|Birth Day:||April 15, 1912|
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In 1934, he graduated from Yale University with a degree in English. He went on to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and with artist Henry Hensche.
William Grosvenor Congdon was born on April 15, 1912, in Providence, Rhode Island, the second child of Gilbert Maurice Congdon and Caroline Rose Grosvenor, who married in 1910. Both parents came from rich families: the Congdons dealt in iron, steel and metals, while the Grosvenors owned a textile manufacturing business in Rhode Island. They had five children, all sons. William Congdon was the cousin of Isabella Stewart Gardner (the American, poet-critic Allen Tate's second wife) who is spoken of in personal letters between Allen Tate and Jacques Maritain (see pages 77–79 in John M. Dunaway's Exiles and Fugitives: The Letters of Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Allen Tate, and Caroline Gordon).
After graduating from St. Mark’s School of Southborough, Massachusetts, he studied English literature at Yale University and graduated in 1934. His cousin on his mother's side was poet Isabella Gardner. For three years, Congdon took painting lessons in Provincetown with Henry Hensche, followed by a further three years of drawing and sculpture lessons with George Demetrios in Boston and then Gloucester. For some months in 1934-35 he frequented the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
Congdon went to live in New York in February 1948, renting a room on Stanton Street in the Bowery. From this point up, cities would become a leitmotif of his painting; the city was seen as the setting of history, as the site of social tensions and dramas. The first depictions of New York - crumbling façades of cheap buildings, jittery, nervously-penned windows that offer no dominant perspective over a heaving urban magma - seem to reflect the same moral criticism that can be seen in his war drawings.
Thanks to the eruption onto the scene of a whole new generation of “American” artists – Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Richard Pousette-Dart – the city now had an artistic culture that was as stimulating as that of Paris in the 1920s. Through his frame-maker, Leo Robinson, Congdon met Betty Parsons, whose gallery - after Peggy Guggenheim’s “The Art of This Century gallery” closed down - had become one of the prime venues for the promotion of the New York School. Congdon began his almost-twenty-year association with the gallery with his first one-man show in May 1949, on the occasion of which he met most of the leading artists of the day, forming particularly close links with Richard Pousette-Dart and Mark Rothko. In 1950 Congdon exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery with Clyfford Still, and in 1951 he exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1952 he exhibited at Duncan Phillips Gallery with Nicolas de Staël, and his work was also featured in exhibitions at the Whitney and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the 1950s Congdon was recognized as one of the leading painters in the United States and quickly attained an international reputation as an Abstract Expressionist. In 1951 Time magazine published a long article on him, and his works were selling well, attracting the attention of major museums. But once again he turned his back on his homeland to go and live in Italy, mainly in Venice, where he befriended Peggy Guggenheim who became a collector of his paintings.
In 1959, after a trip to Cambodia, Congdon returned to Assisi(Italy), where he was received into the Roman Catholic faith at the Pro Civitate Christiana. Congdon, who had often gone back to Assisi during his travels, would write repeatedly about how, admiring and depicting the Franciscan landscape, he had uncovered the bone of his own existence; how he had learned the truth of certain values and the confidence to see himself as he was. The origins of his conversion lie in a series of meetings with the founder of Pro Civitate Christiana, Fr Giovanni Rossi - meetings that would then be followed by others with Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton.
In 1961 Congdon's work was included in the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition 20th Century American Painting. In 1962 the book In My Disc of Gold, an account of Congdon’s spiritual and artistic life, was published both in Italy and in the USA, and an exhibition of his work was held in Milan. Two years later, his paintings were exhibited in the Vatican Pavilion of the 1964 New York World's Fair. In the spring of 1962 he went to visit Subiaco, Lazio and the monasteries overlooking the Aniene Valley, near Rome.
The 1962 exhibition at the Palazzo Reale in Milano did not change things; nor did the two Galleria Cadario exhibitions (in Rome and Milan) in 1969. A change - though only a partial change - in this situation became apparent in the early 1980s. In 1980 a retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Rimini, Italy, during the first Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples.
Even after his conversion to Catholicism, Congdon still had some opportunities to exhibit his work, both in Italy and in the United States. His last one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery was held in 1967. This date should be considered alongside the general unease felt in American intellectual circles at his conversion; with very few exceptions, critical attention to his work rapidly ceased, and the artist was left for dead in Assisi, a professional suicide.
Travel was a way of extending his visual experience, of nourishing his art. With the exception of some important European trips (the Aeolian islands, Spain, Greece), most of Congdon’s travelling during the 1970s took him far afield (air travel had replaced the liners of his youth). He visited North West Africa, Ethiopia, the Near and Middle East (from Turkey to the Yemen) and South America. There was also a change in his eye: if before he was looking for the monumental sites or the extremes of nature, he now looked at the world with the eye of an unassuming chronicler, someone moved by pity for what he saw, and depicted petrol tankers, the House of Slaves (Gorée) near Dakar, the trains in Tunisia, the houses in Sana’a. This different approach to the sites of the world is most fully revealed by the two trips to India in 1973 and 1975.
Established in 1980, the foundation bears Congdon’s name only since his death in 1998. Created at the artist’s behest, the foundation has the task of enhancing and communicating the significance of his work, by cataloguing his figurative and literary production and organizing exhibitions and other events.
In 1981 a retrospective exhibition of his work at the Palazzo dei Diamanti, in Ferrara, revived public interest in Congdon’s career. His “re-appearance” was further helped by the creation, in October 1980, of a Foundation designed to promote knowledge and study of the artist’s work.
In the last fifteen years of his life, besides painting with oils, Congdon did an increasing number of works on paper, using pastels. The expression “Drawing with paint” is the one Congdon himself used in September 1982 to announce his use of what for him was a new medium (pastels are in fact, a sort of pencil made of paint).
Congdon died on April 15, 1998, his 86th birthday. He painted up to a few days before his death. The palette range in his last painting reveals unusual combinations and contrapositions: for example, the sky in his very last work - Three Trees - is a startling innovation.
Currently, William Congdon is 109 years, 3 months and 9 days old. William Congdon will celebrate 110th birthday on a Friday 15th of April 2022.
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