Self Portrait with Helmet, 1959
Oil on canvas, 24 X 20" (60.96 X 50.80 cm.)
Signed, upper left
Museum purchase, 965-0-170
Born in New York City to French parents, Louis Bouch6 was encouraged as a child to draw. His father, Henri L. Bouch6, an architectural decorator, worked with the major turn- of-the -century architects designing interiors, such as the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island and the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel, New York City, primarily for very wealthy and socially prominent families. After his father's death, Louis and his mother moved to Europe where they lived from 1909 to 1915. In Paris, Louis attended classes or sketched at the Acad6mie de la Grande Chaumiere, Colarossi, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and several ateliers. Upon returning to New York, Bouch6 studied at the Art Students League, exhibited at the Whitney Studio, and worked as a camouflage artist for the Navy during World War I. At the Penguin Club in New York City, he and Alexander Brook associated with Walt Kuhn, Jules Pascin, George "Pop" Hart and the patron, John Quinn. His first solo exhibition was praised by the critic Henry McBride.' Because he often included Nottingham lace in his pictures, this early period was called his "Nottingham lace curtain manner."
From 1922 to 1926 he directed the Belmaison Gallery, New York City, part of Wanamaker's Gallery of Decorative Arts, afterwards pursuing a profitable career painting interior murals. During the Great Depression, however, he returned to easel painting. He referred to this as his "corkynuts" period because his painterly canvases featured objects he picked up on the beach. The compositions, however, were not traditional still lifes but modernist arrangements. His second solo exhibition in 1932 at the Valentine Gallery received mixed reviews. The New Yorker critic noted "a certain lack ... of the cohesion that is usually present in the work of men who have been painting seven days a week." But he also observed a lifting of color and a loosening of technique, and praised Bouche's subtle color sense, finally concluding that, "Most of his compositions are happy, and some have humor, a trait that is almost absent in our native painting." The work was too abstract for other critics, who commented on its resemblance to Georges Braque, Andre Lurpt, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico, or compared it to the disjecta Membra of the Surrealist school. Partly due to these criticisms, Bouche began to paint American subjects more realistically, in keeping with the general direction of American art in the 1930s.
In addition to resuming easel painting, in the 1930s Bouche painted several murals, executed panels for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was associate director of the New York School of Interior Decoration. In 1936 he had the first of many exhibitions at Kraushaar Galleries in New York. The following year Harry Salpeter profiled him in Esquire as the "Boulevardier of Art." Bouche, a very large man, delighted in well-tailored suits, and his daughter recalled that the various merchants of Savile Row and St. James' Street jointly contrived to give him the appearance of a successful banker."
Self-portraits were not a staple of his work, but in the later 1950s Bouche painted several, including Self Portrait with Helmet (1958, private collection). This work, slightly larger than the Butler Institute's Self Portrait with Helmet, also shows him in the butcher's apron he wore when painting. However, the earlier self-portrait is bust-length and has details of bookcases and a picture on the background wall. Both self-portraits have the fine color, humor, and sartorial elegance for which Bouche was known, evidenced in the first self-portrait by a pith helmet, decorated with a gold, glittery emblem, and in the second a pink scarf-the stuff of costume parties. The Butler Institute's self-portrait was reproduced in American Artist in 1960 with an appreciative comment: "Louis Bouche ... painted this histrionic portrayal, dated 1959, in which the artist plays a role in honest realism-pith helmet, walrus mustache, tortoise-shell glasses perched on nose-a strait-backed conception of a British officer gone Bohemian. Here is a dramatic perception and presentation of an urbane, educated artist whose style stems from what he has digested of the past and present and shows a feeling for paint and an innate love of the art of painting."