Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Carpenter’s Son

Before Christmas, I wrote an article about the contractor who built what was called the wigwam. I don’t know much about John McEwen’s life in Perthshire, Scotland, but since he was 26 years of age when he came to Chicago, he must have obtained his skills before leaving his homeland.

The oldest son, Walter, was born in Chicago on February 13, 1860. He attended Lake forest Academy and then entered Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois, sometime around 1876. His major was business and accounting and in his free time he worked in his father’s contracting office. The plan must have been for Walter to eventually carry on the family business. (Some articles on the Internet suggest he also studied painting at Northwestern.)

The story is that a man borrowed ten dollars from Walter and left a box of paints and brushes for collateral. He never returned to claim his artist supplies so Walter began experimenting with paint. We do not know when the young man finally told the family that he had decided to become an artist. We don’t know what the family response might have been, especially from his strong-willed Scottish father. We do know that he left for Europe and spent a lot of time in Germany at the Munich Royal Academy. He later moved to Paris and also spent much time in Holland.

Walter McEwen always considered Chicago his home and his name often appears in the voting records. When he returned to vote, he brought his work to sell and gradually developed a list of patrons, one of whom was James Deering. MacEwen was invited to participate in the Columbian Exposition of 1893 as a jurist of paintings from Paris and also to paint murals on the exhibition halls. He and a friend, Gari Melchers, painted four forty-foot canvases which decorated the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building.

An article in the Chicago Daily Tribune of May 24, 1943, identifies one of John McEwen’s sons as Walter McEwen, the artist. It continues... Walter left home to study art in Munich and Paris and by 20, he had won a medal at Munich. Fifteen years later Walter would return to Chicago “as a distinguished visitor with a professional commission. He painted many mural decorations for buildings of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, and was accepted as an equal among the famous architects, sculptors, and painters who camped on the fairgrounds during the construction of the White City. St. Gaudens spoke of them as the greatest gathering of artists since the 15th century.”

Not only did Walter McEwen work on the Columbian Exposition, he also painted “nine large panels and a number of small ones for the Hall of Heroes in the Library of Congress.” Three of his panels are in the reading room at the Library. “So it seems that the Chicago carpenter’s son who wanted to study art had the right idea.”

“Walter MacEwen may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of.”
Allison Hersh

"He was one of the most highly decorated artists of his time," said Holly Koons McCullough, chief curator of fine arts and exhibitions at the Telfair Museum of Art. "It is a measure of how much our society, and our approach to art, has changed that he is little known today."

The Art Institute of Chicago appears to have only one work by Walter MacEwen called "A Magdalen," c. 1896. It is an oil on canvas 54 x 42" It was a gift from James Deering in 1925 and is not on display.

His wife, Ella Ward, was born in New York City on October 27, 1858. She indicated that she had lived in Paris from 1894 to 1916. I don’t know how they met or when they married. If there was a child it was probably a girl because there some indication that she was the "Young Girl Reading By The Window."

Walter McEwen died in 1942 in New York City after a long illness. He left a widow, Mrs. Emma Ward, and two brothers, Paul and Alfred. His place of burial is not indicated.

If any of our readers have one of his paintings or more information, please let me know.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club

History Club Meeting Dates and Subjects:

January 5, 2013 - “Our Society’s History, 1875-1885", Wayne Rethford, speaker

February 2, 2013 - “Sir Winston S. Churchill, The Greatest Statesman of the Twentieth Century.” Daniel N. Myers, speaker

March 2, 2013 - “Remembering Marshall Field’s”, Leslie Goddard, speaker

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