The Bell Époche, prior to World War I, was a prosperous and extravagant era when royalty governed most of Europe. At the same time in the United States, great fortunes were being made through unfettered trusts and monopolies, creating a class of Nouveau Riche. This ambitious society of Robber Barons and their social climbing wives was just as stratified as their real European counterparts, but lacked the accompanying pedigrees. During this period there was a beneficial intermingling of interests. American families sought tittles through arranged marriages of their daughters, and the lavish lifestyles of eligible counts and crown princes required infusions of cash.
No American artist better presented that colorful era than Albert Beck Wenzell. From a wealthy family himself and with solid academic training in Munich and in Paris he knew his subjects well and could paint them with great authority. His opulently gowned, imperious, and always-beautiful young women were depicted with a dazzling display of artful exaggeration; the young men wore their colorful uniforms or full dress with an assured careless swagger.
Two large volumes of his illustrations were published by Collier’s: The Passing Show and Vanity Fair in 1896 and 1900. He was awarded medals in the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York and in 1904 from the Louisiana Purchase centennial exposition in St. Louis, One of the founding members of the Society of Illustrators, he was elected its president in 1902 and he became a member of the Mural Painter’s Association, having painted a large mural in 1903 for the New Amsterdam Theatre.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, his early interest in art was encouraged by his parents. After introductory local art classes, they arranged for him to Study in Munich under Stahuber and Loefftz. This was followed by further schooling in Paris at the Académie Julien where his instructors were Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. It was a rigorous seven years of schooling which prepared him for several career options. His early ambitions were to do portraiture and landscape paintings and he was invited by William Meritt Chase to assist in critiquing his students’ efforts. However, this quickly felt like a dead end to Wenzell, who found the students hopelessly inept and after three months he decided to go his own way.
His first efforts, to find portrait commissions in his Detroit Home area, produced few patrons. Discouraged, he decided to offer his services as an illustrator in New York. After repeated rejections he finally found a regular patron in the old Life magazine—a humorous publication then—which accompanied its two- or three-line jokes with fully realistic illustrations. Since the humor regularly focused on the peccadilloes of the wealthy and their social climbing, it gave Wenzell the opportunity to do many drawing room scenes, peopled with women in silk and taffeta gowns (which he could paint with dazzling verisimilitude) and men in be-medaled officers’ regalia, in opulent interiors. The public loved his pictures and other magazines began to vie for his talents, eventually including Harper’s Monthly, Scribner’s, Truth, Metropolitan, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, as well as publications on the continent including the prestigious German satiric magazine Die Fliegande Blätter.
In Addition to his magazine short stories, he also illustrated many serialized novels, among them The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and other authors of Victorian Fiction. Since in those stories of the vicissitudes of love and courtship, the heroine was the dominant character; she had to be depicted as beautiful and desirable. “Wenzell’s girls,” as they came to be known, were, and they had a huge popular following. Their hairstyles and dress helped to set the fashions and brought him in a constant flow of fan mail. However, in a full-page illustrated story in The New York Herald on February 14, 1904, titled “The Wenzell Girls,” the artist is quoted; “I resent the phrase ‘Wenzell Girls.’ It is a catch phrase, which indicates but a fragment of the work I am trying to do. She was not conceived, believe me, with that sort of conquest in view.” “I draw from many models,” Wenzell continued, “It is often extremely difficult to get the right one . Now II do not know if there is any interest in thus revealing the pulleys and mechanism as it were—the bare mechanical difficulties of my art—but you are welcome to tem. I particularly desire in my models a good head—a well modeled head, that is…once secured, I try to draw my model closely. My critics frequently discover characteristics in the finished drawing, its being a type and all that, which to say the least, I have not anticipated.”
Wenzell also expressed strong views about the state of American art, “It seems to me, after many years spent abroad, with the consequent opportunity for comparison, that American art has advanced amazingly, further than is generally appreciated at home or abroad. The average American, for instance, admires the drawing of American girls by American Artists. But he rarely goes abroad to have his portrait painted.
“American artists excel, it seems to me, in color. There are half a dozen men here now—I don’t refer to several well known American artists living abroad—no, there are New York men whose work is not familiar, but whose talent is the first order. It is most unfortunate that our home talent is not more appreciated and encouraged. I have little sympathy with the idea that an artist must live abroad in some so-called art centre. If a man be an artist it makes little difference where he lives.”
In reviewing Wenzell’s picture subjects, whether by his own choice or by those of his art editors, he keeps closely to his class. There are no examples to be found featuring the common man or woman, nor evidence of privation or poverty. While he was presenting a record of his times it was a very selective slice of it.
By the date of his death from pneumonia in 1917, the era of wine, women and song was over and he would soon be virtually forgotten. Yet despite the ephemeral quality of his subject matter we must admire his great technical skill and appreciate the artistic spirit that motivated it.