Tunis Ponsen

by Susan S. Weininger



The dedication to visual truth was conditioned by his early training, first in Europe, later in Muskegon, and finally at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When Ponsen became a student at the School in 1924, it was still a bastion of conservatism. The traditional pedagogy emphasized representation of the human form and required technical mastery of drawing from anatomical models and plaster casts before life drawing was attempted. Painting was only undertaken after drawing was mastered. Students were encouraged to produce work that was not only conventionally realistic but morally uplifting. Although by the time Ponsen began his studies there were signs of rebellion among students and recent graduates, the school policies and most of the faculty were firmly entrenched in tradition.[13]

Among his teachers, most often mentioned are Leon Kroll, Karl Buehr and George Oberteuffer, the latter two staunchly conservative teachers of portrait painting.[14] A photograph of Oberteuffer's class (fig. 6) with several images of the same figure arrangement that appears in Ponsen's Young Man with Violin (cat. #3) is evidence that it was produced as a class project . Other works that seem to be products of traditional figure painting classes at the School of the Art Institute include Reposing Nude (cat. #2), Male Model (cat. #1), Study of a Young Woman (cat. #4), and Man Holding a Bottle (cat. #5). The dark, brownish palette, clear contours and emphasis on modelling and chiaroscuro to create a sense of three-dimensionality in each of these figures show the extent to which Ponsen absorbed the more conventional aspects of academic training. The visible, virtuoso brushwork and the reflected light playing on objects link him to artists like William Merritt Chase, possibly through one of his students, like Chicago portraitist Louis Betts.[15] Not only do these works resonate with the Dutch tradition that shaped his earliest vision, but also with .his adopted heritage in America.

The romantic, exotic costume in the Study of a Young Woman heightens the state of revery communicated in her pose, with its tilted head and closed eyes. Man Holding a Bottle, on the other hand, is realistic and straightforward, complete with sun-reddened face contrasted with a chalky white forehead normally shielded from the sun. That this painting was included in the Art Institute's juried Chicago and Vicinity exhibition in 1928 attests to the popularity of this type of work in Chicago as well as the quality of Ponsen's efforts during and shortly after his student years.

Ponsen's self-portraits of the 1920s (Self-Portrait, 1928, cat #12, and Self-Portrait with Cigar, 1929, cat. #13), characterized by the same technique as the figure studies, depict Ponsen emerging from a shadowy background. The canvases, brushes and other artists' tools that appear in both these paintings establish his professional identity. Yet we know little more about Ponsen; the few books scattered on a table and the flowers in a vase in the earlier work are more like still life props than personal emblems. Ponsen seems to retreat into the darkness rather than emerge from it, leaving the viewer with a picture of a reserved and objective artist whose personality does not intrude on his images.

His late Self-Portrait (1964, cat. #51), done just a few years before his death, is different but not more revealing. Ponsen's head and torso emerge from a light background and are pushed up to the picture plane, dominating the image. There are no references to his occupation, no extraneous detail. Dressed in a business suit and tie, he could be a slightly rumpled, but successful, executive sitting for a corporate portrait. Perhaps' secure enough in his later years to feel the overt identification as an artist was not necessary, he was still interested in the representation of what he saw above what he felt.

Arrangement with Eggs (cat. #6), a beautiful still life in the traditional mode of the 18th century artist Chardin, probably dates to the 1920s as well.[16] As a student, Ponsen won an Honorable Mention in Advanced Still Life in 1924.[17] Like the more academic figure studies, this painting relies on conventional techniques of chiaroscuro, strong contours and a brownish tonality. The simple objects are built of broad brushstrokes clearly visible to the viewer. Ponsen has placed the objects on a table that has an almost Cézannesque tilt so that the eggs and vegetables emerge from the pot as from a cornucopia. Like his later agricultural landscapes, this celebrates the bounty of the natural world.


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