|Gen'l Lee Over Yonder, 1994, oil on canvas, 8" x 10"|
Frank Wright prefers to express rather than reflect. This may seem quite odd, due to the fact that most of his paintings are historical representations of DC. How exactly can one express the past without reflecting? Wright does this by masterfully blending facets of his life with historical reconstructions of Washington resulting in painstakingly detailed works of art.
This DC native, whose family has been in the area for six generations, paints images of Washington ranging from the old Analostan Island (now Roosevelt) to the original Willard Hotel and Pennsylvania Avenue. It is hard not to notice the incredible amount of detail in every brushstroke, but what one may not notice is just how Wright personalizes his paintings. He explains that you can find many a face of his friends, students, or literary figures (such as Walt Whitman) amongst the various crowds he paints. Such details add a particular touch to the impersonality of history. One thing is certain – Wright is incredibly talented.
He attended American University where he then won the Paul J. Sachs Fellowship in Graphic Arts. This led him to Paris, where he studied prints and woodcuts in depth at Atelier 17. Gallery Assistant Hannah Spector, recently sat down with Professor Wright to discuss his work, the history of Washington, DC, and where the two intersect:
Hannah Spector: Do you mainly get inspiration for your historical paintings from photographs?
Frank Wright: Well, not exactly. There's no photograph of most of these, I made them up. Mainly
pictures of Civil War reenactments and I saw a guy there that looked like Robert E. Lee, so I turned him, into Robert E. Lee.
HS: I like how you do the perspective of old DC. Have you gotten that mainly from piecing together different sources?
FW: I have a large collection of old photographs of old Washington and my family has also been here for six generations. My grandfather and my family on my mother's side have also been here for six generations. The first one who came here was Washington S. Wright and he came here in 1826 from Alexandria, from old town Alexandria. His father was a hatter and his father before him was as well. They were on Navy Yard Hill, where of course the river traffic was very important in those days. He had a business there during and before the Civil War.
|Frank Wright, The Grand Review, 1990-91, oil on canvas, 48" x 96".|
FW: Well yeah, but I have a general interest in it. Of course being in an early office building just one block from Ford's Theater always meant I had a great interest in that area and I was there for 26 years, across from the Portrait Gallery.
HS: That's a pretty area.
FW: It is now, but it's been through its ups-and-downs.
HS: What's your favorite painting you've done?
FW: This is my favorite image, The Grand Review, 1990-91. It took place on Pennsylvania Avenue on May 25, 1865 shortly after the President [Abraham Lincoln] was killed and it's based on a reenactment I saw in the early 90's. The whole cast of Glory, the movie, marched in that parade. So I ran in front of the parade all the way from 7th street to 14th street to get this image. It took me well over a year to do.
|detail from The Grand Review|
FW: Yes, Walt Whitman.
HS: The detail is incredible, how do you have the patience for this?
FW: Time, time. Well, you know when you do a major project like this it's like doing embroidery where you think it will take its time and it will be finished when it's finished. But yes, this is Walt Whitman and this other man is his friend Pete Doyle and at the time of this parade they didn't know each other, but I decided to put Pete Doyle in it. He was the closest friend Walt Whitman had, very close relationship. These here are the contrabands. You know Washington after the war, they freed the contrabands. They were people owned by other people and they kept them on Mason's Island, which is now Roosevelt's Island. During the war they stayed there.
HS: Where's the Willard in this panting?
FW: Here. It's where Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Now, sometime after this, the present Willard was built around 1900. This is the former building that was there. When I was a child, it was quite a wonderful place filled with World War II activities. People would go down there, and it was "smokeville", everybody smoked and you could hardly see yourself through the smoke. Later on, the Willard went into disarray for a number of years it just sat there without being occupied. Then an enterprising group of businessmen brought it back.
HS: So are your paintings interspersed around different parts of DC?
FW: Yes, and Vienna. But this [The Grand Review] was one of the most ambitious paintings I ever did. Some of my friends were in the reenactment here, so they're in here. I have several of my students and friends in here. And everything is absolutely accurate because I was able to get access at the Library of Congress to pictures that were not generally known. Everybody knows the [Matthew] Brady ones, but they weren't as interesting as the ones I found that showed the streets and the stores. So, all of this is very accurate. Of course there was a welcome home sign in the parade from Washington school children. This is the second day of the parade. The first day was May the 23rd when Meade's army marched down. The second day was Sherman's army, they walked up from South Carolina... Sherman's army had suffered a great deal, but they were excellent in the parade. They marched very well and I have books about the parade.
HS: It's crazy how much history is behind each painting.
FW: I've done some paintings of the encampments along the Potomac. This one, Watchfires in the Evening Dews and Damps, 1993, was at the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee. It was a crucial battle in 1864 because Hood's army could never reorganize after that Battle. It's a compilation of photographs and my imagination.
HS: Did you ever go to art school or did you just study in Paris?
FW: I went to art school. I went to American University, which had a great art department. I also taught at the Corcoran for 4 years.
HS: They just partnered with Maryland.
FW: Yes. Originally the Corocan School was the art department at The George Washington University. When I was teaching there, there were GW students in the department. We had a small department, just about 2 or 3 students at GW. Then they sent all of them to the Corcoran, especially for painting, sculpture, and ceramics. When I came in 1970, they lifted me from the Corcoran. While I was there, they started to soar.
HS: Do you teach painting?
FW: I am a painter, but I've always taught drawing. Mainly because there was an opening and I took that person's place. One of my best friends came a year earlier and taught painting, but we had our studio together, a man named [William] Woodward. They whole time I was at the Corcoran, he was teaching painting and I was teaching drawing. Then we both moved to GW and he taught for 32 years and I've been teaching drawing for 42 years.
HS: Can you tell me about your time in Paris?
FW: Well, I had a fellowship to Paris. It was given to me by the founder of the printed collection of the National Gallery, named Lessing Rosenwald. He wanted to establish a fellowship in honor of his best friend who got him started as a collector, who was Paul J. Sachs. I was the first Paul J. Sachs fellow at the National Gallery and from there I went to Harvard and from there I went to Paris. I didn't realize 'til much later that Paul's mother was Goldman and his father was Sachs. So, I went to Paris at that time.
HS: Your prints are amazing. What type are they?
|A Man and His Dog, 1970, engraving, 6-3/8" x 4-3/8"|
FW: They are engravings and etchings. There's one around the corner called An Old Man and His Dog. This fellow was a vagrant who used to go through the trashcans in front of the National Portrait Gallery. He was an interesting looking character and I though I might be taking a chance but I invited him up to pose. He lived in one of the boarding houses around, but he wasn't a derelict. He was sort of an old man that used to ride the railroad. He was from New Orleans, but I found him very interesting and bright and intelligent.