For many years, until his death, Peirce was both a prominent painter and a well-known character. He belonged to no particular school of art, which may have diminished his long-term reputation, but was sometimes called "the American Renoir". His style was basically representational, colorful, and lusty, clearly denoting his Rabelaisian love of life. A long-time friend of Ernest Hemingway, of whom he painted the cover picture for Time magazine in 1937, he was once called "the Ernest Hemingway of American painters." To which he replied, "They'll never call Ernest Hemingway the Waldo Peirce of American writers." His reputation as an artist diminished sharply after his death.
Peirce led a lusty, bohemian life, spending the 1920s in Paris with the so-called Lost Generation celebrities, and was as much known for his eccentricities as for his painting. This may well explain why, upon his death at age 86, such a well-known personality virtually vanished from the history of American art even though he is well represented in most of the major American museums.
The offspring of wealthy Maine lumber barons, Peirce attended Phillips Academy, Andover [Class of 1903] and then Harvard. As he once said, he never worked a day in his life. He did, however, spend many hours every day for 50 years of his life painting thousands of pictures of his beloved families (he was married 4 times and had numerous children), still lifes, and landscapes.
In 1915. Peirce joined the American Field Service, an ambulance corps that served on the French battlefields, two years before the entry of the United States into World War I. He was later decorated with the Croix de Guerre by the French government for bravery at Verdun.
Peirce was a large man for his time (he was drafted onto the Harvard football team, he said, solely because of his size) and with a mustache and full beard and a large cigar jammed perpetually into his mouth he looked every inch of a cartoonist's notion of an artist. Peirce himself was adamant about one thing: "I'm a painter," he insisted, "not an artist."
His most famous episode occurred just after his graduation from Harvard around 1910. He and his friend John Reed, the American communist who is buried in the Kremlin walls, booked passage together on a freighter from Boston to England. As the ship was leaving Boston Harbor, Peirce decided that the accommodations were not to his taste. Without a word to anyone, he jumped off the back of the ship and swam several miles back to shore. Reed was then arrested by the ship's captain for the murder of his vanished travelling companion and thrown into the brig. When the freighter eventually arrived in England, Peirce was at the dock waiting to greet his friend Reed -- he had dried himself off and taken a faster ship to England. A further embellishment to the story is that Peirce had swum in a multi-mile swimming contest at Harvard a few days before.
Another story is recounted by the American humorist H. Allen Smith in a 1953 book called The Compleat Practical Joker. In it, the playwright Charles MacArthur recalls his favorite practical joke. Its perpetrator was Peirce, who was living in Paris at the time and made a spontaneous gift of a very small turtle to the lady who was the concierge of his building. The lady doted on the turtle and lavished it with care and affection. A few days later Peirce substituted a somewhat larger turtle for the original one. This continued for some time, with larger and larger turtles being surreptitiously introduced into the lady's apartment. The concierge was beside herself with happiness and displayed her miraculous turtle to the entire neighborhood. Peirce then began to sneak in and replace the turtle with smaller and smaller ones, to her bewildered distress.
Peirce was married four times and had five children. He was devoted to his children and painted them many hundreds of times. In a letter written in the mid-1930s, Ernest Hemingway described a visit by Peirce to his home in Key West, Florida: "Waldo is here with his kids like untrained hyenas and him as domesticated as a cow. Lives only for the children and with the time he puts on them they should have good manners and be well trained but instead they never obey, destroy everything, don't even answer when spoken to, and he is like an old hen with a litter of apehyenas. I doubt if he will go out in the boat while he is here. Can't leave the children. They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potato into his canvasses. That represents fatherhood."
Thursday, December 31, 2009
A Well-Known Character
Posted by M. Christian