William Sanger, American Modernist

By Alexandra C. Anderson

“William Sanger is an artist, not a scientist. He is a revolutionary, not a reformer. He thinks in large dimensions; his forte of expression is pen, pencil and brush…. I have never known William Sanger to express any approval of anything anti-social; I have never found him tolerant of evil, of oppression, of injustice, of bitterness, or of unbrotherly struggle. But I have always found in him a ready sympathy and understanding of misery, unhappiness and poverty. He is such a man as children love, and tyrants hate.”


 James Waldo Fawcett (1893-1968, journalist, editor, publicist) 1917


William Sanger, who was a leading social radical of his era, was at heart a romantic artist. Yet a more touching, personal double irony brackets Sanger’s artistic career. If not for his relationship with Margaret Sanger, William might have remained an adjunct figure in the world of early 20th century modern art. On the other hand, Sanger’s relationship with Margaret’s contemporary and then abiding fame as a social reformer and Planned Parenthood founder may well have served as a brake on his artistic success during his lifetime. Today he is still the lesser-known Sanger in the family. His work is widely dispersed and rarely seen. Some of his art does remain in family hands. Yet most of the paintings, prints and watercolors he so resolutely created are lost. A few paintings remain sequestered at the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Hispanic Society of America. His one large public commission, a mural for the Brooklyn Industrial School for Girls, done when he was a WPA artist during the Depression, was later painted over with another mural.

But with the current exhibition at the Tides Institute, the day has come to re-examine William Sanger’s artistic achievements and struggles in their own right. It’s high time to rescue him from his disproportionately one-dimensional role as a supporting figure in the life and legend of his famous, even notorious, first wife.

Sanger went to jail in 1915 in Margaret’s stead to defend the dissemination of birth control information. He went to Europe and to Maine to paint.

His preferred medium was watercolor. While his political actions championed the rights of the underprivileged and downtrodden, landscape, architecture, and seascapes provided the subject matter for the majority of his art. Intermittently he depicted figures and architectural scenes, pictured workers and illustrated political themes. (At the end of his life he was working on illustrations for a book on Thomas Paine). Nevertheless, the subject matter most consistently captivating him was nature; predominantly tumultuous scenes of sea, sky, and shore. Painting and drawing these could, for him, express the aspirational qualities of the human spirit. In America he favored the North Atlantic’s coasts, harbors, and seascapes. Though he worked at some point in Cape Cod, Maine was the magnet. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Sanger frequently travelled there, painting and sketching al fresco in and around Eastport, as well as expressionistically depicting Grand Manan Island’s rocky cliffs and the agitated waves fueled by the Bay of Fundy’s fierce tides. Family members also say he spent time painting during the summer months on Monhegan. The Tides Institute & Museum exhibition now brings together a significant sampling of a dozen of these now rare Maine-created watercolors.

Sanger’s professional education was eclectic and impressive for a first-generation immigrant. In 1878 he had arrived in New York City from Berlin when he was five. Trained primarily as an architect, from 1893 to 1895 he studied at Manhattan’s Cooper Union and also took classes in architecture and in painting at the Artists and Artisans’ Institute and the Atelier Masquery. (The Atelier was located within the Artists & Artisans Institute on 23rd Street in Manhattan. It was an educational collective where artists and artisans taught painting, sculpture, architecture, illustration and printmaking techniques). Prominent French architect Emmanuel L. Masquery (1861-1917) was probably Sanger’s teacher and an important contact. Masquery had worked for Beaux-Arts architects Carriere and Hastings, later for Richard Morris Hunt and then for Warren & Wetmore. In addition he was Chief of Design for the 1901 St Louis World’s Fair and was a founder of the City Beautiful movement). Sanger also studied painting at the Society Beaux Arts, and the Art Students League. Among his teachers were R.F. Blum, who had trained with famed German painter Frank Duveneck (who at the League had also instructed John Marin) and Hugo Ballin. (Later in Hollywood he became one of the foremost muralists in the Los Angeles area. First employed in set design for silent pictures, after the advent of talkies Ballin created murals still extant at Griffith Observatory, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and Burbank City Hall).

Probably making professional contacts through Masquery, Sanger worked initially as a contract draftsman for the fashionable Manhattan-based firm of McKim, Mead and White, where he helped in designing Pennsylvania Station, built in 1910. He additionally had designed two tenements on 213th Street (NY Times 11 Nov 1906 p. 18). In 1907 and 1913 he designed bronze drinking fountains for “man and beast” for the ASPCA in New York. They were erected at multiple locations around the city. Still, William needed more work. By late 1910 The Sangers had moved back to Greenwich Village from the suburbs. During the ensuing years when money was running out, though his commitment to painting had subdued his interest in architecture, he sporadically took various architectural jobs; he also worked as an artisan in stained glass. In 1920, artist Murray Percival Bewley (1884-1964) hired Sanger to renovate the house the successful Society portrait painter owned at 114 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. The architect transformed the prim Federal residence into to fantastic artists’ studios, and created an eclectic façade the Architectural League now classifies as “French Art Nouveau.” Today 114 Waverley Place is Sanger’s only surviving architectural Manhattan commission.

As architecture had paled, a definitive turning point in Sanger’s struggles as a painter was the arrival of the Armory Show. He went to see the installation of over 1,300 mainly radical Cubist and Fauvist works in February 1913 soon after groundbreaking exhibition had opened. He returned multiple times, studying the paintings of Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp and other artists working in Paris. Smitten by European modernism, In Gallery G of the exhibition, he made a momentous decision — to abandon architecture and take his family to Paris where he would paint. The Sangers, children in tow, got there in October 1913. William rented a studio on the Impasse de Maine in Montparnasse next to sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), formerly Rodin’s assistant, who had just exhibited in The Armory Show. Paris also was teeming with other American artists. During the months he was there Sanger very possibly would have rubbed shoulders with such temporary American expatriates as John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Charles Demuth.

Margaret and the children soon returned to New York less than three months after they had arrived. William stayed on, becoming became close friends with Modigliani, who would take over Sanger’s studio when the American left Paris at the outbreak of WWI at the end of 1914. Sanger unsuccessfully submitted paintings to the Salon d’Automne as well as preparing pictures for submission to the Salon des Artistes Français. It did not take him long to get acquainted with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. They almost immediately found William interesting and invited him several times to their influential salon on the rue des Fleuris. In January 1914 he wrote to Margaret that:

“I went on to call on Gertrude Stein – last Saturday. She is quite interesting – has a decided Hebrew cast – a well-modeled face – rather masculine, Byron like – high forehead – somewhat short and decidedly stout. Asked her if she intended to go to America, replied that she had been thinking of it for the past ten years but now sort of gave it up. Her place is filled with Post-Impressionist pictures from Cezanne.


Told about Mabel Dodge and Jack Reed being here last summer – says that the “Masses” was rather the same reading always rather monotonous. Jack Reed better get busy and make it more interesting and exciting for Gertrude – she is very witty and is liable to baffle you by her little turns side stepping. Might call on her again.”


Though they were not divorced until 1921 (ending their 19 year marriage), Margaret had left Paris intent on a final separation. Back in the United States, she launched an anarchist newspaper, The Woman Rebel. In it she called for legalization of what she called ‘birth control’. The US Government indicted her in August 1914 on multiple counts of obscenity, indecency, incitement to riot and incitement to assassination. (She fled the country in October 1914 rather than stand trial, compelling William to leave Paris).

On his return to New York William resumed practicing architecture and took custody of the children. In May 1917 with World War I raging, somewhat inexplicably, for almost a year he travelled to Spain (which had remained neutral in the war), to study works by El Greco, whose influence at the time was widespread among certain of the fledgling American Modernists. Greatly admired was the late 16thth century Spanish master’s non-naturalistic, Neo-Platonic highly expressionist style. Until April 1918, Sanger wandered through northwestern Spain, painting watercolors of the Gates of Glory at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Archer M. Huntington subsequently purchased these for his new Hispanic Society of America in Upper Manhattan, as well as buying Sanger’s large oil of the village of Vigo, in 1920. The Hispanic Society still owns these works.

In fact Sanger’s work did not go unexhibited in 1919, the Touchstone Gallery in Manhattan held a one-man show of his Spanish paintings. Press coverage was impressive. The November 9, 1919 issue of The New York Call featured the exhibition and the Spanish paintings were the subject of a laudatory article in The American Magazine of Art in June 1921, which commented that:

“He has painted the grim lands and gray architecture of old Spain in the same fluent mood that he brought to the presentment of the storm-shifting sands of Cape Cod, Mass. He is free and modern in spirit without being aggressively modernist in method. His paintings evidence that he has fallen under the same spell which that ancient country cast over El Greco, Goya and Zuloaga.”

Sanger’s most important artistic influences were distinctly modernist in character. Primed by his bohemian leanings and his radical political beliefs, he was a product of the cultural moment when the radical visual innovations of the Cubists and Fauve artists were undermining visual art’s comfortable bourgeois realism and strict academic traditions. While he had conducted a brief romance with El Greco and the harsh landscapes and picturesque people and architecture of Spain, his stylistic inclinations lay with Americans Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin (1870-1952), who loved Maine enough to maintain a studio in Addison, on Cape Split from 1920 until he died. Marin was the modernist master of watercolor throughout his career.

Before the Armory Show, watercolor was in fact a conduit for the dissemination of early 20th century modernism, since, as art historian Barbara Rose has pointed out, it was the primary vehicle, initially introducing many American artists to the works of the great modernists such as Matisse and Kandinsky.

It is no accident that Sanger’s most compelling works are his watercolors, which combine high-energy brushwork with lyrical, semi-abstract compositions. As late as the 1960s, critics hailed Marin as one of America’s greatest early modernist painters, though his fame has subsequently faded. It is my opinion that Marin’s masterly watercolors, with their rhythmic brushstrokes, broken Fauvist contour, fluid painterly style. and feathery transparent washes of muted or exuberant color were an essential influence on William Sanger. It is possible that he was also looking hard at Charles Burchfield’s work. Sanger’s watercolors exude an almost frenetic feeling, conveyed by windswept trees, crashing waves, and the billowing sails on his ships. His palette favors aquamarine, deep blues, shape whites and russet earth tones. His brushstrokes pulsate with energy but it is the more lyrical energy of Marin rather than the colder, spikier variety that Burchfield’s work conveys.

Between the wars Sanger’s art was frequently included as part of group shows such as those organized by the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was a member). His efforts showed up in these unjuried shows on five occasions between 1917 and 1930. His painting from Spain, “Two Women of Vigo,” was included in the Society’s 1920 exhibition at The Waldorf Astoria, alongside works by Stuart Davis, Joan Sloan, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Other venues for group and one-person shows included The Brown-Robertson Gallery (1921), the Anderson Gallery (1922) and Alma Reed’s famous Delphic Studios Gallery on 57th Street in 1931. After Sanger joined the WPA Project in 1935, his prolific etchings were distributed to regional museums and shown at the WPA’s Federal Gallery in 1939.

By 1930, William and his second family had moved to Albany, where he worked as an architect for the State of New York, designing government buildings. He was asked to design a prison but refused on political grounds. He taught evening classes in charcoal drawing to the draftsmen of the state architectural office and worked on as yet undiscovered murals for the State Capitol Building.

In 1932 he was laid off when the Depression deepened. The family moved to Woodstock, New York, where William painted as part of the very active artists’ colony there. In 1935 they moved to Brooklyn, where he became a WPA artist. He designed that mural for the Girls Industrial High School in Brooklyn, but the Art Commission of the City of New York rejected his design after the Board of Education had approved it. It is unclear if any of the ancillary murals in that high school are his.

When Sanger died in July 1961 at his home in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, he was surrounded by Daumier prints, which he had perhaps brought back from that long-ago sojourn in Paris.

As we can see by the record of his exhibitions, Sanger’s work as an artist did not go unrecognized before World War II. But it has subsequently been obscured by the passage of time and the fact that not only has his prolific work in prints and watercolors largely disappeared into private collections but also that the energetically expressionistic, flickering style of the 20s and 30s was superseded by more radical abstraction. Nevertheless, he deserves a place in the history of the rise of 20th Century modernism in American art.


Critical Essay