Georgios Constantopulos’ life and career demonstrates the transformative power of art. A penniless sojourner to American shores, Constantopulos quickly began to influence the world around him. The daily accomplishments of this man belie the notion that by definition immigrants are somehow ever beholding to the United States of America. Even a passing glance at a mere listing of Constantopulos’ artwork now found in American museums and around the world is breath taking. That Constantopulos spent so much time teaching, engaging other artists and organizing fellow artists into guilds and other less formal groups makes one wonder how the man even found time to create his art.
Examining the life and acts of this one man goes a long way in not just reflecting on the history of Greek-American artists but how the whole study of immigration to North America is really nothing short of propaganda.
As we weave our way through the available documents we find that Constantopulos is today better known as internationally-recognized artist George Constant. Born in the remote mountain town of Arahuba, Constantopulos’ early life was as difficult as the vast majority who left Greece from 1880 to 1920. Orphaned as a small child, Constant was raised by two uncles, one of whom was abbot of the Monastery of Eleusa (where he spent his summers). During these summer visits Constant was taught how to paint icons according to the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the time he was 18, Constant had expanded his studies into Archaic and Classical Greek Art, as his own sense of himself as an artist began to develop.
Whatever drew George Constant to North America it is not noted in any reliable account. We do know, however, that Constant arrived in New York City on May 4, 1909 aboard the SS Martha Washington. Within the year, Constant enrolled in the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1914, Constant received a White Scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied briefly under the Ashcan painter George Bellows. Constant also studied with Charles W. Hawthorne, a former assistant to William Merritt Chase and a cofounder and director of the highly influential Cape Cod School of Art, in Provincetown, MA. It was while at the Art Institute that Constant first saw and was deeply impressed by the paintings of Paul Cezanne (1839–1906).
Constant first exhibited his paintings in 1918, at a group show hosted by the Arts Club in Chicago. It was also in 1918 that Constant began to teach art classes at Chicago’s fabled Hull-House. A pivotal year, on December 3, 1918, Constant married accomplished Chicago pianist Florence Farwell (1891-1937). The couple knew considerable tragedy as two sons died in infancy while one daughter Georgette (b 1927) lived past childhood.
After teaching in 1920–1921 at the Dayton Art Institute, Constant relocated to New York City where he initially worked as a scenic designer. It was also around this time that Constant began to devote more and more of his attention to the graphic arts, especially engraving and etching. In 1924, Constant was invited to join the Valentine Gallery, a sign of his vigorous involvement in the city’s art community.
Recognition of Constant’s pioneering creations in modernist painting and printmaking slowly began to gain ever wider acclaim A few years later he became part of the New Art Circle of J.B. Neumann. He celebrated his first solo exhibition in 1929 at the Arts Club of Chicago. During the Depression and in the following decade Constant participated in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration in all media.
In 1937, Florence Constant died and among the surviving drawings, etchings, and paintings of George Constant are those that clearly reveal the warmth and closeness shared by the family. Sometime later Constant married Florence’s younger sister Elizabeth Farwell (b 1904) who only a few years later died of a heart condition. The love and tenderness Constant held for his second wife can, once again, be seen in his art.
In 1940, Constant always keenly concerned with the welfare of his fellow artists founded and served as president of the Society of Modern Painters and Sculptors. There is a sense of excitement in this venture as he proclaimed, at this time. that overall, The world is increasingly interested in the language of paint…Working in one direction –abstraction based on realism—my aim is to create art significant in color for both beauty and power. With late 1940s, for the constantly working Constant came a period of touring exhibitions, one-man shows and awards the U.S. State Department made purchases of his work in 1945, 1946 and 1947 for the touring exhibitions of American art throughout Latin America and Europe. Prizes during this period of acclaim include the Shilling Purchase Prize (1939; 1945), Frank G. Logan Prize and Metal given by the Art Institute of Chicago (1943), Gabriel Klein Memorial Prize given by the Audubon Society (1946) and Library of Congress Purchase Prize (1947). Three readily available exhibition catalogs that can be consulted for this general period include: “Four Americans, George Constant, James Lechay, Joseph Foshko, Oronzo Gasparo: May 10-22, 1943” (New York: Ferargil Galleries); “Constant: April 10 to 23, 1944” (Ferargil Galleries, New York); and “George Constant, a Retrospective Exhibition: January 3-22, 1955” (NY: Grace Borgenicht Gallery).
In 1942, Constant married Calliroe Lekakis the modern dancer, yet another early Greek-American artist of note we hear so little about today. Without going into detail Calliroe Lekakis was sculptor Michael Lekakis’ (1907-1988) sister. Catherine Lekakis, a noted ceramist as well as modern dancer in her own right, was sister to both Calliroe and Michael and she married Theo Hios, yet another modernist artist.
In 1945, Constant visited and fell in love with the Shinnecock Hills of Long Island dividing his time between winters in New York City and summers the Hill region. Constant was instrumental in bringing together a circle of contemporary Greek artists, the “Koumbaroi,” who painted in the Shinnecock Hills during the 1940s and 1950s. Aside from George Constant the Greek artists included Theo Hios, Michael Lekakis, and Louis Trakas. This same group was responsible for bringing a host of other Modern and Abstract artists to the area including but not limited to Nicolai Cikovsky, Nat Werner, Moses Soyer, Alexander Brook and David Burliuk.
George Constant is not some forgotten artist of yore. Constant’s paintings, etchings, and other art can be seen in the permanent collections of numerous public institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Detroit Museum, Dayton Art Institute, San Francisco Museum, U.S. State Department, Walker Art Center, Library of Congress, Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam), Tel-Aviv Museum (Israel), the National Museums of Greece, and a host of other museums and college collections.
A book devoted exclusively to his work, George Constant, with an introduction by Margaret Breuning and a lengthy biographical section by Georgette Preston was published in the Contemporary Artists Series (New York: Arts, Inc., 1961). In 1962, Constant was awarded the highest honor for achievement that the Greek government can bestow, the Phoenix Cross.
George Constant died in 1978 at his Shinnecock Hills home. Aside from the ongoing popularity of his artwork the George Constant Foundation carries on as a vehicle of information for those inquiring into the life and accomplishments of this influential artist ([email protected] www.georgeconstant.org).
In 1990, Eva Balamuth guest curated an exhibition at the Fine Arts Gallery of the Long Island University Southampton Gallery, entitled, “Koumbaroi: Four Artists of the Shinnecock Hills.” While this exhibition focused on four of the Greek-American artists from this wider collective, Constant, Theo Hios, Michael Lekakis and Louis Trakis the accompanying catalog discusses many other artists within this wider group.
In the Autumn of 1947, Athene Magazine released its “Greek-America Poetry and The Arts” edition. Envisioned originally as a hard backed oversized volume the Theodore Gianakoulis, New York based writer and Athene editor Demetrios Michalaros journalist and poet sought to bring together the most notable Greek-American artists and poets in the nation into one expanded volume of 112 pages.
Hoping for monetary support from Greek-American businessmen William Helis or Spyros Skouras, the duo brought together what is still a singular gathering of national and internationally known and revered Greek-American artists. Ultimately neither Helis nor Skouras supported the project. The Autumn 1947 volume was the only all-art issue issued by Athene at this size. With so much material gathered by Gianakoulis, C. J. Lampros and Michalaros, for the proposed book, that after 1947 other issues of Athene featured large sections devoted exclusively to the arts to accommodate all the gathered materials.
In the 1940s, it was clear dozens of Greek artists living in North America had gained national and even in some cases international recognition. In contemporary writings Greeks, after at least 130 years in the United States, are still portrayed simply as an immigrant community. Why is it taking so long for Greek American history to portray our collective accomplishments in their true light? Who benefits from this ongoing deception?