Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Deceiver of the Whole World

Rev. McKendree Robbins Long, The Deceiver of the Whole World, 1964-1969
Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Painter, poet and preacher, the Reverend McKendree Robbins Long defies the easy categorization often bestowed on artists. Though highly trained and educated at the top schools of the day, the Reverend's work is often included in Outsider and Visionary collections.

Born 1888 in Statesville, North Carolina, Long descended from a family filled with educators, politicians and clergy. After studying at Homer Military Academy and Davidson College, Long began master instruction under Duncan Smith at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1907. After only one semester, he received a scholarship to attend classes at the highly respected Art Students League in New York City. There he studied under America's first Hispanic master, F. Luis Mora.

From New York, Long moved to London. He studied at the Slade School and the Sandow Curative Institute before private studies with Philip de Laszlo, court painter to King George VI. During his time in London, he rented a studio that previously belonged to another American painter, James McNeill Whistler. His two years in Europe also allowed him to copy masterworks in Spain and Holland.

Returning to the US in 1913, Long married, started a family, and, excepting a brief stint as an ambulance driver in World War I, he spent the next ten years attempting an art career. Working in a traditional realist style, his career never materialized in an environment energized by the new directions of Dada and Cubism.

His time in the Chelsea district in London had exposed him to a fiery brand of Evangelical Christianity different from his conservative Presbyterian upbringing. His mother had actually travelled to London to pressure Long into continuing his art studies, as he was feeling a strong calling to the ministry even then. His failure to make a career in art led him to give up all "secular endeavors," and to pursue this calling. In 1922, he was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He became a travelling evangelist, and his skills as an orator garnered him a considerable following. He was not painting at all, but filling journals with sermons, poetry and hymns. His sermons, though, often contained references to biblical masterworks by Caravaggio and Rubens, earning him the title of "Picture Painter of the Gospel." It wasn't long before the Reverend's fiery style led him away from the Presbyterian church. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1935.

In the late 1940s, unable to continue the rigorous schedule of a travelling minister, Reverend McKendree Robbins Long took up his brushes once again. He had done the occasional portrait upon request, but this was his true return to art. He became obsessed with depicting scenes from the Revelation to John, and spent most his his remaining years depicting these apocalyptic visions. He was convinced that the end times were near, and that his Christ would return in his lifetime to destroy the sinners and gather the faithful to heaven. He often depicted this event with contemporary settings and characters. In one painting, Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures, Long places Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler in the fiery lake. Darwin, Voltaire, Marx and others await the same fate. From above the painter sits with Dante, clearly satisfied with the events. The Reverend was quoted as saying, "I'm the only person who ever made Dante smile."

The works from this period were never sold or promoted by Long, although he did often give them away. The family took no interest in them, and considered the late work a departure from true painting. His brushwork moved from the restrained formalism of his early style toward bold application of pure color. He continued refining this unique and singular style till his death in 1976.

The Reverend McKendree Robbins Long was once quoted as saying, "I'm primarily a preacher. Art is incidental." This was very true at the time. In the 1980s, the American art world became fascinated with a genre known in America as Outsider Art. Although most artists included in this genre were self taught (Sister Gertrude Morgan, Mose T, Bill Traylor, etc.), the works of Reverend Long found a new audience. Although highly trained, his later works definitely exist outside of any academic tradition.

The Deceiver of the Whole World was a gift to the Ogden Museum from the Roger H. Ogden Collection. Painted between 1964 and 1969, it shows Christ's return as promised in the Revelation to John. Christ is pictured on a snow-white horse, conquering the anti-christ, who is depicted as Caesar with "666" written on his robes and stigmata on his hands. All around them, a battle rages, filled with demons, modern bombs, soldiers and chaos. This is classic Reverend Long.

Currently, The Deceiver of the Whole World is included in the Outsider, Visionary and Self-taught gallery on the fifth floor of the Ogden's Goldring Hall. Incidently, the paintings of Bo Bartlett are also exhibited in a separate gallery on the fifth floor. Bartlett, a master of American realism, studied under Ben Long, grandson of Reverend McKendree Robbins Long, in Florence when he was 19.

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