It's Always Myself That I Paint - The Work and Life of Gertrude Abercrombie

What: Channy Lyons Memorial Lecture

Lecture Title: “It’s Always Myself That I Paint” – The Work and Life of Gertrude Abercrombie

When: Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 6 - 7 pm

Where: Peplow Pavilion in Hayden-Clark Alumni Center, Bradley University, Peoria, IL

Who: Dr. Susan Weininger, Professor Emerita of Art History, Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL

Sponsors: Fine Arts Society of Peoria, Bradley University’s Department of Art and Design, Illinois Women Artists Project;;


About Gertrude Abercrombie

Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977) was a painter based in Chicago who created surreal and dream-like imagery. She developed a unique style and a controlled color palette. The artist, who had an uncanny knack for combining strong personality with strong design, often achieved a gem-like standard of perfection in her paintings.

Born in Austin, TX, Abercrombie’s parents worked for an opera company that traveled around America and Europe. Her family returned to the United States from Berlin after the outbreak of World War I, eventually settling in Chicago. She went on to study languages at the University of Illinois and attended classes at the School of the Art Institute Chicago.

Abercrombie began to paint in the early 1930s, at one time working for the Works Progress Administration’s Illinois Art Project. Though she did not pay much attention to the art of her time, Abercrombie did cite René Magritte as an important influence on her practice.

In her spare interiors and illusionary landscapes, Abercrombie incorporated a rich, surreal personal symbology: tables set with keys, jacks, balls, compotes, and shells; spotlessly clean, claustrophobia-inducing interiors and sidewalks lined with rows of closed doors; lone, moonlit figures traversing barren prairies accompanied by a few tufty trees and maybe a cat. Her language of symbols invites deciphering, and her paintings have been referred to as “psychic self-portraits.”

“I am not interested in complicated things nor in the commonplace, I like to paint simple things that are a little strange,” Abercrombie once explained. “My work comes directly from my inner consciousness and it must come easily.”

Idiosyncratic, charming and irascible, Abercrombie was presciently contemporary. Referred to as “the queen of the bohemian artists,” she entertained many jazz musicians at her home at parties on Saturday evenings and jam sessions on Sunday afternoons, including friends Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins.

Like the jazz musicians, Abercrombie established a repertoire of themes upon which she riffed for decades. Cats, clouds, ostrich eggs, doors, lightning bolts, rocks and sea shells set in airless landscapes and spare interiors became a shorthand with which she chronicled her recurring dreams, fears and obsessions. Her works are spare and syncopated—“off the beam” as Abercrombie would say—and always self-consciously performative.

About Susan Weininger

Susan Weininger is the leading scholar and author of multiple comprehensive essays on Gertrude Abercrombie’s art and life. Ms. Weininger will discuss Abercromie's highly dream-like, symbolic paintings; love of jazz; and involvement in the art world of Chicago in the late 1930s through the 1960s.

Weininger is Professor Emerita of Art History at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she was Chair of the Department of History, Art History and Philosophy. She has curated exhibitions, lectured and written extensively on Chicago artists including Gertrude Abercrombie, Ivan Albright, Tunis Ponsen, Francis Chapin, Romolo Roberti, Paul Kelpe as well as modernist Chicago art in general. She was a co-curator of Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: The Pursuit of the New (Terra Museum of American Art, 2004) for which she also contributed essays to the catalog. More recently, she curated and wrote the catalog for Gladys Nilsson: 1966-2010 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. She has lectured on the Jewish artists in Chicago on numerous occasions, including at a symposium at the Art Institute. She co-curated and wrote for the 2018 exhibition Todros Geller: Strange Worlds at the Spertus Museum in Chicago.

Weininger serves on the Board of the New Deal Center of Roosevelt University, is an Advisor for the Illinois Women Artists Project in Peoria, and is a docent at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

The lecture is being co-sponsored by the Fine Arts Society of Peoria, Bradley University’s Department of Art and Design, and the Illinois Women Artists Project to honor Channy Lyons, who died in 2017. Lyons, an author, historian, and curator, was a passionate advocate for the arts and a well-known figure in Central Illinois who wrote and narrated the popular program “Peoria’s Hidden Treasures” on WCBU radio. In 2006, she founded the Illinois Women Artists Project to gather information about women who were artistically active in Illinois between 1840 and 1980 and to make it accessible and usable for a variety of audiences. Rediscovering these artists' stories, promoting appreciation of their work, and encouraging creative thinking remain the objectives of the Illinois Women Artists Project.

Some media in Bradley University's current print, video and online materials was acquired before the COVID-19 pandemic. Media acquired after the pandemic began was done so in compliance with Bradley's COVID-19 safety protocols at the time. The ongoing safety of our faculty, staff and students is of the utmost concern during these unprecedented times.