“Ivan Albright painted this lurid portrait for the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Wilde’s tale, Dorian Gray commissions a portrait of himself as an attractive young man and later trades his soul for an ever-youthful appearance. As the still-handsome Gray leads an increasingly dissolute and evil life, his painted representation rots and decays, revealing the extent of his moral corruption. Albright’s renown as a painter of the macabre made him the ideal choice of Albert Lewin, the director of the movie, to paint the horrific image of Gray. Although the movie was shot in black and white, Lewin filmed the painted portrait in color to emphasize Gray’s shocking transformation.”
— Permanent collection label, The Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago native, Ivan Albright, remains one of the most provocative, yet distinguished, artists of 20th Century and American art. Though now known for his art in its entirety, Hollywood’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is what brought him national publicity and prominence in the art world.
Most people aren’t aware that Ivan’s “most productive years” took place in DuPage County, specifically Warrenville, Illinois – a city which had been committed to preserving its rural roots for nearly a hundred years.
Escaping the grinding poverty of his family’s farm in Iowa, and against his father’s wishes, Adam Emory Albright arrived in Chicago in 1882 at age nineteen determined to become an artist. He studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago before enrolling in 1883 in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied with realist master Thomas Eakins. Albright then spent two years in Europe, working under established figural painters in Munich and Paris, before settling in Chicago in 1888.
Adam Albright’s prospects changed following the births of his twin sons, Ivan and Malvin, whom he encouraged to pursue the arts alongside him. It’s clear to see that between the father and sons, artistic talent certainly ran in the Albright family. After years of living in Chicago the family wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of city life and decided to move 28 miles west of Chicago to rural Warrenville in 1924. The family welcomed the leisurely pace and the “unpretentious people” of Warrenville. They purchased a home at Second Street and Warrenville Road and an 1858 Methodist Church building for their studio a block over.
Against the backdrop of the DuPage River and its “unspoiled simplicity,” Warrenville is where Ivan earnestly began work on his most prolific paintings. Collectively the Albright men produced award-winning works of art that speak to DuPage County’s longstanding tradition of serving as both an urban escape to Chicago’s wealthy elite as well as home to artists inspired by the countryside. Ivan’s father was particularly taken with Warrenville as it made him nostalgic of his Iowa farm upbringing.
As artists, the twins and their father inhabited different planets, sharing neither subject matter, technique, nor working methods. While Adam’s impressionistic style and wholesome subjects were “devoted to the sunny side of life” (Adam Albright’s own words), Ivan’s works were decidedly darker in tone and established a reputation for producing unpleasant, depressing, morbid, and vividly realistic paintings.
Warrenville’s setting was critical to each of the men’s paintings as all three shared one common method in their artwork – the use of their neighbors as “genuine,” “real” subjects for their works. Ivan, in fact, was so passionate about his work that he would often not pay attention to how his models were doing, regardless of the fact that he always painted from a full set, which meant long hours of being posed on set. Art Stanford (a nearby electrician) once posed for Ivan’s “The Lineman” piece and collapsed after standing still for nearly two and a half hours. The piece was a prize-winner in 1928, but was quickly looked down upon and given negative reviews because the subject wasn’t wearing “the regulation attire of the trade.”
That same year is when Ivan painted the well-known piece “Flesh” using a local model. Despite the critics and the model being appalled at the distorted image of the human body, this piece became a theme for Ivan’s career and is now the basis of the latest exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ivan’s artistic style was so unique it caught the attention of critics who referred to his works as “ghastly” and “yuk” but intriguing none-the-less, and ultimately capturing the interest of Hollywood producers from Metro Goldwin Mayer for the production of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in which the brothers reportedly signed four canvases for $75,000. His brother Malvin was assigned the “before” version of the handsome Dorian, while Ivan was tasked with the final decayed version of Dorian. It was Ivan’s morbid final piece that catapulted his career. As one critic wrote in 1931, “There is a frightful fascination about [Ivan Albright’s paintings] that makes the beholder return to the scene of the torture.” The movie was not a box-office success, but the barrage of national publicity it brought made Ivan Albright almost a household name.
Since Ivan did not sell many of his paintings due to long hours of labor and high selling prices, he donated over 100 pieces of his work to the Art Institute of Chicago before he died.
Learn more about the Albright men and their artistic contributions by visiting the Warrenville Historical Society at:
The Albright Studio (Now the Warrenville Historical Society)
3S530 Second Street
Warrenville, IL 60555
Don’t miss out on Flesh: Ivan Albright at the Art Institute exhibit, now running through August 5th.
Art Institute of Chicago
111 S. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60603
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