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By John Thomason
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Even if Frederic Clay Bartlett had never picked up a paintbrush, he would merit at least a footnote in the history of modern art for his many other art-related ventures. Muralist, architect, and interior designer, the Chicago-born Bartlett spent much of his 80 years studying art in Munich and Paris, collecting art and cultural artifacts from all over the world, and sharing his discoveries with others.
Bartlett's most enduring artistic legacies, however, bear not his name but those of his second and third wives: Helen Birch, daughter of Hugh Taylor Birch and an accomplished writer, musician, and art enthusiast; and Evelyn Fortune Lily, a painter who prompted her husband to declare, "My most successful artistic venture is the discovery of the art of Evelyn Bartlett."
After Helen died in 1925, Bartlett turned over to the Art Institute of Chicago nearly two dozen paintings by modern European artists, the bounty of the couple's extensive travels. The bequest designated the works as the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection and stipulated that, with rare exceptions, the pieces be kept together and displayed as a unit.
Included in this extraordinary collection are some landmark pieces of modern art: Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist, from his Blue Period; the pointillist masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat; and one of the three variations Vincent van Gogh painted of Bedroom at Arles. The collection also boasts pieces by Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Bartletts' other aesthetic legacies can be seen at Bonnet House, just off the beach in Fort Lauderdale. The 36-acre estate, built in the early '20s on land given to Frederic and Helen by her father, was the family's winter home for decades. The house was designed by Frederic, who passed over the Addison Mizner style popular at the time in favor of an elegant variation on the Caribbean plantation home, with a tower and a two-floor series of linked rooms surrounding a central courtyard and fountain.
The walkway around the courtyard is filled with exotica from the Bartletts' travels: African tribal masks, carved ceremonial wedding boxes, ornate carousel animals. An airy, high-ceilinged studio serves as a sort of minimuseum of Frederic's life as an artist and collector, with samples of his work and that of others, as well as information on the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection and some of the murals and stained-glass pieces he created in Chicago.
Bonnet House also features three decorative oils Frederic painted on the wooden ceilings of the outdoor foyers linking the main rooms of the house. Croton leaves form a maze of greenery on the ceiling outside the studio, and there's a Haitian-inspired landscape between the dining room and library-study. (This area also includes a couple of excellent examples of the early Cap-Haitien school of Haitian art: a marketplace scene by Sully Obin, and a scene featuring field workers by Edouard Jean.) The final ceiling panel was a collaboration between Frederic and Evelyn, a symmetrical painting of a turtle surrounded by fish, seashells, and coral, all arrayed on a large fishing net (Evelyn's contribution).
Two of the final stops on public tours of Bonnet House showcase the estate's finest art. On the mantel in the Music Room, one of Helen's rooms, is a magnificent white marble bust by the 19th-century Italian sculptor Giovanni Battista Lombardi. Titled A Veiled Girl, a Bust, the piece is so exquisitely realistic that it's hard to believe the veil's delicate folds of fabric are made not of cloth but of stone.
Just beyond the Music Room are the Bonnet House's most substantial art holdings: the Evelyn Fortune Bartlett Collection, on permanent display in the Carl J. Weinhardt, Jr. Gallery (named for the first director of Bonnet House after it was turned over to the nonprofit Florida Trust For Historic Preservation in 1983). The gallery, converted from a wing of guest suites, consists of five rooms, one devoted to watercolors, the other four to oil paintings.
Evelyn, who died in 1997 at the age of 109, painted for only five years, from 1933 to 1938, but her output, although uneven, includes some first-class work. In the first space, the Red Room, are more than two dozen pieces rendered in watercolor or pencil on paper. Most of the works are still lifes of South Florida objects, and while some are generic, others demonstrate a keen understanding of the nature of still-life painting.
The best of Evelyn's still lifes have an unforced, natural quality and capture the color and texture of tropical fruit with uncanny accuracy. Hat, Parasol, and Tangerines, for instance, is a wonderfully casual composition with a just-stumbled-upon feel. Avocado features the title item, sliced and ready to serve, its creamy halves splayed on a large seashell with a knife, glass, and saltcellar nearby. Papaya-Queen Conch is a startling juxtaposition that plays off the similarities and differences between the sliced-open fruit and shell. A flair for flowers is also evident in some of Evelyn's work -- the simple brush strokes and vivid colors of Geranium, for instance, or the hibiscus in the otherwise mundane Shell, Hibiscus, Coral.
Two striking watercolors -- Jeanne D'Arc Day and Paris Bedroom -- hint at what Evelyn might have been capable of had she pursued more ambitious subject matter. Two others -- Susie in Salon and Susie on Guard -- are examples of how even a talented artist's work can turn cloying when she focuses on something as sentimental as a beloved family pet.
The strengths of Evelyn's painting shift dramatically in the oils that take up the four remaining rooms. Her feel for fruit and flowers fails to translate from watercolor to oil, although the hibiscus in Coral in Music Room stands out, and the Cezanne feel she appears to be after in King Oranges comes through with ringing clarity.
In many of the still-life oils, as in some of the watercolors, the compositions are too fussed-over, too carefully arranged. The stunning exception is the large canvas Iron Bench in Courtyard, a beautifully balanced composition into which she crams a sensory overload of colors and textures: a wrought iron bench, a book, a basket of citrus fruit, a hat, a plaid umbrella, and green-and-yellow-dappled crotons.
The oils also reveal Evelyn's talent for portraiture, a knack for conveying the blase sophistication of the aristocracy that brings to mind the work of John Singer Sargent. Abby Spencer Beveridge is a dramatic portrait of a family friend, a blond beauty with swept-back hair, clad in a black dress with a cluster of small roses at the throat (and an eerie phoenix's head rising behind her). There are also a couple of lovely portraits of Frederic and Evelyn's daughter, Lilly, and two portraits of Frederic (Yellow Coat, the better of the two, shows him in reading glasses that lend a James Joyce quality to his appearance).
Evelyn's best portrait, ironically, is one of Helen Birch Bartlett's father. Hugh Taylor Birch, Esq. captures the grand old man in profile: white-bearded and bespectacled, as if Matisse, Freud, and George Bernard Shaw had all been rolled into one, with glimpses of tropical foliage and a wrought iron gate in the background. His stern countenance is offset by a brilliant touch: a feather tucked into his hat at a jaunty angle, which is most likely a sly reference to the fondness Birch, a vegetarian, had for his pet chicken. Evelyn completed the gag by placing a carved wooden rooster from Burma beneath the painting.
No one knows for sure why Evelyn Bartlett abandoned painting so soon after she took it up, although speculation abounds (a preoccupation with overseeing her daughter's coming-out to society, a desire not to outshine her husband). But as the best of her work on display at Bonnet House confirms, it's our good fortune that she became a painter at all and that Frederic Clay Bartlett discovered and shared her talent with the world.
Bonnet House is located at 900 N. Birch Rd., Fort Lauderdale. For information call 954-563-5393.