Alder's Accounts

Remembering Alvin Gittins

by Elizabeth A. Peterson

This month’s Alder’s Accounts column is being guest-written by my friend, former University of Utah Department of Art and Art History chair, and my thesis chair, Professor Elizabeth Peterson. I had planned to write about Alvin Gittins, Utah’s foremost figurative artist, until learned Elizabeth was writing a catalog and book about him. I asked if she would consent to share some of her knowledge in the November column. The scholarliness of her writing puts me to shame but I figured that you deserved some professionalism occasionally. My column will reappear next month, so in the mean time, please enjoy Professor Peterson’s Gittins treatise and images.

Nearly three decades have gone by without the presence of Alvin Gittins, painter extraordinaire. For those who knew him, the name alone sparks vivid memories of his personality alongside his best works. Recent interviews with his former students and colleagues testify to the profound effect he had on them. Some individuals who modeled for him can remember clearly the circumstances of the painting or drawing. All agree, moreover, that he was a prolific artist who could easily capture the essential nature of his sitters. The rumor that a book is being written on the life and art of Alvin Gittins is completely true and the writer invites your help as described at the end of this essay.

As a professor of life drawing and figure painting from 1948 until his death in 1981 in the U of U’s Art Department, Gittins flourished as a painter and educator. His specialties in portraiture and figure studies were complemented by a body of still-lifes and, at the end of his career, landscapes. All told, more than 600 works tell the story of a man committed to his art form. It is not surprising to find so many of his paintings and drawings in Utah public buildings and in museums in Utah, California and elsewhere. No less remarkable are the many works now in private collections, a bit more challenging to locate.

“Alvin Gittins, Realist,” the well-known 1976 film by Claudia Sisemore, reveals the principles favored by Gittins. There, he speaks of the high north light coming in at 45 degrees that is crucial to the illumination of the subject. He often used the word “gestalt” to capture the ideas of likeness, gesture, and personality as core features of great portraits. He insisted that no tube of paint labeled “flesh” should ever be used, and he sometimes held a colored card under a model’s chin to show how skin color reflected the colors of adjacent forms. Early in his career, Gittins taught art appreciation and art historical surveys where he could include discussions about the so-called “Old Masters” from whom he developed his own techniques in draftsmanship, palette, light and shade, and composition.

Professor Gittins’ former students even now have no trouble recalling his favorite phrases delivered authoritatively in his British accent. “What is the total effect?” “Work from the general to the particular.” “Maximize the maximal and minimize the minimal.” “Always overstate the gesture.” “Observe the idiosyncratic differences among people.” “Explicate and explain; don’t just mindlessly copy and imitate the form.” They also recount their memories of his immaculate dress, whether he was working or not, and of their own trepidation that they would be the one to get paint on him.

Barry Lynn, a professional dancer who modeled for Alvin Gittins for more than twenty years, fondly remembers Gittins’s dry wit and sense of humor that could help him get through the sometimes grueling modeling sessions in and out of the classroom. Barry had the ability of many in his profession to flex a particular muscle on command for a student to draw the underlying bone structure beneath the skin. Other models recall how Gittins selected them for some fascinating feature he wanted his students to draw.

Alvin Gittins’ dedication to the education of his students is easily discovered in the extraordinary opportunities he arranged to enhance the basic curriculum. He co-authored the syllabus for humanities long before the notion of cross-disciplinary study was popularized in academic learning. Students who were selected for his study abroad quarters in Europe and Mexico valued their experiences. Gittins was frequently invited to participate in public dialogues on KUED and KSL that he carried off with his usual eloquent flair.

Portraiture was a cornerstone of his artistic career. His early work as an illustrator and portrait artist got him through the “war years” of WW II, and Gittins gratefully accepted a scholarship to BYU at the end of his mission in London. Even the most cursory glance at his portraits across forty years shows improvements in his technique and changes in his style. While he has been, occasion, dismissed as out of touch in the wake of the modernist movement, Alvin Gittins was not averse to experimentation; he certainly valued modernists he brought in as visiting artists or invited for the international invitational exhibitions he curated. His perspective on his own discipline merits a more thoughtful discussion.

This writer is looking for further information in several areas to supplement the archive repository at the U. The most problematic areas of research include his exhibition history, artworks in private collections, and his gallery representation. Do you own a student figure study, a drawing or a painting or any high-resolution digital images, especially from his exhibitions, you would be willing to share? Did you keep any of his letters or other documents that help illuminate more of his life and career? Are there any models, who might be willing to contribute their recollections? Which stories do you think provide the essential nature of Alvin Gittins?

If you have any information that can help with this project contact Elizabeth Peterson at You can view more unidentified works by Gittins at this research site.



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