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Fry, Roger

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Fry, Roger Eliot

    Other Names:

    • Roger Eliot Fry

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1866

    Date Died: 1934

    Place Born: Highgate, Kent, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, and Renaissance

    Career(s): art critics, art historians, and curators


    Italian renaissance scholar, Bloomsbury art critic and curator of European painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1904-1910. Fry was born to Sir Edward Fry (1827-1918), a judge and Mariabella Hodgkin (Fry) (1833-1930) and raised in a Quaker household. Although headed for a career in science at Clifton College, Bristol, the lectures of J. H. Middleton, Slade Professor of Art, impressed Fry. Fry graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, with firsts in natural sciences, 1887 and 1888. Partially to please his father he dabbled in scientific areas while studying studio painting on the side. Entirely won over to art, he traveled to Italy in 1891 and studied studio painting at the Académie Julian, Paris in 1892. Returning to Italy and resolving to study art history, he read the works of Giovanni Morelli on connoisseurship and Walter Pater. His acquaintance with the scholar Bernard Berenson likely happened during this time. Fry soon established a reputation as a scholar of Italian art, lecturing on the subject for the Cambridge Extension Movement. Still painting, he met and married a fellow art student Helen Coombe (1864-1937) in 1896. Shortly thereafter Helen began exhibiting signs of mental illness, was hospitalized in 1899 but recovered somewhat. Fry’s articles from 1900 onwards in the Athenaeum led to a regular position writing art criticism. His first book on one of the Old Masters, Giovanni Bellini (1899) appeared at this time. Part of a group of English-speaking art experts, whose ranks included his friends Berenson and Herbert P. Horne, Fry used his influence to help found The Burlington Magazine in 1903. As an Italian Renaissance scholar, he sided with Berenson against R. Langton Douglas in the famous connoisseurship-vs.-documentary art history feuds. His first solo show of his painting was held at the Carfax Gallery in 1903. Failing to be appointed as Slade Professor at Oxford in 1904, Fry accepted an invitation from J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) to visit the United States and consider the position of Curator of European Painting of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Fry hoped to succeed Edward John Poynter as Director of the National Gallery in London, which ironically became available immediately after Fry accepted the Metropolitan job, Fry took the New York position, succeeding George Henry Story. As Morgan’s hand-picked curator, Fry accompanied the multi-millionaire on buying trips to Europe, now with a title of “European Adviser.” Fry edited Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, which appeared in 1905. This marked the last of his interest in the Old Masters. The same year Fry encountered Matthew Stewart Prichard, then a curator of classical antiquities at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, who exposed him to his Bergsonian view of museology, but also oriental and modern art. In 1906 Fry and Prichard met again, in Paris, where Prichard connected for Fry a relationship with Byzantine and modern art (Nelson, 161). Fry saw the work of Paul Cézanne for the first time the same year and from that moment, devoted his energies to modern art. The following year Fry persuaded the Metropolitan Museum Board to release him from his Curator position in favor of a title as “European advisor,” living in England. In 1910, however, a dispute with Morgan, who was Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan, led to his dismissal. Fry’s wife was re-committed to an asylum.

    Fry met the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) and her husband, the critic Clive Bell (1881-1964), the same year, 1910, and emerged as a major figure in the circle of artists and writers known as the Bloomsbury group. The group, whose most famous member was the writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), was engaged in tradition-breaking practices; Fry and Vanessa Bell became lovers for the years 1911-1913. Fry opened the exhibition “Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries,” coining the term Post-Impressionist. England was not entirely prepared for the modernist sensibilities and Fry was denounced in the press, including the London Times. Fry took the criticism favorably and mounted a second show at Grafton Galleries in 1912, establishing for himself the reputation as the champion of modern art. Part of Fry’s devotion to modern art was the direct application, as Fry saw it, to common Arts and Crafts Movement form. He read papers on art at the Fabian Society and founded the Omega Workshops which manufactured quality-designed modernist objects. Young artists decorated furniture, designed fabrics, and pottery in the new Post-Impressionist style. Fry himself continued to paint, now in a looser decorative idiom. Wyndham Lewis was among the artists he employed at the Workshops. The First World War forced the collapse of the Omega project. In 1919 Fry forced both Lionel Cust and More Adey, both joint editors of the Burlington Magazine, out of the periodical after a bitter dispute. Fry achieved a fame as a art critic similar to John Ruskin half a century before with the 1920 publication of his collected essays from the Fabian Society and Burlington Magazine, titled Vision and Design. Fry and Vanessa Bell briefly had a second relationship in 1921. However, in 1925 he met Helen Maitland Anrep (1885-1965) at a party in Bell’s studio; Anrep left her husband and family to live with Fry the rest of his life.

    Fry’s second collected essays, Transformations, appeared in 1926. Already, Fry was at work on his most thought-through book, Cézanne (1927). Both the first serious account of the artist’s life as well as the first to show the relation of Cézanne’s watercolors to his late oil painting, Fry established himself as a modernist art historian as well as a critic. After a second denial of a Slade Professorship at Oxford in 1927, Fry accepted a similar Slade Professor position at Cambridge in 1933. In his inaugural lectures for the Slade appointment, Art History as an Academic Study, Fry espoused a chronological approach to art. After the lecture on Greek art in the series, however, he sustained in a fall in 1934 and died of apparent heart failure connected to his trauma. The Slade lectures were published as Last Lectures in 1939.

    Virginia Woolf wrote his biography, published in 1940, but largely confined herself to the public record out of deference to his relationship with her sister and her friend, Anrep. Fry’s clearest thoughts on art, according to Kenneth Clark, appeared in the introduction to Reynold’s Discourses. Fry and Clive Bell enjoyed mutual inspiration from one another. It was Bell’s 1914 polemic Art that introduced the concept of “significant form” to Fry, which would subsequently be more associated with Fry than Bell. In the essays of Vision and Design, Fry stated his case that all art could and should be appreciated principally by its “significant form.” To a public suspicious of complicated modernist theories and the notion of expertising, Fry’s viewer-approach dictum appealed to many. His books convinced a vast readership of the qualities of modern art. Fry criticized the German model of art scholarship in 1933 as seeing works of art “almost entirely from a chronological point of view, as coefficients of a time sequence, without reference to their aesthetic significance.” Fry’s populist approach to art became so pervasive that some thirty years later the German-American art historian Rudolf Wittkower decried it in his own lecture, “Art History as a Discipline.” He owed much to Morelli and Pater, the latter of whom he remarked in 1898, “makes so many mistakes about pictures; but the strange, and for a Morelli-ite disappointing, thing is that the net result is so very just.” (quoted, Ladis). His early monographs on Bellini and Veronese were the best writings on those artists of the time. Throughout his life, he continued to paint and always considered himself an artist as well as an art historian.

    Selected Bibliography

    [for a complete bibliography, see] Laing, Donald A. Roger Fry: an Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings. New York: Garland Publishing, 1979; Vision and Design. London: 1920; The Artist and Psychoanalysis. London: L. and V. Woolf, 1924; Cezanne: A Study of his Development. London: 1927; “Seurat’s La Parade.” Burlington Magazine 55 (1929): 289-93 [“A Brilliant Essay” (Kleinbauer)]; Art-History as an Academic Study: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered in the Senate House. Cambridge: The University Press, 1933; Art and the Market: Roger Fry on Commerce in Art: Selected Writings. edited Craufurd D. Goodwin. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999; Letters of Roger Fry. New York: Random House, 1972.


    [literature on Fry is legion, particularly, see] Woolf, Virginia. Roger Fry, a Biography. London: The Hogarth Press, 1940; Land, Berel. “Significance of Form: The Dillemma of Roger Fry’s Aesthetic.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 21 (1962): 167-76; Clark, Kenneth. “Roger Fry.” Dictionary of National Biography 1931-1940: 298-301; Bell, Quentin. Roger Fry: an Inaugural Lecture. Leeds, England: Leeds University Press, 1964; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Modern Perspectives in Western Art History: An Anthology of 20th-Century Writings on the Visual Arts. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971, p. 7; Falkenheim, Jacqueline V. Roger Fry and the Beginnings of Formalist Art Criticism. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1980; Spalding, Frances. Roger Fry: Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 106 mentioned; Tomkins, Calvin. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2nd. ed. New York: Henry Holt, 1989, pp. 103-110; Ladis, Andrew. “The Unmaking of a Connoisseur.” in, Offner, Richard. A Discerning Eye: Essays on Early Italian Painting. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, p. 11; Shone, Richard, and Beechey, James, and Morphet, Richard. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Universitiy Press, 1999; Elam, Caroline. “A More and More Important Work: Roger Fry and The Burlington Magazine.” Burlington Magazine 145, no. 1200 (March 2003): 142-152; Nelson, Robert. Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 160-161; Gerzina, Gretchen. A Room of Their Own: the Bloomsbury Artists in American Collections. Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art/Cornell University Press, 2008.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Fry, Roger." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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