The long life of George Biddle (1885-1973) blended high privilege and poverty, politics and art. He took a law degree from Harvard and then beachcombed in Tahiti (as had Paul Gauguin). He was equally at ease with presidents and peasants; George Biddle got around.
"One's art, as one's life," he wrote, "should be influenced by every fact with which one comes in contact." He practiced what he preached. The display of his prints, now on exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is in a sense a diary of his life.
He was a Philadelphia Biddle, whose classmates at the Groton School included F.D.R., and yet he loved the Third World. He went to Mexico and Cuba, India, Southeast Asia, and he filled his pictures with affectionate portrayals of the Third World's poor.
Among his friends he numbered Santayana, the philospher, and Frankie, a black doorman, formerly a slave. Both posed for Biddle portraits. The artist hated fascists. The Spanish war outraged him, and he portrayed Hitler as a rat.
"I am interested," he wrote, "in the human document." He had a dozen different styles. His prints, at first, were wholly academic; he later drew cartoons. Modernism moved him, as did Russia's revolution, but he would not take the party line. He abhorred abstract art.
No matter what his medium, style or subject -- he drew working men and chickens, bulls, pigs and lap dogs, nudes and shrouded corpsed -- Biddle was a humanist with a constant heart.
The controversies of his time, esthetic and political, move across his show like breeze-blown ripples on a pool; French impressionism, German academicism, American regionalism -- heroes of the left, the Scottsboro Boys, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the labor leader Thomas J. Mooney.
In 1933 he proposed to F.D.R. that the government add murals by poor artists to the walls of public building, giving impetus to the WPA. In 1950 he was named by President Harry Truman to the Commission of Fine Arts, a traditionally conservatice federal review board. In 1951 he accepted a professorship at the equally conservative American Academy in Rome.
Biddle could be both sensitive and dull, advanced and retrogressive. A portrait of his wife, Helene, done in 1946, is a work of easy elegance, while his "Birds in Paradise" of 1956 appears to be, in contrast, a piece of '50s tripe. His art is sometimes full of fun (see his "Dancing Elephants"), and at other times shadow-filled and somber, Biddle got around.
In lithography George Biddle was a masterful technician, and the varied prints he left us are mirrors of their time. The Corcoran's Martha Pennigar has worked for the past two years, on a complete catalogue of the artist's prints. She organized the current show of more than 200 images, which will remain on view here through Dec. 2.