George Fuller is not the best known of American painters. In fact some may say he’s bordering on forgotten. His name may more often bring to mind another fellow known for inventing the modern skyscraper. George A. Fuller, however likely needed the initial to distinguish himself from the famed artist.
The death of George Fuller in 1884 was after-all noted as the loss of the greatest American painter.
Though they may not be on display, the work of George Fuller is still held in a number of prominent American art museums. These include the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and others.
My first encounter with a prominently displayed work by George Fuller was this past week at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.
It makes sense that I was looking at a farm girl, and one who appears unhappy. George Fuller had his own issues with farm life. His farmer father, Aaron Fuller had been opposed to his becoming a painter, but after failing as a grocer and shoe salesman and later a railroad surveyor, he began to paint in his spare time. In 1841 at age 19, he made the leap and would study paiting under Henry Kirke Brown. Then it was on to more training through the Boston Artists’ Association, returning home in summers to work on the farm. In 1847 he enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York.
After his father’s death he knew he would have to return to life on the farm, but not before a European trip. After travel and then marriage, he would spend fifteen more years farming and painting in his spare time until 1875 when the farm failed and he returned to painting as a full-time occupation. He enjoyed commercial success until his death.
Here in Kansas, I was facing George Fuller’s Hannah. Painted in 1879, four years after the failure of the farm, the painting is known to have at least one landscape painted below the surface. “Layering works was part of Fuller’s technique, and he felt it gave the final portrait greater depth, as can be noted in the misty, shadowed rendering of this sober, young woman,” a museum document states.
Compared to the late work by George Inness hanging beside it, Fuller’s image seems firmly rooted in reality. There is not spirituality to the landscape. It’s almost as if Charles Darwin himself had knocked at the door and told the Hudson River artists “there is no God in nature, it’s eat or be eaten.”
And so we’re presented with Hannah, a young woman who appears as if she may be pregnant, painted over a landscape. A reaper, perhaps a sign of death, can be seen in the background. I can’t help but think the artist himself could be the child, a child who would spend a life trying to free himself of the land from which, like a tree, he grew.