George Biddle (January 24, 1885 – November 6, 1973) was an American painter, muralist and lithographer, best known for his social realism and combat art. A childhood friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he played a major role in establishing the Federal Art Project (1935-43), which employed artists under the Works Progress Administration.
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.
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. Biddle was hired in 1940, along with eight other prominent American artists, to document dramatic scenes and characters during the production of the film The Long Voyage Home, a cinematic adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's plays.
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.
He was married three times—from 1917 to 1921 to Anne (Nancy) Coleman (1896); from 1925 to 1929 to anthropologist Jane Belo (November 3, 1904; Dallas, Texas – April 3, 1968); and from 1930 to his death to sculptor Hélène Sardeau (July 7, 1899; Antwerp (Belgium) – 1969). Their child, Michael John Biddle, was born on November 15, 1934.
George Biddle's brother was Francis Biddle, who was Attorney General of the United States at the time that the new Department of Justice Building opened, featuring murals painted by George Biddle. George incorporated Francis' image in the "Life of the Law" mural.
George Biddle died on November 6, 1973, in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
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”.
- Illustrations for Porgy and Bess libretto (1930). Commissioned by George and Ira Gershwin.
- Portrait of Helene Sardeau, the Artist's Wife (1931), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Self-Portrait (1933), Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Murals for Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building (1936), Washington, D.C.
- Murals for Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (1940), Mexico City, Mexico.
- Portrait of Man Ray (1941), Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Portrait of Frieda Lawrence (1941), Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Murals for National Library of Brazil (1942), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Books by Biddle
- 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.
- 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"
- "Cover Article, American Artist Magazine, September, 1940, pp. 4-14"
- 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
- Helene Sardeau, from SIRIS.
- Self-Portrait (1933), from Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Man Ray, from Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Frieda Lawrence, from Philadelphia Museum of Art.
|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
- "The Long Voyage Home" Artist Portraits and Paintings at The Ned Scott Archive