Surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1977) lived and worked in Chicago and was a prominent member of Chicago's Hyde Park arts community.
Abercrombie was known for surrealist oil paintings featuring dreamlike landscapes and fantasies. Her wide circle of friends included locally and nationally known artists, writers, and jazz musicians who made her home a popular avant-garde salon. She was the inspiration for Richie Powell's "Gertrude's Bounce" and, appeared as a fictional character in Malcolm, Eustace Chisholm, and as herself in Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue all by James Purdy.
The only child of Tom and Lula Janes [Jane] Abercrombie, Gertrude was born in Austin, Texas in 1909, while her opera singer parents were in town with a traveling company. In 1913, the family relocated to Berlin to further Jane's career, but the outbreak of World War I forced their return to the United States. They lived with Tom Abercrombie's family in Alledo, Illinois, before permanently settling in Chicago.
Gertrude Abercrombie had a facility with language and possessed musical and artistic talents. After graduation from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with a degree in romance languages in 1929, she studied figure drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a short time. She then enrolled at the American Arcademy of Art, also in Chicago, for a year long course in commercial art. Her first job was drawing gloves for Mesirow Department Store ads, followed by a stint working as an artist for Sears.
By 1932, Gertrude Abercrombie began painting seriously. The following summer, she participated in an outdoor art fair in downtown Chicago where she made her first sale and received favorable mention in a newspaper review of the event. Abercrombie's work that featured self-portraits and recurring images of personal symbols - trees, horses, owls, keys, shells, doors, stairways, ladders - began to attract attention. Beginning in 1934, Gertrude Abercrombie was employment as a painter in the WPA Federal Art Project in 1934, enabling her to feel validated as an artist and move from the home of her conservative, Christian Scientist parents to her own apartment. The Chicago Society of Artists presented a solo exhibition of Abercrombie's work in 1934, and in 1936 she showed at the Katharine Kuh Gallery (along with Rita Stein and Nicola Ziroli). In 1936 and 1938 Gertrude Abercrombie won prizes at the Art Institute of Chicago's Annual Exhibition of Works by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity.
She left the WPA in 1940 and married lawyer Robert Livingston. Their daughter, Dinah, was born in 1942, and they soon moved to a large Victorian house on South Dorchester St. where Gertude lived for the remainder of her life. The couple divorced in 1948. That same year she married Frank Sandiford, a music critic whose pen name was Paul Warren. An accomplished improvisational pianist, Gertrude Abercrombie became friends with many prominent jazz artists whom she met through Sandiford; in fact, Dizzy Gillespie performed at their wedding. Abercrombie and Sandiford separated in 1964.
The 1940s through 1950s were Gertrude Abercrombie's most productive and prolific period. Although she no longer painted many portraits, he work remained focused on the same themes and symbols. She believed that art was about ideas rather than technique and insisted that "It is always myself that I paint." During this period, Amercrombie exhibited widely in group shows and had solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Associated American Artists (New York), and Leonard Linn, Inc. (Winnetka, Ill.)
By the late 1950s, Gertrude Abercrombie began a long decline. Alcoholism started to take a toll. She suffered serious financial reverses, and in 1964 separated from Frank Sandiford. Debilitating arthritis eventually landed her in a wheel chair, and she became reclusive. In 1977, very near the end of her life, Gertrude Abercrombie was honored with a well-received retrospective exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago. She was able to attend the reception and enjoy seeing the many old friends who were at the event.
Gertrude Abercrombie died in Chicago in 1977. Her will established The Gertrude Abercrombie Trust that cared for and distributed to various institutions her own paintings and a personal collection of works by other artists to selected institutions, mainly in the Midwest.