Arthur B. Carles was born in Philadelphia. His first teacher was probably his father, a craftsman who designed watch covers for the Keystone Watch Company and spent his free time drawing and painting. Always encouraged to be an artist, Carles entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on scholarship in 1900 and studied there for six and one-half years. His favorite teachers were William Merritt Chase and Thomas P. Anshutz.
Carles won many prizes during his stimulating years as a student, ending his career in triumph with the $400 first prize in figure painting, and a long-term $2,000 scholarship that allowed for two years of study in Europe. (Carles’s contemporaries at the Pennsylvania Academy were Charles Demuth and John Marin.
The artist spent the period between 1907 and 1910 in Paris, at that time considered the center of cultural and intellectual ferment. There he discovered modern French painting and was impressed by the work of Cezanne and Matisse. Carles became aware of the revolutionary paintings of Picasso and the brilliantly colored paintings of Braque, Gauguin and others. He met informally in cafes and studios with other artists, including fellow American Patrick Henry Bruce.
His primary circle of friends included other young American modernists whose work was exhibited in New York by Alfred Stieglitz at his “291″ gallery. Stieglitz expressed his confidence in Carles by giving him his first one-man show in 1912. A Philadelphia Inquirerreviewer wrote of Carles’s work: “he represents more ably and fully than anyone else at present working in America the spirit of the new or modern movement in art in France today.”
During this period Carles painted portraits, figure studies and landscapes, includingLandscape – Garden in France. His paintings, among the boldest in the famous Armory Show of 1913, placed him among the leading American modernists.
In 1917, Carles was hired as an Instructor of Drawing and Painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He taught there until his dismissal in 1925, a result, according to Carles biographer Barbara Wolanin, of “uninhibited behavior and flaunting of convention.” Wolanin writes, “The Academy, following a nationwide conservative trend, became more entrenched at the same time that Carles was becoming more outspoken and freer in his own work.”
Carles was endlessly experimental as he searched to find new meaning in his work and new ways of expressing himself. In his work in the early 1930s, space becomes intentionally ambiguous as forms are simplified and increasingly abstracted. By the end of his career he was well ahead of his time. Regarded as a pioneer early in the century, he became an innovator. In 1955, William Seitz wrote that Carles was “one of the least appreciated of our pioneers. . . . one of the most notable native precursors of Abstract Expressionism.”
Throughout his career Carles retained a reputation as an innovative teacher, but his work was appreciated primarily by critics and other painters. He was plagued by alcoholism, loneliness, and frustration at not being understood by the public. Ultimately, his drinking resulted in a fall in late 1941 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair and unable to paint at age fifty-nine. In 1946 he was admitted to a nursing home where he died in relative obscurity in 1952.