Merton Clive Cook (1868–1931), also known as Merton Clivette, was an American painter, magician, writer, vaudevillian and entertainer who spent most of his early life traveling the world entertaining before settling in New York to paint permanently. As a very highly regarded American artist of the early 20th century by his peers (including Maurice Sterne, Waldo Pierce, Edward Bruce, Marcel Sauvage and Michel Georges-Michel of Paris, among others), his style can be identified with the American expressionist movement. Clivette is also known to be one of several artists who most defined the Ashcan realism period in New York at that time. Clivette was remarkable in that he demonstrated artistic talent painting in a free flowing manner rarely painting over a line twice. During the 1920s his style evolved as he moved from realism toward expressionism eventually moving on to figurative and the abstract.
by Stephen Faulk
“The spiritual truth of the moving form is a changing mass of light, reflection, vibrating color – and life. Now when a form is moving – like a fish, for example – you cannot give the vibration of light on that form by adhering to a line to produce the fish.” Clivette
Painter and Vaudevillian Merton Clivette left a body of work that has seen little daylight since the 1930’s. His stunning expressionist paintings have been made available to the public through the diligent efforts of Clivette’s heirs and their restoration team.
Born in Wisconsin in 1868, Clivette grew up in the Wyoming Territory. He left home as a teenager to work as an acrobat in a traveling Wild West show which toured the American Northwest. He honed his talents as a master acrobat, juggler and sleight-of- hand artist into a fine Vaudeville routine. In the late 1880’s, Clivette moved first to Seattle and then to San Francisco, where he landed a job as a quick-sketch artist for a San Francisco newspaper, “The Call”. From 1891 to about 1900 he toured America with his Vaudeville act on the famous Orpheum Circuit. Clivette took his act to Europe and during these trips the visually astute Clivette absorbed the great art of the European tradition. Clivette returned from these travels a world-wise artist and settled in New York City to paint full time.
Clivette chose to see past “high culture” to popular realist subjects, which aligned him with Ashcan school contemporaries like Robert Henri and The Eight. Clivette’s connection to Henri and other realists is through the use of loose brushwork and traditional use of light and dark contrasts. The “Vamp” series depicts Show Biz women in the tawdry guise of Burlesque and is one of Clivette’s signature themes. The technique and candor of these canvases link Clivette to the Ashcan group. The Vamp’s pallid skin, crimson rouged cheeks and black kohl eyeliner are rendered in thick sumptuous jabs of paint. In contrast to the taunting sexuality of the “Vamp” series, but still in keeping with the spirit of Ashcan realism, Clivette painted many boldly rendered portraits of American Indians. Clivette inevitably diverged from the Ashcan realist aesthetic by painting the human figure with quirky distortions and unruly brushwork more akin to Chaim Soutine. As his art matured he moved further from realism toward expressionism. His late work remained figurative, but became increasingly abstract in its composition and use of shallow space.
Clivette built his expressionist images by placing one confident stroke after another; he dragged and parried the brush over the canvas with an acrobatic sense of timing. In his largest works, gestural marks look as though they were made as a direct result of his body movements. This body to brush connection and his brilliance as a colorist are remarkable strengths. Later New York artists like Franz Kline, can be seen as kindred spirits to Clivette through the use of gestural mark-making as the content of their painting. Clivette, a respected artist, flourished in the New York art scene of the 1920s. His historical standing and artistic integrity rank him as an American Expressionist of originality and distinction.
Merton Clivette: His Historical Links
by Louise Lieber
The most compelling characteristic of Clivette’s art is the manner in which the energy of the brushstroke is transferred to the canvas.
Ruskin’s famous comment on Whistler’s painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket” in 1874 that he was “flinging a pot of paint” is a remark that has reverberated down through the modern era. His work was ahead of its time in its anticipation of non-representational art and the incorporation of chance effects. These ideas would be explored and developed by Kandinsky (as early as 1911) and later by the Abstract Expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning in the late 1940’s and 50’s.
Jackson Pollock was himself the primary source of the energies of the paint. The act of flinging the paint was intrinsic to the creation of the work of art.
Clivette brought to his painting, the strength, acrobatic ability and sense of timing that was essential to his Vaudeville performances. Painting was another kind of performance, in which the energy of his arm creates the swirls of paint. The single stroke creates the motion of the water, the wind, the clouds and the twists and turns of schools of fish.
Paint itself always asserts its material presence and the energy embodied in the stroke becomes the essence of the work of art.
This exploration of the expressive quality of paint was evident in the painting of Whistler; in his “Nocturne” the flecks of gold take on a life of their own. Turner in his painting “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament” explores with painterly exuberance the sky, sun and water, overshadowing the historic relevance of the burning buildings. Courbet in his later years painted simple, expressive views of the ocean, In “The Wave” 1870 the wave breaking is the sole subject matter. It is a composition that Clivette, in the 1920’s would use in his seascapes.
In his own time, Clivette’s art relates to the vigorous brushstroke and intense color of Van Gogh and Matisse and the Fauves. He is a part of the Romantic tradition, capturing the forces of nature through the expressive use of paint. His has similar interests in abstracting the landscape with the artists associated with Steiglitz Circle, Dove, Hartley, O’Keefe and Marin. The paintings of Dove, Hartley and O’Keefe are more cerebral, with a greater emphasis on formal compositional elements. John Marin is looser; the brush stroke has a greater dominance.
Clivette and Marin both use a bold brushstroke as in Marin’s “The Sea, Cape Split, Maine” painted in 1939. Hans Hoffmann is historically, a link between abstracted figurative work of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the non-objective abstraction that followed. In 1936 Hoffman, still doing figurative work, painted “Japanese Girl” whose loose calligraphy is similar to Clivette’s gouaches of women done in the 1920’s.
Clivette traveled in Europe and the East in the 1890’s. He had the opportunity to meet European artists and to be exposed to their art. His work has stylistic relationships to Kokoschka, Soutine, Rodin and the German Expressionists, especially Nolde.
Clivette anticipates Abstract Expressionism and his work is surprisingly current. When we compare his painting with his contemporaries, he looks out of place: too bold, too loose, Clivette doesn’t fit in his own timeframe. He fits in ours.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF MERTON CLIVETTE (1868-1931)
By Theodore P. Aiken, grandson of the Artist
Clivette was born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1868 as Merton Clive Cook, the youngest of five (four sons and one daughter). His father was a retired British sea captain, and his mother was an American of French, Scottish and Iroquois Indian stock. He was named Merton after Merton College of Oxford University where his father had studied Religion and Classics. The age difference between his father and mother was nearly forty years and the elder Cook died at the age of 68 when Merton was only five years old.
His mother (a writer and poet) took the family to the Wyoming Territory, where she ran a newspaper and the older brothers operated a poultry and dairy farm which fed the railroad workers and miners in the area. He worked on his mother’s newspaper as an apprentice printer and typesetter but never attended a formal school. He learned to read and write while working in the newspaper office. He was also interested in the illustrations in the periodicals found around the office and would copy from them. He was interested in taxidermy and much of his spare time was spent in hunting, stuffing and drawing small animals.
When he was barely ten, his mother as “born again” and became one of the founding members of the Seventh Day Adventists. She rejected her former life and alienated the whole family, especially Clivette, who at the age of twelve left home and joined the circus. He never lived with his family again and only saw them sporadically from then on. In the circus he was both the magician’s apprentice and the sideman for the acrobats. He was physically adept at tumbling and riding which he had learned from the Indians. He quickly learned the acrobatic routines including knife throwing.
He stayed with the circus for about five years, traveling all over the Western United States, Canada and Mexico. They did shows for the army forts, for railroad workers and on Indian Reservations.
Clivette settled in San Francisco in 1886, when he was offered a job as a reporter and theatrical writer for the "San Francisco Call." He also wrote for Bill Nye’s “Boomerang”. He sketched the Pacific seascapes and sunsets during this period in his life. Four years later, when his writing job had gotten too boring for him, he started a circus with others and went on the road. At this time he officially adopted the name Clivette. He developed an interest in the characteristics of the members of the audience and would sketch them from the wings. Later he developed these sketches into paintings in oil. He met Frederic Remington during this period. He was the first serious artist Clivette had met and he was an inspiration to him.
He altered his circus acts in 1891 to conform to the stage (variety and vaudeville) and billed himself as “Clivette, the Man in Black”. He was accepted on the Orpheum Circuit, and toured New York, New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco.
He made his first European tour in 1893, and his first Far East tour (including Australia, Singapore, etc.) in 1894. He married Catherine Chamberlain, a stage performer, in New York in 1896, and her acts were incorporated into his show. For the next eleven years they toured America, Europe and the East, until 1907 when a daughter, Juanyta, was born.
Clivette had done some drawing and painting on the road during his vaudeville years, he had a natural facility for it, and he had had some formal art training as well. He had had some training in Europe and was aware of the modern art movement in Europe. Later in New York he participated in symposiums and workshops at the Art Students League.
Around 1910 he gave up his stage career and began to paint full time. He was about 40 years old and was to continue to paint vigorously and prolifically for the remaining 22 years of his life, producing a body of work numbering well over a thousand works in oil and gouache. In all his work there is a stylistic continuity; of line, color, in composition and subject matter, that identifies his work immediately as being from the hand of Clivette. His style can be identified with the Expressionistic Movement, and while some of his paintings appear very abstract, there is always a reference to nature. His subjects include portraits (some quite realistic, others more generalized) Indians and horsemen, laborers, gentlemen and vamps, jungle animals and birds, fish, seascapes and landscapes.
The family (Clivette, his wife Catherine and daughter Juanyta) were a part of the colorful Bohemian life of Greenwich Village in the teens and 20’s. Albert Parry in his book “Garrets and Pretenders, a History of Bohemianism in America” describes some of their activities which included running a far-out antique store, publishing and selling pamphlets such as “A Tome of Liver-Worse” and “It” authored by Clivette, the Man in Black, poetry readings by Juanyta, called the “Sappho of the Village” and séances by Catherine Clivette. They lived at various locations in the Village. In 1914 they had moved to 1 Sheridan Square where the antique store was located. He painted upstairs and when space grew scarce there, he moved his studio first to West Broadway in 1921 and then to 92 Fifth Ave. in 1927.
He was an active participant in the art world of New York. He was a member of the Society of Independent Artists. In 1923 he showed at the Ainslee Art Gallery at 677 Fifth Ave., in 1925 at the Spanish Society in Brooklyn and in 1927 he had a solo show at the New Gallery, 600 Madison Ave. That same year there was also a solo show of his work in Paris at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, which included a catalogue. In 1929 he exhibited at the Art Center of the Roerich Museum in a group show of work from the collection of George Hellman. In 1930 he was in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans” which also included the work of Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, William Glackens, Marsden Hartley, Childe Hassam, George Luks and Mark Tobey and sculptors Gaston Lachaise and William Zorach among others. Clivette knew the work of these artists and others and was also personal friends with many of them, including Louis Elshimius, the Leyendecker brothers and Carl Sprinchorn. A description and critical analysis of his work in included in the book by Henry Rankin Poore, “Modern Art, Why, What and How”.