Remembering a Great Talent and Cherished Friend
Written by Joan Lerch
Reproductions appear courtesy of the Estate of Arthur Osver and Ernestine Betsberg
His paintings have been exhibited in prestigious museums and galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Saint Louis Art Museum, and acquired by collectors on the same global scale. The artist’s work has been featured on the cover of Life and Fortune magazines. And while his professional legacy is impressive, it is the warmth and welcoming personality of painter Arthur Osver that his friends and former students remember best.
Osver, who was born in Chicago and educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, came to St. Louis in 1960 to teach art at Washington University, after being recruited by Dean Kenneth Hudson, who also brought famed artists Max Beckmann and Philip Guston to the campus.
“Guston and Osver were friends,” explains Philip Slein, owner of Philip Slein Gallery, which will feature Osver’s work in an upcoming exhibit. “Guston had taught at the university in the 1940’s for two years, and he urged Osver to come to St. Louis.” Osver and his wife, noted artist Ernestine Betsberg, moved to Webster Groves for what was supposed to be a two-year appointment. But he “fell in love with St. Louis,” Slein says. “And St. Louis fell in love with him.” The couple would live in their historic Webster farmhouse until Osver’s death in 2006, at the age of 94. (Keeping with historic tradition, the house was once home to artist and Ste. Genevieve Art Colony founder Jesse Rickly.)
Throughout their 40+ years in Saint Louis, Osver and his wife opened their home to many of his students, who would become the couple’s “adopted family.” One of those students, artist Paul Shank, recalls the artists fondly.
“Their close friends and his students would gather at the house— it was a meeting place for us to exchange ideas and have exposure to their work,” Shank says. “He was a wonderful and very beloved man, and a natural teacher, adored by his students. Arthur responded to each student’s ability, and brought out what he saw were their best possibilities, rather than just having his own agenda. And both he and his wife set an example for all of us, of how to live as an artist.” Shank says that Osver and Betsberg were entirely devoted to their craft. “They weren’t materialists. They didn’t collect stuff, they didn’t buy stuff. They just wanted to paint.”
The artists became very close to Shank and his brothers, Peter and Stephen. “All three of us are painters, and Stephen also studied under Arthur,” Paul explains. The brothers stayed in touch after graduation, and their friendship endured for more than forty years, until Osver’s death in 2006, and Ernestine’s death a short time later. The childless couple left their estate to the brothers, who manage it with a local attorney. In an effort to preserve Osver’s legacy for the future, the trustees have produced, in conjunction with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University, a comprehensive monograph of his work.
Although most commonly described as an abstract expressionist, Slein says Osver’s work evolved through the decades of his long career. “In the 40’s and 50’s, he was a young hotshot, an up-and-coming talent in New York who had won many awards.” Among them, Slein notes, was the Prix de Rome, a prestigious award established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. “Arthur was painting in a social realist style, and then it’s the 1950’s— and abstraction is the zeitgeist of the art world, and he switched to abstraction.”
Asked if this change of artistic styles is the norm, Slein explains, “Some artists get known for a signature style but I think the really good ones, like Arthur, constantly push themselves. There’s a thread throughout his work, but he continually evolved and changed. His paintings evolve from urban realism to abstraction— he followed the arc of 20th century painting quite nicely.”
Does Slein have a favorite Osver painting? “It’s so hard to choose— I love all of his work. But I really like what he would call his ‘GP’ series, based on the Grand Palais in Paris.” When Osver saw the glass and steel masterpiece he was “enamored with the iron work, the bulk, the way steel and iron was bent,” Slein explains. “The series combined his love of structure, architecture, and dimension.”
Discussing the forthcoming book, Shank says the publication is a vital part of keeping Osver’s work in the public sphere, because even recognized artists are often neglected after their death. “Very often, an artist’s work languishes in storage and they are forgotten. We had the ability to do something that would bring attention to his life and his art, because artists are frequently rediscovered 40 or 50 years later and become successful with another generation.”
All three of the brothers worked on the Osver book, he says, along with Stephen’s wife Julie Golden and researchers from the Kemper Museum. “There was a massive amount of material he left about his life which had never been gone through. I tracked down the major collections across the country and abroad, but it’s a huge effort. Families pass them down, or they get sold at auctions and galleries.” One painting, believed to be in a São Paulo museum, proved to be particularly elusive until a Kemper researcher discovered it in Rio de Janeiro.
The book’s cover will feature one of Osver’s most vibrant studies in urban realism, “The Red Ventilator.” Described as “a powerful view of twentieth-century industry and labor,” the painting’s title references a looming structure that somehow appears both threatening and friendly. Exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of American Art and throughout the United States, the work is now owned by St. Louis collectors John and Susan Horseman, part of The John and Susan Horseman Collection of American Art.
An exhibit of Osver’s work opens at the Slein Gallery in mid-February, running through March, and will include a launch party for the new book. “He was widely recognized within his lifetime,” Slein says, “But there is a need to expose more people to his art. This book puts his life’s work in context. It’s a really beautiful volume.”