Winnetka’s Rediscovered Regionalist
Gazette Article by: Barbara Joyce
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1996
It was an unconventional relationship. He stayed home; she commuted to the city. He painted, cooked, gardened, and helped with their child. She took the 8:20 a.m. train to her job as an art designer on State Street and paid the bills. He was Herman Menzel, the artist with a rich palette and poetic vision. She was Willa Hamm Menzel, who believed in her husband’s talent so much that she supported him both financially and emotionally throughout their marriage.
Now, eight years after her husband’s death, she continues her mission to bring Herman Menzel the recognition she believes he deserves. An exhibition of his paintings, “A Rediscovered Regionalist: Herman Menzel,” was on view at the Chicago Historical Society from January to April, 1994. Currently, many of his drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings are being exhibited at the First National Bank of Winnetka, where they will remain until March 6, 1996.
They met at the Chicago Academy of Art, where they were students. “I recognized he was a marvelous artist in 1923,” Willa said recently. “He drew with a pen and ink better than any of the instructors.” They married in 1933 and lived on the South Side.
In 1943 they moved with their one-year-old son to the Civil War-era house in Hubbard Woods where Willa had grown up. She bought the home, situated on an acre of land on Scott Avenue, from her father. On this property, “out by the woods,” Herman built his studio. Here, Willa recalled, “he painted all day, if the light was right.”
With the exception of two oils of the municipal electric plant, Menzel did not paint scenes of the North Shore. Rather, his paintings depict scenes of Chicago’s industrial landscape, its working-class neighborhoods, and the urban lake front. Other works include scenes that were dear to his own heart: the wilderness and fishing.
In spite of his talent and dedication, Menzel exhibited rarely and retained most of his work. He did not socialize with critics, dealers, or fellow artists. He had not attended the Art Institute, considered the Midwest’s premiere art academy. “If you didn’t go to school there, they didn’t pay attention to you,” said Willa.
Furthermore, Menzel was deaf by the age of 30. This, combined with his suburban isolation, contributed to his estrangement from the art scene of his time. He did not have to peddle his works in the marketplace, thanks to Willa’s successful career. He had the freedom to pursue the subjects of his own choice. “He never compromised,” said his widow.
The images of solitude and marginality that his canvases evoke are the result of Menzel’s choice and circumstances. He was fortunate to have a wife who provided for him during his lifetime, and we are fortunate that she has persevered in presenting his art to the public.