An elementally beautiful nymph in the midst of metamorphosis rises from the churning sea in this mythic and beautiful 1907 oil on canvas by Paul Swan. This important early example from the artist, who was himself a social butterfly, features tremendous sophistication of technique, and combines the Art Nouveau style which was popular at the time with hints of the streamlined figural forms which would become synonymous with the art deco era. Swan would become known as a voracious devotee of the avant-garde on both sides of the Atlantic, and his familiarity with a wide range of artistic styles is clear from the allusions in this painting to the Jugendstil and Austrian secessionist movements which were emerging in the early 20th century.
At the time of the creation of this artwork, Swan was a new face on the art scene, on the verge of discovery by Alla Nazimova, who would become his first important patron. Nazimova introduced him to celebrities within the worlds of fine art and dance, and he quickly made a splash in both, becoming known as the most beautiful man in the world–a title which would stick with him through the 1960s, when as an older man he became the subject of one of Andy Warhol’s Factory films, titled Paul Swan, and acted in the infamous Camp.
Even in this early offering, all the elements which made Swan such a fascinating and wildly successful artist are on full display. Exhibited in the artwork are his fascination with worldly beauty, shimmering culture, and transcendent artistry, not to mention abundant talent.
Paul Spencer Swan was born in Asland, Illinois in 1883. Even his name sounds beautiful. His artistic career began when he enrolled in the painting program at the Institute of Chicago. In 1903, he arrived in New York City with only $20 and found a job as an illustrator for the Butterick pattern company. Inspired by the performance of Russian actress Alla Nazimova as Hedda Gabler during her U.S. tour, he painted her portrait and she commissioned five additional paintings. With the money from the commission he went to Greece where he studied classical sculpture and dance. He became the first private pupil of Diaghilev Ballet Russes star Mikhail Mordkin.
Swan married the granddaughter of American sulptor Erastus Palmer – Helen Gavit of Albany, NY – and they had two daughters, Paula and Flora. At the Gavit family’s summer estate in the Adirondack village, Stony Creek, Swan experimented with several artistic styles, producing a “series of vibrant, warm oils and watercolors filled with archetypal images and streams of human figures reaching for the hope and innocence that had been wrecked by the sound of guns during World War I.” He exhibited at the National Academy of Design, Knoedler’s, MacBeth, and Blakeslee Galleries in New York and won awards from the Salon de Artistes in Paris for his scultures. As an actor Oscar Hammerstein chose him to headline at the Victoria Theatre in the late teens, and he toured the U.S. and Great Britain with the Sir Ben Greet Shakespeare Company. His film work included Diana the Huntress (1918) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923), In addition to appearing in Paul Swan, he also appeared in Warhol’s Camp.
In Warhol’s film about the artist, Paul Swan “becomes increasingly camera-shy, repeatedly retreating behind the convenient shelter of his stage curtain to change his clothes, oblivious to urgent requests that he come out and do all that on film. ‘I don’t care,’ he says grumpily, ‘you’ll cut this all out anyway, won’t you?’… During Swan’s hunt for the lost shoes, long minutes pass during which nothing is visible except the abandoned stage set, while the dancer is heard off-stage (and off-screen) knocking things over.” An off-screen voice is heard yelling at him to do it without the slippers and then finally urges him to do a speech instead. Swan does his poetry instead – and then a staged speech, possibly from his theatrical act, when the film ends abrubtly, cutting him off.
When Andy Warhol cast Paul Swan (1883—1972) in three films in the mid-1960s, he knew that the octogenarian had once been internationally hailed as “the most beautiful man in the world” and as “Nijinsky’s successor.” Arthur Hammerstein had advertised Swan as “a reincarnated Greek God,” and George and Ira Gershwin had celebrated his beauty in their musical Funny Face.
The words of writer Paul B. Franklin may well be the best epitaph for Paul Spencer Swan., – “dancer, painter, poet, actor and gay camp idol, Paul Swan was a true original!”.
Swan encouraged artistic risk. He told the Sun in 1914, “The type of worker whom we aim to interest in our colony is the honest laborer in the realm of the ideal who has something to express and is brave enough to express that something, even at pecuniary loss and in the face of ridicule.” Establishing an artists’ colony in the Adirondacks was another kind of risk.
When Swan moved to Paris in the early 1930s, he took the city by storm, both as a dancer and artist. Les études Poetique (1937) called him an “incomparable virtuoso.” His artwork was in the Paris salons every year. His sculptures, including salon medal-winner Maurice Ravel, were the talk of reviewers.
But fate disrupted his European career. On September 12, 1939, the impending war forced Swan to flee Paris. He grabbed as much as he could carry-a fraction of his work. What he left behind vanished. Recently, one of his landscapes was located in an antique shop near his former studio. But none of the sculptures has been found, and we can only hope that Maurice Ravel and the bronzes Petit Soldat Inconnu and L’opprimé survive in some secret collection. Only the photographs Swan kept in his scrapbooks provide a record.
Back in New York, Swan took over a studio in Carnegie Hall that had been used by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. The world was a different place, changed utterly by the chaos in Europe, but still Swan produced. Montross Gallery held a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings in June 1940 that received excellent reviews. His oil of actress/dancer Lisan Kaye was pictured in newspapers as far away as Quebec.
Swan’s weekly recitals at Carnegie Hall continued through the 1940s and 1950s. Artists and writers passed through his studio to be painted or to enjoy an evening of aesthetic dancing and art lectures. Among his admirers were musician Percy Grainger, writer William S. Burroughs, and artists Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder and Robert Barnes. Barnes and Duchamp donated money toward Swan’s rent. Barnes told me that “the interest that Marcel, myself and Alex Calder had in Paul Swan was. . . in the capacity of collecting interesting and oddly representative characters, . . . in this case vanity. . . . Marcel-all of us-enjoyed entering into weird situations with unusual people without being judgmental. Swan was a benevolent egomaniac.”
The effects of aging were inevitable, and crowds for Swan’s performances grew smaller. He was evicted from Carnegie Hall in 1961 and moved to shabbier digs at the Van Dyke Hotel. While living at the Van Dyke, Swan painted the young Rockefeller children Nelson Jr. and Mark, as well as writer Malachy McCourt. But his eyesight was deteriorating, and when he could no longer paint or care for himself, his daughters moved him into a nursing home in Bedford Hills, New York, in October 1971. He died there the following February.
In 1980 Swan’s relatives bought a small gravestone to mark the approximate spot where Reuben Swan buried a coffee can filled with his brother’s ashes in the Crab Orchard Cemetery, in Nebraska. Until 1999 no one knew about a cache of scrapbooks and letters that Swan’s nephew kept. He gave them to the Ringling Museum in 2003.
Owned by collectors in Australia, England, Denmark, France, Greece and Italy, Swan paintings today are commanding high prices. Privately commissioned works long tucked away in family basements are now being restored by a new generation. Lost or stolen art is beginning to surface, such as sixty-six Swan paintings found under the floorboards of an old New Jersey house in 2002.