William Congdon: An American Anomaly

An Action Painter Rediscovered: Italy and Back Again

A conversation with Fred LICHT, Art historian, former curator at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Moderator: Michael PATRICK, Architect, Visiting Lecturer at Catholic University.

Presented by The William G. Congdon Foundation and Crossroads Cultural Center

At the end of the conference these paintings by William Congdon, property of The Phillips Collection, will be available for viewing: Palaces, 2 (Venice ); Venice, 2 (Canal Boat)

From The New York Times - Obituary

April 19, 1998

William G. Congdon, 86, Abstract Painter


William G. Congdon, an American painter well known in the 1950's and 60's for his painterly fusion of abstraction and representation and his depiction of religious themes, died of a heart attack on Wednesday, his 86th birthday, in a hospital in Milan, Italy. He had a home in Milan and had lived in Italy since the early 1950's.

A member of a socially prominent New England family, William Grosvenor Congdon was born in Providence, R.I., in 1912 and educated at the St. Mark's School in Southborough, Mass., and Yale University, where he received a bachelor's degree in English in 1934. He then took up sculpture, studying for four years in Philadelphia and Boston, and was becoming a fashionable sculptor when World War II began.

In 1942, Mr. Congdon volunteered for ambulance duty with the American Field Service and was attached to the British Eighth Army, which took him to Italy, Germany, Egypt and other parts of North Africa. He was one of the first Americans to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, making drawings that were later reproduced in a book he wrote about the experience. He spent 1946 and 1947 doing rehabilitation work with the American Friends Service Committee in Italy.

Returning to the United States, he rented a cold-water studio on the Bowery in New York and began to paint, a change of media that he called his ''first conversion.'' He disdained brushes in favor of poured paint, gold dust, slashing strokes made with a spatula and surfaces scratched with nails -- a working method in step with the direct, spontaneous paint-handling of the Abstract Expressionists. But Mr. Congdon never abandoned reality, creating instead impressionistic renditions of Venetian palazzi, Roman piazzas and New York skyscrapers.

His first show, at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1949, sold out. In 1951, he was the subject of a profile in Life magazine, appearing on the cover. By then, Mr. Congdon had returned to Italy, living first in Rome, then Venice, Assisi and Milan. He continued to exhibit with Parsons until 1962, had one-person shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Phillips Collection in Washington, and was included in numerous museum surveys of contemporary American art.

Throughout the late 1950's, Mr. Congdon traveled widely, seeking and finding inspiration in scenes of Athens and Istanbul, and in Indian temples, French cathedrals and Italian and Ceylonese landscapes. In 1959, in his ''second conversion,'' he converted to Catholicism in Assisi and for several years painted Old and New Testament themes that were praised by such Catholic intellectuals as Jacques Maritain, Martin D'Arcy and Thomas Merton. In 1964, he attended the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay, India, traveling from Rome with Pope Paul VI.

After 1960, Mr. Congdon exhibited primarily in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. He also wrote magazine articles about his travels, and, in 1962, ''In My Disc of Gold,'' a book about art and his religious conversion. After the late 1960's, he concentrated on increasingly abstract renderings of landscapes.

The most recent monograph on his work was published in 1995 in English and Italian with essays by Peter Selz and Fred Licht. He is represented in many collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice and the Benedictine Monastery in Subiaco, Italy.

Mr. Congdon is survived by three brothers, Johns H., of Little Compton, R.I.; Robert G., of Durham, N.H., and Theodore G., of Pasadena, Calif.


About this Event

Date: Thursday, May 7, 2009
Time: 6:30pm
Location: The Carriage House Studio
The Phillips Collection
1600 West 21st Street N.W., Washington, DC Metro: Dupont Circle - Q Street Exit

About the Speakers

Fred Licht
Art historian, curator

Michael Patrick
Architect, Visiting Lecturer at Catholic University



This event is by invitation only, since space is limited. For information:


Read the report here


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