George Biddle (January 24, 1885 – November 6, 1973) was an American artist best known for his social realism, combat art, and his strong advocacy of government-sponsored art projects. A native of Philadelphia, Biddle was a lawyer by training whose passion for art led him to abandon his original profession and travel the world to study and compose.
Born to an established Philadelphia family, Biddle attended the elite Groton School (where he was a classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt). He completed his undergraduate studies and later earned a law degree from Harvard (1908 and 1911, respectively). He passed his bar examination in Philadelphia.
Biddle's legal career was short-lived, however, and by the end of 1911 he had left the United States to study at the Académie Julian in Paris. In the next two years he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Returning to Europe in 1914, Biddle spent time in Munich and Madrid, studying printmaking in the Spanish capital, before trying his hand at impressionism in France. As he remembered, “I gobbled up museums, French Impressionism, cubism, futurism, and the old masters; I copied Velasquez in Madrid and Rubens in Munich….” In 1917, with the United States' entry into the First World War, Biddle enlisted in the army.
George Biddle was married three times, from 1917 to 1921 to Anne (Nancy) Coleman (* 1896), who in 1925 married Leland Harrison (1883–1951). From 1925 to Jane Belo, later known anthropologist Jane Belo Tannenbaum (* November 3, 1904, Dallas, Texas; d. April 3, 1968) and from 1930 to sculptor Hélène Sardeau (* July 7, 1899, Antwerp (Belgium); d. 1969). Their child, Michael John Biddle, was born on November 15, 1934.
Prior to his Mexican travels, Biddle had returned to the United States in 1927 and established a printing shop in New York, where he “began to explore the variety and richness of technique and expressionism possible in lithography”, a medium which he hoped would “popularize American art by making it better known to the American public”.
In the 1930s, Biddle became a champion of social art and strongly advocated government funding for artistic endeavors. His correspondence with his former classmate (and recently elected president) Franklin Roosevelt. even contributed to the establishment of the Federal Art Project, an arm of the Works Progress Administration that produced several hundred thousand pieces of publicly funded art. Biddle himself completed a mural titled The Tenement for the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C. and made sketches of the opera Porgy and Bess during its late 1930s tour. His works were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair. During these years Biddle also wrote several books and taught at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
During World War II, Biddle was appointed chairman of the United States Department of War's Art Advisory Committee and served to recruit artists to that body. Biddle himself traveled through Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy with the 3rd Infantry Division and produced works documenting that unit's activities. He wrote a book on his war travels: Artist at War Tunisia-Sicily-Italy, Viking Press, 1944. When the Art Advisory Committee was disbanded, he produced combat art for Life magazine.
George Biddle died on November 6, 1973, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
Biddle painted a beautiful image called “Catfish Alley,” (later the name was changed to “Catfish Row” by American Artists Group when they published it). “Catfish Row” is a lithograph image. George Biddle uses many techniques on this painting which makes it more novel and attractive. The painting is in all black and white, the artist uses light and dark shading to give it a three-dimensional feel. The scene captured is of a group of individuals walking, sitting and playing outside their houses. In "Catfish Row" there is nothing about the image that is abnormal or fantasy. Atmospheric perspective is also used: the objects in the background are less detailed and almost blurry compared with the objects in the front of the painting. The overall spacing of the painting is crowded; almost every inch of the painting is used up with an object or person. The scene Biddle painted seems to take place in the evening; all of the adult figures in the image seem tired and ready to settle down for the night. The expressions on the figures' faces are exhausted from a day of work, but they have to keep an eye on the children out at play. The children look lively because it is cool and they get to play after school or working too. All the lines in the painting are choppy, but delicate and placed carefully. Biddle must have used quick strokes or a small tool to make the image look like it had been sandblasted or made on a rough surface.
The scene and the message of the painting are very clear and realistic. Biddle must have painted a scene when he was out traveling the world during hard times for African Americans. “Biddle’s subject, reflecting the interest in portraying aspects of the American scene felt by many artists at this time, is drawn from his 1930 visit to Charleston”. He liked to capture scenes that were of the time and how people saw the world. Most of his paintings, lithographs, and drawings were of real events or portraits. These images told a message about what was going on in the world, whether it was in the US or in another country. The effects and techniques that were used help express the message that Biddle was trying to say about the time period for this culture. “The subjects Biddle depicted included portraits of his family and friends, scenes based on his extensive travels, commentaries on political and national events and reflections on the human condition”.
Style and influences
Some factors that contributed to Biddle’s artwork are the many art movements that he was involved in. Biddle was involved in “French Impressionism; the American Ashcan School; the School of Paris and Cubism during those early and exciting days when it first exploded on the world; Regionalism, the Mexican Mural Movement, and the New Deal Subsidy of Art”. He also was involved in the “post war currents of contemporary art”. Many of his works of art were contemporary. Another factor that contributed to Biddle’s artwork were his friendships with many great “painters, sculptors, and critics of the past generation and his life-long activity in behalf of fellow artists”. He borrowed many of the other artists' styles and turned them into his own by using different techniques and images to get a different effect. Biddle believed that everyone’s life should be influenced by every “fact with which one comes in contact, until one ceases to grow or is, actually dead”. This is the reason why Biddle became such a successful American artist; he had his own style, and expressed real actual events.
A further influence on Biddle was Mary Cassatt. Biddle met Cassatt at the Académie Julian in Paris; she too was from Philadelphia. Cassatt helped to cultivate in Biddle an appreciation of the work of Degas. Some of Biddle’s prints reflected “the style of these two artists in their intimate, domestic subject matter”.
Biddle put in his “personal feelings—affection, humor, compassion, irony, social outrage—as well as his technical mastery of the lithographic medium” to “enliven his work”.
George Biddle achieved a lot of goals that helped other artists make their way. His work serves as a “kind of index to the many style and themes which occupied artists in the first half of the 20th century”. When Biddle volunteered to go to the war, it changed his whole life and how he saw the world. He got to travel the country and study the art of different cultures thus enriching the art that he would produce. Biddle captured scenes and people how they naturally occurred in life. “Catfish Row” is a good example of Biddle capturing people and objects in their natural state. “Rejecting the stale formulas of academism and critical of what he saw as a loss of articulate emotional expressionism in much of modernist art, Biddle grappled with his own artistic identity throughout his life”.
- Green Island. Coward-McCann, New York 1930.
- Adolphe Borie. American Federation of Arts, Washington, D.C. 1937.
- An American Artist's Story. Littlem, Brown & Co., Boston 1939. (memoir)
- Artist at War. The Viking Press, New York 1944.
- George Biddle's War Drawings. The Hyperion Press, distributed by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944
- The Yes and No of Contemporary Art. An Artist's Evolution. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1957.
- Indian Impressions. The Orion Press, New York 1960.
- Tahitian Journal. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1968.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to George Biddle.|
- List of Biddle's Artworks in Museum Collections, World Wide Arts Resources.
- Columbus Museum of Art Web page on Biddle’s 1933 lithograph, Alabama Code (click on picture for larger image)
- George Biddle letters to Constance Biddle, 1943-1945
- George Biddle papers, 1910-1969
- Oral history interview with George Biddle, 1963
- Pennigar, Martha. The Graphic Work of George Biddle with Catalogue Raisonné. Baltimore, Maryland: Garamond/Pridemark Press, 1979
- Ladis, Andrew, “George Biddle, Raphael Soyer, and the Genius with a Thousand Faces” Traditional Fine Arts Organization 2005: 2-. Resource Library. March 8, 2006
- David Cook Fine Art “George Biddle"
- Chenoweth, Colonel H. Avery: Art of War: Eyewitness U.S. Combat Art from the Revolution through the Twentieth Century. Barnes & Noble, 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4828-4
- Thomas E. Luebke, ed., Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2013): Appendix B, p. 540.
- Biddle, George. The Yes and No of Contemporary Art. London: Oxford University Press, 1957