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Russell Cowles (1887 – 1979)

Old World, by 1943, oil on canvas, signed lower right, 43 ½ x 30 ½ inches, artist’s name and title inscribed verso; exhibited 1) Romantic Painting in America, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, November 17, 1943 – February 6, 1944, no. 59; 2) Recent Paintings by Russell Cowles, Kraushaar Galleries, New York NY, March 27 – April 15, 1944 (see a) Cowles at His Best in Ten New Exhibits, The Art Digest, April  1, 1944, p. 16 – “But then, Cowles can be romantic also. Woodland Magic and Old World each in their own way, win this denotation. The first goes so far in the direction of visionary beauty as to call to mind R. L. Newman, in certain passages of ruddy coloration; the second is a vision of ruin, of a crumbling monotonic promontory down which rides an old man and his old horse, and is of this day’s vision – none other.” and b) Devree, Howard, A Reviewer’s Notes Brief Comment on Some Recently Opened Shows – Paintings by Russell Cowles, The New York Times, April 2, 1944 – “One of the outstanding one-man shows of the season is made up of ten paintings – recent oils by Russell Cowles, at Kraushaar’s . . . Except for “Old World,” a dramatic comment on our time which was included in the “Romantic” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the “Snake Charmer,” included in the recent Whitney annual, none of the ten canvases has been shown before.”) 3) One Hundredth and Fortieth Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, January 19 – February 15, 1945, no. 108 (label verso); literature: 1) Miller, Dorothy C. and Thrall, James, Romantic Painting in America, The Museum of Modern Art (1943), p. 133; and 2) Bear, Donald, Russell Cowles, Dalzell Hatfield, designed by Merle Armitage, no. 327 of 1000 copies (1946), plate no. 12,  ex collection Kraushaar Galleries (New York) and Dalzell Hatfield Galleries (Los Angeles), presented in its original frame


Russell Cowles' Old World is a critically acclaimed and well exhibited painting which also serves as a poignant historical record of World War II. Cowles presents to disasters of the war in Europe through the metaphor of a beleaguered old man riding atop a sway-backed horse on the verge of stepping off a cliff into oblivion. The man looks to the rear apprehensively as if running away from some unseen evil force while a vulture looks on in the foreground at the ensuing calamity. The craggy outcropping, punctuated lighting and stormy sky in the background add to the drama. Though devoid of the explicit mayhem of combat, it is hard to imagine a more clear statement against the horrors of war.

Cowles was an eclectic painter who recalled, “I like to paint everything. I want to take the whole field of life. Art is an expression of the human spirit and it finds an endless variety of outlets, all the way from a Chinese landscape of the Tang Period . . .  to a religious painting by El Greco to a ‘Guernica’ by Picasso ." A native of Iowa, which Cowles recalled was a “cultural desert,” the young artist’s first exposure to painting was through his mother, who had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Cowles graduated from Dartmouth College in 1909 and then decamped to Paris to paint until his money ran out. He made it back to the United States in time for the Armoy Show in 1913 which disturbed and influenced his art in equal measure. After additional time at the Art Student’s League and the National Academy of Design, Cowles was awarded the Prix de Rome to study at the American Academy in Rome, where he stayed for five years, being deeply immersed in the Old Masters.

Upon his return to the United States, Cowles took up a deeper examination of modernism, while the 1920s found him traveling back to Paris and across Asia, soaking up varied influences. In his absence, one of his paintings was awarded the Norman Waite Harris Medal and Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. After returning to the United States, Cowles moved to Santa Fe where he associated with the painters of the New Mexico group. Cowles later split time between New York City and his farm in Connecticut.

He exhibited extensively during his career, including at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Salons of America, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. He was honored with over forty solo exhibitions and was represented by major art dealers on both coasts, including Kraushaar Galleries in New York City and Dalzell Hatfield Gallery in Los Angeles. Cowles is listed in Who Was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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