Today we share a delightful discovery with you: a man who worked the circuits for decades as a multi-skilled variety artist and then shifted gears in middle age to become a modernist painter of some repute. He was billed as The Great Clivette or Merton Clivette (1868-1931, born either Merton Clivettae or Merton Clive Cook).
Originally from Portage City, Wisconsin, Clivette was the son of an Oxford educated British sea captain and a literarily-inclined mother who was 40 years his junior. The father died when Clivette was five. At this stage, the boy moved with his mother and four older siblings to Wyoming Territory, where his mother published, edited, and wrote a newspaper, and his much older siblings operated a farm. Clivette grew up working on the newspaper and being educated by his mother, never attending a formal school.
When Clivette was around ten his mother became a founding member of Seventh Day Adventist sect, which drove a wedge between her and the rest of her family. At age 12, Clivette ran off to perform with circuses and wild west shows, learning a wide variety of skills. He was already a skilled horseman by virtue of his upbringing, but he also learned acrobatics (including tumbling and tight rope walking), juggling, sleight of hand magic, unicycle riding, tambourine spinning, and knife throwing. Between 1880 and 1885 he toured throughout North America with these shows. In 1886 he settled in San Francisco for a time, working for local newspapers as a reporter, theatre critic and sketch artist, a skill he had begun developing as a child back in Wyoming.
In 1891 he was booked on the prestigious Orpheum vaudeville circuit billed as “The Great Clivette” and “The Man in Black”. At its core it was a magic act, with added novelties like lightning sketches, shadowgraphy, and assorted skills from his circus days. For nearly 20 years Clivette toured American big time vaudeville and the music halls of Europe and Asia with this act. In the mid 1890s he married Catherine “Kate” Chamberlain, who was added to the act. She was billed as “The Veiled Prophetess” and performed second sight routines.
Meanwhile, Clivette’s repeated and extensive travels throughout Europe had exposed him to great art, not just revered centuries-old masterworks, but the exciting movements in modernism. Around 1910 he retired from the stage and moved to Greenwich Village to focus entirely on his own painting, which mixed elements of expressionism and the Ashcan School (basically the techniques of the former and the subject matter of the latter). He was widely written about and highly regarded in his own time, although only art historians know about him nowadays. One very interesting thing about the way that critics wrote about his work is that it was often stressed that he a was former acrobat and that background informed his brushwork, an idea that anticipates Jackson Pollock’s action painting by nearly a half century. His work was also said to be influenced by his and his wife’s interest in spiritualism and the occult. One series of his paintings will be of special interest to lovers of the variety arts: entitled “Vamps”, it’s a series of studies of burlesque dancers, chorines, and other ladies of the demimonde, a subject matter that would definitely ally him with the Ashcan artists. There is a terrific website devoted entirely to Clivette and his life’s work, including images of many of his paintings. If you’re curious (how can you not be?) check it out here.
For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,