Monday, July 03, 2006

John Nichols And Miller's Beard

In October 1930, Miller sat as a model for American expat painter John Nichols, with whom he then shared a glowing yet fleeting friendship. Nichols, he believed, was destined to become one of the greats. Nichols offered support for Miller as he struggled as a writer in Paris (for example, he fed him from time to time), all the while painting portraits of Henry during a brief phase in which Miller sported an unkempt bohemian beard.

"I feel convinced, when talking to him that I am standing in the presence of a genius. I can see in him another Van Gogh, or better.[...] Nichols is a deeply cultured guy, a rich, ripe guy of the autumnal cities, a man of feeling, of intuition, of instinct, but also of great intellect, and of great ego...charming ego...charming effrontery. The child-man, the wonder-man, soft-voiced, musical, sure, suave, convincing, and never-ending."
----- Henry Miller on John Nichols [Feb. 16, 1931], from Letters To Emil, (p. 74).

I found much of my biographical information about John Nichols from Miller's own words in Letters To Emil and this on-line listing on the AskART website. Otherwise, information is scant.

JOHN NICHOLS - A THUMBNAIL BIOGRAPHY

1899 John (Crampton) Nichols is born in Maywood, Illinois [AskART];

1923? (approx.) Nichols graduates from Amherst College [AskART];

1920s? Nichols continues his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, in New York with the Art Students League, and in Santa Fe with Raymond Jonson;
1920s Nichols "hobnobbs" in Woodstock, NY (art colony) with John Carroll, Speicher, Zorach, Kuniyoshi, and "that gang" [Letters, p. 74]; "he had a shack in Woodstock for a long time" [Letters, p. 103];

1930 (OCT 26/27) Henry Miller mentions in a letter to Emil Schnellock that Nichols "has arrived" in Paris [Letters, p. 66]. Nichols visits the Louvre in Paris every day to study the masters [ibid, p. 74]. Miller and Nichols become friends as Miller poses for his paintings;

1932 Nichols returns to America [Letters, p.103];

1934 Nichols works is given the "Most Promising [Of] The Year" award by the Woodstock Art Association (Keith Memorial Prize) [ArtASK; Nichols' work seen above];

1936 Nichols is included in the Museum Of Modern Art's "New Horizons in American Art" show, in which Williem de Kooning also showed [ArtASK];

1940s onward? Nichols is an art educator [ArtASK];

1963 Nichols dies [AskART];

HENRY MILLER ON JOHN NICHOLS

Throughout his letters to Emil, Miller offers glowing descriptions of Nichols (as seen in blue above). Even when he knocks his weakest efforts, Miller still acts as a John Nichols supporter: "And though sometimes his paintings are so putrid, so vile and amateurish, so weak and wobbly as to make me burst out in laughter, I know that other things of his are on the finest level and they fill me with reverence and awe." [Letters, p. 74]

According to Miller, Nichols has some "original dope" on Cezanne, he's a "great Renoir man" and extols the work of Rubens, but "hasn't much use for Picasso." "Warm, human personality, thinker, artist, scholar, sensualist--and has a private income! Therein lies his great blessing. He has time to do what he wants. Painting can wait on him. He holds the future in his hands." [Letters, p.75].

As for physical description, Miller paints him this way: "Dark glasses, ruddy beard, funny shirts, loud ties" [Letters, p.66]. Then, two years later: "He has a big red beard and silver-rimmed glasses, wears fireman's underwear and is always well bundled up." [Letters, p.103].

In Henry Miller: A Life, Ferguson provides an anecdote in which Miller gets into a fight with flatmate Richard Osborn over the way Osborn treats Nichols (he interrupted him). [Life, p. 178]. Mary Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive refers to a memoir written by Osborn, in which he describes the two men as having a "mutual admiration," "regard[ing] each other as geniuses." [Happiest, p.131].

Despite their great rapport, Miller didn't bother to see Nichols off when he left for the U.S. in the Fall of 1932. He wrote rather flippantly about it in a letter to Anais Nin a year later: "... my good friend Nichols [may have felt] injured vanity--because I, who was really his most cherished companion in Paris, did not even bother to say good-bye to him, or to run with the crowd to see him off, or to say, 'write me a line when you get back.' 'So long,' I said breezily, the last time we met, as though, well, if I never see you again, it was a pleasant time we had, but nothing to be conserved as a treasure."[A Literate Passion, p. 197].

It doesn't appear the Miller and Nichols stayed in touch after this point, though he did recommend his New York friends to seek him out.

HENRY MILLER WITH BEARD - THE PAINTED PORTRAIT

Henry's portrait was painted in his apartment at 2 rue Auguste Bartholdi, Paris. At the time, he had grown a beard.

"Yes, I have a full-grown beard now, mostly dark red, but peppered with gray and white. The concierge doesn't like it at all, and my laundry woman says every time we meet: 'C'est pas beau, monsieur. Vous etes vieilli' ['It makes you look old']--or something like that. But it's my beard and I'm very proud of it. It's untrimmed, you know, and in a few more weeks I'll be another Dostoevski. I can't stand these Montparnasse beards--they look so damned artificial." [Letters, p.71].

In a letter to Schnellock dated February 16, 1931, Miller mentions that Nichols is coming by to put the "finishing touches" on the portrait. He decsribes the near-completed work like this: " I think it is a Renoir, with a slight element of the caricature, a la Grosz--if that conveys anything to you. The underlip is very prominent and the dome bulges out eloquently, very like the Invalides." [Letters, p. 71]

If anyone knows of the existence of this painting, please let me know.

FRANCES WOOD - NICHOLS' "WIFE"

In his Letters To Emil, Miller makes mention of Nichols' "wife," Frances Wood (nee Ginsburg; seen in a 1932 self-portrait, at left). Comparing this reference to this on-line biography of Wood, it seems her relationship with Nichols was not a married one.

In a letter dated March 10, 1931, Miller says that both Nichols and Wood are working on new portraits of him. "Francie slapping the canvas, a la Titian, until it sings with her bludgeon strokes." [Letters, p. 78].

A chronology of Wood's life and photos of her may be found here.

NICHOLS AS 'MARK SWIFT' IN TROPIC OF CANCER

"If he was not a genius he was certainly an eccentric, this caustic Irishman." -- Henry Miller on John Nichols as 'Mark Swift' in in Tropic Of Cancer, p. 191.

Of course, being an acquaintance of Henry Miller during this fertile Paris period means that Nichols was characterized in Miller's Tropic Of Cancer. In it, he is called Mark Swift; his lover is simply refered to as a "Jewess," and is clearly Frances Wood. On pages 191-193, he decsribes a contentious relationship about to crack: "he was now tired of her and was searching for a pretext to get rid of her." Miller gives an unflattering portrait of two critical, competing artists; Nichols/Swift seems to be using her, and Miller focuses on Wood/the "Jewess's" imperfect body.

On pages 221-222, Miller specifically mentions the Nichols portrait of him. He states that Nichols is the one to encourage him to grow a beard. The final product is decsribed like this:

"I had to sit by the window with the Eiffel Tower in back of me because he wanted the Eiffel Tower in the picture too. He also wanted the typewriter in the picture [...] [T]here was Swift's portrait of me stuck on the easel now, and though everything was out of proportion, even a cabinet minister could see it was a human head, a man with a beard. " [Tropic Of Cancer, p. 221].

17 Comments:

Anonymous Kreg said...

Hey RC,

It appears the portrait of Miller by John Nichols is in the UCLA collection of Miller's papers. Here is the listing:

Nichols, John. [Portrait of Henry Miller] . 1931? . 1 items.
Oil painting, 56 x 67 cm. Signed on recto, "John Nichols, signed by Kate Nichols for Henry Miller."

Unfortunately, they don't provide an image, but the listing is here:

http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=tf9t1nb6z6&chunk.id=c02-1.2.8.7.4&brand=oac

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