Witnessing Max Weber: Charcoals
of an Early 20th-Century Modernist
While the medium of charcoal is often celebrated for its ability to so closely capture the hand of the artist, it also deserves credit for chronicling an artist's evolution as he or she navigates the development of a unique artistic approach. Such can be seen in the charcoal compositions of early 20th-century artist Max Weber. An integral member of the American avant-garde, Weber actually began with a conventional compositional style (see Drawing Class, below). He grew, however, to embrace a unique combination of European modernism that blended the ideals of Cubism and Fauvism. Weber's navigation of these two very distinct approaches is revealed in his charcoal compositions from 1908 onward, as he plays with the abstraction of the figure and adds a tonal vivacity akin to the intensity of the Fauves, albeit on a black-and-white scale.
Born in western Russia in the early 1880s, Max Weber arrived in America with his family in 1891, at the young age of 11. He went on to study at the Pratt Institute, where his mentor, artist Arthur Wesley Dow, blended technical training with doses of modernist ideals. He also encouraged Weber's pursuit of additional study in Europe, which Weber was able to undertake in 1905. Living in Paris and enrolled at the relatively edgy Académie Julian, Weber blossomed, absorbing the existing energy of modernism that was already running rampant in the capital city's studios. It was during this three-year stay that Weber connected with the art of Paul Cézanne as well as the Fauves, or "wild beasts," headed by figures such as Henri Matisse and André Derain.
Returning to New York in 1908, Weber was inspired. His enthusiasm, however, was met with an art world yet untouched by, and thus indifferent to, the modernist grip experienced in Europe. Unfazed by a relatively subdued initial reception, Weber threw himself into his work, exploring the bounds of Cubist abstraction and Fauvist expression in compositions that plunged into, at the time, relatively uncharted territory. The rate at which his style evolved was rapid, as illustrated in Figures in a Landscape (above) and Composition with Four Figures (below). Created in the same year, one can note the remarkable difference in his figural treatment as well as his overall shading, contours, and line work.
Those first years following Weber's return to the United States were some of his most dynamic, as reflected in his paintings as well as his works on paper. Though he continued to create until shortly before his death in the early 1960s, Weber's enthusiasm and passion for modernism was never stronger than it was in the early years of the 20th century. His paintings reflect this passion, but it is his charcoal compositions that reveal the inner workings of an artist set on creating his own unique path through modernism