Gertrude Abercrombie

1909-1977

Gertrude Abercrombie’s unsettling dreamscape, autobiographical paintings made her a central figure within the Chicago avant-garde and in the development of Surrealism in the Midwest. She strongly identified as a Midwestern artist, and her flat, expansive landscapes often reflected this influence. Although formally trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art, Abercrombie painted with a plain-spoken bluntness reminiscent of folk art.

Her signature vocabulary consisted of black cats, female magicians, owls, totem animals, and scenes that isolated leafless trees and stark buildings under full moonlight. She created a visual lexicon of objects and settings used in various combinations in dreamlike tableaus. Her stark landscapes are occupied by tall, slender, regal female figures with deep-set feline eyes, clad in long, simple gowns.  These women are iconic highly stylized versions of herself either as a searcher or as a queen in her castle. “I always paint my face, I guess, when I paint people.  It is the face I know best.”

She loved puzzles and riddles as in her 1941 “Self-Portrait of My Sister.”  This painting teases the viewer into wondering whether the artist was a twin, which she wasn’t.  Although often ironic, Abercrombie here suggested the idea of alternate selves, the multiple personalities that a woman artist needed to survive.

During her first marriage to lawyer Robert Livingston with whom she had a daughter, Dinah, Abercrombie painted many walking or fleeing paintings, including “Girl Searching” and “The Stroll,” featuring a woman elegantly dressed.  But for all the liveliness of the scene, the woman’s expression is tense as her arm hangs heavily at her side.  Divorcing Livingston, she took up with a former burglar and ex-con, Frank Sandiford, marrying him in 1948 and financially supporting him for most of the sixteen years they were married.  In an excoriating letter to him she writes, “But when I learned that you sexually molested Dinah for 4 years – at the age of 9 – till 12 . . . “  This accusation could be true or not although Dinah’s deep and corrosive anger towards her mother could be explained by this statement.  Abercrombie and Sandiford divorced in 1966.

A retrospective of her work was held in 1977 at the Hyde Park Art Center. She was featured in a group exhibition of Surrealist artists, “In Wonderland,” at LACMA in 2012.  Her work is in the collections of MoMA Chicago, Smithsonian Institute, and Art Institute of Chicago.

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