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Biography | Chicago Tribune | In Memory
From the Chicago Tribune Sunday July 20, 1986

Capturing the elusive essence of water, making it come alive on canvas, is what makes a marine artist sink or swim. His gift for painting the infinite moods of water, from furious seas to serene winter streams, is what makes Charles Vickery of La Grange, Illinois one of the best living painters of seascapes.

Down to the Sea on Canvas

"When they see his paintings people love them, because of their water, and they say, 'That's real water.' I think you can count on your fingers the artists who can do water," says Bert Jacobs, also of LaGrange.

Vickery says humbly, "You feel the responsibility of putting it down on canvas because nobody is doing it."

It is when he is pressed into talking about it that he loses himself and ends up speaking a personal poetry about his endless pursuit to portray his favorite subject accurately.

"All the colors of the water come from the sky," he says, "because ever color of the sky is reflected in that water. And the sky has all the colors of the rainbow in it. There is a complete range of color night to day.

"On the calm days, a body of water pretty much takes on the color of the sky. But there are the inevitable shifting color values even on a calm day.

"Sometimes light goes beyond the range of pigment. Then you become thankful for what you've got. You work within the limits, you get more excitement."

There's a difference between "wind-blown water and inert water. Wind-blown water has the dusty foam crests. That's beautiful. It gets going wild, seems to reject the color of the sky. Night adds beauty to the waves. Then the sky starts re-entering the ocean. And then the wind turning a wave can change the color. A cat's paw, any gust of wind that pushes across the surface, can darken it just where the wind passes, then dies down.

"Movement is the thing. I know the wind can create sudden drama, in as much time as it takes to blink your eyes.

"The rougher the water gets, the more independent of the sky it becomes. Then it gets it's own color, but it is still receptive to certain parts of the sky."

Vickery mentions differences between salt water and fresh: "Some of the action, the distance between the waves. Also their foam action. The bubbles that maintain themselves down the side of the waves.

"The seventh wave is usually the largest, both on the ocean and on the lake," referring to Lake Michigan.

"I thought he was bunking me," interjects Jacobs. "I went to the east coast with him and watched that for hours. The seventh wave is the time to jump back!"

The sea commands more respect, Vickery says. "The artist has to watch, stepping along the coast, the variability of the tides and certain rogue waves that come up from nowhere and wash you off the rocks. You have to be careful."

In the sea, there's "eternal depth. Gad, the spookiness of it," says Vickery who likes to paint the "interplay of plain nature without the touch of man in it," whether it's sea or lake.

"I like to do water and rocks and no ships sometimes. It all depends. The laws of push and recoil--they're absolutely perfect and reliable. All the old truths and values repeated, but every time you go down, [to the sea], there are new nuances."

Putting a ship in the scene provides other dangerous artistic depths for the marine painter to navigate.

"The real test of marine painting is to make the boat and water live together," says Jacobs.

"It's almost as though it is growing out of the water as an integral part of it. Ninety percent of lesser artists can't do it. It's as if they put a toy in the water."

Vickery "always speaks of the mood, the atmosphere, all the elements," continues Jacobs, "He can bring them all together as one, to bring about the ship in motion."


Ironically, this sensitivity and talent comes in a man who has been a landlocked Midwesterner for most of his 74 years.

Vickery was born in Hinsdale Illinois, but as a youngster lived at White Bear Lake, north of St.Paul, Minnesota. "It was at the magic time of 7 to 10 years old."

"I became interested in seascapes right out of high school, I would haunt the galleries, marvel at the success of the pros--Frederick Waugh, an American from Nantucket; Montague Dawson, a terrific English painter. I'd study their techniques and colors."

In the early 20s he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and the American Academy of Art in Chicago.

"Some of the mechanics seemed kind of useless. You've got to figure things out for yourself. You get rebellious," he says' "I figured I'd better go out and see that stuff, real life."

"I went down to the Indiana dunes. Lake Michigan was a big source of instruction. Sea anatomy and light effects were learned from the lake. Then I want out to the East Coast and learned the same laws are in effect in the Atlantic."

In his early 50s, he says, "I went out on a freighter trip in the winter. I got as far as Turkey. I got a lot of wild, stormy effects of the ocean."

Vickery was not always sure, however, in what direction the compass of fate was pointing. "I floundered. There were years of indecision for me. I punched a time clock in a factory, I was a surveyor's assistant," he says.

"I think I was 24 when I opened my first cheap art studio." That was in Western Springs, Illinois where he sold paintings for $5 each. "I committed some esthetic crimes there. Those early days I did landscapes and portraits. Some experiments. There was always the stability of the great ones in the galleries urging me on."

After that, " I got kind of restless. I went out and did church murals for religious outfits in Iowa in the 40s and 50s. On scaffolds, in sanctuary ceilings, way up there. I painted directly on the walls, some religious, some decorative. In Waterloo, Iowa, I painted a portrait of God."

This didn't impress the monsignor, so Vickery painted God out and replaced him with "some doves and other symbols. That was all adventurous stuff mixed with irreverence."

Suddenly new winds came up. "I had put a painting of Lake Michigan surf in a Chicago gallery [Chicago Galleries Association, 33 N. Michigan Ave.]. Then Eleanor Jewett, a local art critic saw it, and wrote: 'Here's a bright Winslow Homer coming up.' I got so happy I dropped the church work and came back here. That was about '51 or '52," says Vickery.

"I got connected up with W. Russell Button, a prominent gallery on Michigan Avenue. They handled Dawson. I tried to measure up to their standards and it worked out great for 10 years. They were hard to satisfy and that pleased me because it stirred talent."


Over the years, Vickery has won many prizes at international marine art shows, including those at Philadelphia and Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts, and a prestigious one awarded annually at Mystic, Connecticut, sponsored by the American Society of Marine Artists.

There are only 50 members in this organization, says Jacobs, and it's "pretty difficult to get in."

Worthy marine artists are scarce. "You can count them on the fingers of one hand," Jacobs says. He's had classes all his life and there's only one student that he's ever turned out that he's satisfied with the way he does water. And they've all tried."

In the 19th Century, "There were a number, but they were stiff. There wasn't a sense of water. They'd taken a boat and stuck it on the water. The waves are up and down. I don't know what caused the beginning of reality. Winslow Homer began breaking the tyranny of the brown gravy school. It was all stiff, one color, no depth to it.

"There has to be a sense of life to it. You have to greet the sea with love, and it will give it back to you."

Vickery's paintings hang all over the world, from the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC., to the Union League Club, a private business club here as well as in many law offices and private collections.

Vickery is also a local folk hero in the western suburbs, and when he did a series of three historic maritime scenes for the Christmas issue covers of the Sun Newspaper in LaGrange, the issues sold out.

In 1968, fresh from a trip to the Oregon Coast, Vickery painted several landscapes that became bestselling prints: "Sun and Surf," "Sea Witch," and "Ocean Drama."

"All have sold out," says Jacobs, Those that are around have "gone up 10 times in price." Frost & Reed, top print makers in London, England, printed the set and they were best sellers there.

Rouse Simmons
The series shows the progress of the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted ship known as the "Christmas Tree Schooner" that came down from Lake Superior carrying evergreen trees, docking on the Chicago River. "Even in the 1920s the boats were still coming." says Jacobs.

Peace before the Storm
In his colorfully cluttered studio, notes hang on the wall from a friend who signs himself "The Captain." They are addressed to Vickery as the "Ship's Dauber" and filled with "humorous rebukes and salty language," as the artist, who has a gently mischievous sense of humor, says. One painting shown here is called "Peace before the Storm," the ship Victory that Adm. Horatio Nelson sailed in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The Storm of Battle
Currently Vickery is working on "The Storm of Battle," showing the same ship in the heat of the fight, commissioned by the Herbert A. Stades of Oak Brook, Illinois. A family ancestor was a midshipman with Lord Nelson in the victory at Trafalgar.

Vickery works from the models of tall ships and reference paintings. "I don't have a camera," he says. "There's more truth in the way the eye was designed to do things than the camera is. [The latter] takes the air out of shadows. It shows edges that the eye doesn't see. It can mislead the artisan. Many beginning painters start to lean too heavily on the camera and it ruins their work."
Jesus Walking on the Sea
Despite his talent as a marine artist, Jacobs says Vickery may ultimately be best remembered for two religious pictures: "Jesus Walking on the Sea" and "No Greater Love,"  a painting of an empty crucifix in the rain.

No Greater Love
Vickery had a twin sister, Florence, who painted wild birds and who died of cancer in December, 1973. Vickery painted "Jesus Walking on the Sea" in her memory and gave it in 1974 as a gift to the ministry of a LaGrange nursing home.

Vickery, however, makes no distinction between his marine and religious art: " It is all pure gratitude for today of love and beauty;   the renewal that beauty gives a person."

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