Private collection, Rome, Italy
Ernest L. Ipsen (fig. 1) was considered “one of America’s leading portraitists of the early twentieth century.” His Danish parents, an architect father and musician mother, settled in the melting-pot Boston suburb of Malden, Massachusetts, and he first studied art in the nearby School of the Museum of Fine Arts from 1884-87. He also trained with the traditional painter Frederick Porter Vinton who, after travel in Europe, specialized in portraiture (figs. 2a-b). Since his parents’ families had connections with the Danish court, Ipsen next went to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts from 1887-1891, learning the prescribed academic manner. He then returned to establish a studio in Boston where he remained from 1900 to 1904 exhibiting at the Boston Art Club. Then he moved to New York, setting up shop at a studio in the National Arts Club on 19thStreet. In 1924 he was elected a member of the National Academy. Later in life Ipsen moved to Florida, where he continued to paint until just a few weeks before his death at age eighty-two.
Although he produced some genre, still lives, landscapes and seascapes, Ipsen achieved renown as a portrait painter of fashionable sitters in a manner reminiscent of John Singer Sargent. On the occasion of his 1928 exhibition at New York’s Macbeth Gallery in 1928, it was observed that:
Mr. Ipsen has had a long and successful career as a painter of fine portraits. His work is owned, both here and abroad, not only by many families who cherish what he has done for them, but by museums, institutions, banks, clubs, and the like, when it has been thought fitting to preserve for posterity their outstanding associates.
In addition to society grand dames such as Mrs. Marie Feigenspan (fig. 3) and Mrs. Averill Harriman, among his distinguished sitters were William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, and the artists Cass Gilbert (fig. 4) and Edwin H. Blashfield. Ipsen’s portrait of the American Ambassador to Denmark, Maurice Francis Egan, was shown at Knoedler Galleries in 1922 and then presented by a committee of Danes to the King of Denmark.
The present portrait, one of Ipsen’s earliest surviving works, is rendered in a much freer and direct manner than that he would employ for these official commissions. Since it is dated 1891 and represents a well-known French decorative artist and sculptor, Pierre Félix Masseau (1869-1937), who exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1890 and 1892, it seems safe to assume that after completing his studies in Copenhagen, Ipsen (like all aspiring artists of the period, including Danish ones), before returning home, went for a time to Paris. Young American painters like Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895) had already succumbed to the French capitals Bohemian milieu (fig. 5), and there is certainly a sense of this in Ipsen’s Portrait of Masseau. In Denmark Ipsen would have undoubtedly seen the sometimes informal and direct portraits by the great master of the Danish Golden Age, Christen Købke (1810-1848, figs. 6a-b), and of more recent vintage the example of Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909), who had spent time in Paris, would have provided him with examples of nonacademic portraits painted in a brushy style (figs. 7a-b). In Paris he would discover first-hand both the intense realism of Courbet (figs. 8a-b) and the contemporary style of the liberal academic master Léon Bonnat (1833-1922), with whom some of the other Danish painters studied, and who set a role model for Ipsen in producing both stiff, official portraits and more freely painted works (figs. 9a-b). Ipsen could on occasion, as with the less formal 1916 Portrait of his Wife with a cat and golf clubs (fig. 10) revert to this looser style. But only in this portrait of Masseau does Ipsen really seem to absorb the liveliness, almost proto-Impressionistic quality, of the French school. Against a dappled, lightly colored background the vivid face framed by a mass of black hair and beard stares directly out at the viewer. Ipsen reveals his mastery of texture and color in the exquisitely rendered shirt collar and neck scarf. The whole air of this freely painted portrait suggests that is was painted rapidly in one sitting, capturing with near photographic intensity the presence of another creative individual.
The charismatic Masseau (fig. 11) was a very inventive sculptor and dabbled in mystical and fantastic subjects, as well as doing portrait busts of Beethoven and Baudelaire. His symbolist sentiment was captured in 1895, in a portrait (fig. 12) by another Nordic painter, the Swede Olof Sager-Nelson, who arrived in Paris in 1893.