Gertrude Abercrombie: Bohemian Queen

Gertrude Abercrombie (1909 - 1977) was the only child of two opera singers who happened to be on tour in Texas the day she was born. While they continued to relocate throughout her early childhood, the family eventually settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago where Abercrombie lived for the remainder of her life. While Abercrombie had formal art training from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art, her style was significantly influenced by her time spent outside of the classroom.  During her tenure in the advertisement industry, Abercrombie developed a distinct style that was all her own, drawing much inspiration from the dynamic Chicago jazz scene. 


Abercrombie’s work is typically associated with that of the Surrealist movement; it is easy to see that influence in the stark, barren landscapes she often painted. The few items she did choose to include in her landscapes and still life paintings were deliberate and meaningful. Art Historian Susan Weininger notes, “The oft-repeated moon, cats, barren tree, owls, Victorian furniture, white stoneware, and carnations, all take on the power of personal emblems in her work and testify to her presence even in the absence of a figure.”

When there was a prominent figure in one of Abercrombie’s paintings, it was often a self portrait. In an interview with Studs Terkel, Abercrombie said "it is always myself that I paint." Many of those emblems and themes are present in these Abercrombie paintings, recently treated by The Center’s conservators. 

Titled A Terrible Strange Tree, this painting was brought to The Center for treatment and had small areas of previous repaint present. The painting was surface cleaned and the varnish was removed before the areas of repaint were removed. The painting was then re-varnished to provide a barrier for the inpainting that was then carried out. This was done only in the small areas of loss where the repaint was removed with conservation paints. 

When The Pump arrived at The Center, there were small areas of previous repaint, and fine mechanical cracks throughout the surface. The painting was cleaned and the varnish removed before the canvas was removed from the stretcher in order to secure the cracks with conservation adhesives. The canvas was then re-stretched back onto the original stretcher, the surface re-varnished, and the small areas of loss were discretely inpainted with conservation paints.  

The Bride was only in need of a light surface clean and reapplication of varnish when it arrived at The Center. The frame, however, was in need of further treatment; the corners had separated over the years, and needed to be secured before the painting could be safely reinstalled post-treatment.

Self Portrait was treated for small areas of paint loss and active flaking, which is visible in the figure’s left arm in this pre-treatment image. During treatment, the paint layer was stabilized with conservation adhesives and the loss areas were filled with a conservation-grade fill material. The fill areas were then expertly inpainted with conservation paints. 


Weininger, Susan. “Gertrude Abercrombie” Modernism in the New City <>

Weininger, Susan and Kent J. Smith. Gertrude Abercrombie. Illinois State Museum, 1991.