A major trove of works by Leon Gaspard comes on the market.
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Next month, a collection of some 35 paintings by the Russian-American artist Leon Gaspard, put together over decades, will be offered at Nedra Matteucci Galleries in Santa Fe. “Leon Gaspard: Impressions from Russia and the Faraway” represents the full range of the distinctive work of this expatriate artist, who made his home in Taos, N.M. from 1918 onward but was never a member of the Taos School or any other school. Gaspard was a world traveler, and the works in this collection, painted in Russia, China, Central Asia and the Southwestern U.S., are for the most part richly colored, pageant-like portrayals of folk life, architecture and landscape.
Gaspard’s technique is in some ways post-Impressionist, but as an artist he is thoroughly idiosyncratic, even unclassifiable. He studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and then with William Bouguereau, but he remained fundamentally Russian in his desire to capture the soul of traditional rural people, to document ways of life and convey their vitality rather than to explore the nature of painting and seeing. From the early years of the 20th century until his death in 1964 Gaspard hardly varied his style, which caused some critics to label him retrograde. But he was simply true to his vision, which he unfurled as he cast his eye over a variety of cultures that managed to retain their distinctiveness in the face of modernization.
Gaspard was born in 1882 in Vitebsk, about 100 miles west of Moscow, to a Russian-Huguenot army-officer father and a Jewish mother. Marc Chagall, who was five years younger, also grew up in Vitebsk, and Gaspard later said they studied art together. Like many of Gaspard’s stories, this one might have been embellished, but there is certainly a similarity between the two artists’ work. Gaspard’s parents sent him to Paris, where he met Evelyn Adell, a young woman from a rich family in Great Barrington, Mass. In 1909 they were married, over her family’s objections, and Gaspard took her to Russia, where they traveled together extensively.
When World War I broke out, Gaspard joined the French Air Force, and after being shot down and seriously wounded went with his wife to her native country. After a short time in New York City, the Catskills and Provincetown, the couple settled in New Mexico, largely for Gaspard’s health. There he discovered a landscape that reminded him of the Central Asian steppes and a people—the Navajo and Pueblo Indians—who reminded him of the Mongols and Tibetans who fascinated him. “Gaspard was clearly inspired by the American Southwest as he had been in Russia and Central Asia,” says Nedra Matteucci. “In New Mexico especially, Gaspard was again surrounded by a striking and dynamic landscape that was home to indigenous and ethnic cultures that he so openly accepted and thoroughly celebrated in his paintings. His passion for adventure and discovery thrived here, and his creative genius captured the Southwest unlike any other artist.”
He sold paintings steadily through galleries such as Milch and Reinhardt in New York and Stendahl in Los Angeles. Since collectors were eager for more Asian material, Gaspard and Evelyn set out in 1921 on an ambitious trip through remote and war-torn regions. They sailed from San Francisco to Japan, then proceeded to Beijing (then known to Westerners as Peking). Gaspard’s 1923 painting Drum Tower, Peking, in the Matteucci collection, captures the bustling density of the Chinese capital at a time when old peaked wooden buildings still crowded together and colorful traditional dress had not yet been supplanted by gray Western garb or the monochromatic drab of Mao suits.
In search of more adventure, Gaspard decided to go to Mongolia, leaving Evelyn behind in Beijing and taking as his traveling companion the American consul, Charles Crane. From Inner Mongolia the two men went on horseback through the Gobi Desert into Outer Mongolia, reaching Urga, the holy city of the Mongolian Buddhists, and pressing on to Lake Baikal. From there they traveled across the Tien Shan mountains to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, through the forbidding Takla Makan desert to the border of Tibet, and finally to the Altai Mountains in present-day Kyrgyzstan. In all, it was a trip of 3,000 miles that took nearly two and a half years and provided the painter with enough material to last the rest of his life.
Returning to Taos with Evelyn, Gaspard fell in with a literary and artistic set, counting among his friends the writers D.H. Lawrence and Frank Waters, the saloniste Mabel Dodge Luhan, the sculptor Maurice Sterne and the painters John Marin and Nicolai Fechin. Fechin, a fellow Russian, became a particular friend. The two used to play chess, and Gaspard advised Fechin to double the prices he charged for his paintings, advice Fechin successfully took.
The Gaspards traveled again, to North Africa, in the 1930s, again picking up material for future paintings, and then returned for good to Taos. Evelyn died in 1956 after a fall from a horse, leaving Gaspard despondent. Two years later, however, he married a younger artist, Dora Kaminsky, and experienced a new burst of creativity. He and Dora traveled together in Europe in 1959, visiting Paris, Italy, Greece and Russia, getting reacquainted with old friends and old haunts and painting what he saw, as always.
Gaspard’s paintings sold well in the early 1960s amid renewed collector interest, and his reputation was at a high point when he died. In the 1980s, prices rose steeply as demand began to outpace supply. “American collectors, especially those interested in Western and Southwestern historical figures, have always recognized Gaspard,” Matteucci says. “More and more, we are seeing his work added to American art collections that are much more broad in content and style. And without question, Russian collectors are seeking and acquiring works by Russian painters from abroad.” In 2007 the record for Gaspard was set when a Russian-themed painting, The Finish of the Kermesse, brought just over $2 million at Christie’s New York. The revelation of this group of paintings at Matteucci promises to further increase awareness and esteem for this Romantic, individualistic artist.