Niles Spencer (1893-1952) Ordnance Island, Bermuda 24 x 36in (61 x 91.4cm) (Painted in 1928.)

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Lot 14
Niles Spencer
Ordnance Island, Bermuda 24 x 36in (61 x 91.4cm)

Sold for US$ 225,075 inc. premium

American Art

19 Nov 2019, 16:00 EST

New York

Property from The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Sold to Benefit the Acquisitions Fund
Niles Spencer (1893-1952)
Ordnance Island, Bermuda
signed 'Niles Spencer-' (lower right)
oil on canvas
24 x 36in (61 x 91.4cm)
Painted in 1928.


  • Provenance
    The artist.
    Samuel Adolph Lewisohn, New York, by 1930.
    Gift to the present owner from the above, 1938.

    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Twenty-Eighth Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, October 17-December 8, 1929, no. 19.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans: Ninth Loan Exhibition, December 3, 1930-January 20, 1931, p. 18, no. 82.
    Guggenheim Fellowship Jury, January 11, 1939.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, American Painting and Sculpture, 1862–1932, October 3, 1932-February 11, 1933, p. 39, no. 99.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, New Acquisitions, October 25-November 18, 1938.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, circulating exhibition, Twenty 20th Century Paintings, Autumn 1940-July 1941.
    Council for National Defense, for Inter-America House, November 25, 1941-April 14, 1942.
    New York, The Art Students' League, Niles Spencer, 50 Years on 57th Street, February 7-March 14, 1943.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, circulating exhibition, European and American Paintings, September 1943-September 1944.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Paintings, Sculpture, and Graphic Arts from the Museum Collection, June 13-August 1, 1952.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition: Kuniyoshi and Spencer, June 23–October 4, 1953.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Niles Spencer: A Retrospective Exhibition, June 22-August 15, 1954.
    Amherst, Massachusetts, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 13 Painters 40 Years, May 1-31, 1956.
    Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum for Contemporary Art, The World of Realism, January 8-March 2, 1958.
    New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Bonn and Berlin, Germany, international circulating exhibition, Art in Embassies, May 1960-June 1964.
    Lexington, Kentucky, University of Kentucky Art Gallery; Utica, New York, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute; Portland, Maine, Portland Museum; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Allentown, Pennsylvania, Allentown Art Museum; Manchester, New Hampshire, Currier Gallery of Art; Providence, Rhode Island, Rhode Island School of Design; East Hampton, New York, Guild Hall, Niles Spencer, October 1965-August 1966, p. 32, catalogue no. 18, checklist no. 48.

    Ordnance Island, Bermuda exemplifies Niles Spencer's lifelong fascination with a modernized style of realism. The present work's highly-refined geometric aesthetic, muted tones, and the focus on simplification of form are hallmarks of the artist's strongest work and tie him to the group of American artists known as the Precisionists. Ordnance Island, Bermuda was painted during a two-month excursion Spencer took to Bermuda in the winter of 1927-28. His visit followed in the footsteps of other American painters, who during cold winter months at home found inspiration on Bermuda, where they enjoyed a pleasant climate and exotic subject matter.

    Niles Spencer was born, raised, and studied in Rhode Island. He trained both at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence and spent several summers in Ogunquit, Maine studying under Charles Woodbury (1864-1940). In 1916, he moved to New York where he briefly studied at the Art Students League and crucially was exposed to more avant-garde artistic influences, living in the epi-center of the American Modernist movement. Spencer was first introduced to European Cubist art when he traveled to Paris in 1921 and the work of Georges Braque (1882-1963), Juan Gris (1887-1927), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) had a great impact on his artwork stylistically. American painters referred to as Precisionists, including Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), were also influential. Spencer was a subtle and sophisticated colorist who selected, analyzed, and refined his subjects until he reached the mature moment to construct the work. His creative process was careful and time-consuming. He made an innumerable number of drawings and oil studies in preparation for his final execution. Such passion and devotion to the mere purpose of painting were addressed by fellow American artist and friend, Ralston Crawford (1906-1978), describing Spencer's ethos as, "A painting does not leave my studio until I don't know how to make it better." (as quoted in R. Freeman, Niles Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Lexington, Kentucky, 1965, p. 19) As a result, Spencer's output was relatively small and major finished works such as Ordnance Island, Bermuda are scarce.

    In the early 20th Century, Bermuda attracted the attention of American artists, especially those looking for a reprieve from bleak winter months. The Modernist artists Charles Demuth and Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) both found inspiration on the island in the winter of 1916-17. In 1919, a group of Old Lyme school Impressionists, including Clark G. Voorhees (1871-1933) who would buy a house on the island, began to spend winters there where they found warmth and vibrant colors for inspiration during cold New England months. Spencer knew Hartley and Demuth, and they could have influenced the artist's decision to visit in the winter of 1927-28. The present work depicts Ordnance Island in St. George's Harbour. This small island, only 1.75 acres in size, is the only island in St. George's town and was connected to King's Square by bridge after World War II. In Spencer's depiction, from a high vantage point the viewer sees a figure using a rowboat to cross the channel before it was bridged. This island was where prisoners were hanged during the British colonial period and later was used by the military for ammunition storage, which is likely what it was still used for during Spencer's visit.

    Although Spencer was a discreet man and not an eager self-promoter of his work, in 1925 he had his first one-man show at the Daniel Gallery in New York and his paintings were then regularly displayed in significant exhibitions and acquired by major collectors. Samuel Adolph Lewisohn (1884-1951), the American lawyer, financier, and a renowned philanthropist and art collector, was the previous and likely original owner of the present work. Lewisohn collected significant works by the masters of Impressionist and Modern art, including Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Vincent Van Gogh (1848-1911), and George Seurat (1859-1891), among many others. He authored a book on the topic in 1948, entitled Painters and Personality: A Collector's View of Modern Art. Lewisohn gifted Ordnance Island, Bermuda to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1938, where it was exhibited multiple times including in the artist's travelling retrospective in 1965-66.

    Shapes and forms serve as the foundation of Spencer's working method, which is evident in the geometry that comprises the composition of Ordnance Island, Bermuda. Spencer's paintings, including the present work, have the quality of a mesmerizing serenity, which was also a reflection of his personality, as observed by Ralston Crawford in a tribute to Spencer. Crawford wrote about Spencer's paintings, "They express the quiet of a man internally successful. His paintings don't shout, but make clear statements for those who look for them...In his best work he takes us to a world of charming nuance, of solid construction, always charged with his fine subtle sense of color." (ibid, pp. 19-20)
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