Greatest Art Critics Series
Roger Fry

Bloomsbury Art Critic, Champion of Post-Impressionist Painting.

Art Critic Roger Fry.
Self Portrait, painted c.1928.
An expert in the Italian Renaissance
and a champion of Post-Impressionism.

Roger Fry (1866-1934)


Interest in Art
Lecturer and Art Critic
Curator of European Painting at the Met
Switches to Post-Impressionism
Omega Workshops
Later Years

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Roger Eliot Fry, the Bloomsbury painter, theorist and writer, was an expert in Italian Renaissance art and the curator of European painting at the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, before becoming one of the most influential art critics and a champion of modern French painting, for which he coined the term Post-Impressionism (c.1880-1905). Responsible for two major art exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries (1910, 1912), he was described by Kenneth Clark (1903-83) as the greatest influence on artistic taste since the great John Ruskin (1819-1900). Through his lectures, books and exhibitions, Fry did an enormous amount to promote modern art in Britain - including modern British sculpture - although he found expressionism too emotional and remained wary of abstract art (most of his own painting was representational). As a result, he was greatly admired by younger British artists, including Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) (with whom he had an affair), and Duncan Grant (1885-1978). Ironically, despite being much influenced by Post-Impressionism, and by Fry's Grafton shows, both artists turned to concrete art within a couple of years. In 1913, Fry founded Omega Workshops - a company devoted to improving the standard of design in decorative art. Influenced by Fauvism and Cubism, its designs were initially well-received, before declining significantly as a result of The Great War. His literary output was continuous, and included specialist works on Giovanni Bellini (1899), Cezanne (1927), and Matisse (1930), and an edition of Reynold's Discourses, as well as numerous essays including Vision and Design (1920). In 1903 he was a co-founder of The Burlington Magazine, the longest running art journal in the English language. His own painting skills were relatively modest, and are best reflected in his portrait art, involving members of the Bloomsbury Group. Examples can be found in the National Portrait Gallery in London, while a collection of items produced by Omega Workshops is in the Victoria & Albert museum.



Interest in Art

Born into a wealthy Quaker family, in London - his father was the judge Sir Edward Fry (1827–1918) - Fry took a first-class degree in natural science at Cambridge University, although his head was turned by the lectures of John H. Middleton, Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, and soon began painting. In 1891, he travelled to Italy, where he studied the Old Masters, before enrolling at the Academie Julian, Paris, the following year. As a result, he determined to devote himself to the history of art - a decision reinforced by his friendship with the famous Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson (1865-1959).

Lecturer and Art Critic

In 1892, after a second trip to Italy, as well as painting, Fry began lecturing on Early Renaissance art for the Cambridge Extension Movement. In 1896 he married Helen Coombe (1864–1937), a fellow art student, with whom he had two children, Pamela and Julian. [Sadly Helen soon developed a serious mental condition, and in 1910 was committed to a mental institution.]

In 1899, he published an important monograph on Giovanni Bellini, the pioneer of Venetian Painting of the 15th century, and in 1901, he became art critic of the fashionable London literary magazine The Athenaeum. In 1903, along with Bernard Berenson, Herbert Horne and Charles Holmes, he co-founded the celebrated Burlington Magazine - arguably the first scholarly journal on art history - which he co-edited for 10 years (1909-19), and contributed more than 200 articles on subjects ranging from the plasticity of African sculpture in the sub-Sahara, to Icon Painting in the Byzantine era, to Venetian Altarpieces (1500-1600) and Neo-Impressionism (1886-91). In the same year he had his first one-man art exhibition at the Carfax Gallery. It was also about this time that he began teaching art history at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London.

Curator of European Painting at the Met

In 1904 Fry applied for the position of Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, but was turned down. So instead he accepted the invitation of the banker, philanthropist and art collector John Pierpont "J.P." Morgan (1837-1913) to become Curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which Pierpoint was president, a post which involved accompanying the millionaire tycoon on numerous buying trips to Europe.

Switches to Post-Impressionism

In 1907, when visiting Paris, Fry saw the huge Cezanne retrospective at the Salon d'Automne. This show exerted a huge influence on many young artists, including Picasso - already in the process of formulating his prototype Cubism - as well as the Worpswede painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and many others. Fry himself was blown away by Cezanne's paintings and from that moment switched his full attention from the Old Masters to modern art.

In 1908, he was able to return to England when, at his request, the Metropolitan Museum reassigned him to the post of "European advisor" - a post he held until 1910 when a disagreement with Morgan led to his dismissal. Unconcerned, Fry - by now an eminent art expert and a major figure in the circle of artists known as the Bloomsbury group - staged the first of his major exhibitions on Post-Impressionist painting, entitled "Manet and the Post-Impressionists". Unfortunately, Fry's selection of Post-Impressionist painters proved too much for a public unused to avant-garde art. Press criticism was almost universal, but Fry was undeterred. In 1912 he staged a second show at the Grafton Galleries which cemented his notoriety as the most influential apostle of modern art in Britain.

For more, see also: Post-Impressionism in Germany (c.1880-1910) and Post-Impressionism in Holland.

Omega Workshops

At the same time, Fry was a keen supporter of the philosophy behind the Arts and Crafts movement begun by William Morris (1834-96), and the following year set up Omega Workshops, a firm which produced a range of hand-made furniture, linen, ceramics and carpets. It also provided jobs for young artists (including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Percy Wyndham Lewis) who were hired to decorate items in the new Post-Impressionist idiom. Unfortunately demand for this type of applied art collapsed during the war, and in 1920 the firm was liquidated.

Later Years

With the publication of Vision and Design (1920), his first collection of essays from the Fabian Society and Burlington Magazine, Fry achieved a similar sort of reputation as an art critic previously accorded to John Ruskin, some 40 years earlier. In 1925, although his wife remained incarcerated in a mental home, he met and settled down with a new partner, Helen Maitland Anrep (1885-1965). His second collection of essays, entitled Transformations, followed in 1926, his monograph on Cezanne in 1927, and his book on Matisse in 1930.

In 1927, Fry was rejected a second time in his attempt to secure the post of Slade Professor at Oxford. It wasn't until 1933 that he was offered a comparable Professorship of Art, this time at Cambridge, which he accepted. Sadly, a year later, he died of heart failure as a result of injuries sustained in a fall at his home.

Art Appreciation Resources

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- How to Appreciate Paintings

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