January 4, 2015, marks the tenth anniversary of Deane G. Keller’s passing. Deane was a remarkable draftsman, painter and writer, and an immensely popular and effective teacher. There are no better books on the topic of figure drawing than his Draftsman’s Handbook.
Above is a photograph of Deane and his students at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, unraveling a sheet of figure drawings by one of his idols, George Bridgman. Deane’s father and both of my parents had studied with Bridgman at the Art Students League of New York, so it makes some sort of sense that we each had an obsessive interest in figure drawing. Deane’s great skill was his ability to transcribe human forms from memory, whereas I’ve always relied on the presence of the model for inspiration. The possibility that his expertise as an anatomist would overtake his artistry was never an issue, for there existed in Deane’s drawing an unfailing comprehension of the rhythms of the figure, which held both organic and spiritual components. Also, he owned vine charcoal.
For many years Deane taught figure drawing and anatomy at the Lyme Academy, where I came to know him as a colleague. In earlier years he’d also taught landscape painting and still life painting and probably other subjects as well; his intelligence and passion were expansive. Deane’s owlish face was as quick to slyly smile as it was to cloud over, for he was at once one of the most brilliant and emotionally kinetic people I’ve ever known. Late in his life he taught anatomy and figure drawing in New York City, at the Art Students League and the New York Academy of Art, regrettably short stints due to his failing health.
I want to share a few recollections of Deane, some of which I’ve recounted elsewhere before. The first involves a talk we had one day over lunch in Old Lyme. Deane, despite his degree from Yale and his superior experience as an instructor, envied me because I’d studied at the Art Students League: “Every American artist who mattered,” he said, “either studied or taught there.” To his mind a lack of association with the League was the single piece missing from his résumé. If he was setting me up to take the bait, I didn’t mind in the least; I told him that I’d studied with Robert Beverly Hale, and he was every bit as good as Hale. I urged Deane to contact the League. He was teaching there within a year or so, and though he may have had similar discussions with others, I always liked to think I was instrumental in encouraging him to go to New York and fulfill a dream.
As already indicated, Deane’s educational allegiances were counterintuitive. Although he was steeped in academia, his sympathies were grounded in studio practice. Dismayed by the changes the Lyme Academy underwent as it transitioned from atelier school to college, Deane muttered to me with reddened face, “The first day here was the best day!” On several occasions he counseled me not to let teaching take too much time from my studio work, as he had done. If there was ever anyone whose love of teaching belied this advice, it was Deane. I’d look at him and think that teaching might be a valuable art form, too.
Several times over the years I’d mentioned to Deane that he’d make a good subject for a painting, but I never followed up on the idea, probably because I was a bit intimidated by him, and I preferred painting young women. Inexplicably, I came to believe it was somehow Deane’s fault that he’d never sat for me. Then one day, during winter break from the college, it dawned on me that I’d never actually asked him to pose. On Monday afternoon, January 3, 2005, I called Deane and broached the subject. Well, he said, he’d be delighted. He’d been ill, but was feeling better. We agreed to meet at the Lyme Academy later that week to begin working in one of the empty studios, under the condition that I pose for a drawing in return. Deane joked that he’d wear a plaid shirt to make my job more difficult.
At noon the following day Jim Falconer, the school’s registrar and a dear friend, called to tell me that Deane had passed away. I’ve always regretted the missed opportunity, not only for the wonderful subject Deane would have made, but for the hours we would have spent talking about art and teaching and life. What promised to be an extraordinary experience was lost.
Deane left a deep impression on me. He paid me the highest compliments I’ve ever received as a draftsman and an artist, and the praise was memorable because it came from him. That Deane freely complimented many artists and students did not dilute the effect, because his intellectual authority made the kindness credible. While his instincts as an instructor were legendarily generous, his sentiments were always genuine. Genuine? Oh, he loved the hell out of drawing, and loved those who felt likewise.