Live Auction

May 2024: Day Two

Fri, May 17, 2024 11:00AM EDT
Lot 1002

Gertrude Abercrombie (American, 1909-1977) Oil on Masonite 1956, "The Truant", H 8" W 10"

Estimate: $50,000 - $80,000

Bid Increments

Price Bid Increment
$0 $5
$30 $10
$100 $25
$400 $50
$900 $100
$2,000 $250
$5,000 $500
$10,000 $1,000
$20,000 $2,500
$50,000 $5,000
$150,000 $10,000

Still life nocturne depicting three white owls on a branch and one at the base of a tree. Signed and dated lower left. Frame Measurements H 12.25" W 14.25" We are grateful for the research conducted by Dr. Susan Weininger, Professor Emerita, Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois and leading scholar of Gertrude Abercrombie. Provenance: The Artist; Collection of Dr. Lawrence and Helen Breslow, Chicago, IL; By descent to their daughter, Bloomfield Hills, MI.

Lot Essay

'The Truant' by Gertrude Abercrombie
Written by Dr. Susan Weininger, Professor Emerita, Roosevelt University

This painting appears in my records as The Truant (4 Owls), a title that incorporates the typical wit of the artist.  It was exhibited at the Hyde Park open air art fair in 1956 (priced at $75), and subsequently at the Old Town Art Gallery in 1957 where it was sold for $75 to Dr. Breslow (Lawrence and Helen Breslow).  It passed by descent to the current owner in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  Its provenance is secure.

The painting has many elements characteristic of Abercrombie:  owls, a simple tree, crescent moon, lone white rock, all in a landscape devoid of any other detail.  These elements held personal meaning for the artist, but despite appearing again and again in her work, each composition was unique, contributing to the differing significance of each painting. There are quite a few paintings in which owls were situated in or on leafless trees (see, for example, Four Trees and Three Owls [Four Trees], 1950, sold at Hindman, 2023; or Dizzy Gillespie, 1949, sold at Wright in 2023, which features the tree, the owl, and the single white stone), sometimes with Abercrombie overseeing the scene as a director or teacher (for example Owl Trainer [School for Owls], 1945, Private Collection;  Owl Trainer #2, 1947, Private Collection).  So while this work certainly shares dimensions of these and other works, it is sui generis.  

Abercrombie’s work is deceptively simple and often beautifully composed, as is evidenced in this painting.  The tree dominates the center of the painting, moving in a slight diagonal from near left to near right, its bare branch extending out like a human arm, the leafy top serving as a head.  Three owls sit on the branch, two of them small, the third presumably the mother (Abercrombie’s owls were gendered), the fourth and smallest sits at the base of the tree in the shadow cast by its trunk.  The shadow extends toward us on a diagonal anchoring the tree in three dimensional space.  The delicate crescent moon in the upper left balances the heavy rock in the lower right.

Like the other animals who make frequent appearances in her work--the cat, the giraffe, sometimes a chicken, a snail or even a dinosaur—the owl has personal meaning for Abercrombie.  Associated with both wisdom and darkness, the owl serves as a surrogate for the artist.  She possessed characteristics of both the dominant owl in the tree and the rebellious truant on the ground.  In addition to the independence exercised by the latter, the tiny owl may also convey something of the loneliness and vulnerability Abercrombie experienced despite her ostensible popularity and active social life.  The power she exercised in her role as “Queen of Chicago” resonates with the large, wise and commanding owl who sits confidently on the end of the branch. 

That Abercrombie was able to convey these complex and often contradictory feelings in what looks like a simple image is part of her magic.  She was able to transform difficult and conflicting emotions into mesmerizing works of art, which is what makes the viewer want to return to them again and again.  And in this case, she includes a bit of wit and humor as well.  


Very minor surface scuffs to the lower left quadrant just to the left of the tree, intentional painted blemish to the Masonite just to the left of the tree, otherwise no visible abrasions. Original paper backing was removed in 2023, however, label that was on the paper verso was retained. | Please note all lots show signs of wear commensurate with age and use, and the lack of a statement regarding condition does not imply the lot is in perfect condition or completely free from defects or the effects of aging. Unless otherwise stated, all information provided is the opinion of DuMouchelles' specialists. Should you have any specific questions regarding the condition of this lot, please use the “Request Condition Report” or “Ask a Question” buttons or email conditions@dumoart.com.

The Artist; Collection of Dr. Lawrence and Helen Breslow, Chicago, IL; By descent to their daughter, Bloomfield Hills, MI.