Sunday, September 25, 2011

Is This A Portrait of Henry Miller?

On September 26, 2011, a private art collector in New York State will be auctioning work by artist John Nichols (1899-1963). One such painting will be a portrait that the collector(s) believe is meant to be Henry Miller, or based on Miller.

American painter John Nichols spent some time with the artists’ colony at Woodstock, New York, before going to Paris in 1930. There, the 31-year old painter befriended Henry Miller. That year, a bearded Miller (a temporary experiment) sat as a model for Nichols. He may have posed for other paintings, as well. Nichols left Paris in 1932, but his time there would be permanently recorded as the character Mark Swift in Tropic Of Cancer. For an overview of the relationship between Nichols and Miller, see my blog posting from a few years ago, “John Nichols and Miller’s Beard.”

NICHOLS COLLECTION
Although a few Nichols paintings are apparently owned by the Woodstock Guild and Art Association, the largest collection of his works (120) are owned by a collector (or collectors) in the Woodstock area, where Nichols used to live in a “shack.” My information comes mostly from the Nichols collector via email. Nichols is said to have been a colourist who experimented with several styles, including abstract expressionism, drips, and primitive minimalism. After leaving the art shack in Woodstock, he went to New York City to teach Art, then was eventually committed to the Bellevue Hospital where he died in 1963, in his sixties.

IS THIS A PORTRAIT OF HENRY MILLER?
In my personal opinion, if I were considering a venture with my own money, I would say that I lack the confidence to conclude that the man in this Nichols portrait is in fact Henry Miller. You may come to a different conclusion. What is lacking is a date on the canvas to aid speculation, or a clue-embedded title, or any documentation (that I know of) that suggests that Nichols or his wife Frances had personally identified this as Miller.

It would have also been helpful if there was a more convincing resemblance to Miller in the painting itself. The pale blue eyes, and maybe the lips, are suggestive of Miller, but the hair is a complete fiction. Miller was bald in his 20s (he was around 40 when he had his portrait painted, and his beard had spots of grey). No amount of testosterone-evident beard growth could have sparked the youthful mane that we see in this Nichols' painting.

The name “Henry Miller” has been written on the back of the wooden frame, but only after “Man With Beard – John Nichols” and in different handwriting. I would need to know more about the provenance of this artwork to be able to evaluate who added this identification and when. After 40 years of painting, I imagine that Nichols' had plenty of opportunity to paint any number of bearded men. I will, however, offer some considerations to support the arguement that this could be Miller.

A CASE FOR POSITIVE SPECULATION
1. Nichols was not obligated to, or didn't necessarily intend to, paint a portrait in the likeness of Henry Miller. Henry may have been posing simply as a human object. As such, Nichols could take liberties, such as adjusting features to achieve a certain dramatic look, or adding hair (a bit more romantic than baldness). The title on the frame backing, “Man With Beard,” also suggests the intent of a general image than a specific individual.

2. Nichols painted Miller more than once, and each a little differently. In March 1931, Miller wrote that Nichols and his wife Frances were working on “more portraits of him.” The collector from Woodstock says that he has a few other portraits from the “Man with a Beard” series, each done in a different style. This one is said to be the most “masterful” (if he has just a single bald one, that would go a long way to suggesting the model was Miller).

3. Nichols was not exactly the king of capturing likenesses. According to the collector, he owns self-portraits of Nichols that are “completely different.” In Miller’s description of Nichols’ portrait of him in Tropic of Cancer, he does mention that his head is “out of proportion” but was still a “man with a beard” (p.221).

THE MILLER PAINTING FROM TROPIC OF CANCER

John Nichols,
Standing Female Nude
(c. 1930)
Although I reference Cancer in the passage above, the painting therein is not the one under review here, because Miller adds that Swift (Nichols) added a typewriter and Eiffel Tower within the portrait (not seen in this one). The one under review is also not the portrait Nichols made of Miller in February 1931 (possibly the same as the one in Cancer?) which Miller describes as having “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 To Emil, p. 71]. The baldness clearly rules this one out.

There is a Nichols portrait of Miller at the UCLA Archives, although I have never seen the image. It would be fascinating to compare. Interestingly, the item mentions that it was signed by "Kate Nichols for Henry Miller.”
______

Anyhow, there is still an association between Nichols and Miller, and that makes Nichols a significant character in the Miller universe. Do your own research, contact the seller/auction house if you are interested. Sorry for the short notice, but the auction for this particular John Nichols “Man With Beard” painting is September 26, 2011, at Hudson Valley Auctioneers.

I welcome your opinions in the Comments section. What’s your take on this?

41 Comments:

Blogger Paul Behnke said...

I'll have to look at this article more carefully.
Love your blog and just discovered it.
I own a watercolor by Henry Miller. It is a view of the seine in Paris and signed by Miller with a title. I'll post a pic of it sometime...

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