A MALLARD DUCK
(1839, Rochester, N.Y. – 1899, Denver, CO)
A 19th Century American Trompe l’oeil artist
From Virginia to Arizona
In the spring of 1973, I accepted a position as assistant professor of French and 19th Century French Literature at Arizona State University. In July, I completed and defended my dissertation at Pennsylvania State University entitled “La femme et ses paysages d’âme dans l’oeuvre romanesque d’Octave Mirbeau” [Woman and Her Mental Landscapes in the Fiction of Octave Mirbeau]. At that time, Mirbeau was a forgotten French writer. He recently has been brought back into the limelight thanks to an ever-increasing circle of scholars, including the foremost Mirbeau scholar, Pierre Michel, in Angers, France.
Prof. Lois Boe Hyslop directed my dissertation. After its defense, I drove back to Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where I was teaching French. I packed my belongings, filled my VW bug to the brim and drove to Arizona, with no air-conditioning in the car.
In July, I settled in the Sir Lancelot Apartments, at 3524 Miller Road, in Scottsdale. Its friendly owner, Russ Krantzfelder, was a retired army colonel, who thought that all faculty members at ASU leaned toward the political left and Marxism.
A surprising acquisition
Sometime in 1975 or early 1976, the Boy Scouts held a rummage sale on the corner of Miller and Osborn, just a few steps away from the Sir Lancelot. Unable to resist browsing through rummage sales, I went to explore it. I came home with a brand new wooden jewelry box, donated by a department store, a second-hand imitation fur jacket in excellent condition, a lamp, and a painting in an impressive wooden frame.
Without wasting any time, I bought some tools and removed the layer of paint that covered the frame of my newly acquired painting. After restoring the natural beauty of its wood, I intended to throw away the picture. It must have been gathering dust in someone’s attic for decades. A thick layer of dirt blurred all details and colors, making the image look uniformly beige or grey. Before throwing it away, however, a careful examination revealed that it was not a cheap reproduction but a true oil painting, undated, and signed in the lower right corner by an artist named G.W. Platt.
A genuine oil painting, of any worth, should be treated with respect. To own a real oil painting on canvas was a dream out of reach because of my very modest salary. By sheer chance, I had acquired one because its wooden frame caught my eye, and the asking price was only fifty cents. It seemed too good a deal to pass up.
The El Paso Fine Arts Shop
On the back of the canvas was a label from the Fine Arts Shop, at 114 Mills Street, El Paso (Texas), right across from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I wrote to El Paso Chamber of Commerce. On March 31, 1976, it responded that the Fine Arts Shop was replaced by the Gunning Casteel Drug Store. Mr. Donald W. Holmberg, Executive Director, suggested I contact the research department of the Public Library at 501, North Oregon, El Paso, TX 79901.
I sent a letter to the library in El Paso. Mary A. Sarber, head of Southwest Reference, responded and she informed me on May 19, 1976 that The Fine Arts Shop had been located at 114 Mills from 1919 to 1924. During those years, my recently acquired painting had been framed. The artist, however, was no longer alive. He died in 1899 at the age of sixty.
I decided to clean the dirt and grime off my Platt painting. I mixed some tepid water with a little Woolite. I used cotton balls dipped in the solution, to remove inch by inch, the thick layer of dirt. I made sure that my labor of love did not damage the oil painting. Slowly, bright colors came alive, and a mallard duck, hanging from a nail, appeared in its full glory. Then I placed the beautiful oil painting back in its wooden frame. It has occupied a prominent place in my living room and a tender one in my heart for more than forty years.
About the artist
Not much information is available about G.W. Platt, an American artist who was born in 1839 and is almost forgotten today. I was once told that he came from a family of architects. Recently discovered documents indicate that his father was a gilder. As the years went by, I found a few more details. Some sources had located Platt’s birthplace in Rochester, New York. Recently found documents give Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as his birthplace. Archivist, Cheryl Leibold, confirmed in an e-mail message dated April 25, 2005, that Platt had attended a life drawing class in the fall of 1876, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (118 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102). It was at this Academy that Platt most likely met William Harnett and John Peto, two American trompe-l’oeil artists.
The French have always shown a great interest in everything American. E. Bénézit’s French Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs proves to be a fine source of details on Platt’s activities. He apparently studied at the University of Rochester before he accompanied John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) in his geological expedition that included the Grand Canyon in the Southwestern United States.
Powell was a prominent figure in the military, an adventurer and explorer. He was also an artist and took along with him many fellow artists, knowing full well, how important their contribution would be in recording his exploits in western territories. They would capture and immortalize for posterity the nature of the land and its flora and fauna in art.
Photography was first invented in France in 1829, and came to America a decade later, of course in black and white and shades of grey. Back then, the west, and its full range of colors, could only be captured by artists. We know little about Platt's contributions to Powell’s exploration so far, except we do know that he was a draftsman.
On October 31, 1871, at the age of thirty-two, Platt registered for an “Antikenklasse” (History and Art of Greece and Rome) at the Academie der Bildenden Kunste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Munich. He, presumably, worked with William Merritt Chase (1849-1911) at this Academy. Indeed, its records indicate that a year later, on November 1, 1872, Merritt Chase had registered there at the age of twenty-two, and attended the same “Antikenklasse” that Platt had attended in 1871. Founded on May 13, in 1808, the Academy in Munich had acquired an excellent reputation and competed well with the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris for art students.
Upon his return to the United States, Platt settled in Chicago in the 1880s where he pursued his career and apparently had his own studio. He later relocated to Denver, where he died in 1899. In Colorado, he taught at the University of Denver and maintained his own studio as well.
In a public sale, held in New York on April 25, 1995, Platt’s Nature morte avec des bananes, des grains de raisin et une chope [30.5 x 25.4 cm] sold for $6,325 (Bénézit Vol. 11, 55). Could my painting of 30 by 25 inches be worth more? Askart (http://www.askart.com) seems to be the only place online interested in Platt and offers on its home page a short biography of Platt. It also provides information about recent auctions and sales of Platt’s works. Only on Fridays can one access the biography free of charge.
A mallard duck
Platt’s treatment of the mallard duck is naturalistic, a nature morte or still life. The bird is hanging from a nail implanted in a beige colored wall. The duck looks almost like a specimen in a science laboratory. Several barely distinguishable streaks of blood flow in narrow streams from an invisible wound. The feet are orange; shades of green appear on the head; white, grey and brown colors form part of the plumage. The bird’s shadow on the wall gives the painting a three-dimensional perspective. The lower wing is mostly white, and appears almost detached from the canvas, a trompe l’oeil effect. When sometimes children come to visit, they ask why the picture hangs upside down. It is fun to tell them that the bird is hanging from a nail, its feet face up and its head faces down, the wings spread out, and the belly faces the spectator. The children’s error in perception is perhaps due to the technique in art known as “trompe l’oeil.” The bird appears so alive, and so three-dimensional that one is tempted to touch and caress the softness of its plumage. In its upper chest, a dark spot marks a hole where the hunter’s bullet pierced through. The artist captured the bird’s beauty with finely blended brush strokes that leave the surface of the canvas smooth. Were it not for the orange colored string that attaches the duck to the nail, one might imagine that the bird is in flight, diving through the air, and its beauty is preserved for posterity.
How the picture landed in the Fine Art Shop in El Paso remained a mystery that recently has been solved. Thanks to information obtained from the Frick Reference Library in New York, the owners who had the picture so beautifully framed were Mr. & Mrs. C.W. Harvey, of El Paso. They actually owned two pictures, identically framed, each featuring a bird hanging from a nail. One was sold at an auction. I acquired the other for fifty cents, quite by chance, at a rummage sale.
George W. Platt, an American trompe l'oeil artist could feel some satisfaction that he is not entirely forgotten, as the French writer Octave Mirbeau once was. His painting has contributed joy and pride during some forty years to its present owner.
Aleksandra Gruzinska (11/3/18)
Bénézit, E. Dictionnaire critique et documentaire de peintres sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs de tous les temps et de tous les pays par un groupe d’écrivains specialistes français et étrangers. Nouvelle édition entièrement refondue sous la direction de Jacques Busse. T. 11, Pintoricchio-Tottel. Paris: Gründ, 1999.
" Platt, George W. “Mort en 1899. XIXe siècle. Américain. Peintre de natures mortes. ” “Il appartint à l’expédition dans l’ouest de John Wesley Powell avant d’étudier à l’Académie des Beaux-Arts de Pennsylvanie. A la fin des années 1870 il travailla sous la direction de William Merritt Chase à l’Académie de Munich. De retour aux Etats-Unis il s’installa à Chicago dans les années 1880 et poursuivit sa carrière de peintre. Plus tard il s’installa à Denver. ”
“Ventes publiques: New York, 25 mai 1995: Nature morte avec des bananes, des grains de raisin et une chope, h/t (30,5 x 25,4): USD 6,325 [Bénézit vol. 11, p. 55] ”
The following biography comes from the Archives of AskART:
“A survey artist as well as trompe l’oeil and landscape painter, George Platt accompanied John Wesley Powell’s Geological Survey and Exploration expedition that included the Grand Canyon in the early 1870s. His early education was at the University of Rochester and then he accompanied Powell on the expedition.”
“Following these western trips, George Platt took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy and there came under the influence of William Harnett and John Peto, Trompe l’oeil painters. Platt later studied in Munich, Germany and Italy and then returned to the United States in the 1880s, going to Chicago and Rockford, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa.”
“In 1881, he opened a studio in Chicago and during the 1890s, he went to Colorado where he was a teacher at the University of Denver. He did trompe l’oeil paintings of western still-life subjects such as a buffalo skull, a saddle, a rifle, etc. One of his trompe l’oeil paintings was of a bowie knife that appeared to be stuck into the canvas.” “George Platt died in Denver Colorado in 1899.”
AskArt [http://www.askart.com] provides as Sources: Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West; and Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art.
For information about John Wesley Powell:
Institutions with an interest in G.W. Platt
Colorado Historical Society
The Frick Museum library has the following documents: “George W. Platt: artist file: study photographs and reproductions of works of art with accompanying documentation 1920-2000 [graphic], call #100 Platt, located in its photo archives stacks.
The records of the Academie der Bildenden Kunste in München give Philadelphia as Platt’s birthplace. Platt registered at the Academie on October 31, 1871. He was then 32 years old. The records show that he took an “Antikenklasse.” Antiken refers to Greece and Rome.
“George W. Platt (d. 1899). Still life with Bananas, Grapes and Mug. Signed G.W. Platt, 1.1. Oil on canvas; 12 by 10 in. 30.5 by 25.4 cm. [Item 140]. George W. Platt, a follower of William M. Harnett, was a draftsman with John Wesley Powell's western expedition before studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In the late 1870s, Platt studied under…” “Cat., Sale, David and Jean Strale. Coll., Sotheby's, N.Y., May 25, 1995.” Photocopy of Cat. Sale from the Frick Art Reference Library.
The Frick Art Reference Library, located at 10 E. 71st Street, New York , N.Y. 10021, has photographic reproductions of G.W. Platt works:
1) “ One Silver Dollar ,” 6” x 12”;
2) “Spoiling Apples,” from the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Robert D. Crompton, Richboro, Bucks County, Pa. A gift of Robert D. Crompton 2/9/72;
3) “A Melon and Grapes ,” 16 x 21, gift of Mildred Thaler Cohen, The Marbella Galeries Inc., 28 East 72nd street, New York, N.Y. 13026; 9/9/02;
4) “Wild West.” Lent by Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Harvey, El Paso, Texas. The photocopy also provides the following information:
“George W. Platt, who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the same time as Harnett and Peto (in the middle ‘70's), practiced his profession principally in Chicago and in Denver , where he died. His portraits and still lifes are scattered from the Pacific Coast to Iowa. Wild West was painted in 1894 and seems to be one of a series of Western adaptations of After the Hunt. Platt is known to have done such pictures as early as 1888. Added in pencil is the following information: Cut from the Bull[etin] of the Cal. Palace of the Legion of Honor, S. Francisco, vol. 6, nos. 4 & 5 (n. p. or date given).”
5) “Still Life.” In pen or pencil. The following information has been added: “after? Monet, Claude, “A Partridge & a Woodcock,” Mrs. Chas. R. Henschell Coll, N.Y.? (See … letter to Frankenstein 2/14/51). Owner: Mr. & Mrs. C. W. Harvey, El Paso, Texas. “Per gift Alfred V. Frankenstein 2/14/51. See his letters 2/2/51, 3/2/51.
Still Life represents a bird hanging from a nail implanted in a wall, wings extended, head down. [It is the same size and has the same frame as the painting of the mallard duck described above. Both pictures may have been framed at the same time, and were probably meant to hang one next to the other and the Harveys must have owned both pictures in their collection.]
Reproductions : “Courtesy of James Maroney, Inc., New York, November 10, 1980 (J800303M); “Art in America,” Summer 1980, v. 68, p. 20 (in color); source “b,” n. p. (33).
Collections : (a) Mr. Otto Mull, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Harmon's Bazar, Iowa City, Iowa; Mr. Jonathan P. Maney, Iowa City, Iowa; passed through the hands of James Maroney, Inc., New York.
from Frick Art Reference Library:
Cheryl Leibold was an archivist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, at 118 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102. ()
Prof. of French Language and Literature at Pennsylvania State University, Lois Boe Hyslop passed away in 2004.