Old melodies, new listeners

THE pianist in this striking picture is May Wiles, wife of the artist Irving Wiles. It is a brilliant study, done with great technical facility in its contrast of deep black - the grand piano merging with the darkness behind it - and the bright light which illumines the women's gauzy dresses, lights up their shining hair, and brings out the whiteness of their long arms and necks. A violinist, Wiles was peculiarly fitted to endow this scene with lyric sensibility. Wiles, sincerely and wholeheartedly committed to his own vision of beauty, was a fashionable portrait painter in the last decades of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. His forte was to paint beautiful women, beautifully dressed, in elegant settings: drawing rooms, verandas, gardens. He was also adept in portraying their partners, who were often collectors, connoisseurs of art, and dealers.

Wiles's self-portraits, and the portraits he did of his father, an artist in whose footsteps he followed, are interesting. In addition, Wiles could paint landscapes, seascapes (he was a yachtsman), and flowers. Versatile, industrious, and prolific, he was also expert in watercolor, exhibiting at the shows of the American Water Color Society, of which he was a member. Yet, with all these accomplishments and successes he has been almost entirely forgotten.

Born during the American Civil War, he lived until 1948, through the diversities and excitements of the changing world of art, always resisting being drawn into any of the new schools. He gleaned something from the Impressionists, but in general remained true to the precepts he had acquired in his father's studio and later from his teacher, William Merritt Chase. His pictures, done with panache and skill, made him popular; but gradually, even in his own lifetime, he was seen as hopelessly outdated.

John Singer Sargent, his contemporary, has not suffered this neglect. In many ways Wiles is almost comparable to him. One cannot account on rational grounds for the vagaries of public taste; there are too many imponderables.

Now the wheel has come round. Wiles is being rediscovered, as evidenced by a recent exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York. The exhibit included canvases drawn from galleries and private collections and was well documented with a substantial catalog.

Wiles was fortunate in being fostered and encouraged in his career by his father, but he had to earn his living with his brush - illustrating, teaching, making commercial drawings for advertisements, and, of course, when he had made a name for himself, by his portraits.

As a young man he went to France and studied with Charles Duran (Carolus-Duran), learning to ``create an illusion of form by the juxtaposition of one color or tone to another. Thick strokes of contrasting color were used to create highlights and gave the canvas a richly textured surface,'' something very evident when one is confronted with a collection of his work. Before returning to America in 1884 he sketched in the French countryside, notably near Dieppe, and later traveled to Italy, but he is always associated with New York City. His studio was on West 57th Street, and he had a home on Long Island at Peconic.

He excelled in painting fabrics - shining satin falling in gleaming folds, lace, frills, muslins - and clearly did this with pleasure. His lady sitters are often depicted in a mood of gentle, quiet reverie, in a manner that is dreamy but not truly romantic. Whether shown in bright sunlight or by candlelight his characters are too fashionably dressed, too cultivated and cosseted to be in any way Byronic.

The ``Sonata,'' however, is perhaps an exception to this. It moves us, as it affirms the continuity of the Western musical heritage. Centuries pass, but we are still stirred by the sight of an open piano with musicians awaiting the beat. We already seem to hear the opening chords of a piece. There is a haunting resonance about this picture which after a hundred years remains valid and universal. There is that sense of an occasion - music is always an occasion - and of a melody that awakens the heartstrings, even if it is also a ``fashionable'' tableau. It is visually a ``Moment Musicale,'' the players at once alert and entranced.

The artist was fond of this work, which won the Thomas B. Clarke prize in 1889 for ``the best figure competition.'' And although it aroused little interest then, he showed it later at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, 1893. Let us hope that now it will find an appropriate niche.

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