Herman Rosse, Untitled, circa 1930, watercolor on board, 11 x 13.5 inches, gilded oval frame
I bought this trompe l'oeil watercolor on masonite the other day at the Alemay Flea market. The artist is Herman Rosse (1887-1965), a dutch-born painter, who worked in America for much of his life. He's not a household name, but more about him in a minute. The painting appears to date from the 1930s. It's in the trompe l'oeil tradition, which in Holland goes back to Vermeer; in America, the technical prowess to support the style doesn't appear until the second half of the 19th century with artists like John F. Peto.
I labored over the purchase despite the painting's low price and obvious technical virtuosity. The problem wasn't the scratch but the ubiquity of victorian sentiment: photo of a kitten and child, fringe on linen, peacock feathers, and a cloying female draped in fabric, clutching a bouqet. It tasted saccharine and I puckered at the thought of standing next to this cliche of feminine domesticity when it came time to resell. If not for a little voice from some far away place telling me the painting was somehow less than the sum of its over-ripe parts, that each element weirdly canceled out the others, leaving an emotionless tableau where there should have been a melodramatic one, I'd have put it back down on the concrete and walked away. But that's the kind of mystery I thrive on, so I got over my trepidation and paid up.
Back home, I began to research Herman Rosse in earnest. I couldn't find a single other easel painting, but I uncovered a rich narrative that weaves him directly into the mainstram of American art and entertinment. In 1915 at age 25 Rosse won a commission to paint the murals in the Hague. That's the Peace Palace, bitches, built to accommodate the International Criminal Court, where they try people like Slobodan Milosevic for genocide. Soon after the project, Rosse came to America, worked as an architect, designed houses for important cultural figures, painted murals, designed art deco silver and avant garde sets for Broadway. A number of these are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He illustrated a book with his best friend Ben Hect, a co-writer of my favorite film, His Girl Friday. I began to wonder, how do I not know this person?
Herman Rosse, Dining Room, c 1930, mixed media installation, collection Metropolitan Museum of Art
Then came Hollywood, where Rosse was art director for the 1930 King of Jazz, an art deco vehicle for band leader Paul Whiteman. He designed the sets for Bela Lugosi's 1931 Dracula, and Lugosi's 1932 prodution of Edgar Allen Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue. The names of my heroes were starting to pile up. I love old Hollywood, I love old horror films, I love Edgar Allen Poe, and I love to document artists of the past who crossed over into entertainment, given how the line between the two is now blurring. But it was only when I learned that Rosse also designed the sets for James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, possibly the best early American horror film, whose look influenced countless other bits of 20th century culture, that I looked down at the painting and could fnally say, "It's alive!"
Frankenstein (the reanimation scene), 1931, Universal Pictures, set design by Herman Rosse
With this new information in mind, the painting was in fact coming to life in a new way, the contingent natue of art-looking asserting itself against the stability of objecthood with a Hollywood sci-fi vengeance. What first appared as a jumble of strange elements now felt like the design of a cryptic stage set. What first looked sentimental now came off as diabolical and surreal, the eyes of the peacock feathers gloomily surveillant, the innocent females dangerously seditious.
A little-noticed pin cushion doll in the background thrust itself to the fore. An odd figure decked out in purple smoking jacket, top hat and creepy mustache, it is the only male in a sea of problematic females, and its torso just happens to be pierced through with little knives like St. Sebastien. I'm not sure I've decoded the painting's text but I get the sense that there are some interesting reading's there.
Chess Tournament Julien Levy Gallery, circa 1945, photograph Dorothe Tanning
Continued Research into the existence of other paintings by Rosse yielded little except this one tidbit: In 1948 he exhibited a series of "reflection" paintings at a little space in New York City. It's called the Julien Levy Gallery, which just happens to be the birthplace of surrealism in America. Case closed. Defense rests. Another fascinating American artist who nobody seems to know or care about, rediscovered in a pile of stuff at the flea market.