Charles Rain was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1911 to Margaret Whedon and Charles Rain. At a young age Rain moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where he attended school and spent his childhood. Charles Rain had one sibling, a sister named Charlotte with whom he was close.
According to Henry Grady, the Executor of the Rain Estate, Rain’s passion for art was expressed at a young age. The young Charles Rain excelled in his high school art classes and was commissioned by the local Gold’s Department store to work on their window displays. Grady recalls, “His first and only commission was of automobile tires. He worked late into the night on this display, finally softening its unimaginative look with a profusion of flowers cascading over and nearly hiding the pyramid of tires.”1 Rain’s imaginative window display did not convince Mr. Gold, perhaps a blessing in disguise. The next stop for Rain was the Art Institute of Chicago.
He attended the Art Institute of Chicago for two years before leaving for Europe in 1933. In Europe, he studied in Berlin and traveled through Vienna and Paris, eagerly visiting the art museums. It was an inspiring experience that proved invaluable to the artist. Particularly, it was in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin where Rain encountered Portrait of Ugolino Martelli’ (c. 1536), by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), the 16th century Italian mannerist painter, which gave rise to Rain’s own artistic career. Bronzino’s renaissance masterpieces were executed with a linear precision by way of a technique of under painting and glazing. Rain was inspired by Bronzino’s work and subsequently adopted the age-old technique and applied it to his own works of art. He has commented on this painting and its influence on him as an artist: "I began to paint realistically in the summer of 1943. An uneasy feeling that all my work was the result of the thinking of others kept nudging my mind and leaving me feeling that I belonged to everyone but myself. I ignored that nudge for a long time until I came upon a Bronzino in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. I experienced what Edmund Wilson would call the ‘shock of recognition’."2
Upon his return to New York, Rain continued to work and in 1935 his work was shown in a solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery. His paintings were not received well and the cold reaction prompted Rain to give up painting to design costumes for Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan productions. This hiatus was short lived and he was painting again within the year.
Charles and Charlotte Rain settled in New York in the mid-1930s. People who met them were always overwhelmed by their great physical attractiveness. Neither Charles nor Charlotte had the confidence or ability to overcome this and it subsequently affected their personal lives. According to Grady “they lived a Garbo-like existence in the city.”3 Charlotte modeled for Charles (see Rehersal, 1947), and Charles enjoyed modeling for other artists with whom they were friends (see Tree Portrait, Charles Gilbert, 1942). Although this shyness was somewhat extreme in Charles’ case, Charlotte dealt with it better and married. Grady remembers, “I can recall late in her life accompanying Charlotte to the opera when her beauty still turned heads.”4
In 1937, Charles Rain met the realist painter Charles Gilbert (1899-1970). Gilbert had studied the work of the Renaissance masters and proved to be an important mentor. Gilbert saw promise in the young Charles Rain and showed him how certain materials and techniques were used to execute the paintings that inspired him so in his travels throughout Europe. Rain studied with Gilbert informally from 1946 to 1965 in New York.
Initially trained in abstraction, Rain eventually made the transition to realism. His realist works of landscapes, still life’s and botanical subjects show the dedication and talent of an artist who would eventually use these works as studies for more mysterious artworks in the magic realist style. It is his magic realist works of art that Rain is best known and admired. Although some artists opposed their classification in the Magic Realist genre, Rain embraced it: “My aim is to record…the view of one individual – what I see and what I imagine – in the methods of what may be called romantic or magic realism.”5
Throughout his entire career Rain worked wholeheartedly in the pursuit of perfection. His adoption of an old-fashioned technique consumed much more of his time than many of his contemporaries who chose the more traditional canvas and paint approach. He worked on gesso covered wood panels and painstakingly applied thin layers of paint in repetition. This under painting method restricted the artist in terms of production. Each painting was a labor of love, taking in excess of 6 months to complete a single work. As a result Rain’s oeuvre is considerably smaller than those of other artists of the time.
He produced shadow boxes from 1957 up until 1985, the year of his death. These small, highly detailed boxes present elaborate scenes depicting the 17th-century Commedia dell'Arte in Italy. The miniaturized sets include architectural details, clouds and landscapes and offer a convincing backdrop for the diminutive actors shown in full costume.
His dedication bordered on obsession and while his work flourished his social life was repressed by his self-isolation. While other artists at the time were intermingling in the highly social New York art scene Rain was at work in his studio. He was not a recluse though and preferred to spend any time he had in the company of creative types - writers, dancers, painters and photographers. This group of people included painters Bernard Perlin, Jared and Margaret French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, arts and ballet promoter Lincoln Kirstein, writer Glenway Wescott, museum curator Monroe Wheeler and photographer George Platt Lynes. According to Gary L. Haller, Rain existed “closer to the edge of this circle of friends than the center.”6
Rain lived his life consumed by his art until the time of his death in New York in August of 1985. He lived a solitary life, isolating himself from other artists, the public and also his collectors. Upon his death the artist’s private collection of 36 works, guided by Henry Grady, was bequeathed to the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in his hometown of Lincoln. The collection is home to 43 of his works and remains the single largest collection of his works.
AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Charles Rain had a long career, producing paintings from 1930 up until his death in 1985. Although his most celebrated works are in the Magic Realist style, he created many beautiful landscapes and artworks with a distinct realist aesthetic. Some of his pieces like The Floating Market (1956) and Orvieto(1971) are testament to his range of subject and style. Both works represent scenes from his travels and capture the sheer beauty of the vista, like only a seasoned landscape artist could. His technique was masterly and precise which allowed him to experiment with different forms and styles with great success. Rain never grew out of these landscape works in favor of Magic Realism. His oeuvre is punctuated with landscapes from the 1940s into the 1970s.
It is because of the range of different subjects and styles mastered by Rain that his oeuvre lacks a certain coherence compared to that of his contemporaries. A series of his paintings in the Magic Realist style are then followed by a singular landscape. That is to say, two paintings, hung side-by-side and painted by the same person, exist worlds apart. Together, they define him as an artist. His oeuvre is dynamic and refuses to be pigeon holed into one art movement.
His work of the 1930s and 1940s are predominantly realist in style and traditional in subject matter. Lilacs (1939) is a floral arrangement bursting with life in romantic pinks and greens. Fruit and Pepper (1937) is a still life study; a theme repeated in his magic realist artworks. The Melancholy Clown(1934) suggests a depth in his early work that Rain would later explore.
His later works are marked by a deep-seated strangeness. By isolating objects or juxtaposing them with architectural scenes of European ruins, Rain created a distinct surrealist edge. These later paintings exhibit Rain’s skillful techniques and his penchant for mystery and isolation. Many of his works depict scenes of the Italian Renaissance, with their architecture and sculpture weathered to varied degrees.
One of Rain’s most iconic works is The Magic Hand (1949). This painting is an excellent example of both Rain’s masterly execution and technique, and his ability to achieve a magical and deeply thoughtful work of art. The composition is inspired by, and executed in the trompe l’oeil tradition. The Magic Hand offers up a bizarre collection of objects – an egg, shell, playing cards, and a mannequin’s hand. These forms are juxtaposed to create a harmonious but somewhat unnerving vision. The hand rises up from the oil painted masonite, holding up a playing card. Behind it is a framed painting, which unlike a mirror projecting the image in front of it, it shows another (or the same) hand gently holding an egg. The motifs are repeated in this painting within a painting but are organized differently. The objects in the painting cast strange dark shadows, which stand tall like human figures dominating the left-hand-side of the composition. Like other Surrealist and Magic Realist art works Charles Rain’s The Magic Hand conjures up different thoughts and feelings in all who stand before it. Its interpretation is left up to the viewer who is afforded a complex and meaningful insight into the artist’s mind.
While his earlier paintings often show abundant fruits and vegetables, his later Magic Realist paintings include darker, more mystical motifs such as tarot cards, eyes, and skulls. Of his work Rain has said, “My craft thereby is the means by which I show others my world, my special view of things.”7 There is an underlying sense of sadness to Rain’s work. In his paintings, exists the isolation of his own life as an artist living and working in New York. This loneliness is not explicit, but is alluded to implicitly in his creations, under layers of imagery. Charles Rain lived a private life, yet his ideas and imagination were manifest through his paintings with a depth that lives on today.
AWARDS & AFFILIATIONS
1933 Portrait Prize, Art Students League, Art institute of Chicago
1954 Purchase Prize, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, IL
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA
Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney, NE
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
Univeristy Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VI
1911 Born in Knoxville, Tennessee
1930 Lived in Lincoln, Nebraska
1931-1934 Studied in Berlin, Paris and Vienna
1935 Solo exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery, New York City
1936 Meets Monroe Wheeler
1936 Designed costumes for the American Ballet Caravan
1941 Group exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
1943 Group exhibition. “American Realists and Magic Realists,” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City
1946-1965 Studied with Charles Gilbert
1947 Group exhibition, Chicago Art Institute, Chicago, Illinois
1947-1948 Solo exhibition at Knoedler Galleries, New York City
1949 Group exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
1950 Group exhibition, “Symbolic Realism,” Institute of Contemporary Art, London
1951 Group exhibitions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
1952 Solo exhibition, Knoedler Galleries, New York City
1955 Group exhibition, Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
1956 Group exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
1963 Solo exhibition, “The Magic of Realism,” Banfer Gallery, New York City
1979 Solo exhibition, FAR Gallery, New York City
1981 Solo exhibition, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
1985 Died, New York City
The author would like to express gratitude to Daniel A. Siedell, Curator of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Also many thanks to Henry Grady the Executor of the Charles Rain Estate for being extremely helpful and gracious in responding to queries and questions. And Daphne Anderson Deeds whose exhaustive research and writings make her an authority on the artist’s life and works.
1. Berman, Greta and Jeffrey Wechsler. Realism and Realities: The Other Side of American Painting, 1940-1960. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Art Gallery, Rutgers, 1981.
2. Dawson, Nancy. Trompe L’oeil: The Art of Deception, 1997.
3. Deeds, Daphne Anderson. “Charles Rain A Singular Realist.” Remembering Charles Rain Selected Works from 1933 to 1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004.
4. Deeds, Daphne Anderson. Private Realisms, American Paintings 1934-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004.
5. Falk, Peter Hastings ed. Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
6. Geske, Norman and Karen Janovy. The American Painting Collection. The Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 1988.
7. Grady, Henry W. “Memories of Charles Rain.” Remembering Charles Rain Selected Works From 1933-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004.
8. Haller, Gary L. “Introduction.” Remembering Charles Rain Selected Works From 1933-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004.
9. Miller, Dorothy and Alfred H Barr. American Realists & Magic Realist. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1943.
10. Siedell Daniel A. “A Special View of Things Charles Rain and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.” Remembering Charles Rain Selected Works From 1933-1973. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2004.
11. Tomor, Michael A. “Magic Realism: An American Response” in American Art Review 9:4 (July/August, 1999), pp. 142-147.
12. Wechsler, Jeffrey. Surrealism and American Art 1931-1947. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1977.
2004 Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, New Haven, CT
1981-1986 Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
1979 FAR Gallery, NY
1963 Banfer Gallery, NY
1947-1952 Knoedler Gallery, NY
1941 Tommi Parzinger Gallery, NY
1935-1937 Julien Levy Gallery, NY
MAJOR GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2005 Phoenix Art Museum, AZ
2005 National Academy of Design Museum, NY
2000 Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University, NJ
1999 Pennsylvania Southern Alleghenies Museum, Loretto, PA
1996 Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, NY
1977 Rutgers University Art Gallery, Rutgers, NJ
1967 Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE
1964 Banfer Gallery, NY
1961 The Albright Gallery, Buffalo, NY
1957 Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
1956 The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
1956 San Diego Museum, San Diego, CA
1954 University of Miami Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, FL
1954 Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA
1954 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
1953 The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
1952 Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
1951-1956 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
1950-1954 Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH
1950 Edwin Hewitt Gallery, NY
1950 Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
1950 Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
1949-51, 1953-1957 University of Illinois, Urbana, IL
1948-50 California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
1947-1957 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1947 Trenton Museum, Trenton, NJ
1947 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1947-49, 1950-51, 1954-1967 Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
1933-1947 The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
1944 Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
1943-44, 1946-49 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1943 Museum of Modern Art, NY
1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
1941-1949 Whitney Museum of American Art, NY