Ivan Albright: The Master of Decay & Memento Mori

Ivan Albright (1897-1983) was an American artist who painted with a very distinct style. It is hard to mistake his detailed, morbid, realistic works for any other artist. His paintings often graphically depicts decaying matter.

Rotting fruit and aging wood are common subjects for Albright as they allow him to delve deeply into the memento mori theme. Memento Mori considers the fleeting nature of all things; how all organic matter, including human bodies, breaks down and ultimately passes.

Historian Christopher Lyon identifies Albright’s style of realism as “Synthetic Realism,” in which Albright seems to do God’s work. He can tell the deeper truth in his paintings beyond what is visible to the naked eye.

Ivan Albright, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Isa, 1929-1930, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Into the World There Came a Soul Called Isa, Ivan Albright, 1929-1930, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

This style that uncovers the “fleeting nature of beauty,” captures more than just the visible surface of reality. For example, instead of just painting the beautiful woman sitting before Albright, he delves deeper into her flesh, displaying on the surface of her skin what physically lies beneath and also what lies ahead in her future.

No human can remain young and beautiful forever and Albright’s paintings demonstrate this idea and it becomes the main subject of his work. It can also be seen as a way to demonstrate the sitter’s real soul, dark and broken.

Ivan Albright, That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), 1931/1941, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.
That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door), Ivan Albright, 1931/1941, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.

Based on his oeuvre, Albright seems to be unnaturally obsessed with decay and death. It is possible that he just had a penchant for the macabre and enjoyed portraying it but maybe some aspects of his life could have increased his attraction to this style. If Ivan Albright is the master of decay, let’s consider why he took his art and life in this direction.

His Father was an artist himself and pushed Ivan to pursue the arts

Ivan Albright’s father, Adam Emory Albright was an artist himself and he pushed for his children to follow in these footsteps. He seemed to desire an Albright legacy, much like the Peale artistic family. Adam Emory went as far as naming his children after other famous artists.

Adam Emory Albright, Fishing, 1910, oil on canvas
Fishing, Adam Emory Albright, 1910, oil on canvas

Adam Emory’s career focused on serene, outdoor scenes of sunny days and happy children. The titles were descriptive and to the point. His sons were often forced to pose for these portraits, which made Ivan develop a distaste for them early on.

Adam’s style is almost comically different from Ivan’s. For example, Ivan would not even consider painting outside and would sometimes set up elaborate displays indoors to avoid going outside in any way.

This seems like an almost childish reaction against his father’s style and it is most likely a conscious one. Even his titles were long and often with some deeper philosophical meaning, not always describing the actual subject. A good example of this is Ivan’s painting below in comparison to Adam Emory’s, Fishing, above.

Ivan Albright, I Walk To and Fro through Civilization and I Talk As I Walk (Follow Me, The Monk), 1926-1927, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.
I Walk To and Fro through Civilization and I Talk As I Walk (Follow Me, The Monk), Ivan Albright, 1926-1927, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.

Maybe he was doing this purely to make his own name in art, without his father, or maybe he just grew up with such a dislike for sitting for paintings and seeing all the genre scenes that he decided to go down his morbid path.

Ivan Albright was a wartime medical artist

Albright worked as a medical artist during World War I. He sketched battle wounds to document them and to help further medical research on how to help soldiers with these wounds. He would have seen and drawn a great deal of carnage which would seem like a direct cause for his dark, morbid art to follow but Albright swears that this experience had nothing to do with his later work.

Ivan Albright, Medical Sketchbook, 1918, Watercolor, graphite and ink on cream wove paper, Art Institute of Chicago.
Watercolor, graphite and ink on cream wove paper, Medical Sketchbook, 1918, Ivan Albright,  Art Institute of Chicago.

He believes that this period of his life was completely separate and irrelevant, but it seems unlikely that he could completely block out this experience though it may have been too traumatic to want to remember it. This may come up subconsciously in his subject and stylistic choices.

Ivan Albright, Medical Sketchbook, 1918, Watercolor, graphite and ink on cream wove paper, Art Institute of Chicago.
Watercolor, graphite and ink on cream wove paper, Ivan Albright, Medical Sketchbook, 1918, Art Institute of Chicago.

This work itself would have given him the practice he needed to capture flesh and what lies beneath in such stunning, detailed realism. Many of his works seem to amputate and tear apart the subject which makes sense once you realize that he spent years drawing images of bodies that were just that, amputated and torn apart.

Ivan experienced a serious brush with death

His obsession with mortality may have increased after his brush with death. In 1929, Albright experienced extreme low back pain and his kidney ruptured. Luckily, the organ was removed in time but Albright was very shaken up afterwards.

He began a major composition directly following his procedure and finished it much more quickly than others, which often took years to complete. It seems like after this medical issue he began to consider that he would not live forever.

Ivan Albright, Flesh (Smaller than Tears are the Little Blue Flowers), 1928, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.
Flesh (Smaller than Tears are the Little Blue Flowers), Ivan Albright, 1928, Oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago.

Though his works before this followed the vanitas theme such as Flesh (Smaller than tears are the little blue flowers), his most prolific, dark works occurred after. Also, some works directly connect to his death after 1929, for example, his self-portrait with Flies Buzzing Around My Head. This was his first self-portrait and he chose to include bugs around his head, something that would usually happen after his own death.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray- Memento Mori at its finest

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of Albright’s most fully realized paintings that explored his themes to the fullest extent. The subject matter of the novel behind the painting allowed him to portray the novel’s memento mori themes in a visual manner.

Ivan Albright, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1943-44, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Ivan Albright, 1943-44, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a combination horror-and-mortality tale about a man whose portrait decays and changes as he lives a corrupt and immoral lifestyle while his physical form stays young and beautiful, with no visible signs of his moral or physical decay.

The painting gives him a chance to capture the whole of the person, he demonstrates his Synthetic Realism to capture more than what is visible to include the person’s core being and soul.

Albright tries to create this synthesized reality in most of his paintings and this opportunity did so in a way that incorporated a subject that involved the same theme.

Only the Forever, And Forever

Through Albright’s desire to be different from his father, his practice drawing extreme injuries in war and his own brush with death, it makes sense that Ivan was attracted to morbid, dark imagery and memento mori.

This theme attracted him to the subject matter of his Dorian Gray painting it allowed him to pour all of his talent into the perfect subject for his thematic and stylistic interest.

Ivan Albright, Poor Room- There Is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever without End, 1942/43, 1948/1945, 1957/1963, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
Poor Room- There Is No Time, No End, No Today, No Yesterday, No Tomorrow, Only the Forever, and Forever, and Forever without End, Ivan Albright,  1942/43, 1948/1945, 1957/1963, Oil on Canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

This style seems to be timeless, still enticing us to stare at all the gory details with a morbid curiosity. The paintings may repulse some but there is an obvious intrigue that has set Ivan Albright’s place in history and in our minds.

There is no question that Albright’s style is not only memorable but also undeniably his own.

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap