Gluck (1895–1978)

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Gluck (1895–1978)

British painter known particularly for her portraits of women. Name variations: Hannah Gluckstein. Born Hannah Gluckstein on August 13, 1895, in West Hampstead, London, England; died in Steyning, Sussex, England, on January 10, 1978; only daughter and first of two children of Joseph Gluckstein (founder of the J. Lyons & Co. catering empire) and his second wife Francesca (Hallé) Gluckstein; tutored at home; attended a Dame School in Swiss Cottage; attended St. Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith; attended St. John's Wood Art School.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family that founded a catering empire, British artist Hannah Gluckstein rebelled against her conservative upbringing to establish her own unique and controversial life style. Wishing to focus attention on her paintings and not her gender, she chose to be known only as Gluck ("no prefix, no quotes"), a name that distanced her from her family and from society's expectations of women's behavior. She dressed in men's clothing and boots, and had her hair cut at Truefitt gentlemen's hairdressers in Old Bond Street. Her paintings were as unique and arresting as her appearance. She was known for her portraits, particularly those of women, but she also painted haunting landscapes, delicate flower arrangements, and genre scenes. Her biographer Diana Souhami calls her striking style "seemingly realistic" but with "a strong inward meaning." Gluck's own view of herself as an artist was as a "conduit open to any unexpected experience, a lightning conductor." Her visions came in a flash and dictated what followed. "The entire composition is received as a whole in scale and in content," she explained. "The Vision once received remains a tyrant. The process of distillation is arduous, the temptations numerous and the discipline needed sometimes hard to endure."

Possessed of a beautiful singing voice, Gluck vacillated between music and art before entering the St. John's Wood Art School, which she later claimed had nothing to teach her. Around 1916, in frustration, she escaped to Lamorna, in Cornwall, where she painted the beautiful landscapes and life in the Cornish countryside and mingled with the painters of the Newlyn School. Later, she divided her time between studios in Cornwall and London, living with "Craig," a woman she had met in art school, then with journalist and author Sybil Cookson . It was during this time that Gluck began wearing masculine garb and smoking a pipe, affecting a style her mother attributed to "a kink in her brain." Gluck's father, despite pain over his daughter's self-imposed alienation, provided her with a series of trust funds that supported her throughout her life.

Gluck's first one-woman exhibit was held in 1924, at the Dorien Leigh Gallery in South Kensington. It included 57 pictures, many of them the portraits of sophisticated women, for which she would become known. (Gluck and Romaine Brooks did reciprocal portraits of each other in 1926, although Gluck thought Brooks technically and psychologically her inferior and scorned her social circle as "lesbian haute-monde.") Subsequent exhibitions of Gluck's work were held in 1926, 1932, 1937, and then, after a gap of 36 years, in 1973. Her shows were met with excitement and praise from the critics, and her paintings were snatched up by the rich and famous, including Queen Mary of Teck , Sir Francis Oppenheimer, Cecil Beaton, interior designer Syrie Maugham , and theater impresario C.B. Cochran.

Viewing her paintings as part of an architectural setting, Gluck designed a picture frame to incorporate the artwork into the wall. She described it as consisting of steps, "imitating the costly paneled effect for setting pictures in a wall, but steps of such a character that the usual essence of all frames was reversed and instead of the outer edge dominating, it was made to die away into the wall and cease to be a separate feature." Patented in 1932, the frame was used exclusively in the Gluck Room at The Fine Art Society and was also adopted for other exhibitions in the 1930s. Gluck turned her attention to the quality of artists' materials, abandoning her easel for over a decade (1953–67) to fight what became known as her "paint war," during which she successfully campaigned to formulate a standard among manufacturers for artists' oil paints and the preparation of canvases.

Gluck's numerous love affairs influenced her work. When she lived with Sybil Cookson, she painted all of Cookson's relatives as well as

scenes from the courtroom dramas about which Cookson wrote. When she took up with Constance Spry , a genius flower arranger, she painted flower arrangements. Of particular influence was her liaison with Nesta Obermer , an international socialite married to an elderly American playwright. (Gluck's painting Medallion, the merging profiles of the two women, celebrated Gluck's own "marriage" to Nesta on May 25, 1936.) Coinciding with the onset of her affair with Obermer, Gluck burned the tangible evidence of her past, setting fire to diaries, letters, photographs, her first paintbox and several canvases. "Anything even vaguely smelling of the past stinks in my nostrils," she told Obermer. When their love affair ended in 1945, Gluck suffered a loss of self-esteem that crippled her career. During the last period of her life, from 1945 until her death in 1978, she lived with the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald and painted only intermittently. At age 78, claiming she wanted "to go out with a bang," she emerged from near obscurity to present a final one-woman

show, a retrospective of 52 paintings held at The Fine Art Society in May 1973. The exhibition, which drew considerable praise from critics, included her last painting, The Dying of the Light, the stark likeness of a dead fish's head lying at the edge of the sea. A symbol of decay and death which for Gluck had become "an emblem of resurrection," this final work took her three years to complete, from 1970 to 1973.

A few days after the close of her last show, Gluck slipped in her hotel room and broke her right wrist. She did not paint again but spent her final few years tending to Heald's failing health and getting her own affairs in order. After Heald's death in 1976, Gluck's condition declined further, and in December 1977 she suffered a stroke from which she never recovered. She died on January 10, 1978. Most of her paintings found their way into private collections. Romaine Brooks' portrait of the artist, called Peter, a Young English Girl (1926), is held by the Smithsonian Institution.


Souhami, Diana. Gluck, 1895–1978: Her Biography. London: Pandora Press, 1989.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts