We woke the very-much-dead artist for a quick q&a.
Artists are rare breeds. Artists who are also engineers are even rarer breeds. Henry Lyman Saÿen was a turn-of-the-century multi-hyphenate, gaining early success designing scientific instruments, and later painting alongside Henri Matisse. Henry lived a short but full life and created colorful, abstract art that, as is common with anything innovative, wasn’t given proper credit until after his death. (We loved it so much, we turned it into jigsaw puzzles!) Of course, we wanted to know what it would be like to live inside his brain, so we went into full witch mode and held one of our signature seances to communicate with his spirit. And, not to get ahead of ourselves, but we might have a new best friend??
As an artist, you have an unlikely story. Tell us about your background.
Yes, you could say that. I grew up loving science and became a successful electrical engineer early on in my life. I designed precision instruments and electrical circuitry, and I received four patents for my inventions, my proudest being a self-regulating x-ray tube. I was also head of the first military x-ray laboratory in Georgia at the beginning of the Spanish-American War. How a person even gets into that line of work, I can’t say, but I know I was feverishly curious about how things worked.
How did you get into art?
I came down with a terrible case of typhoid fever and was discharged from the army, so I went back to designing instruments. Drawing was actually a large part of my work—I realized I really enjoyed the medium and wanted to explore what else I could do with it, so I enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was a wonderful school. I took classes with the painter Thomas Anshutz and devoted all my time to my art. Eventually, I was commissioned to paint four lunettes in the United States Capitol building. I’d say that launched my art career.
We’ll say. Who or what inspired you?
Paris! My wife and I lived there for eight years, and we had the most extraordinary time. Jeannette was a fashion journalist and I did advertising work. We spent afternoons at Le Dome Cafe talking about art and architecture, and we frequented Gertrude Stein’s Saturday night salon. What a riot! Picasso and I would often end up talking until the early morning about modern art and his escapades and the dreams we’d been having. He influenced my work in a big way. I also studied with Matisse, who taught me about color theory.
Rooftops, Paris, 1909-1912.
No big deal! Ahem… You’re credited with helping introduce modern art to Philadelphia. What was the reaction to your art at the time?
People were shocked by the bright colors and abstract style. They didn’t understand what we were doing. Of course, I did ok for myself. I was fortunate to know other artists who had the same sensibilities, and I illustrated posters for the Wanamaker’s department stores in New York for years. But I remember an assistant there telling me, “If that is the way you paint, you will never put shoes on your child’s feet.” I tried to explain to people that Modern painting was the making of reality, not the representation of it. But I suppose you had to be immersed in it to really understand it.
How do you feel when you look back on your life?
I’m proud of the life I made and happy with what I was able to accomplish in 43 years. I wished I hadn’t been so lonely at times, but I think when you’re someone who invents self-regulating x-ray tubes and also makes abstract art, it’s nearly impossible to not feel like you don’t completely belong.
Henry, are you… are you crying?
Spirits have feelings too!
Landscape, Bridge, Huntingdon Valley, 1915-1916.
Let it out, Henry. Let it out. What is your favorite place to haunt?
Sometimes I visit Huntingdon Valley, this peaceful little village in Pennsylvania. My friend Carl Newman had a summer home there, and in my later years, I spent many weekends painting the town’s beautiful fields and bridges.
How does it feel to see your work turned into a jigsaw puzzle?
It’s a pleasure to see that my work is appreciated, even more than a century after my death. The same can’t be said about my x-ray tubes, but that’s alright. Art endures.
Want to cop a Henry Lyman Saÿen puzzle for yourself? Smart choice