Upon entering the exhibit of Lucien Abrams’s paintings at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, I was struck by the colorful blur of canvases of various sizes and their careful arrangement along the light grey walls. The works are grouped according their subject matter and are hung directly on the center of the wall.
From the show, I learned that Abrams studied the French Impressionist style in the 1890s and earned a degree in architecture from Princeton University. I discovered that Abrams lived and traveled in Europe and Algeria between 1894 and 1914. The purpose of the exhibit is to show the widespread reach of influence the Impressionist movement had in America and in Texas.
Of all the paintings in the exhibit, I was drawn to Abrams’ Femme au Grande Chapeau, which was completed in 1910. This painting was the first to grab my attention; the strange look on the woman’s face, the colors used, the way the light hit the painting, and even the frame caught my attention. The painting is framed in a gold, multi-layered frame that has a wood grain pattern showing through. A direct light shines on the painting, highlighting the subtle undertones of green in the frame. The frame has areas that seem scuffed or chipped, which lessens the unity of color and shine of the frame, but also adds to the aged look and value of the painting. The simple method of displaying the paintings directly on the wall without a barrier or the interference from glass only enhances the viewing experience.
Femme au Grande Chapeau was painted with oil on canvas, a medium that allowed Abrams to build on the colors to create an uneven texture in the woman and the landscape surrounding her. The drying interval of oil paint enabled Abrams more time to change the painting. Also, the oil paint allowed the brush strokes to be clearly visible, which creates a clear texture in the painting.
The two most prominent design elements in Femme au Grande Chapeau are color and balance. The woman’s dress is dark pink with hints of peach and a thick white collar. The figure also wears an oversized light blue hat with dark red roses with orange and pink streaks and dark green leaves. The inside of the hat looks orange and green on one side while it looks dark green on the other. The woman has brown eyes, auburn hair, red lips, and a pink blush on her cheeks. Her porcelain skin has hints of green undertones that make her appear sickly. Behind the woman, there is a green field on the left and a blue tree with streaks of purple and mauve that mirror the color tone of her flesh. The light blue sky behind her is illuminated with streaks of red, orange, and pink splashed across it. The painting remains unbalanced, as the woman is positioned in the middle with the grass field and a view of the sky on her left and an oversized tree to her right. With the contrast of the grass and sky on the left and the tree on the right, the right side seems heavier and more prominent than the left side.
Femme au Grande Chapeau means “Woman in large cap.” The unnamed woman is clothed in a formal dress with long sleeves and a high collar, and is seated in the middle of a field on a warm and sunny day. The woman’s eyes are not directed at the viewer, but instead seem focused on something in the distance. The vacant and blank stare in the woman’s eyes also hint at a lingering sense of unhappiness. I was drawn to Femme au Grande Chapeau because of the colors used and the unusual expression on the woman’s face. I found the painting interesting because of the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity and Abrams’ reasoning to leave her anonymous.
Beyond its aesthetic beauty, the painting also holds historical significance. From an art historical perspective, the painting shows the range of influence of Impressionism on American painters. This work was completed thirty years after the Impressionist movement began in France, but it draws upon techniques typical of the movement, including looser brushstrokes and vibrant colors.
This painting also represents an important moment in world history and in the personal history of Abrams; it was completed during the peak of the Belle Epoque just before the outbreak and devastation of World War I. Perhaps the tinges and undertones of green in the painting, and the woman’s vacant stare and sickly coloring, hints at the coming end to an era of peace and safety. WWI also represented the moment when Abrams had to leave Europe and when the thriving art scene he joined came to an abrupt end when the continent broke out in war.