The discovery of this early drawing by the artist Patrick Henry Bruce adds yet another illustration to the life and work of a man often ranked as one of the leading lights of modernism in American art. While his style may have been modern, his life was more than slightly tinged with a tragic air. Born to a prominent Southern family that fell on hard times in the aftermath of the Civil War, Bruce’s childhood was spent in genteel poverty in Richmond. Both his parents, as well as two siblings, had died by the time he was eighteen; from that age, he was on his own.
Bruce’s first teacher was the distinguished sculptor Edward Virginius Valentine. His early studies were very academic in nature: life drawing classes with Valentine, along with more practical instruction in mechanical drawing and drafting at the Virginia Mechanics Institute. Bruce realized that there was a larger world beyond Richmond and "all he lived for was to study art in Paris." He moved to Paris by way of New York, where he spent the year 1902-1903 studying with William Merritt Chase and Kenneth Hayes Miller, and made the acquaintance of Edward Hopper and Guy Pène du Bois.
Bruce was working in Paris in 1905, when he wrote to Robert Henri that he longed for "really truthful painting." By 1906, he had met Gertrude and Leo Stein, and frequented the salons in their atelier. There, a panoply of artists on view stirred his imagination, and he became especially influenced by the planar field organization and color field dispatch of Cezanne. During this time, Bruce created still life and landscape watercolors with a distinctly Cezannesque flair; this is the style he presented in the famous New York Armory Show of 1913. After the First World War, he began to paint works in oil in a style William Agee has called "geometric architectural."
In this example which precedes Bruce’s modernist phase, a live oak dominates the planar field, dwarfing a small shack in the back. Melancholy would haunt Bruce’s life, which he himself terminated in 1936 in New York.
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