This work by Charles Howard depicts two-dimensional shapes set against sinuous, biomorphic imagery

Completed in London in 1938, "Presage" conveys a foreboding tone

Learn about the work, now in the collection of the Arkansas Art Center

By Beth Hamilton

Charles Houghton Howard was born in 1899 in Montclair, New Jersey. His father, John Galen Howard, was an accomplished architect with a distinguished family background. In 1901, he moved his family to California to begin work on the new campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Howard later enrolled in this school and studied journalism and English. He then pursued graduate studies at Columbia and Harvard, with aspirations to become a writer.

In 1920, Howard embarked on a trip to Europe that inadvertently changed his career path. While immersing himself in the Parisian literary scene, he met the American artist Grant Wood who persuaded Howard to abandon writing for painting. This encounter, coupled with his discovery of Italian Renaissance art, encouraged Howard to embrace painting as his primary focus. Howard then moved to New York where he mostly worked in satirical literary sketches. His first solo exhibition of these early drawings was held in 1926 at the Whitney Studio Club.

By the 1930s, Howard experimented with abstraction and Surrealism through his association with Unit One—a group of painters, sculptors, and architects that he joined following his move to London in 1933. While the group’s work was politically charged, Howard was strictly aesthetic in his abstract compositions. He favored Surrealism for its imaginative imagery and its departure from American scene painting. His unique style was a combination of his own development and his exposure to the European Surrealists Jean Arp, André Masson, and Joan Miró. Drawing from these artists, his Surrealist works of the 1930s feature representational, biomorphic, and geometric forms. In 1933, he had a solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery, the influential dealer responsible for introducing Americans to the Surrealist works of Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dalí, and Max Ernst.

Through its title, Presage conveys a foreboding tone. The biomorphic abstraction was completed in London in 1938 and is perhaps an allusion to the stirrings of European conflict. Howard’s paintings during the ensuing war years took on a similar ominous and emotional tone; First War Winter was painted during the blitz of London in 1940 and conveys a sense of darkness brought on by the war. Presage is an exploration of flat, two-dimensional shapes set against sinuous, biomorphic imagery. An amorphous, orange form supported by elongated insect-like legs leans against a geometric shape resembling wood. The saturated palette of blue and grey tones further heightens the mysterious, dream-like scene drawn from Howard’s imagination.

Howard returned to California in 1940, where he was met with recognition as a Surrealist painter. He was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s show, “Americans 1942 / 18 Artists from 9 States.” and Peggy Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition at Art of this Century that same year. Presage was exhibited at Howard’s first retrospective exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1946.

Cover image: Charles Howard, American, 1899–1978. Presage, 1938. Gouache, watercolor, ink and pencil on paper. 14⅞ x 22 inches. Signed and dated lower right.