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George T. Conroy was born in 1870, and married his wife Anna Brennan in 1906; she was 18 years her senior. From 1905-1919 he served with the New York Police Department, eventually rising to the level of detective. In the summer of 1914, while vacationing in Woodstock, NY, he discovered the art colony there. Soon, he took an interest in painting, and without any formal training, bought art supplies and began to paint. His natural talent soon emerged, and he soon began to sell paintings through dealers in New York. By 1919, his confidence in his own work had grown to the point that he quit the police department, and took up painting full time. He continued working as an artist until his death in 1944.
He exhibited in the Salmagundi Club, the Art Students’ League, and the National Academy, among others. Several interesting newspaper articles detail his rapid success, which gained much attention at the time; the text of one is below.
From: The Post-Standard, Syracuse, N.Y. Sunday Morning, November 14, 1920
GEORGE CONROY RISES RAPIDLY TO TOP RANKS
Sold First Picture Six Years Ago for $2.50—Now Gets $250
STUDIED ONLY A YEAR
Remarkable Talent Developed After Chance Visit to Artists’ Colony
Special to the Post-Standard
New York, Nov. 13 – Presumably when the ordinary person who lived in Da Vinci’s time first heard that genius spoken of as a wonderful painter, a great engineer, a marvelous mathematician, he came back with what corresponded in Italian to “Hoot! Hoot!” Since the world began this is the revenge mediocrity takes of genius.
A slap of this kind to one’s complacency kept up the spirits of a reporter of The New York Herald during a long and somewhat dreary ride from Brooklyn Bridge to Gravesend Avenue, in Brooklyn, undertaken for the purpose of looking at pictures painted by a retired police officer, a cop whose work with a brush had been described by persons unknown as “phenomenal.”
The reporter knew better. His preconceived judgment was more than confirmed by the neighborhood in which George T. Conroy lives. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” quoted the contemptuous Jews 20 centuries ago.
Lives in Tenement.
The query and the doubt renewed themselves as the investigator stepped off the train at Ditmas Avenue. The house he was looking for turned out to be a tenement of the kind that has nothing to recommend it—one where you pant up to the top of long flights only to hear that the person you are looking for lives nearer the ground. And it was into a dark entry that the reporter was finally admitted by a small girl whom he could not see, but whose voice he heard sayin: “A man from New York to see you, Papa.”
“Come in, come in,” cried a hearty voice, and the door was thrown open, admitting to an improvised studio filled with canvasses and frames and paintings, and also with a dazzling light from two north windows. In the middle of this crowded studio stood the painter’s easel, on it an exquisite picture, as pure and dazzling as the very light itself. The painting caught and held the eye even before the visitor had glanced at the painter. It was like an unexpected climax.
Vanquished instantly was the appreciation of finding in this environment examples of feeble drawing and poor color; vanquished, too, was the other sensibility, that of encountering strange effects of color, caught as they sometimes are by amateurs, more by accident than by design. No, the painting on the easel and the paintings on the walls wereworks of genuine art, exceptional in drawing and lovely in tone.
They were paintings that even a connoisseur would say had been done by a man who had labored for years to paint lucidly, who had painfully selected and eliminated in a sublime effort to compel his pictures to give forth light.
“But you are a real artist” cried the visitor, surprised to rudeness. Conroy laughed. He’s a human being and appreciated the spontaneous compliment. He did not mind clearing away the incredulity that lingered by telling in a straightforward fashion how he became a painter.
Result of Six Years’ Work
It is a result of less than six years’ work, but he is an arrived artist, recognized by fellow artists—he has just been elected a member of the Salmagundi Club, and sold by recognized dealers. Conroy, who is a big, cheerful Irish boy, in spite of his 44 years, exulted in both these triumphs. “I’m going up to the dinner at the Salmagundi to meet the artists whose very names I don’t know very well, for the first time. I’m after wondering what they’ll think of the wild Irishman who had broke in. Ah, but I feel sure they’re a lot of fine fellows.
“And as for the dealers, I tell ye, my boy, they’re after me, they want me, and don’t I know they’d be chasing me with a club if my pictures didn’t sell? I don’t want to be boastin’ myself, but it’s some change for a cop to be sittin’ here at home paintin’ away, and few are the weeks that I don’t make a tidy sum from my pictures like $150. That’s a step up, if you have heard what a cop gets a week.”
Never Held Brush
By his own account, this man had lived to be 35 years old before he know what art was. He had never studied pictures, even in shop windows, and colored supplements of the daily papers represented his art standard, even if he had one. He had never held a brush or knew the shape of a palette.
For 14 years he was in the police department, a patrolman in Brooklyn for four years and the advanced to the detective bureau at headquarters, where he served the balance of this time.
“I was content so far as I knew myself and had no longings for higher things, as you put it. Art, painting, was as far away from me as if I had been born blind. If you’d told me in 1914 that I’d be makin’ pictures and sellin’ `em in 1916, I’d `a’ laughed loud at you. I was pretty fair cop, that’s all.”
But his visitor could not accept this rough and ready denial of any sensation of original genius, so he asked Conroy if in his family history there had been artists. His father, perhaps? “He, the honest man!” exclaimed Conroy with a huge laugh. “My father was an Irish longshoreman. That’s your answer.”
Chance takes a hand.
Life went on smoothly enough in the detective bureau and then chance—that foolish persons don’t believe in—took a hand in the game and dealt out to George T. Conroy a new set of cards. He went with his wife and child to spend his vacation in Woodstock.
“There’s an artist colony up there summers and I got acquainted with some of the men, like Harry Rosen and John Etheridge. It was just a rare acquaintance. I used to stop `em and ask to look at the sketches they had made outdoors. I never knew any of them well enough to ask to be allowed to see them at work. It’s a fact, too, that up to this minute I never saw anybody paint. I don’t know how artists use their tools. How I use mine I’ve taught myself.
“You’ll be thinking I stared at the pictures and wondered. It’s the way most of us ignorant folk do. But somehow I didn’t. I said to myself ‘Mebbe it’s good, but somehow it ain’t the way I see it,’ and then I took a notion to try and paint it the way I saw. On coming back home, off I got to a paint dealer and buy the palette and paints and brushes. Then I’m off.”
“My first picture—I’ll show it to you—was awful. Of course it was a big canvas, had to be. The only promising thing in my start was that I didn’t sit down to copy a picture, but I arranged my own. It was a still life. A big old green bowl and an old copper kettle.”
Conroy showed the picture: It hangs over the piano in the parlor, and it is truly awful. The green of the bowl, which is a flat surface, was truly green, and nothing less; the blacks were black, and the whites were white. That the man who painted this abomination could lift himself out of his ignorance and teach his hand to paint the vast, but poetic, gradations of color of his canvasses today must remain a marvel.
“How do I put the paint on now? With a brush, with the knife, with my thumb, any way that I can keep what I want there and what I see. Now that I’m free, I wander all round Long Island and quickly find my subjects. Just now they’re autumn effects, and I admit I love to paint the soft haze that makes even a common scene poetry.
Do I paint my sketches directly from nature? Seldom. It’s hard for me; I get my values wrong. I prefer to sketch with a pencil and a knife, and in my own opinion I bring back things truer that way. “My skies,” (these are peculiarly pellucid) they’re always there out of my window for me to look at.”
Conroy stood up and went to the window. A small parallelogram of sky was all that could be seen over the extremely common backyard. But it was enough for Conroy. He pointed to a maple tree shedding its yellow leaves. “That’s in my new picture,” said he, “the shimmer is. And it has been in a couple of dozen pictures that I’ve painted since spring. I don’t have to go far, yo see, for my models.” Except for a winter’s study of the figure in that particular class at the Art Students’ League, Conroy has had no instruction. He doesn’t want it, and apparently doesn’t need it. As he explained his feeling in the matter of art education, it is this:
Develops Own Technique.
“I developed my own technique and it is mine. I don’t want it to be influenced by the work of others, no matter how much better they paint. I’m after light, light, light! And it seems to me there is no better way to get it than out of the sky. A man who saw me painting out of doors last August watched for so long he made me restless. Finally I asked him what he wanted. Says he: ‘I’m just trying to figure out where your foreground is: I can’t see it.’ Now the fact is that I paint my foreground early, for I want earth in it that a man can put his foot on, solid ground. That I don’t find it right under my nose, but 50 feet and farther in front of me. No wonder that fellow got puzzled.”
It did not take long to exhaust the sources of his self-made artist’s academic knowledge. Names, celebrated in the annals of painting and the a, b, c of art may be known to him by hearsay, or may not, as it happens. “I’ve sure been lucky from the start,” said Conroy. “No hardship is mine! Before I had been painting long the pictures began to sell, and why should I worry now? I expect they’ll keep on selling, and perhaps the price will grow bigger. My first sale brought in $2.50, and the dealer who bought it sold if in a week’s time for $28. Since it has been sold three times, and the last it brought $200. A little bit of canvas it was, too. Now for canvasses by the inches I get prices ranging from $35 to 125, for larger pictures I get from $150 to $250.
“Here for none than the hope of getting in, I sent in a picture to the latest exhibition of the National Academy. They took it, yes they did, hug it in a good place, and it was the first picture sold in that season; brought me $125. But there, I don’t want to talk of prices, of myself, or art anymore, for it sounds as if I was boasting myself.”