In August of 1909 Ralph Pearson was at the home of Bertha Jaques. Pearson, Jaques, Otto J. Schneider and Earl H. Reed had a long, pleasant conversation which culminated in the idea to form the “Needle Club” to promote the art, artists and appreciation of etching. This idea quickly morphed into the Chicago Society of Etchers – the first of many etching societies in the United States that brought about the revival of etching as a respected and sought-after art form. But for Pearson this was just the first step in a 45-year Odyssey across the art world and the United States that would lead him to his many careers as etcher, businessman, adventurer, modernist and author.
Ralph Mosher Pearson was born in Angus, Iowa on May 27, 1883. However, he lived in Chicago for most of his early years. As we shall see, Pearson was an enterprising soul and he started at an early age. At first, he was a newspaper boy and lamp lighter but this soon grew into ownership of a newsstand which developed to the point that while he was still in high school he was making $300 a month. The business continued to prosper and within a few years he owned 4 stationery and news stores, had 30 employees and was grossing over $60,000 per year. But business was not enough – Pearson enjoyed creating art.
So on his own initiative he enrolled in classes at the Chicago Art Institute. Because of his business commitments he was only able to take classes at night and on Saturday. But he was a quick learner and had the opportunity to study with the likes of C. F. Browne and John Vanderpoel. One morning he opened the Chicago paper and saw two of his prints reproduced from an Art Institute exhibit. He was hooked. Somehow he would fulfill his passion for art.
But before we move on into his art exploits, there is one more story that needs to be told about his youth. While still in his teens he built his own cruising power boat – The Catherine M. With his mother as his companion (one can tell where he got his sense of adventure) he made the trip down the Mississippi, around the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts to New York, thence to the Hudson River, Erie Canal and the Great Lakes back to Chicago. Many say that he was the first to accomplish this trip.
The renowned American etcher, Joseph Pennell (the most ardent supporter of James Whistler) had a profound effect on many etchers in the United States in the early 1900’s. Pennell was a good friend of Bertha Jaques and a frequent visitor in Chicago. Pearson quickly adopted his style and many of his early works reflect the Pennell influence. Pearson’s “Toilers of the City” is probably his best known series from his early Chicago years. “The Asphalters, Chicago” is the best known work from this series.
He also went on to create a “Lincoln” series with images of different parts of Lincoln’s life. The etching below is of Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois.
Another very popular series of etchings for Pearson were the “Chicago Landmarks.” This etching depicts the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ralph Pearson was a rising star in the etching world of Chicago. His etchings were selling well. He was represented by several of the leading galleries. He should have been a happy man. But Pearson never seemed to be happy standing still. When he saw the “Armory Show” of 1913 at the Art Institute his life changed dramatically.
The Armory Show was the American introduction to European modern art. As soon as it opened, the Chicago art world was in an uproar. This wasn’t art. These modern art pieces by Picasso, Cezanne, Duchamp and others were “obscene.” Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was described as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Students at the Art Institute protested. The Director of the Art Institute was pretty sure that the exhibit would receive a negative reaction – so much so that he arranged to be on vacation out of the country during the exhibit.
But to Pearson the Armory Show was an eye-opener. His “representational style” was not where he wanted to be with his art. To him the Europeans were on the cutting edge of creativity and that is where he wanted to be as well. So in typical Pearson fashion he got into his old car and drove to New York to learn how to create “modern” art himself. Chicago was in his rear-view mirror and he was never to return.
In New York Pearson “found the first school of modern art in this country” led by Hugo Robus. In his words he “inaugurated a painful unlearning and relearning process of some eight years’ duration which was a cheap enough price to pay for a basic reorientation.” He married Margaret Hale (the daughter of the renowned astronomer George Ellery Hale. Hale was also one of the original Professors at the University of Chicago.) in June of 1916. They had a daughter they named “Pavli.” But even New York could not quench Pearson’s wanderlust and one day around 1919 he was in that old car of his with his young family on the way to a new adventure in New Mexico.
He settled in the foothills of the Taos mountains. Shortly thereafter he started an unlikely combination business venture featuring hogs and greeting cards. After World War I making a living creating etchings was very difficult. So Pearson decided to diversify and raise pigs to sell and supplement his income. Apparently, he was better at etching than pig farming and soon the etching sales were paying for the pigs upkeep.
By 1920 he had given up on the pig adventure and concentrated on his greeting card business which was doing quite well. He bought a “big new press” (a Sturges that was later purchased by Gene Kloss) and enlarged his studio. By 1921 he had forty different vendors selling his cards in cities throughout the country.
This card is an example of one of the more popular designs of Pearson’s greeting card company. It reflects his more modern, non-representational style.
But Pearson was also a businessman and knew that many customers preferred Christmas cards with a more traditional theme as we see here.
By the end of 1921 Pearson’s greeting card business was running out of steam. Enter Joseph O’Kane Foster a former Hearst newspaper reporter from Chicago. Foster had moved to Taos and soon was adding his artistic and literary skills to the enterprise. By 1923 Pearson decided to leave his wife and Foster in charge of the company and he moved to California. The company name was changed to Vancil Foster Greeting Cards. Pearson and Hale divorced. Foster married Hale. They closed the business in 1928.
In California Pearson continued his etching and was represented by the Stendahl Gallery in Los Angeles. His best know work from this period was his “Cypress Grove” of Monterey. For Pearson this was his final break from the representational style of his youth.
By 1928 he had remarried and returned to New York to start another career as an educator, art critic and author. He taught for 10 years at the New School for Social Research in New York. He also founded the Design Workshop, an independent school, with summer and winter classes, in painting, drawing and critical appreciation. These classes, planned as condensed courses, gradually evolved into teaching the same subjects by mail. He also taught one-year stints at Utah State and at the University of Texas in Austin.
Most importantly, he focused his attention on writing with seven books to his credit as well as over 250 magazine articles. Some of his publications include Fifty Prints of the Year (1925), How to See Modern Pictures (1925), The New Art Education (1952) and The Modern Renaissance in American Art. I own a copy of this last book and it does a marvelous job of “presenting the work and philosophy of 54 distinguished artist” including Max Weber, John Marin, Adolf Dehn, Doris Lee, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder and Max Ernst.
Ralph M. Pearson died in South Nyack, New York on April 27, 1958.