by Bailey Harberg, collections management associate
As some of you may know, Clyfford Still had somewhat of a strained relationship with his dear old dad, Elmer. The tough life Elmer created for his family on the wheat ranch in Bow Island, Alberta provided Still with a resolve unlike many of his future artist colleagues. Still said of his childhood on the farm that his arms were often “bloody to the elbows shucking wheat.” Rumor has it that his father once even tied a rope around Clyfford’s ankles and lowered him headfirst into a newly built well to assess its status. However, Elmer’s unsympathetic attitude ultimately paved the way for Clyfford to brazenly navigate a similarly harsh art world.
So far, we have come across four pretty outstanding portraits Clyfford created of his father: two drawings and two paintings that range in dates from 1924 to 1941. The sketch below, created when Clyfford was 26 years old, shows his father sitting for a portrait and hand study. The man in this portrait brings to mind the supportive father who bought Clyfford his first set of oil paints 10 years earlier. The painting created eleven years later presents Elmer dramatically floating in the midst of an abstract ground that prefigures many of his future Abstract Expressionist works and hints at the man whose aloof attitude inevitably drove Clyfford to leave home at a young age.
Elmer Still’s bold Western spirit, determination, and reserved character clearly rubbed off on young Clyfford. Though he later denied the impact of his rural upbringing, the demanding lifestyle led by Clyfford’s parents contributed to the making of a truly remarkable artist, American icon, and father in his own right. Happy Father’s Day to all those hard-nosed dads out there—we love you all!
Images (from top):
Clyfford with his dad, Elmer. c. 1910
Clyfford Still, Sketch of Artist’s Father (PD-69), 1930. Graphite on paper, 9 x 12 in. © Clyfford Still Estate
Clyfford Still, Portrait of Artist’s Father (PH-269), 1941. Oil on canvas, 20.2 x 16 in. © Clyfford Still Estate