An American Artist's Story

by George Biddle
[Little, Brown, $4.00]
To the keen delight of his fellow citizens and the mortification of those relatives who had chosen to ignore his very existence, a motor manufacturer plastered the hoardings of North Broad Street some years ago with a picture of his car and the conservative statement, ‘A Biddle Can Go Anywhere in Philadelphia.’ The truth of this observation has tended in recent years to circumscribe the field of activity of this celebrated family. Not so with the two brothers, Francis, the liberal judge of the National Labor Relations Board, and George, painter and apostle of American art. Probably the most intelligent and distinguished extroverts Philadelphia has produced since Benjamin Franklin, both these Biddles have proclaimed their emancipation from their background not with a sword but with a printed book. The Llanfear Pattern was the title of the judge’s novel published a decade ago. Today George, the artist, has given us the reminiscence of his life in American art which is in fact a far more revealing and convincing commentary on the charms and weaknesses of his native city than the novel.
An American Artist’s Story is an important book, and timely. For if one consults the roster of accomplished painters in the United States today one will find that few of them go back in the American tradition beyond the Civil War, fewer still to Colonial times. George Biddle is one of these, and because of it his fierce and often exasperating patriotism has a rather authentic ring, despite the fact that during a varying career he has embraced as many different political philosophies as he has followed æsthetic and emotional impulses, But here lies the importance of the book; for, as a reviewer in the New Yorker once said of him, ‘Biddle, like his friend Franklin Roosevelt, is always sincere at the time.’ And it is this capacity for being sincere so often, and about, diametrically opposed facts and principles, that makes his book the record, the extremely human and fascinating history, of the American artist’s rise to social consciousness.
What Biddle has to tell us about art is not new, nor is it particularly important. His own personal history, often charmingly described, follow s the pattern of a Gauguin révolté against the background of the Philadelphia Assemblies. Groton School, and the Harvard Law School. But what is new is the unfolding panorama of the content and subject matter of contemporary American art. Like The Education of Henry . Idams which ht’ quotes so often, the painter was Concerned with the education of an American liberal. That he was an artist was at once an accident and a blessing. Biddle the lawyer, political scientist, and eighteenth-century aristocrat, became by virtue of his tradition and training the articulate mouthpiece for the American painter’s growing dissatisfaction with the effete Europeanism of collectors and the smugness of capitalistic patronage.
The book is pervaded with a breathless quality which makes for exciting reading and is colored with the bitterness peculiar to the escaped Philadelphian. Its faults are more the faults of a sometimes naïf and erratic personality than those of literary craftsmanship. One would wish that the painter had called less upon the ghost of Michelangelo, to whom he appears to have had direct wire, and dwelt longer upon the government art programs and his own part in them. There has never been a more far-reaching artistic movement in the history of the country, both for its present accomplishments and in its implications for the future. To George Biddle belongs the credit of having been the spark which touched the blaze. Possibly out of delicacy to those in authority in Washington, he felt obliged to neglect this chapter of his career. Yet on the whole one finds in these memoirs a record of years of intense emotional activity in conflict with an hereditary fascination for public service. To those who wish to understand the background for the confusion in contemporary painting in this country, this book is, with these minor irritations, absorbing and indispensable.