The petite paintings of Chicago surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie
NEW YORK — A rule of thumb in fine art holds that larger paintings are generally deemed more valuable, but one artist whose works are disproving that maxim is the late Chicago Surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie.
Known as the “queen of the Bohemian artists,” Abercrombie (1909-1977) was an integral part of Chicago’s arts scene. She held salon-like gatherings at her Victorian home in Hyde Park for her diverse circle of friends, which included the jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins. Gillespie even performed at her second wedding.
“Abercrombie’s works sort of defy logic as far as their per-square-inch value. A 5-by-7in painting, a 6-by-8, and an 8-by-10 — that is kind of her wheelhouse and where she excels,” said Hindman Vice President and Senior Specialist for Fine Art, Joe Stanfield. In a February 2023 auction, Hindman offered Abercombie’s 1963 painting of a stallion and shed, which measured 8 by 10in. It sold for $280,000 plus the buyer’s premium. “I think that painting is kind of the perfect Abercrombie size,” Stanfield said. “Serious buyers look for small works by her that focus on surrealist imagery. She is really at the absolute height of her powers when she is working on a small scale, and there are collectors who absolutely will pay up for works that are in that format.”
Hindman also sold a 1¾ by 2in painting of a shell — a favorite motif for Abercrombie — that she painted for Gillespie. It realized $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. “If you do the math on that, that’s a lot of money per square inch for a painting,” Stanfield said.
Hindman, based in Chicago, has managed to corner the auction market for Abercrombie. It set a new world auction record for the artist in December 2022 with a 1947 painting of a lone woman (likely Abercrombie) approaching a tethered horse amid a barren landscape populated with a twisted tree and a crescent moon in the night sky. This work, which attained $350,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Hindman in December 2022, is relatively large for an Abercrombie, measuring 23 by 28in. Its imagery and symbolism are compelling and reflect the transition in her career towards restrained landscapes. In this particular Abercrombie work, the white horse is thought to be a stand-in for her husband during a troubled time in their marriage.
While long overlooked by the New York art scene, Abercrombie has always been highly regarded in Chicago. Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago will see her painting The Past and Present hung right next to Edward Hopper’s late-night diner scene Nighthawks, which is arguably the most famous painting in the museum’s collection and one of the top American paintings overall. Nighthawks had occupied a solo wall until March 2022 when museum curators rehung it, flanking it with the Abercrombie and a Hughie Lee-Smith painting as a quasi-triptych.
For years, Hindman would get an Abercrombie from one Chicago consignor and sell it to another collector in that same city. This is no longer the case as collectors across the country and from Paris, London and beyond now vie for her paintings.
Prices have also escalated. Stanfield recalls selling Abercrombie’s 1954 painting The Pink Tent, depicting a pennant-topped pink tent at night, to a collector in 2009 for $6,000. Stanfield informed the collector of the market uptick for Abercrombie, and that person subsequently sold the painting through Hindman last year for more than $250,000.
In recent years, Abercrombie’s reputation and fame have ballooned. An exhibition at Karma Gallery in New York City in 2018, which was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book, did much to bring her wider attention and increasing interest from scholars and collectors of works by women surrealists. The 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 was titled The Milk of Dreams after a book by noted surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose work, along with that of Abercrombie, was featured at the fair.
Abercrombie’s curious, sometimes confounding paintings are subject to interpretation as studies in human psychology. Many, from her self portraits to her stark interiors and dreamlike landscapes, are said to reflect her feelings of self-doubt and isolation.
Among the recurring motifs in her work are objects and creatures that held meaning for her, including cats, horses, owls, doors, moons, trees, snails and Victorian furniture. “These are all things that she lived with or were in some way specific to her interior,” Stanfield said. An 8-by-10in oil painting of a sofa and window realized $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at MorningStar eArt Group. “A lot of really great paintings are where either she is sitting on a chaise lounge or there is a lounge of some sort that inhabits a room,” Stanfield said.
According to the Smithsonian’s website, Abercrombie hit the peak of her career in the 1940s-50s, and while she had stopped painting portraits by this time, she continued with her longstanding motifs and themes. “She believed that art was about ideas rather than technique and insisted that ‘It is always myself that I paint’,” according to the museum’s website.
Combining two of her most beloved themes is a 1957 painting of four colorful doors with a black cat peeking around one of them. The 6-by-8in work brought $110,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Hindman.
“I really love her doors. She would do doors in an interior scene but she would also do these beautiful paintings of what were called demolition doors,” Stanfield said, explaining these doors were used in the city’s South Side in the 1960s as a tool for fencing off construction zones; construction crews would knock down buildings and make barriers out of the salvaged doors. “The door is so emblematic for her — opening up into another universe or a mystery of what’s behind the door,” Stanfield said, adding, “These are very everyday objects, but she has an incredible ability to make them seem surreal and otherworldly.”
In the early 1950s, Abercrombie began painting still lifes of objects that held mystery and captured her interest. A fine example is a 1954 painting in which she depicted a leaf, a ribbon, a shell, a domino and a pair of dice, which achieved $150,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers. The domino and the dice each total eight dots, a detail referenced in part of the painting’s title: Pieces of Eight.
Currently, the market for Abercrombie’s work is riding a high, but have buyers pushed it as far as it will go? Stanfield, for his part, thinks it still has room to rise. “I’m just really excited to see where this is going. I don’t necessarily know that we are done — is $400,000-plus the pinnacle of her market? I don’t think so, and I think it will be interesting to see where her name lands in the textbooks 10 to 15 years from now.”