George A. Swanson (American 1908-1968)
Biography by Ali Baldenebro
PART I – Introduction
George Alan Swanson, a native of Bloomfield, New Jersey, achieved international success as an artist. For nearly a decade (beginning in 1934) he accompanied Dr. William Beebe, Director of the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society, on expeditions to South America and Bermuda as the official artist and illustrator. Dr. Beebe was among the first scientists to discover and document deep-sea life, reaching unprecedented depths one-half mile deep. On the expeditions Swanson illustrated the colorful and varied species of flora, fauna and sea-life discovered using Beebe’s famous bathysphere and on deep-sea dives.
Back in the states, Swanson’s botanical illustrations and watercolors inspired by travels abroad attracted favorable reviews. He found joy as an artist in figural subjects and landscapes. He achieved particular success painting the dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Ballet Theatre. When he left to join the war effort, 50 of his Ballet Russe paintings entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He admired the work of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and exhibited with contemporaries including Joseph Stella, George Luks, Jules Pascin, Raphael Soyer and John R. Grabach. His sensitive and sensuous portraits of male figures allude to his own sexuality. As noted by a critic in a review of his figurative works, “Spiritual autobiography holds aloft its candle in George Alan Swanson’s art… Few artists approach the masculine figure with such lustiness, and this vigor is doubtless his most important attribute as artist. Without it he would not be distinguished.”
Swanson was a founding member of the Bloomfield Art League, co-founded the St. George’s Art Colony in Bermuda and actively taught and exhibited in Bloomfield. His works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, The Newark Museum in New Jersey, the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City and The Masterworks Foundation in Bermuda.
PART II – Career with Dr. William Beebe
Research among tropical deep-sea fishes, combined with a keen artistic skill has resulted in a remarkable series of pictures by George Alan Swanson, a New York artist who has worked with Dr. William Beebe, of the New York Zoological Society, on many of his famous expeditions. The artist has personally investigated the depths of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, penetrated the jungles of Central and South America, and then returned to record graphically the story of his findings. In making these pictures, Swanson not only has made use of his expert draftsmanship but has drawn on a thorough scientific knowledge of his subjects, covering their habitat, anatomy, and coloration. (Popular Science, August 1944)
As a student, Swanson made regular trips to the New York Aquarium where he would paint and sketch various underwater sea life. By the winter of 1932 he had completed a portfolio of undersea paintings. Armed with this new body of work, Swanson arranged a meeting with Dr. William Beebe Director of the Department of Tropical Research of the New York Zoological Society. Swanson’s illustrations made an immediate impression on Beebe who hired the artist as a scientific illustrator. Initially, Swanson sketched organisms under the microscope and soon after was invited to join Beebe on his famous expeditions. For the next decade, Swanson would travel with Beebe on expeditions to Bermuda, Venezuela, Mexico, West Indies, British Guinea, Dutch Guinea, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. His biological drawings were extremely accurate drawn from live specimens with extraordinary attention to color and detail.
In 1934, at 23 years old Swanson joined Beebe, on his first of many expeditions to the Bermuda Biological Station in Nonsuch, Bermuda. On this trip, Beebe employed his famous bathysphere descending over 3,000 feet below sea-level to document new species. This expensive undertaking was funded by the National Geographic Society. In 1934, Beebe’s bathysphere far surpassed the 1924 record held by a German diver for a deep-sea dive at 525 feet. The bathysphere, designed in 1924 by engineer Otis Barton with Beebe, was a 4.75 foot diameter steel-orb with a steel suspension cord and a rubber hose housing telephone and electric wires. Observing deep-sea life in the bathysphere allowed Beebe to accurately describe color and form otherwise lost when species were brought above their normal pressure. For the next three summers, Swanson would accompany Beebe to Nonsuch, illustrating new species. After this first voyage the young artist commented, “...when I was a youngster I read about and was thrilled by the adventures of Mr. Beebe, it never entered my head that I might one day be a member of his famous party.”
While there is no record of Swanson diving in the bathysphere, he did go on many dives with Beebe protected by a rudimentary diving helmet. The cost of running the bathysphere was tremendous and without external funding they were unable to operate it with regularity. When asked if this would handicap their work, Swanson responded, “Not at all, for I always go down in my bathing suit and diving helmet. My job is to keep art records of the expedition, to make drawings depicting the histories of the deep sea fish we see. The pictures are composite. I note the type of sea vegetation, color of the water, catch the fish in nets, study them in the laboratory and then take brush in hand.”
For these trips, Swanson would sketch in a zinc notebook underwater making careful illustrations from life with detailed notes on color, anatomy and distinguishing features. Swanson noted, “...there is nothing quite similar to sketching life from beneath the waves, because of the clearer and changing colors, sharper tones, and exaggerated landscapes...I do not say that it was at all difficult to keep my balance. Nor was I frightened by the possibility of contact with too large or dangerous fish. It is simply that one is in a position to sketch objects and life on land with much more knowledge and assurance.” After seven years of travelling with Beebe, Swanson had developed his technique. A later article published by the local paper describes, “...a method of working underwater. Employing paints that are not affected by water, he [Swanson] stretches his canvas over a wash basin in the manner of a bass drum. Palette, paints and brushes are paid out from shipboard on lengths of line and Swanson makes complete paintings on the ocean bottom.”
After the first expedition in Bermuda, Beebe recorded his findings in his book, “Half Mile Deep.” Swanson contributed the book jacket illustration and three pen and ink drawings. In his acknowledgements Beebe notes, “Mrs. Else Bostelmann gave her best in the colored paintings of deep-sea creatures, and where there is only my memory to assist and check, the artist must be good indeed. George Swanson was of constant help with sketches and pen-and-ink drawings.” On page 188 of the book, Swanson is shown working in the office alongside the other biologists at the office in Nonsuch. The same photograph was reprinted in a National Geographic article summarizing the expedition.
An article written for the local Bloomfield paper after his first journey recounts, “The local artist was engaged all summer in painting specimens of rare, tropical fish. ‘When we arrived in Bermuda early in May, (…) some time was spent in perfecting the mechanical equipment on the Bathysphere and while that was being done, Mrs. Bostelmann, the other artist in the party, and myself, made descents to observe the color effects below sea level. We were dressed only in bathing suits and diving helmets. Below everything has an unearthly appearance. The reefs piling up toward the surface sway with the current in the same continual motion, the fish are bright hued, as the blue-green of hte water, surprisingly fails to dull brilliant colors, as blue-green mist, for instance, does above sea level.’ Among the specimens which Mr. Swanson painted was an ‘astronesthe niger,’ (an eater of stars), which is about four inches long; an iridescent brown covered with yellow light organs. Two rows of photophore (light organ), are on the lower part, lavender in color. It has a huge mouth and large fangs. It feeds on the green and rose lighted lantern fish, whereby it gets its name ‘eater of stars.’ Another was a ‘systellapsis distinguenda,’ a vivid scarlet deep sea shrimp with light organs which give out clouds of blue green phosphorus in a darkened room. Among the most striking of his paintings, also, were those of jewel eyed squids, sparkling with rainbow colored lights and huge glowing eyes of ruby, topaz and turquoise…”
On subsequent trips to South and Central America, Swanson’s role expanded as both illustrator and botanist. In Venezuela, Beebe charged him with dissecting and illustrating the vocal organs of birds as part of a research project funded by the Simon Guggenheim Foundation of the Committee of Inter-American Artistic and Intellectual Relations for the New York Zoological Society. His paintings in Venezuela were exhibited in 1942 at the Venezuelan Museum of Natural Sciences in Caracas. The 48th Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society, acknowledges Swanson’s contributions, “Mr. Swanson, in the last two months of the year, has completed twenty-five paintings of Venezuelan amphibians, reptiles and mammals for presentation to the Venezuelan government. He has also made a considerable number of microscopic drawings for Zoologica articles.”
Swanson’s personal recollections of his field studies were documented in an article, “I have acquired an appreciation of exactness that I do not believe I could have achieved in any work other than science...there is no limit to the painstaking exactness with which zoologists such as Dr. Beebe study the creatures they capture. If the preservation of a specimen or the recording of data require working straight through the night, they do it. When we were in the jungles of Venezuela recently, there was often some overlapping of duties of different members of the expedition. The day before I left to come to the United States, I had to skin a 10-foot bushmaster—a big poisonous snake...”
He exhibited the watercolors from his journeys at the Kresge Department Store, Contemporary Club Galleries, Artists of Today Gallery and Maplewood Woman’s Club and in New York at Bloomingdale’s, among others.
PART III – Early life and education
George Alan Swanson was born in 1908 in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was one of two boys among sisters. The Swansons were a creative and adventurous family. John Alfred Swanson, George’s father, was an avid sailor, circumnavigating the globe seven times before his death in 1925. George’s older brother was a civil engineer as well as an accomplished violin player and published cartoonist. One of his sisters, Virginia, was a dancer with the Albertina Rausch Ballet and an accomplished watercolorist. Another sister, Violet, was a botanist, avid gardener and shared with George an interest in zoology. George and Violet planted rare and unusual species in the garden at the family's Orchard Street home in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Yet another sister wrote poetry for which George would create accompanying woodcut illustrations.
In 1931, George Swanson started his artistic training at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art (previously the Fawcett School of Art). He studied under John R. Grabach (1886-1981), a proponent of the Ashcan style and a leading painter of the Newark School. Grabach was renowned as an “idealist” painter, famous for his intimate portrayals reflecting the innately disconsolate aspect of the human condition. Swanson responded to Grabach’s teaching by incorporating in his own art a close attention to detail and an impressionist approach to capturing human behavior. At the Fawcett School, Swanson became interested in contemporary Mexican art, collecting prints by Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. He also studied the work of Doris Rosenthal, an American artist, working in Mexico.
Between 1931-1933, Swanson exhibited his work at galleries in New York and New Jersey. He completed a post-graduate summer program at Sweet Hollow Art Colony in Bloomsbury, New Jersey where he met other fellow contemporary artists. Sweet Hollow was owned by Mrs. J. Morton who also owned a gallery in New York City where Swanson would later exhibit. After graduating from the Fawcett School, George worked as a commercial artist and, later, stage manager for the Newark Art Theater.
PART IV – The Ballet (1941--)
“That poetic feeling which characterized George Swanson’s watercolors of tropical marine life when he begin exhibiting about five years ago is echoed in his latest collection of Russian ballet studies. These 40 oils, watercolors and drawings charmingly titled “Invitation to the Dance,” are currently attracting both art fans and balletomanes...in a catalog forward Anthony Tudor (choreographer of the Ballet Theatre’s ‘Goya Pastoral,’ which Swanson has sketched) writes: ‘He has admirably captured movement and mood, the two essentials of choreographic work.’ We heartily indorse this. From the first we have felt this young man’s contribution was in the watercolor medium, and while such canvases as ‘Petrouchka,’ ‘Les Sylohides,’ and the mural-like ‘Galete Parisenne’ evince a great advance in oil technique, aquarelles [watercolors] are still his most eloquent mode of expression.” (Review of “Invitation to the Dance,” 1940.)
In 1941, Swanson, like many young American men, was called into military service, stationed at Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio as a member of the 912th Engineers. While working on a road building project he was struck in the head by a flying rock and hospitalized for six-months. He was honorably discharged after only three months in service. The war, however, had stalled Beebe’s expeditions and Swanson found himself with time to pursue other artistic subjects. Through his sister, Virginia, Swanson developed an early appreciation for ballet. Much like modern art, the 1930s and 1940s saw tremendous changes in classical dance. Swanson was fascinated by the ballet and he maintained an extensive dance library and filled many sketchbooks with illustrations and photographs of dancers, dance productions, costumes, sets and written accounts of various dance histories and current companies.
He was especially interested in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Ballet Theatre. Notably, he did not frequent George Balanchine’s company the American Ballet (now the New York City Ballet). Balanchine, initiated “the cult of the ballerina” into mainstream American culture. Instead, Swanson frequently represented in his works the dancers of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Ballet Theatre. The Ballet Theatre, following a precedent set by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, broke with traditional models and promoted the male dancer by creating choreography that expressly showcased the male physique and the evolving male technique with higher jumps and bolder pirouettes. Moreover, the Ballet Theatre was structured on the “star system” so as to build and attract audiences. Many of these “stars” became subjects for Swanson.These dancers all played a crucial role, at a crucial time in dance history, in the creation of a successful and uniquely American dance culture.
An exhibition biography notes, “For the past ten years he has specialized in painting the ballet, and has sketched and painted the original Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Ballet Theatre, and the Jooss Ballet, and the dancers Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Argentinita, Ted Shawn and La Meri. A group of his ballet paintings has been on loan for several years to the Dance and Theatre Archives of the Museum of Modern Art. His pastel of Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in the pas de deux from Swan Lake is in the permanent collection of the Newark Museum.”
Swanson commented, “Ballet can be sickly sweet in painting. The figures on their toes; the costumes, with long fluffy skirts and in delicate colors, all tend to make the picture very sentimental and sweet. But one has to show the strength of the human body, of the muscles used in dancing. That saves the picture from being sickly sweet.” Indeed, his paintings immediately convey the force of the human body and the impressive musculature of the dancers. At the time a critic compared Swanson’s ballet paintings to the work of Degas, “Degas, his only counterpart, has been dead about 40 years and even he did not work in quite the way that the Bloomfield man does. Degas’ paintings were of individual dancers or groups of dancers in repose or in more or less restrained poses. Mr. Swanson’s are snatches from the ballet in action; vibrant, vigorous representations of dancers in motion. Too, as the young artist pointed out, Degas painted ballet in general, whereas the Bloomfielder paints specific ballets and, seeing his work, one recognizes ‘Petrushka’ or ‘Les Sylphides’ or ‘Scherazade.’” Following the cue of the Ballet Theatre to emphasize the stars of the show, the dancers in Swanson’s are recognizable ballet celebrities.
In 1940, Swanson exhibited his ballet scenes at the Kresge department store in New Jersey in an exhibition entitled “Invitation to the Dance.” A watercolor of Alexandria Danilova and Igor Youkevitch from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performing in “Magic Swan” was frequently illustrated to promote this exhibition, likely the same that entered the Newark Museum collection. The review notes, “The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, with its wealth of color and movement forms the subject of the new exhibition of George Alan Swanson...”Invitation to Dance” at Kresge’s Department Store. The exhibition of 40 paintings, drawing and watercolors is, as far as known, the largest exhibit of paintings exclusively ballet in the vicinity of New York, and was originally scheduled to open at the same time the Monte Carlo company opened at the Metropolitan Opera House.” The review goes on to note the dancers represented from Michel Fokine, Michael Mordkin, Adolph Bolm and Col. W. de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe including Mathilde Kchesinska, Anna Pavlova, Thamar Karsarvina and Vaslov Nijinsky. The forward for the exhibition catalog was written by Anthony Tudor, premier danseur and choreographer of the Ballet Theatre.
In 1941, Swanson again exhibited works from the “Invitation to Dance show at the Kamin Bookshop on West 56th Street in New York City. Following this exhibition he taught a course at the Bloomfield Art League demonstrating his techniques for depicting colorful costumes from the ballet, “Scheheazade.”
In 1944, Swanson participated in the Newark Museum’s exhibition, “Artists of Today,” where he exhibited a large over-mantle piece from the ballet “Les Sylphides.” He also included a series of studies of La Meri, a ballerina who would appear in the 1944 New York production of “Swan Lake.” A contemporary critic noted, “Ballet and fish seem widely separated specialties for an artist, but George A. Swanson, Bloomfield painter, has been successful with both, and has even managed to give them something in common...Swanson has been able to apply the same technique—painstaking accuracy and research—to these contrasting subjects.” The author notes Swanson’s exclusive access to the dancers while he was painting, “Each painting is the product of numerous sketches and color notes. He has been permitted to work at rehearsals and regular performances, both from the seats and backstage by all the leading ballet companies. He has studied with Martha Graham and Ted Shawn, in addition to La Meri. He has sold 30 ballet paintings to the Museum of Modern Art.”
PART V- “An Artist’s Adventures in the Land of the Sun”
The expeditions with Beebe provided Swanson ample artistic inspiration in addition to his work as a scientific illustrator. New landscapes, cultures and customs were depicted by the artist, most successfully, in water-color. Back in New Jersey, the Kresge Department Store hosted an exhibition entitled “An Artist’s Adventures in the Lands of the Sun.” A review of the exhibition favorably notes, “[Swanson] has brought back a treasure gleaned on artistic as well as physical adventure, a treasure that glows and throbs with the riotous colors found under the Southern sun...The figure-pieces are among the best water-colors, particularly those for which the models were two Samoan divers who accompanied Beebe’s party on a Gulf of Mexico voyage last Spring. The virility of these figures and the surging depths of the green waters around them, almost suggest the hand of a youthful Winslow Homer.”
The comparison to Homer is strengthened by a description of the watercolors, particularly the description of “John Ozanne ‘Zaca,’ First Mate.” The description reads, “[Zaca] breathes color, romance and rugged grandeur and thereby possibly outshines companion pieces. Atop a furled sail, the mate leans against the rigging, looks from the stern out across blue-green waters. The figure, stripped to the waist, is studied from behind. Swanson’s fine modeling and knowledge of anatomy breathe life into the figure’s heroic proportions.”
In 1937, together with Viola Appel, a fellow artist from East Orange, New Jersey, Swanson founded the Art Colony of St. George in Bermuda. The six-week program was sponsored by Arthur F. Egner, president of the Newark Museum, Mark Cook Swarthout, director of the Montclair Museum and Gustave Cimiotti, director of the Newark Public School of Fine and Industrial Art. It was headquartered at the Snow Plant Inn, a building that still stands on the corner of Duke of Kent Street and Featherbed Alley in St. George’s. Swanson, spent the summer both working with Beebe and teaching watercolor techniques at the newly established colony.
Swanson’s watercolor depictions of South and Central American subjects demonstrate the influence of the Mexican muralists, Orozco and Rivera. A Mexican genre scene of “Bean Sellers” earned top honors at the 10th Annual Spring Regionals in yet another Kresge exhibition in 1941. A reviewer noted, “Many of the Swanson paintings have been exhibited throughout the county previously. It may be said of Mr. Swanson’s work, however, that it makes an increasingly deep impression....‘Fisherman’ is a watercolor that captures all the charm and spirit of life in Southern seas. Two men, thigh deep in the water, are chasing turtles. In the background one is already grappling with a large sea-tortoise; the other swinging some sort of lariat, personifies such rhythm as many artists would seek a lifetime in vain to capture. Another watercolor, ‘The Bathers,’ shows two rowboats upon the water, and in them are male figures either standing, sitting or clinging to the sides. In the same spirit is ‘Aderedores, Mazatlan,’ but in the foreground are two figures in blue trousers and white undershirts with their backs to the painter. Beyond them are a red-trunked figure and a green-trunked figure. The former, knee deep in the water, has his hands on a rowboat.” In another exhibition review the same critic notes, “‘Water Voices,’ by George Alan Swanson is an honorable mention. Painted with admirable restraint and suggestion, the scene breathes life. Men’s figures tending their boats and casual and effective.”
“Swanson’s ‘Bather, Mazatlan, Sinaloa,’ shows a male figure, who has emerged from tropical greenery, crossing [a] beach that slopes into the sea. A third water color, ‘Los Frailes, San Lucos, Mexico,’ boasts [a] more complicated theme than its companions. There are the sea and twin rocks whose appearance belies their title, ‘Los Frailes,’ two large seabirds at the right and two men in a boat.”
George Alan Swanson achieved international recognition during his lifetime as a botanical illustrator and watercolor artist. His botanical illustrations were featured in the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine and the Zoologica journal, among others. In addition to his careful, detail-oriented scientific illustrations, Swanson contributed field-surveys and studies on fish, birds and reptiles. As an artist, his watercolors of animals, ballet dancers, figures and landscapes were exhibited not only at smaller venues in New York and New Jersey but also at museums in Bermuda and Venezuela. The remaining watercolors capture Swanson’s spirit showing his love for science, travel and art. They are evidence of the positive critical reception he received during his lifetime and remain strong examples by a technically accomplished watercolorist.
1) Virginia eventually became a successful ballerina studying with Albertina Rausch and opening her own dance troupe in Philadelphia.