King Collection, exhibition catalogue, El Paso, Texas, 2013, pp. 157-58).
It is likely that Sayen's untimely death at the age of forty-three was hastened by his early work with uncontrolled X-rays. There was a memorial exhibition mounted in 1921 at the Philadelphia Galleries of the Wanamaker store, and in 1929 the artist was included in the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Cubist Composition firmly ranks among the most progressive and successful masterworks of American modernism, by an artist that has been all but forgotten.
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