Morgan Russell (1886-1953) was born in Greenwich Village and studied at the Art Students League and the New York School of Art. He received lessons in sculpture, anatomy and life drawing, but it wasn’t until he moved to Paris in 1909 that true inspiration struck.
Russell settled in the City of Light around the same time as Gertrude Stein, during the rise of Cezanne, Picasso and Braque. Though the young American artist was very aware of the tectonic shifts taking place in the modern art world, his most important creative epiphany was sparked by a revered Renaissance master. One day while wandering the Louvre, Russell came upon Michelangelo’s sculpture “Dying Slave”. The 7 foot, 6 inch marble figure seemed like a key to his recent artistic explorations.
“I always felt the need to impose on color the same violent twists and spirals that Rubens and Michelangelo imposed on the human body,” Russell wrote. His idea was to approach abstract painting from a new direction, taking cues from the boldly asserted, organic lines of the Renaissance. Dying Slave was his greatest muse in the endeavor, and sculpture classes with Henri Matisse helped Russell understand how to translate three-dimensional concepts onto the flat surface of a canvas.
Over the next few years, Russell worked with artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright to distill his ideas into a painting style they called Synchromism. Through rhythmic application of paint inspired by symphonic musical composition, they found an intersection between the empirical process of the Renaissance artists and the gestural experimentation of Kandinsky and the early abstractionists.
In 1914, Russell and Macdonald-Wright exhibited their Synchromist works in Europe. Two years later they had a joint show in New York. It was one of only two times Russell returned to the United States between 1909 and 1946, when he moved back to the East Coast. The artist died in Broomall, Pennsylvania in his late 60’s.
Russell probably made "Untitled (Male Nude)" in the 1930s or 1940s, when he was shifting away from the Synchromist style due to financial difficulties. Despite the turmoil of this period, the artist’s adoration for Michelangelo and his contemporaries still shines through in the careful study of the body’s intricate architecture. From his flexing legs to his outstretched fingers, the man seems to project from the paper as a living being.
Image: "Portrait of Morgan Russell" by Amedeo Modigliani