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Arrangement with Billboard

Harvey R. Griffiths

(Akron, Ohio, 1883 - 1952, Akron, Ohio)

late 1930s

Watercolor and graphite on illustration board

19 3/4 in. x 29 in. (50.17 cm x 73.66 cm)

Anonymous gift

1958.13

More Information

As was typical for much art of the time, Griffiths’ work seems to comment upon the trend of fast-growing urban spaces and the diminishment of the rural countryside. In this painting, the city’s dusky skyline, the slightly ramshackle gas station, and the commuters shuffling toward the waiting buses form a dark halo around the brightly colored and illuminated billboard advertising locally grown produce. Although Griffiths spent much of his career in Akron, he also lived in Chicago and studied in Cleveland, and the specific city depicted in this painting has not been identified.

Essay

Harvey R. Griffiths Arrangement with Billboard, late 1930s Collection of the Akron Art Museum Harvey Griffiths was a key figure in the Akron art scene during the 1930s and 1940s. He was one of fourteen artists who joined together in 1931 to create the Akron Society of Artists, for which he later served as president. In 1936 he was elected to the institute’s board of trustees for a five-year term, which appears to have inaugurated the longtime practice of installing a representative from the Akron Society of Artists on the institute’s governing board. Griffiths's career as an artist included commercial work and fine art. He served an apprenticeship in a glass painting studio in Pennsylvania, then in his late teens worked in Chicago decorating fine china and glass. During World War I he served in the Marine Corps and was able to spend some leave time exploring France’s art treasures. Upon discharge in 1919, he returned to Akron and enrolled for several years in night classes at the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) taught by Sandor Vago, a painter prominent in Cleveland in the period between the two world wars. Griffiths earned his living as a commercial artist, working both independently and for several of Akron's major rubber companies. But it was his fine art that brought him some national recognition—acceptance in the 1936 annual exhibition of the American Water-Color Society in New York. In 1938 and 1939 he toured Europe for eleven months and undertook further studies in Florence and Milan. The watercolors he produced during that excursion were exhibited in a large show at the Akron Art Institute. In addition to watercolor, Griffiths also worked in oils and produced figure studies, flower paintings, and landscapes. He was given a memorial exhibition at the Akron Art Institute in 1953. His watercolor Arrangement with Billboard is undated but was likely produced in 1938 or 1939, shortly before its inclusion in the 1940 New Year Show at the Butler Art Institute in Youngstown. The scene, presumably of Akron, depicts a commercial building and a billboard with a bus stop in the background.1 The subject clearly identifies Griffiths’s work with the American Scene movement of the 1930s in its commitment to regional themes and local color. The watercolor makes an interesting comparison with Raphael Gleitsmann’s Winter Evening, painted almost a decade earlier (see pp. 84–85). While Gleitsmann depicts Main Street and the dramatic, recently constructed Art Deco bank topping Akron’s skyline, Griffiths gives us a fairly anonymous scene that could be from any one of several cities across the state. In addition, Griffiths’s modernity is more subtle than Gleitsmann’s. He contrasts the dark, dilapidated building (probably a Shell service station) and the brand new, brightly illuminated billboard.2 The parked car in the foreground is also fairly new, from the mid-1930s. The shift from old to new and dark to bright offers visual interest but also adds a subtle political dimension. If the times are prosperous enough for an illuminated billboard, they are still not far removed from the worst years of the Great Depression. The appeal to buy Ohio apples has more than a hint of economic necessity; it exhorts city folk to support local farmers. Griffiths preferred painting landscapes on the spot and often worked in the company of other artists, mostly in the immediate area but also on longer trips, including one to the New England coast. Arrangement with Billboard, in his traditional watercolor technique, is a slice of northeast Ohio city life that is affectionate, intimate, and sincere. - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001 1. It is possible that the scene is set in Cleveland. On a 1940 label previously attached to the back of Arrangement with Billboard, Griffiths’s address is given as 3608 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio. The Temple Court Building at that address was a residential hotel with some offices. However, the address is crossed out in the same ink with which it was written. It is either a mistake or a temporary address, as newspaper articles from 1930 through 1945 regularly describe Griffiths as an Akron artist who exhibited throughout that period in annual shows of local artists at the Akron Art Institute. Throughout the 1930s he was living at 610 Crosby Street, Akron. His address is given as 73 Rhodes Avenue, Akron, in Reiker, D8. 2. Griffiths may have intended the building to be a Shell service station. The pencil-drawn letters “SHE” can be seen through the dark paint at the edge of the sign on top of the building. At the sidewalk, a hanging sign displays a yellow-orange shell shape. The sign’s bracket has a distinctive form that was used by Shell during this period. “Harvey R. Griffiths, Akron Artist, Taken.” Akron Beacon Journal, September 9, 1952, 54. Lengs, Harold J. “Home from 11-Month Trip Abroad, Harvey R. Griffiths Gives Impressions of Famous Art Galleries He Visited.” Akron Beacon Journal, July 30, 1939, B7. Reiker, Jane. “Harvey Griffiths Often Neglects Own Creative Work While He Supervises WPA Art Classes in 13 Counties.” Akron Beacon Journal, September 22, 1940, D8. Strouse, Don. “Rises from Glass Painting to Fine Art: Harvey Griffiths Finds More and More to Be Learned.” Akron Times-Press, December 17, 1930, 11.

Marks

Signed LL: "Harvey R, Griffiths"

Keywords
Akron
Apple
Billboards
Bus Stop
City
Great Depression
Night
Ohio
Service Station
Watercolor