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  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  R E M I N I S C E N C E S

bullet Preface
bullet Foreword
bullet Grandfather     Dictated by Ary
bullet The Village     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplement to the Village
bullet Vilna     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplemet to Vilna
bullet Coming to the United States     Dictated by Ary
bullet Back of the Store     Dictated by Ary
bullet Omaha     Dictated by Ary
bullet Ary in New York - 1919
bullet Ary in Paris
bullet Ary Comes Back to the United States
bullet Ary's Marriage
bullet Summer Cottage in Harmon
bullet The Studio on Fifty-Ninth Street
bullet We Return to Paris
bullet Cuernavaca-Houston
bullet Ary and Music
bullet Ary and the English Language
bullet Ary Stillman - Thoughts on Painting

Ary In Paris (1920-1933)

It is quite impossible for me to convey in words what Paris meant to Ary. One would have had to see the slow on his face and hear the note in his voice as he spoke of the city, which was so dear to him.

La Place de la Poste
La Place de la Poste, Cansis, France
oil on canvas
21 x 25
Green Room
University of Houston,
Moores School of Music, TX

Ary's scrapbooks with catalogues and reviews and press stories about his activities, and the books "Tetes de Montparnasse" by Nesto Jacometti and "Artistes Americains Modernes de Paris" by Chill Aronson, which include Ary, cover quite well his work during those 12 years. I can only relate some of Ary's reminiscences that may help to fill in the picture of his personal life at that time.

Ary and his three companions didn't settle down in Paris at once, for after a short time Raskin and Ginsberg wanted to see something of Germany. The three of them visited various sections of the country together, and then Ary stayed on after the others had left. He explored the Rhine country, walking with rucksack on his back. Tired eventually of wandering he found a comfortable room in a pension in Berlin. The landlord, a former army officer, was a lover of music, and he initiated Ary into the beauty of Beethoven. This world of majestic and romantic sound was a thrilling new experience to Ary. Two or three times a week he would go to a concert, and before each concert the landlord would play on the piano the themes of the symphonies to be heard, and explain to Ary something of the structure and development of the composition. It was one of the highlights of Ary's musical experience that he was present to hear Nikisch at what proved to be that famous conductor’s last concert.

The concerts would begin early, and there was a long intermission, during which the audience would repair to the adjoining beer hall, where they would drink beer and eat the sandwiches they had brought with them. The pension would give Ary a bag of sandwiches, which he brought with him in his pocket.

There were poetry evenings also, the most memorable one being the appearance of the Russian poet Mayakowsky, who was the idol of the young people of the day. Ary said the magnetism of his looks and his voice was indescribable. But he was a disturbed soul and eventually committed suicide.

Often Ary would spend an hour or two at the well-known Romanische Cafe or some other coffee-house. And of course he acquainted himself with German art. But architecture and art in Germany were not really to his taste. There was a heaviness, which did not appeal to his aesthetic sensibilities.

Through chance Ary learned of a man in Berlin who was in financial straits and was very eager to sell an apartment house which he owned. The price was attractively low, and Ary managed to interest a friend, Dr. Jacques Eskin, whom he had met on ship-board, and together they bought this property. It was the income from this apartment house that enabled Ary to remain in Europe for 12-1/2 years, long after his companions Raskin and Ginsberg had returned to the United States. It meant occasional visits to Berlin from Paris, where Ary took a studio after spending a year in Berlin. But it was well worth his time and effort, for it meant that he could live modestly in Paris and travel when the spirit moved.

In Paris Ary tried several temporary studios and eventually found one much to his liking. The man who had occupied it sold his furniture to Ary — mostly antique pieces of very good quality. It was on Rue d'Alesia, either in or just beyond the Montparnasse Arondissement, not too far from the Dome and the Rotonde, the popular cafes for Montparnasse artists, and from several restaurants, principally. Le Corbeille, where Ary became a regular customer.

Then began for Ary what undoubtedly was the happiest period of his life. He was madly in love with Paris — with her beauty, her spirit, her language, her art. Here was an ambience in which he felt entirely at home. There was a subtlety, a refinement, a delicacy, a "bon gout" which set every fibre of his being to vibrating. He was suddenly set free from all the bonds, which had been shackling him all those years in Sioux City.

He would paint hours on end, and when he was tired he would walk about on the streets, sit in the parks, explore the museums. He got to know every corner of Montparnasse, the Latin Quarter, the Place de la Concorde. He spent countless hours at the museums — the Louvre, the Musee de Cluny, with its medieval art treasures, the Musee Guimet with its marvelous Oriental pieces. He went to the opera and to the Comedie Francaise (both subventioned by the government, and therefore low in price). He stood on street corners listening to the vendors, so as to become acquainted with the French language; he attended meetings and lectures so as to become familiar with the best diction. He sat at the Montparnasse cafes, in a circle of painters — Russian, American, French — discussing heatedly every phase of art.

I need not dwell on Ary's painting, for his press reviews from Paris tell the story. Before too many years he was exhibiting in the French salons, helping to arrange exhibits of American groups in the American Club or in galleries; and the French critics, not too kind to most American painters, welcomed him warmly as an artist of great gifts and sensibility.

Although Ary was very much an introvert he seems to have blossomed out in every way during these years. His studio seems to have been quite a gathering place for American artists and their friends. Once a month, on a Saturday, he had open house and a big crowd came, bringing food and bottles of wine with them. The "femme de menage" who cleaned the studio and did his laundry once a week would be on hand, and occasionally she would bring her teenage daughter with her. Ary would ask some of the artists to dance with the child, and the mother would watch with tears in her eyes, proud at the honor being done to her daughter. It was almost impossible to make her take money for her work at such times.

In the summer there would be an influx of American school teachers and other young women daring enough to make the trip to Paris (it was quite an undertaking in those days). Ary evidently had a sympathetic ear, and sound good advice, and he played the role of confidante many times. He wasn't often caught up into the role of lover himself, for his was a very serious nature and he didn't take anything lightly, and he was still afraid of being tied down by wife and family and thereby losing his freedom as an artist. The summer of 1928, however, he spent in the town of Moret, France, preparing for his first one-man show, and there he met and fell in love with a very charming French girl. It was the difference in religion that held him back from marrying her (she was Catholic). Although she herself was very liberal in her views Ary sensed a restraint in some of the members of her family. The year he spent in the United States, in 1929, gave him a chance to think it over from all aspects and he came to the conclusion that the barrier was too great for them to have a chance for a happy marriage. With Hitler coming along, it proved to be a very wise decision. However I think this girl was always in his mind, and it was only when he met me years later that he felt he had again found someone to whom he was really attuned.

Ary painted many portraits at that period —his own kind of interpretive portrait. Sometimes he would work from the models at the Grande Chaumiere, which was near the Dome; other times he would have models or friends pose for him in his studio. He told me various anecdotes of these sittings — the model who was unhappy about her too-thin breasts and who wept for joy and embraced Ary when he painted her full-breasted; the American woman who didn't like the double chin Ary was painting on her portrait, and when he left the room for a minute, went up to the canvas and tried to paint out the too heavy chin (he ordered her out of the studio when he saw what she had done). Ary couldn't compromise in portraits or anything else, and had utmost scorn for pictures of pink-cheeked dowagers and dynamic-looking businessmen. To him it must always be a composition, a work of art, not a surface likeness. In this connection I recall the portrait Ary painted of me the first year we were married. He wasn't satisfied with it — I guess because he had gone beyond the stage of enjoying this kind of work — and he never finished it. But I remember saying to him that perhaps it wasn't the way I looked but it was the way I felt inside of me.

Leo Stein one of Ary's friends at that time. He would come to Ary's studio and Ary found him a very interesting conversationalist. He didn't admire Leo's writing however; he felt that Leo needed the spontaneity of a verbal exchange of ideas to present himself at his best. One thing Leo wasn't a bit reticent about was his dislike of his sister Gertrude; he declared often and vehemently that she was a fake.

Bastille Day, the 14th of July, was of course a big holiday in Paris, with dancing all night in the streets. On other occasions also there were all night artists' balls in which Ary joined; on some of these occasions they would parade through the streets in their pajamas. One particular story concerns a cafe — it seems that the Dome was principally the gathering place of writers, but the Rotonde, across Boulevard Montparnasse, was the chief rendezvous for artists. It became so well known as the artists' cafe that tourists began to flock there to watch the artists. The tourists spent more money than the artists, of course, and the management began to be impatient at the artists who lingered for hours over a cup of coffee. Gradually the management made this impatience evident. The climax came one night when the crowd had been at an all night ball and came in afterwards asking for breakfast. The cafe manager refused and told them in no uncertain terms how he felt about them. Finally one of the artists cried: "Fellows, let's leave here —let's leave and never come back," and they trouped out and across the boulevard to the Coupole, next door to the Dome. From that day on the Coupole became the artists' cafe, and without them as main attraction, the Rotonde's trade fell off. When we were last in Paris, in 1955 and '56, the Rotonde was boarded up and billboards were pasted across the facade. By that time the Coupole had lost some of its popularity with the artists — except at breakfast, when everyone came in to read the American and foreign newspapers. The Dome was popular and even more so the Select, next door to the Rotonde.

Snow Scene
Snow Scene,
Massif Central

oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 19 1/2
Private Collection, TX

Much as Ary adored Paris, there were times when spells of deep depression overcame him and he locked the door of his studio and ran away. He told me of the Christmas holidays which he spent in a little town in Massif Central, the only guest at a little country hotel. Christmas Eve he walked into the nearby forest and sat down under the trees, lost in dreams and vague thought, until he fell asleep, to be wakened by midnight chimes of Christmas bells. (The Foundation has a Snow Scene and also a summer scene of Massif Central). Ary told me another time of the summer when the money he had sent for from his reserves in the States failed to arrive and he was without funds. He had just money enough for a round trip to a nearby country spot, a room at a small hotel, and a few loaves of bread, and he spent several days sitting on the banks of a little stream, thinking, drowsing and breaking off chunks of bread to eat. Then there was the holiday when he fled in disgust from Paris, where a group of American women friends had ignored his advice and fallen prey to some gigolos seeking American dollars — only to find the friend plus the gigolos turning up at the very pension where he had taken refuge.

But there were gay holidays too and wonderful excursions to other countries. Many months in Italy, where he was entranced particularly by the subtle beauty of the old Sienese masters; where he attended a week-long religious celebration at the Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi, transported to another world by the heavenly music and the beauty of the paintings by Giotto, Simone di Martini, Lorenzetti, etc, which looked down at him from the cathedral walls.

In Spain, he passed a month in Madrid, visiting daily the Prado, with its superb Goyas, Velasquez, El Grecos, and other masterpieces. Then he bought a railroad ticket for hundreds of miles of travel wherever he chose in that country, Toledo, Cordoba, Barcelona, etc.

Arab Boy
Arab Boy
Green Room
University of Houston,
Moores School of Music, TX

In 1925 Ary went by ship to Palestine, where he remained for six months. In Jerusalem he made dozens of watercolor sketches of the city and its types, a crowd of youngsters usually surrounding him, and always a self-appointed leader to drive the unruly ones away. He roamed the hills and slept in primitive Arab towns; in one of them he contracted malaria and was desperately ill, and there were recurrences of the illness for years afterward. He photographed Chaim Weizman and Lord Balfour at the opening of the Hebrew University, for the Rotogravure Section of the New York Times. He was asked by a prominent Arab to photograph his wife and daughters, the first time they had unveiled their faces to a stranger.

One of Ary's favorite stories was of the primitive hotel where he slept overnight, in the Arab town of Acre. Knowing that the rooms were mostly set up with 6 to 12 beds he asked specifically for a room with one bed — only one bed! He finally made himself understood and in the evening when he came in, tired from tramping around, there was his room with only one bed, as he had asked. He threw himself down on the bed, exhausted, and slept like drugged through the night, although now and then in the midst of his sleep he seemed to hear rustling or movement around him. When he finally woke up in the morning, there on the floor around his bed were half a dozen Arabs sleeping. He had specified one bed, but he hadn't said no roommates!

It must have been in 1926 or '27 that Ary traveled through Spain and then down to Morocco and Fez. The Foundation has a sketchbook of pen and ink drawings recording the landscape, the architecture, and the Arab types, single or in groups. Quick sketches, they have captured the mood and character of the landscape and the people. Traveling was always an adventure for Ary, and here in northern Africa he sought out the most colorful and exotic corners he could find. In Fez he wandered through Arab sections where the French had warned Europeans not to venture. In Morocco he was drawn to the Jewish ghetto section; there he found synagogues and Hebrew schools so poor that they could not afford books for the students; the boys sat in a circle around the leader, who held a copy of the Talmud in his hands and the youngsters learned to read from whatever angle they could see the book. It was in Fez, I believe, that he attached himself to a procession that was traveling by bus to a distant cemetery where the anniversary of the birth or death of a saintly Rabbi was to be celebrated. It evidently was a spot which was supposed to have miraculous healing powers, for many sick and lame and blind were among the pilgrims. The crowd was far too big for the buses, and unfortunately the strong over-powered the sick in the rush for seats, so most of the sick and blind had to be hoisted up onto the top of the bus. Ary, as a stranger, was given a place near the driver. After a fantastic night's drive, including a change of buses in which the sick again had to be piled on the top of the bus, they reached the cemetery. There Ary met resistance and suspicion — this celebration was for Jews, and he was too pale and too foreign looking to be a Jew. Finally he persuaded them to let him enter, and he spent several days there, in the midst of a scene that harkened back to early Biblical days. People had come from miles around. The wealthy had brought their entire families with them, a retinue of servants, and food to last throughout the entire celebration period of three or four days. The servants pitched tents and prepared the food. The men ate first, then the women and children, and then the servants, and finally what was left over was turned over to the poor who had no food. At night fires were built and the men danced around the fires, singing and chanting, until they worked themselves up into a frenzy, and began to throw sacrifices into the fire — silks and other precious fabrics and gold ornaments and jewelry.

oil on canvas
12 x 18
Foundation Collection, TX

On the way back to Paris Ary stopped at the island of Corsica. In Corsica, while he was painting on a rocky beach he fell and broke his left arm. It was badly set by a local doctor, and by the time Ary managed to get back to Paris. He was in such pain that he had to go to the American Hospital. There it was reset, but a nerve had been caught in the first setting, and the arm was paralyzed. The doctors held out little hope, but Ary was determined to regain use of the arm, and once the cast was removed he began laboriously and painfully to exercise. After three months in the hospital, one day he thought he felt a faint tremor of life in the arm. The doctors and nurses encouraged him, but secretly they felt pessimistic. Christmas was approaching and Ary was eager to spend the holidays in his own environment, so the afternoon of Christmas Eve the doctors discharged him. He found he had made a mistake, however. His studio was icy cold and he couldn't make a fire in the stove. He went out to the usual cafes, but all of his friends had gone away for the holidays. So he returned to the freezing studio, wrapped himself up in a blanket, and spent the most lonesome of Christmases there. I don't know how long it took for the arm to begin to function again, but finally, after patient exercising and many visits to the hospital Ary could move it almost as well as before, although it always remained weak.

As time went on, Ary made a number of good friends among the French. Othon Friesz, at the height of his popularity, invited Ary to exhibit under his aegis at the Salon (des Tuileries, I believe, or the Salon d'Automne). The Salon d'Echanges, showing late in 1931 at the Porte de Versailles, chose Ary as the only American to exhibit with them, and the following year he was one of their Committee. That second year several Americans, Kerkham and Minna Harkavy among them, were among the exhibitors. The Paris edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, in reviewing the show, commented: "Renouncing the attempt to disguise the melancholy fact that very few people, however interested in art, have any money today to purchase pictures, they (the artists) have established a system of exchange by which merchandise that might appeal to an artist's fancy can be obtained in lieu of cash — wine, rare books, groceries, free meals for a year, curtains, watches ..." Further on, writing of Ary, "Last year Stillman received a 5000 fr. camera for one of his compositions, but refused another offer from a Montmartre cabaret for free champagne for himself and friends at any time he cared to visit the cafe."

The Kitchen
The Kitchen
oil on canvas
24 x 20
Green Room
University of Houston,
Moores School of Music, TX

Early in the 1930s Ary met the Droz family —he was a Swiss and she was a French woman, who lived in the charming and historical town of Senlis, not far from Paris. Ary was in the forest of Senlis, with paints and easel, when the Drozes and their three children, the maid and the dog, came along with picnic hampers, bound for a day's outing. They stopped to talk to Ary and invited him to join them. This was the beginning of a very happy friendship. The Drozes insisted that Ary visit them every possible weekend; the guest bedroom was set aside for him, and from one visit to another his favorite books and magazines were on the table by the bed, and everything in readiness for him. On one occasion when he had been ill they came to Paris and took him back to Senlis to recuperate. The cook fussed over him and prepared special dishes for him, especially a savory soup which Ary was very fond of. Ary's painting "The Kitchen" which he retained during the years in spite of many requests to buy it, is happily in the possession of the Foundation, and keeps alive the memory of the Droz home. They were a very cultured couple, and the fine French which Ary spoke was due greatly to their influence. (In 1952 we had a memorable reunion with the Drozes, which I have recorded in my European diary.) Ary kept a number of letters he had received from Mrs. Droz and her family. They seem to me to be so beautifully expressed, almost poetic, and they radiate such warmth and affection that one can realize what this friendship must have meant to Ary. I think the glow of this friendship must have had something to do with the luminosity of "The Kitchen."

In 1932 the Paris newspapers carried highly humorous reports of the "War of the Artists" — a battle that took place between Ary and Joseph Stella, in front of the Dome. Stella, enraged at having been left out of an exhibition and related book prepared by Chil Aronson, encountered Aronson at the cafe, and after spitting in his face grabbed him by the coat and shook him. Aronson was only half of Stella's size, and he seemed to Ary to need a defender, so Ary sprang up and rushed at Stella. But Ary too was only half Stella's size, and after he and Stella slashed at each other for a short time with their canes, Ary went down, cut and bleeding. The police came in and calmed things down. They wanted Ary to prefer charges against Stella, but of course Ary wouldn't.

The year 1933 was a troubled one. On one of Ary's infrequent visits to Germany he felt the tension in the air, and when he went to call on some old friends, the father of the family opened the door cautiously, looked at Ary with fear in his eyes, put a finger to his lips, and closed the door again. In Paris money was short. Ary sent several requests to the States for some of the reserves he had left there, but received no reply. The rent on his studio was due (it was paid every three months.) The landlord demanded his money. Ary was advised to go to the courts to appeal to an influential official, a Monsieur Martin, who was said to be very sympathetic to artists. M. Martin proved to be friendly indeed; he declared that if an artist couldn't pay he just couldn't pay, and the landlord must be advised of that. He had his office assistants take care of it, and no more was heard from the landlord. Ary's colleague who had advised him about M. Martin said: "You should have put on a real 'hardluck' face; he would surely have bought a painting!"

All in all, Ary felt it was time to return to the States. So he dismantled his studio, sold the furnishings, stored some paintings and packed others to take with him. As he recounted it to me, he sat at the cafe late that final evening, then returned to the almost empty studio to pace up and down all night, and at dawn he started out to walk slowly through the deserted streets, mile after mile to the railroad station.

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