Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Simka Simkhovitch's Mural

On June 21, 1911, the ocean liner Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic, completed her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The Olympic’s captain that day was Edward Smith, who would lose his life the next year at the helm of the Titanic. Unlike her sister ships in the White Star line, Olympic had a career which lasted until 1935, when larger and more luxurious ocean liners finally rendered her obsolete. After service as a troop ship in World War I, the Olympic (left) was again a popular cruise ship in the 1920s, attracting such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Prince Edward. One of the attractions of steaming on the Olympic, apparently, was the ship’s similarity to the Titanic, making an Olympic voyage a way of experiencing in some way the Titanic disaster (without actually sinking, of course). Not all passengers were among the rich and famous. The Olympic also carried thousands of immigrants to the land of opportunity. One such immigrant was Simka Simkhovitch, who arrived in New York on February 27, 1924.  At 31 years old, Simkhovitz was already an accomplished artist by the time he landed in New York. Within a few years after arriving in America, he established a solid reputation as a painter and was awarded numerous commissions.

The son a Jewish department store owner, Simka Faibusovich Simkhovitch was born in Russia in 1893.  When he was seven years old, he developed a severe case of measles and spent a year confined to his bed.  To pass the time, he made sketches of an old mill he could see from his bedroom window.  From this, he began to develop as an artist. At age fifteen, he went to the Odessa Art School and then to the Royal Academy at St. Petersburg, where at age twenty he was selected to teach drawing and painting at the academy. Simkhovitch, like many others, was swept up in the chaos of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Unlike many artists and intellectuals, however, he survived and continued his work as an artist under the new Soviet government, even receiving an award for a painting he did on a theme of the revolution. In 1924, Simkhovitch was sent to the United States to do research for illustrations in Soviet textbooks; almost immediately upon arrival in New York, Simkhovitch decided to stay and filled out the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen. In an interview for LIFE magazine in 1941, he cited an increasingly intolerant Soviet regime as the reason for his defection.*

When Simkhovitch arrived in New York, he could barely speak English, but soon landed a job as an illustrator for screenwriter Ernest Pascal, who wrote the screenplay for "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (starring Basil Rathbone), among other films. Pascal would later serve as president of the Screen Writers Guild. Impressed with Simkhovitch's work, Pascal introduced him to a gallery owner in New York City, who purchased and exhibited two of his paintings in 1927. He was an immediate sensation and commissions quickly followed. Simkhovitch's paintings, although utilizing the skills learned in Russia, were typically lighter when illustrating American themes. "My painting has become brighter in
the use of colors," the artist explained, "more cheerful in subject matter, and lighter in execution…To my students I emphasize the American scene as it presents itself in daily life.” In the 1930s, Simkhovitch moved to Connecticut with his wife Elsa (who was a model) and their three daughters. He established his studio in his home (above left) and continued to produce works by commission throughout the Great Depression. In 1936, Simka Simkhovitch was selected to paint a mural in an unlikely locale for a Russian Jewish immigrant: Jackson, Mississippi.

Simka Simkhovitch was selected by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, a government entity similar to the Works Projects Administration, to paint a mural for the new Federal post office and courthouse in Jackson, built in 1933. The mural, to be located behind the judge's bench, was meant to depict typical scenes of Mississippi life. Among those competing for the commission was the celebrated and eccentric Mississippi artist Walter Anderson. When Anderson failed in his bid to secure the commission, he spiraled into fits of depression and spent the next few years in and out of mental institutions, including the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield. Simkhovitch was awarded the contract for the mural in November, 1936, and it was installed in January, 1938. At the time, the artist described the mural as "a representation of the typical people and life in Mississippi." For Simkhovitch, who had little, if any, experience in the South, depicting life in Mississippi must have been a challenge. What he produced was artistically pleasing but has in recent years been interpreted as racially insensitive and inappropriate. Titled "Pursuits of Life in Mississippi," the mural depicts black workers engaged in manual labor, including picking cotton, and playing a banjo, while whites are depicted in more professional and socially dominant roles. Within the context of the period and considering the artist’s limited exposure to Mississippi, however, the mural may well be an accurate depiction of Simkhovitch’s view of the state. Regardless, in modern times, the mural was covered by a curtain to hide the offending scenes. The 1933 courthouse has since been replaced by a modern Federal courthouse and the original building (above) is slated for rehabilitation.

The following year, Simkhovitch won another commission in the South, this time for a Post Office mural in Beaufort, North Carolina. After selection by the Public Buildings Administration, Simkhovitch spent a few days in Beaufort and then returned to Connecticut to paint the four panels, for which he was paid $1,900. The main panel depicts a tragic incident in 1886 involving the schooner Crissie Wright. During a winter storm, the boat was driven onto the shoals off the coast of Beaufort. With the storm unleashing its fury, it was impossible to send a rescue party until the next day, when the rescuers found four of the six crewmen frozen to death. The two survivors died after being brought to shore. Today, some “old-timers” in Beaufort still refer to extremely cold and windy days as a "Crissie Wright day." The Cape Lookout lighthouse, built in 1859 and now part of the National Park Service, is depicted on another of the panels. 

In February, 1949, Simkhovitch purchased a home in Milford, Connecticut. The property included a barn which was to serve as the artist’s studio. In an interview, Simkhovitch remarked that the Connecticut countryside reminded him of his native Russia. Tragically, he never had the opportunity to enjoy his new home. While in the process of moving, Simka Simkhovitch developed pneumonia and died two weeks later on February 25, 1949. He was 56 years old. Since his death, Simkhovitch’s work has continued to be appreciated by art collectors and his paintings are included in numerous museums, including the National Museum in Krakow, Poland, and the Whitney Museum in New York. Elsa Simkhovitch (seen here in a portrait by her husband) remained in the family’s Milford, Connecticut residence until her death in 1966. A daughter, Sonja Simkhovitch Carroll, promoted her father’s artistic legacy throughout her life. She died in June 2013.

* The December 1941 Life magazine issue also included the magazine’s first photographs from the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

(1) RMS Olympic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Olympic
(2) Simkhovitch: http://books.google.com (December 29, 1941 LIFE Magazine)
(3) Studio: http://books.google.com (December 29, 1941 LIFE Magazine)
(4) "The Picinic": http://americangallery.wordpress.com
(5) Jackson mural: https://www.flickr.com/groups/pomurals/pool/with/8068935176/lightbox
(6) Eastland Courthouse: http://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov
(7) Beaufort mural: http://beaufortartist.blogspot.com
(8) Elsa Simkhovitch: http://americangallery.wordpress.com

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