ROSS EUGENE BRAUGHT
“Untitled Hills and Rocks”, ca. 1935 | 30"x36" - Oil on canvas
In the 1930s, Ross Braught was teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. He sojourned in the summer on sketching trips to the Colorado Rockies and other western locations. This Colorado landscape has a high horizon, with the majority of the canvas taken up by immense, magnificent rocks viewed on a sunny day gives a sense of the impression that Colorado made on Braught. The carefully chosen colors of intense green and lighter brown carry a feeling of the power of nature.
“Colorado”, 1933 | 19"x24" - Lithograph
Painter, lithographer and draftsman, Ross Eugene Braught was called “the greatest living American draftsman” during his lifetime by his friend and colleague, Thomas Hart Benton. The son of an artist who had acquired some formal training in Baltimore and enjoyed a short-lived art career in Carlisle, Pennsylania, Braught graduated Carlisle High School where his early drawings of trees anticipated his mature, professional talent. He went on to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, studying with Joseph T. Pearson, Jr., and with Daniel Garber, American Impressionist landscape painter and member of the art colony at New Hope, Pennsylvania. Garber’s influence can be seen in Braught’s painting, Landscape near Upper Black Eddy (1921).
In 1921 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts awarded Braught its prestigious William Emlem Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship, allowing him to travel, study and paint for two years in England, France and Italy. Two extant paintings from that trip are his Brittany Village (1922) and an Italian Landscape (1923). Following his return to the United States he married Eugenia Osenton, and the couple lived for five years in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania, a secluded place of peace and beauty on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia. During that time he participated in exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well at the National Academy of Design and the Society of Independent Artists in New York. In 1925 he had his first one-man show at New York’s Dudensing Gallery. He also showed in the 1920s with the Mystic Art Association in Connecticut and painted in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
He and his wife moved in 1928 to Woodstock, New York, where he became a member of the local art colony. Both of them had prior connections with some of its resident artists – his wife from Robert Henri’s circle at the Art Students League and both of them from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s popular sketch club in New York which they had attended. In Woodstock Braught developed his interest in lithography through his association with lithographer Grant Arnold. Arnold also ran a press in the basement of the Woodstock Arts Association printing editions for Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Carroll and Karl Fortress, among others. Braught did several excellent lithographs in Woodstock -- Kingston: Ten Miles, End of the Cape, Road Grader and Road Rolle -- a prelude to his fine images of Western landscapes produced in that medium several years later.
By 1931 the onset of the Great Depression took its toll on the art market, forcing Braught to relocate with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, where he headed the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. For the next four years he instructed studio classes in painting and drawing during the school year. Although he never taught printmaking courses at the Institute, by 1933 he persuaded the administration to purchase a lithography press. In his spare time he and his students experimented in the medium, referencing Bolton Brown’s manual Lithography for Artist.
During the summer months when not teaching Braught took extended field trips to the Grand Canyon, the Colorado Rockies and the Dakota Badlands. He sketched extensively and made photographic memory notes which he later worked up into paintings and prints. His paintings, Colorado Canyons and Tschaikowsky’s Sixth – both devoid of any human presence -- represent a turning point in his work. As noted by David Cleveland, “The western landscapes prompted broader forms, less detail and earth-toned colors, which saturate the canvas to capture the dry and empty immensity of the plains and canyons and towering skies.” He applied the same treatment of landforms to his monochromatic lithograph, Colorado (1932), whose whole image is dominated by the interlocking, rhythmic Rocky Mountains with a minimum of foreground and sky. Other lithographs from the same period also have Colorado titles with a similar compositional arrangement, including Colorado (1933) and Clear Creek Canyon (1933).
His trip to the Badlands likewise yielded Tschaikowsky’s Sixth (1935), a strong painting with ceaselessly undulating curvilinear lines and organic forms. Its title references the Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique) of nineteenth-century Russian composer, Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky. The painting was preceded the year before by a lithograph of the same title. In 1936 he reversed the painting’s image for his lithograph, Mako Sica, whose title translates as what many Native American tribes called “land bad” – dusty mazes of buttes and spires created by millions of years of erosion with little or no drinking water or vegetation. His lithograph won first prize in the annual Midwestern Artists’ Exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute.
In 1935 he resigned from the faculty of the Institute and was replaced as head of the painting department by Thomas Hart Benton. The Institute’s bulletin described his work at that time: “The poetry of…[Braught’s] lithographs and paintings cannot be translated. An able draughtsman, he never fails to see and to express the structure of the world that is his material. Beneath the external irregularities of the material world are patterns of structure visible to the scientist and the artist; the scientist expresses them in mathematical formulae, Braught in form and color.” His expression with a brighter palette is reflected in an untitled hilly landscape painted around 1936. From that same year dates his unique study, Gaia. A zinc lithograph, it depicts a forlorn female figure – perhaps his wife, Eugenia – seated at the base of a large tree set against a mountainous background with a crescent moon in the night sky. The tree roots are linked with the immediate surrounding ground to create an undulating focal point under her feet.
The year he resigned from the Institute he created Phaeton, a book project incorporating twenty-two lithographs into a visual narrative based on the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the Roman poet of antiquity. The book was printed in two editions in Kansas City in 1935 by Emmet Ruddock, sponsored by local philanthropists and fellow artists including Howard Rossiter, director of the Institute, and Walter Bailey, an artist and art director of the Kansas City Star newspaper who also painted in Colorado.
Braught remained in Kansas City for more than a year during which time he received a commission for a large mural, Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, installed in 1936 above the grand staircase at the newly-built Kansas City Music Hall in Missouri where it can still be seen. He chose Mnemosyne as the subject for his mural because she was the mother of the nine Muses of antiquity fathered by her nephew Zeus. Braught also executed two other murals: one in 1942, “Waynesboro Landscape,” for the post office in Waynesboro, Mississippi, under the Treasury Section of Fine Arts; and the other in 1945 for Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico.
In the fall of 1936 he spent a few months on a tiny island off Tortola in the British Virgin Islands resulting in a number of canvases with strong topical colors that were included in his one-man show at the Ferargil Galleries in New York in 1938. The exhibition catalog opined: “After living four years in the barren and moody western country, he sought the other extreme in the luxuriant tropical growth of the British West Indies…Braught’s whole interest is in the search, and his is a serious hunting for the real beauty of life.”
Although he taught at Cornell University from 1936 to 1939, he moved his family back to Tortola where he lived for the next seven years with a two-month side trip to Dutch Guiana (now Surinam) in November 1944 to gather material for his Puerto Rico mural. Wartime material shortages forced him to use pencils to make drawings, initiating a body of work for the next several decades in which he “reached a new level of acute observation and mastery of increasingly complex organic forms.”
Recruited by sculptor Walter Rosenbauer, who had been a teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute in the mid-1930s, Braught returned in 1946 to the Institute where his reputation from the previous decade was still strong. In an interview for the Kansas City Star in 1959 he summed up his teaching philosophy on color: “I want to teach my students to see how color creates a form, or the space around a form. How they go on from there, whatever style they formulate, if any, will come from within themselves.”
In 1962 Braught either retired or was fired from the Institute when it brought in a new faculty, upgrading the school to get it fully accredited. He packed up his home and studio, leaving his wife and family in Kansas City and relocating to Philadelphia where he lived reclusively for the last twenty-one years of his life. Apart from some pieces he sent to an exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute in the 1960s, he did not show or otherwise promote his work. Consequently, once regarded as a highly original and thoroughly modern talent, he became a largely forgotten artist.
Reviewing his work and teaching in his last known interview in 1959, Braught said: “When you look back on paintings, you realize the things that live are the things that have emotional quality. It doesn’t matter how you paint. Style, technique, they are superficial. The feeling that survives is what is worthwhile…the aim is to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.”
Solo Exhibitions: Dudensing Gallery, New York (1925); Ferargil Galleries, New York (1938); Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, Missouri (1951); Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York (2000).
Group Exhibitions: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (1922-1934); Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (1923-1932); Art Institute of Chicago (1923-24, 1926); Mystic Art Association, Mystic, Connecticut (1920s); National Academy of Design, New York (1920s); Salons of America, New York (1920s); Society of Independent Artists, New York (1920s); Kansas City Art Institute (1934, 1936); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1948).
Collections: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; William Benton Museum of Art, Storrs, Connecticut; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Kansas City Art Institute – both in Kansas City, Missouri; Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University at Manhattan; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver, Colorado.