Composer. Teacher. Lyricist. Pianist. Painter. “The American Beethoven, Chopin, etc.!” Yes, dear In the Muse readers, you read that correctly. Who was Louis Eilshemius that he dared to make such a claim?
An event took place at the Library on Friday, January 12, in collaboration with the Embassy of Switzerland and the Phillips Collection, to examine that very question. I was lucky enough to participate with other Library colleagues in a display for the event. It began with a talk by Phillips Chief Curator Emeritus Klauss Ottmann. He discussed the life of Eilshemius, how Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone came to collect Eilshemius paintings, and Ottmann’s curatorial role in the current exhibit One-on-One: Ugo Rondinone / Louis Eilshemius. I’d like to use this blog post to share my display as if you were there, too!
New Jersey-born Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941) was eccentric, to put it mildly! He is known today as a painter whose primary subjects were nature and nudes. But this painter was also a poet, novelist, pianist, and composer. He put his poetry skills to task as the librettist for his one opera Lola and numerous songs. He self-published most his music with the same imprint as many of his literary works, Dreamers Press in New York City.
Eilshemius’ strongest tie to Music Division collections is through the violinist and violist Louis Kaufmann (1905-1994), whose papers we hold. Louis and his wife Annette, a pianist, bought many Eilshemius paintings over decades. The Louis Kaufman Collection contains two handwritten letters from Eilshemius, as well as a subject file full of Eilshemius exhibit catalogs and clippings. For the event display, I selected a letter dated March 10, 1936. It features a beautiful header design, implies previous contact, and reveals choice pieces of information of interest to art and music researchers. For example, he mentions, “Gershwin . . . bought 2 oils at Valentine.” George or Ira? Regardless, we have a gallery name, number of works, and year boundary for provenance research!
Eilshemius also includes a shameless plug. “Should you care to include one of my pieces in your recital I herewith grant you permission willingly.” Without a definitive list of musical works, we learn that he composed for violin. He also shared that remembered the three oil paintings the Kaufmans bought, which tells us where their collecting stood in 1936.
The Kaufman art collection grew over the following decades according to another display item, a letter from the publisher Harry N. Abrams, Inc. dated May 17, 1977. The publisher asks the Kaufmans for permission to reproduce images of Eilshemius paintings they own in a forthcoming book. The letter lists eight works in their possession, as well as dates, dimensions, and media – a goldmine for art historians.
I also included a letter to Louis and Annette Kaufman from the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University dated December 14, 1978. This one is partly a joke in Eilshemius style because he dropped out of Cornell after one year, yet they were planning an exhibit of his paintings a century later. More importantly, this letter lists multiple titles of musical compositions by Eilshemius, asks Kaufman to share anecdotes about playing with Eilshemius, and states that copies of Eilshemius scores were available at the Archives of American Art in D.C. This is great to know especially because the Music Division does not hold any Eilshemius scores; he didn’t register them for U.S. copyright.
An informative pop of color is a pink printed circular by Dreamers Press from Louis Kaufman’s subject file (although I suspect it was originally an enclosure with the 1936 letter). This is some piece of self-marketing! Note that the address matches the letterhead of the 1936 letter.
Where else do we learn how Eilshemius marketed his musical side? In a New York City magazine for musicians, The Musical Advance. His portrait was on the cover of the June 1914 issue which also included an opinion piece he wrote called “The Crazy-Quilt School” that bemoans the state of new music.
Eilshemius took out numerous ads for himself throughout the 1914 run with varying descriptors from “composer,” “composer and teacher,” and “composer and lyricist.” My favorite ad, though, is a full-page back cover ad for Eilshemius Magic Ink! The July 1914 issue contains an ad disguised as a brief article titled “Boon to Composers and Painters” about this peculiar invention.
I really had a ball learning about a composer whose name was new to me. Do you want to know more? Contact us through Ask a Librarian so we can talk about databases with digitized articles! Colleagues in the Main Reading Room and Rare Book and Special Collections Division have a wealth of resources for you, as well.