HENRY MARTIN GASSER (1909-1981) was an American artist, teacher, and author whose social-realist paintings depicting life in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey and wintry, snow-laden renderings of the towns and harbors along the North Shore of Massachusetts earned him much attention and acclaim during the first half of the twentieth century. He also executed many critically praised works during his travels throughout Europe and during a brief but highly productive sojourn to the island of Bermuda in 1949. Known primarily for his watercolors, he worked in a variety of mediums, including oil, gouache, and casein.
Gasser was born on October 31, 1909, in Newark, New Jersey. He began sketching and painting scenes of his hometown as a boy. Formally, his education in art began at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, followed by a period of study at the Grand Central Art School in New York City. He went on to enroll at the Art Students League, also in New York, where he took classes with Robert Brackman, a renowned figurative artist and teacher of Ukrainian origin who painted portraits of many of the era’s leading public figures, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Charles Lindbergh, and American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. But Gasser’s primary artistic influence was the prominent “Ashcan School” painter John Grabach, with whom Gasser took private lessons and who, besides serving as a mentor to the young artist, became a father-figure as well. Grabach’s portrayals of the everyday lives of working-class individuals in Newark and New York City, particularly his ability to accurately and poignantly capture the expressions and moods of his often downtrodden subjects within the context of a deceptively provincial compositional structure, earned his skills a place alongside the most highly regarded social-realist painters of his time; in 1980, the Smithsonian Institute paid him homage by mounting a solo retrospective of his work, a highly unusual tribute for a still-living artist. Gasser’s early works, featuring the backstreets of an already decaying urban landscape filled with dilapidated row-houses and lines of laundry hanging from windows, echo in subject, style, and composition the social-realist precepts passed down to him by Grabach and other like-minded painters whom Gasser emulated, such as John Sloan and George Luks. Both Gasser and Grabach were deeply affected by the suffering brought about by the Great Depression, and many of Gasser’s early scenes include people seemingly “worn down” by life, bent over and bracing themselves against the cold winter chill, often requiring the aid of canes. Gary Erbe, the curator of the posthumous Gasser retrospective, Beyond City Limits (2003-2004), made the point of stating, “he (Gasser) felt a connection to the working class . . . a solitary figure walking through the snow is repeated in a number of his paintings, perhaps symbolizing man’s personal struggle through life with all its trials and tribulations.” Gasser, who found compelling subject matter close to home, said that “it is the artist’s challenge to take advantage of this familiarity (with his environment) and infuse the ordinary with excitement.” He explained that his work during this period consisted of “everyday subjects that are available to most of us . . . I looked for them in front of houses, backyards, public parks, and elsewhere.” A firm believer that “even the most fragmentary sketch can form the basis for a future painting far better than the sharpest of photographs,” Gasser could often be spotted meandering thoughtfully through the streets of Newark, sketchbook in hand; his technique, however, cannot accurately be described as en plein air. As Benjamin Genocchio, writing a review of the Beyond City Limits exhibition for the August 17, 2003 edition of The New York Times, put it: “Few of Mr. Gasser’s pictures are a literal transcription of what he saw, but more a composite of quick pencil sketches worked up later in the studio into finished compositions.” Reflecting upon this paradigm, Gary Erbe added that, “Henry saw the urban landscape becoming increasingly dreary and he sought to inject beauty in his own language of painting . . . (he) was a master of dramatizing his subject at the expense of absolute accuracy. But isn’t that what all good storytellers do?”
Gasser’s prodigious domestic output extends beyond his gritty renditions of urban life; his oeuvre also includes townscapes and seascapes derived from his travels (often accompanied by Grabach) to the North Shore of Massachusetts, particularly Gloucester and its environs along the coast of Cape Ann. Composed primarily in winter and often depicting snow-covered dwellings and terrain surrounding a harbor or inlet and seemingly initially sketched from a vantage point overlooking the scene, many of these paintings are rated by critics to be among his finest efforts. Additionally, Gasser executed a series of works portraying African-American spirituality, featuring emotionally-charged, fluidly-drawn congregants partaking in church-related services and activities; in recent years these dynamic, idiosyncratic paintings have added a new dimension to Gasser’s already deep, multi-faceted legacy. He also continued to paint while stationed at Camp Croft in South Carolina during the Second World War, producing several works that provided snapshots of Southern culture, as well as the rigors of training for warfare.
Unbeknownst to many, Gasser spent a considerable amount of time traveling abroad. Though these sojourns resulted in work that, stylistically, was often at variance with his domestic efforts, a number of these paintings are regarded as notable representations of his more mature artistry. His trips to France produced many Parisian street scenes, often centered in the Montmartre district, which were executed in a colorful, Impressionist mode. He also traveled to Italy, where he concentrated on capturing the essence of life on the Venetian canals. Journeys to Rome, Spain, Greece, the Holy Land, and Africa rounded out his intercontinental artistic ventures. Closer to home, Gasser found inspiration in his lone trip to the island of Bermuda in June, 1949; his interest in the island may have initially been induced by some of his paintings being displayed at the Art Association there in both 1947 and earlier in the year that he visited. Using the Bermudiana Hotel as his home base, he painted, in a short period of time, several crisp and clear scenes which are regarded as exceptionally well-composed efforts, such as Bermuda and Bermuda Walk, the latter singled out as an apt example of Bermuda’s pastel-hued houses and lush semi-tropical foliage. Though no evidence in the historical record exists proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Gasser was on the island at any time other than 1949, a watercolor of his dated to 1970 and titled Bermuda Vista is included in the Bermuda National Gallery’s reference book, Cross Currents: The David L. White Collection; this fine painting, whose true creation date still remains in question, depicts dwellings bathed in a richly saturated red hue along with a native Bermudian on a bicycle in the foreground, with a glimpse of water beyond the hills on the horizon.
Few, if any, twentieth century artists were the recipients of the quality and quantity of accolades bestowed upon Henry Gasser; over the course of his career, he was awarded over one hundred prizes and medals by a variety of prestigious juried exhibitions, among them: the National Academy of Design (the Julius Hallgarten Prize); the American Water Color Society (the Zabriskie, Osborne, and Obrig Prizes); the National Arts Club; the Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore Water Color Clubs; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Montclair Art Museum; the Mint Museum of Art; the New Orleans Art Association; the Southern States Art League; the State Teacher’s College of Indiana, Pennsylvania; the Oakland Art Gallery; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic. He attained membership in over twenty eminent arts associations, including: the National Academy of Design (Vice President; Academician); the American Water Color Society (Vice-President); the Audubon Artists Society; the Allied Artists of America; the Royal Society of the Arts (Great Britain); the Salmagundi Club; the New Jersey Water Color Club; the New Jersey Water Color Society; the Rockport Art Association; the North Shore Art Association; the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic; the Baltimore Water Color Club; the Philadelphia Water Color Club; the Washington Water Color Club; the Springfield Art League; and the American Artists Professional League. Gasser was also a life member of the National Arts Club, the Grand Central Art Galleries, and the Art Students League. His work is represented in over fifty prominent museum collections (and many important private ones), such as: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Newark Museum; the Montclair (New Jersey) Art Museum; the Butler Institute of American Art (Youngstown, Ohio); the Springfield (Missouri) Art Museum; and the History Properties Section of the Department of War in Washington, D.C.
Other important aspects to Gasser’s artistic career were his roles as a teacher and author. He served as Director of his alma mater, the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, from 1946 to 1954, and taught Painting and Composition classes at the Art Students League from 1964 until 1970. Devoting much of his later life to lecturing and demonstrating painting techniques, he appeared before a variety of artistic organizations, including audiences on the North Shore of Massachusetts, a locale that had earlier served him so well as subject matter for some of his most critically-respected works. His publishing credits, in addition to being a contributing editor for American Artist magazine, took the form of instructional manuals on selected topics of painterly craftsmanship: Casein Painting (1950); Oil Paintings: Methods and Demonstrations (1953); How to Draw and Paint (1955); Techniques of Painting the Waterfront (1959); Techniques of Picture Making (1963); and A Guide to Painting (1964).
Henry Martin Gasser died in South Orange, New Jersey in 1981. Aside from the rich diversity of his artistic endeavors and his remarkable skills at composition and drawing, perhaps his most enduring attribute was to have shined a light on a particular moment in American history with an unfiltered, sharply focused clarity of vision. As Gary Erbe stated: “Henry’s Newark paintings go beyond aesthetics. They show vitality, reality, and even the imperfection of man’s relationship with a place in time frozen forever.” Gasser himself said that, “I have accumulated a collection of paintings that will serve as a historic record of the community.” The truth, however, belies the humility behind these words: Zealously covering artistic territory less courageous artists dared not tread, Gasser unflinchingly drew what he witnessed along the less-traveled backstreets of his beloved hometown.
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