Paul Swan (1884-1972)
Once hailed as “America’s Leonardo” and “the most beautiful man in the world,” Paul Swan began his multi-faceted career by modeling for art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900. Instructors quickly discovered his talent for drawing and arranged a scholarship. While in Chicago, he studied painting under John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911) and sculpture under Lorado Taft (1857-1953). Many of the figures in Swan’s paintings show the influence of these two men.
Swan left Chicago within a year to try his hand at teaching high school in his home state of Nebraska. After several more attempts at various jobs-tutor, frame painter, actor-he moved to New York City to become, as he wrote in his memoir, “a serious artist.” He worked for a year drawing heads and hats for the Butterick pattern company’s magazine The Delineator to earn extra money. He also executed several commissioned paintings in New York and New England. His first published art work appeared on the cover of Putnam’smagazine in December 1908-an idealized Greek youth who looked very much like Swan himself.
In 1909 he met the granddaughter of American sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer. They married in June 1911 and had two daughters, Paula (b. 1914) and Flora (b. 1917). Although Swan was bisexual and had several male partners during his life, he and his wife always remained close. Helen Gavit Swan died in California in 1951.
In 1910, when Swan saw Russian actress Alla Nazimova perform in Ibsen’s Little Eyolf in Albany, New York, he was inspired to paint her life-sized portrait and send it to her as a gift. She was so pleased that she commissioned Swan to paint four additional portraits. With the money he was paid, he sailed for Europe, stopping first in Egypt and then Greece, where he studied with sculptor Thomas Thomopoulos. A critic for Athens magazine Patrie wrote in 1911: “No foreigner since Lord Byron has ever received such public acclaim.” Another journal called him “the reincarnation of one of our lost gods.”
In Athens Swan began his aesthetic dance career, calling the art “sculpture in motion.” Although he was criticized in the press for dividing his talents, Swan always felt that dance improved his artwork by reminding him how the body moved, how the muscles worked, and how the inner spirit could be revealed. He became Mikhail Mordkin’s (1857-1944) first private pupil and in London (1912) worked with another Russian dancer, Andreas Pavley. Swan and Pavley held dance recitals at Swan’s studio in Roland Gardens.
During the same period, Swan came under the tutelage of Danish painter Baron Arild Rosenkrantz, known today as “the painter of the invisible.” Goethe’s concept of color, especially red as representative of the soul, played an important role in Rosenkrantz’s work and was passed on to Swan. Jeanne d’Arc (1923), The Three Graces (1927), and Primitive Melodies (1931) and Nance O’Neil as Lady Macbeth (1944) show Swan’s dramatic use of color.
In The Three Graces (1927), Swan painted the family of art collector Albert Wielich, placing Wielich’s wife Beatrice and two daughters, Carmen and Dorothy, in an Adirondack setting that echoes Gainsborough’s Robert Andrews and His Wife Frances (about 1748-50) and Thomas Gainsborough, with His Wife and Elder Daughter, Mary (about 1751-52). The eerie graceful branches of the white birches are reminiscent of Polish-French artist Boleslas Biegas’s work and have overtones of the French Fauves. Swan danced at Biegas’s Paris studio in the early 1920s.
A frequent traveler, Swan showed his work on several continents in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Athens, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. Called “America’s most eminent exponent of classic dancing” and continuously advertised as the most beautiful man in the world, Swan was spoofed by George and Ira Gershwin in their 1927 musical Funny Face: “As a Paul Swan, you are not so hot.” During the same period, he was the subject of one-man shows at some of the best American galleries, including Anderson, Macbeth, and Knoedler. One reviewer of a 1925 Anderson show wrote that Swan “has used symbolism so that it enriches design instead of interfering with it.” Generally, Swan did not embrace what he called “the new art.”
Swan painted and sculpted some of the twentieth century’s most important figures, including President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, musician Maurice Ravel, singer Raquel Meller, aviator Charles Lindbergh, actor John Barrymore, and British socialite Lady Ian Hamilton (who was also painted by John Singer Sargent, one of Swan’s favorite artists). By the early 1930s, he spent longer periods of time in Paris, returning to the United States only occasionally. His work appeared yearly in the Paris Salons, where he won several medals.
Hélène de Colligne wrote in Diapaison that Swan was creating “extraordinary frescoes,” “sculpture of a tumultuous harmony,” and “very clever drawings of profound inspiration.” The article is one of many that Swan preserved in his scrapbook, now part of the collection of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (the State Art Museum of Florida), in Sarasota. The Ringling also owns a copy of Swan’s unpublished memoir.
Unfortunately, much of Swan’s work from the 1930s is missing. He left Paris in September 1939 because of World War II, and was never able to retrieve the work he left behind. His scrapbook at The Ringling Museum, however, is replete with photographs.
At his Carnegie Hall studio in New York City, Swan continued to paint and dance (1940-1960). Musician Percy Grainger and his wife commissioned him to do their portraits. Writer Clare Booth Luce and actress Nance O’Neil were among his subjects. Montross Gallery held an exhibition of his portraits in June 1940. Swan’s popularity continued, even during the difficult war years. A friendship at this time with California artist Bennett Bradbury led Swan to experiment more with the palette knife, and he produced several landscapes using this method-a departure from his more linear style. In much of his other work, Swan did not rely on piled pigment or impastos. He agreed with William Hogarth’s idea that variation of lines and curves (especially precise serpentine lines) are the key to pictorial beauty.
In 1961, when Carnegie Hall evicted him and a number of other artists because of impending renovations, he moved to the Van Dyke Studios and continued to perform aesthetic dances well into his eighties. In his old age he became an eccentric character in New York City, visited by Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, and Roberto Matta, who admired Swan’s unwavering dedication to his philosophy of art.
Although Swan painted Pope Paul VI and the children of Nelson Rockefeller late in his career, his eyesight began to fail. Pop artist Andy Warhol took an interest in Swan in 1965 and cast him in Camp, Paul Swan, and Paul Swan I-IV. Callie Angell of the Whitney Museum’s Warhol Film Project calls Swan “strangely impressive” in “Paul Swan”, referring to Swan’s determination to continue to perform at eighty-three.
Paul Swan died in a Bedford Hills NY nursing home in February 1972. His biography, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan, from Wilde to Warhol, has been nominated for the 2007 Pulitzer
Prize and the George Freedley Theater Book Award.
Some of his publicly owned work includes a bust of Willa Cather on display in the State capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska; a bust of FDR’s defense secretary James V. Forrestal at Princeton University; and a painting of Nance O’Neil as Lady Macbeth (listed with the National Portrait Gallery) at The Players in New York City. When The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art acquired seventeen drawings and paintings by Swan, this neglected but important artist found a home in a major American museum.