Androgynous artist Gluck is born
"Please return in good condition to Gluck, no prefix, suffix or quotes." That’s what Hannah Gluckstein (the artist known as Gluck) wrote on the back of publicity prints of her paintings. Her will to define herself by her own standards extended not only to her name, but also to every aspect of her life.
Born August 13, 1895 to Francesca Halle (an American opera singer), and Joseph Gluckstein (owner of the ubiquitous Lyon’s Corner House chain of tea shops, high class restaurants like the Trocadero, hotels, and catering services), Gluck was educated at the St. John’s Wood School of Art in London from 1913 to 1916. Her parents disapproved of her artistic ambitions, but nevertheless gave her a trust fund on her 21st birthday that allowed young Gluck to live a life of her own choosing. She bought a studio in Cornwall to work with landscape artists of the Newlyn School, cut her hair short, and dressed exclusively in men’s attire.
The women Gluck became close to heavily influenced her art. In 1923, she met American expatriate portrait painter Romaine Brooks, and the two painted portraits of themselves and each other. Brooks’s painting of Gluck titled Peter (a Young English Girl) was controversial for its blatant androgyny and was shown in solo exhibitions in Paris, London, and New York. When Gluck bought Bolton House in the Hampstead area of London in 1932, she entered into a relationship with society florist and decorator Constance Spry and began work on detailed paintings of flowers. The two collaborated on an exhibition of Gluck’s work at the Fine Arts Society that featured floral arrangements in each room of paintings. Spry popularized Gluck’s androgynous look into haute couture with fashion designs by her associates Victor Stribel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Gluck’s most striking work was a double portrait of her next great love, Nesta Obermer, a socialite married to an American businessman. This work celebrated what Gluck called her marriage to Nesta on May 25, 1936. Medallion pictured the two together at a performance of Don Giovanni. “They sat in the third row,” writes Gluck’s biographer, Diana Souhami, “and she felt [that] the intensity of the music fused them into one person and matched their love.”
But World War II led to disruption and depression. Bolton House was commandeered for government use, and Gluck fell into a pattern of possessive and demanding behavior with Nesta, who broke off their relationship in 1944, destroying all artifacts of their life together. She began a troubled thirty-year relationship with Edith Shackleton Heald, the first female reporter in the House of Lords. Moving into Healds’ house in Sussex, Gluck lived in often-fractious conditions with Heald and her sister Norma. Largely retired from painting, she battled the British Board of Trade to establish standards for the naming and defining of pigments, oils, and canvasses.
Gluck rallied in her old age to return to painting and organized an exhibition of fifty-two works at the Fine Arts Society in 1973, including Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light, a work that featured a decaying fish head. The exhibition was successful with critics and buyers. Gluck died at the age of eighty-two on January 10, 1978, having lived a life filled with both art and love.
Sources: “August 13: Gluck,” Jewish Currents; “Your Paintings: Hannah Gluckstein,” BBC; “Gluck,” GLBTQ; “The Painter Who Subverted Gender Norms Before It Was a Thing,” Jezebel; “Gluck: Her Biography,” Diana Souhami, Quercus, 1988.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Androgynous artist Gluck is born." (Viewed on March 2, 2015) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/13/1895/androgynous-artist-gluck-is-born>.