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The Life and Art of Raymond Kanelba

Raymond Kanelba was born Moses Rajmond Kanelbaum in Warsaw, Poland, on February 12, 1897. He came of age during the First World War but did not serve, and his whereabouts during these years remain a mystery. Kanelba’s earliest known work is a self-portrait from 1916 in which a handsome nineteen-year-old Kanelba surveys us nonchalantly from beneath a jaunty beret. Kanelba enrolled at Vienna’s Academie der Bildenden Kunste in 1919, but left after a few months without obtaining his diploma. At his mother’s insistence, he went on to study law at university in Cracow but left after a single semester. This restlessness was part of his character and would permeate his life in the years to come.

By his late twenties, Kanelba was a handsome and gifted painter, but with little financial means and no formal artistic training. In 1924, a strategic marriage was made, probably by arrangement of their parents, to Maria Wohl, the daughter of a wealthy Polish industrialist.  The Jewish wedding ceremony was followed by a honeymoon in Venice. Maria’s generous dowry enabled Kanelba to launch his artistic career, yet the marriage was not a consistently happy one, as Maria suffered from mental illness and chronic paranoia throughout her life. The newlyweds spent a year living in Warsaw, and Raymond took a desk job at his father-in-law’s factory, where he was reprimanded for doodling on the office stationary.

In 1924, the couple moved to Paris, the crucible for aspiring avant-garde artists. Their only son, George, was born the following year. Kanelba soon fell in with the so-called École de Paris, a group of predominantly Jewish central European artists who had formed a colony in Montparnasse (1910-39). Though influenced by Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, the group were distinguishable from their French contemporaries by their links to German Expressionism, a style never fully absorbed in France.

Kanelba in his London studio (above) and Kanelba & Maria in London in the 1940s.

While working in Paris, Kanelba met two important Jewish dealers, Marcel Bernheim and Léopold Zborowski, the latter famous for representing Modigliani and Chagall, also members of the École de Paris. Both dealers claimed to have discovered Kanelba and agreed to work jointly to promote his work. Kanelba went on to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne, the Salon des Indépendants, the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon de l’Escalier. His work was well received. French art critic François Thiébault-Sisson wrote in Le Tempsin 1928:

‘Of all the young people from abroad who flock here in order to be formed through contact with our artists, I know of no other who is more richly gifted than this Pole, Kanelba. His vision is as delicate as it is subtle, and his eye is extraordinarily sensitive to all kinds of modulations of colour and all the variations of atmosphere’.

His handling of colour attracted particular praise from critics. In 1929 Art Polonais Moderndescribed Kanelba’s “ability as a colourist, in their abated sounds, sober and refined, of their exquisite values”. The Belgian curator Paul Fierens similarly wrote of his harmonious colour schemes, ‘Ce blue, ce gris, c’est Paris; ce blanc, ce rose, c’est une femme qu’on aime; les mêmes tons accordés sur la toile, c’est Kanelba.’ The French poet and writer, André Salmon, published a small monograph on Kanelba in Paris in 1933. He claimed that Kanelba was indebted to his ‘French elders’,calling him “the heir to Renoir”, but credited him with producing pictures ‘enriched with a particular feeling of space’.

Kanelba travelled to London in the late 1930s to paint a portrait of the Polish ambassador to Britain, Count Edward Raczynski. This prestigious commission opened many doors in London, where Kanelba’s charming portraits of children proved especially popular among the English upper classes. His young sitters included the grandchildren of Lady Violet Astor, the two daughters of Lord Louis Mountbatten, and the daughter of the writer Alec Waugh. André Salmon wrote of Kanelba’s tendency to ‘abandon himself to charm’ in his portraits of women and children – ‘among his best’ – but this charm was underpinned by structural values. ‘Elegance will never dull the robust art of Kanelba.’ Felix Topolski, a Polish Expressionist painter and friend to Kanelba, wrote years later that ‘Charm is an unfashionable quality in a painter. But Kanelba had charm as well as great dash and elegance. He was a very fine painter.’

Left: Unknown sitter, Right: Wendy Vanderbilt.

Kanelba’s strength in this genre was evidently honed by the many portraits he made of his own son George at different points during his childhood. George had been sent to boarding school at the tender age of two, perhaps on account of his mother’s mental instability, yet he and his father always shared a close relationship. Their rapport is evident in the set of charmingly illustrated letters Raymond sent to young George in 1939 while on board the ocean liner La Normandie. In 1945 he wrote excitedly to George describing a successful exhibition in Edinburgh, where he had been busily ‘seeing the press people and meeting different visitors.’ He included miniature sketches of all the paintings he had sold – ‘I hope you will recognise them’ – and scolds George for having caught the flu while swimming.

In our upcoming November 3-4 Fine Sale: Lot 330, Lot 324

In the spring of 1937, Kanelba made his first trip across the Atlantic to New York for a one-man exhibition at the famous Paul Reinhart Gallery on Fifth Avenue. His work was warmly received by Reinhart’s clients, and the dealer James St. Lawrence O’Toole stepped forward to become his US representative. Kanelba returned to America the following year to exhibit at the Chicago Institute of Art, where he was introduced to Mrs. Charles Harrington Chadwick, a Florida socialite whose Palm Beach circle brought further commissions.

As O’Toole later recalled, ‘the war interrupted our collaboration’, and Kanelba returned to Paris in 1939 in order to close his studio. He rolled up a hundred paintings and hid them in the attic of a Jewish friend, Gusta Rotner. When the Nazis occupied Paris in the summer of 1940, Gusta fled to the South of France. Her apartment was raided and emptied by the Germans, and Kanelba’s Paris paintings have never been traced.  Several members of Kanelba’s immediate family, including his sister, were killed during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.

Kanelba spent the duration of the war in London, from where he could travel freely around the British Isles. He served in the Home Guard, and a photograph of the Kensington Platoon shows Kanelba in uniform sporting his characteristically enigmatic smile, his cap at a jaunty angle.

Kanelba in his studio at 799 Park Ave with his portrait of Maria Tallchief, 1954.

By 1947, Raymond became restless once more and moved permanently with Maria to New York, where he enjoyed a steady stream of portrait commissions and successful solo shows. The Kanelbas lived at 799 Park Avenue, which also served as Raymond’s studio. He rented another studio in Westport, Connecticut where many of his clients owned homes. During this time, Kanelba’s style moved towards abstraction, his canvases characterised by their angular forms and thick impasto surfaces. At his Hammer Gallery show in 1952, O’Toole observed ‘the artist has matured, his colour is more subtle, and his perception more acute by the experiences [of the second world war]. I believe Kanelba is one of the outstanding contemporary artists.’ At his 1954 exhibition at the Associated American Artists Galleries in New York, Kanelba offered some rare personal reflections on art and the role of sentiment.

‘It seems to me’, he said, ‘that using the visible world as a starting point in painting, we can arrive at the essence of things. If a scientifically abstract formula is the starting point, no human emotion is involved, and the painting becomes a laboratory experiment with some decorative values. To deprive art of its emotional element is to impoverish it.’

Kanelba took a relaxed approach to self-promotion and appears to have relied predominantly on his charm and good fortune to obtain commissions. When George, who grew up to become an architect, was struggling to find work in London after the war, Kanelba wrote to him reassuringly ‘leave the commissions business to its fate.  When it comes it will be alright, and when it does not, leave it at that’.

In our upcoming November 3-4 Fine Sale: Lot 325a, Lot 325, Lot 328

Kanelba had officially changed his name in 1929 from Kanelbaum to the less Jewish-sounding ‘Kanelba’. He already went by his middle name, Raymond, instead of his given first name, Moses. He naturalised as a British citizen in 1947 while living in London, and later naturalised as an American citizen in 1957. This seeming desire to fit in and to belong were at odds with his restless nature and idiosyncratic character.

Kanelba kept several mistresses and led what his daughter-in-law Cecilia Kanelba calls ‘an amorous life with pretty blondes,’ who he would meet in his studios away from the marital home. His longest standing affair was in New York, with the holocaust survivor and author Lisa Hoffman, who also became his muse. One day, Kanelba became suspicious that Lisa was seeing another man, and sliced off the bottom section of his nude portrait of her in a fit of jealousy.

Kanelba at Buckingham Palace putting finishing touches on his portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, 1955.

In the winter of 1955, Kanelba travelled to London to complete the most significant commission of his career, a portrait of a newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. The portrait was commissioned by the Grenadier Guards to celebrate their 300th anniversary and served as the centerpiece of the Guards’ Tercentenary exhibition at St. James’s Palace. A sitting took place at Buckingham Palace. George bought his father a new, more presentable paint box for the occasion. In the final three-quarter length portrait, Kanelba achieved a remarkable balance of formality, with Elizabeth portrayed in military uniform, and elegant femininity. Reproductions appeared on the cover of many British and Australian magazines, and while the commission was unpaid, it naturally won Kanelba great visibility and international prestige.

George married Cecilia (Sita Gómez) in 1955. The couple had two sons, John and Paul. Kanelba became a doting grandfather, painting several portraits of his grandsons. Meanwhile however, constant travelling across the Atlantic took a toll on his health, which began to rapidly deteriorate. On a visit to London in July 1960, Kanelba died from an attack of coronary thrombosis in his hotel room in Kensington. He was 63.

In our upcoming November 3-4 Fine Sale: Lot 326

Upon his death, all of Kanelba’s documents and many of his paintings were passed to his wife Maria, who placed them into storage and refused to allow anyone access to them. This partially explains the dearth of scholarship on Kanelba. When Maria died nearly forty years later, George and his wife Cecilia were faced with the task of sorting through a vast jumble of pictures and material, which they successfully organised and catalogued. The couple wrote to universities, former clients and lovers, and compiled a volume of photographs and letters, gradually weaving together a clearer picture of Kanelba’s remarkable, mysterious life.

Our gratitude to Kanelba’s daughter-in-law, Cecilia Kanelba, for her generosity in sharing the family history and archive with us. Many thanks as well to our summer intern, Lily Spicer, who researched and wrote this story. Stair is very pleased to be offering several Kanelba paintings and watercolors in our November 3-4 auction. These works come directly from the artist’s family and have never been seen in public.

Stair is pleased to offer several of Raymond Kanelba’s paintings in our November 3-4 Fine Sale, beginning at 11am.

View the November 3-4 Fine Sale Catalogue here

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