William Spenser Bagdatopoulos: the forgotten Greek-American artist

When does a Greek immigrant become American? When does this transformation really take place? And who ultimately determines this status? Returning these questions, when does the history of the Greeks in the Western Hemisphere admit someone as a fellow Greek? It is certain that a go-to choice for admission to Greek American Studies is once someone is famous or at the very least notable in American society at large. Then they are usually admitted with open arms.

But the truth is, no one really looks for notable Greeks in the American past. If I were to tell you that such distinct individuals are not just strewn across the pages of American history, but are found literally in every period of this country’s existence, you might find it hard to tell. to believe. But for over 40 years now, I have found an endless legion of such men and women. Anyone can – they just have to watch.

This is the story of William Spenser Bagdatopoulos. Always recognized in the American press of his time as “a Greek by birth” or simply as “a Greek”, his fame and his worldly achievements propelled him not only to the top of American and English societies, but also to artistic fame. global. Having said that, I never heard anyone talk about this guy at coffee time after church. Have you got? The fame eclipsed not only his birth to American and European writers, but even all questions about how he understood his own identity.

This lack of basic personal information will become all the more disconcerting as I describe part of his series of artistic achievements and the level of world fame that Bagdatopoulos received during his lifetime. How Bagdatopoulos is included in future Greek-American accounts, I leave it in other hands.

An image painted by Bagdatopoulos.

On July 23, 1888, William Spenser Bagdatopoulos was born on the island of Zakynthos to a Greek father, Anastasius John Bagdatopoulos, and Amy Frederica (née Sheath) Bagdatopoulos, an Englishwoman. There were at least two other Bagdatopoulos children, the much younger sisters of William Olga and Phaedra. Considering what is reported on the life of this artist, I strongly suspect that Bagdatopoulos’ father was a wealthy merchant whose travels related to business ventures initially explained his son’s exposure to a multitude of countries. The family moved to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when Bagdatopoulos was 11, and he was immediately enrolled in the art academy of the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische (Rotterdam Academy of the Arts).

In 1904, at the age of 16, the young Bagdatopoulos traveled to what was then called the Near East “taking with him his box of paint, painting and selling as he went.” Later he visited Egypt and Palestine, spent some time in Constantinople and for 12 months attended the Academy of Athens. Back in England, after this period of wandering, he undertook commercial work – made posters, illustrated (Evening Star – Washington, DC) on February 24, 1929. “

William Bagdatopoulos first set foot on English soil in 1908 and it is reported that he first resided in Lewisham. Obviously, the young artist must have made a considerable impression on his fellow artists. We can assume this from the fact that in 1909 Bagdatopoulos was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as the Imperial Art League of London. Bagdatopoulos was also soon a member of the London Sketch Club. In 1913 Bagdatopoulos received bronze and silver medals in South Kensington, London.

From around 1919 we find Bagdatopoulos living in Hampton Wick, which is in the southwest corner of Greater London. Once there, Bagdatopoulos quickly became a member of the Hampton Wick artist group. And here we are at a particularly curious facet of Bagdatopoulos’ global career. By the time Bagdatopoulos was 20 years old, as we learn in the entry on this artist, in “Who’s Who in California: A Biographical Directory, 1928-1929”, he had “already executed various commissions for portraits, illustrations, paintings murals and posters for most major business houses, shipping companies and railways in England and abroad.

At that precise moment, Bagdatopoulos was “(Commissioned) by Bennet Coleman & Co. (Bombay) to travel all parts of India, from Kashmir to Ceylon and from Khyber to Assam. Other trips include; Japan, China, the Malaysian states of Cochinchina, the Dutch East Indies, South Africa and the ports of East Africa; Siam and all of Burma. Bagdatopoulos could draw or paint whatever he wanted and this vast assortment of images was to be used by Bennet Coleman & Co. in their advertising campaigns.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 1924 Bagdatopoulos was hired by The Times of India newspaper to tour the country on their behalf. From 1924 to 1926, he traveled to all parts of India, painting sites such as the Golden Temple (Amritsar), Madurai Gopura, Taj Mahal, and Darjeeling bazaars. Over the next thirty years, Bagdatopoulos’ works of art filled the pages of The Times of India. A biographical reference in “Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast” mentions him as “artist and iconographic consultant to the… Times of India… and recognized as an authority in advertising of the Far East and the Middle East”.

For those unaware of Bagdatopoulos’ wider career in character sketches, commissioned portraits, color paintings, and general illustrations, the artist appears to be just an illustrator for a series. seemingly endless number of travel magazines and posters for India. companies, mainly the railways. This facet of Bagdatopoulos’ overall career is widely regarded not only because of the sheer beauty and sheer precision of his interpretations of places and scenarios seen across the Indian subcontinent, but also for what one called their irresistible romantic appeal.

In 1928, Bagdatopoulos moved to the United States and quickly became a naturalized American citizen. Settling first in Chicago, it is reported without adding specific details that Bagdatopoulos “has had problems with US immigration authorities.” And that he “married Alice, a naturalized Englishwoman, born American and nine years her senior” (https://www.findagrave.com). In 1930, Bagdatopoulos mounted a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute which also generated an exhibition catalog.

An image painted by Bagdatopoulos.

In 1932, Bagdatopoulos moved to Santa Barbara, California, where he painted mainly portraits. During this period of his life, various sources claim that Bagdatopoulos also worked as a stage and film set designer. “Who’s who in California: a biographical directory, 1928-29”, mentions that Baghdatopoulos “as a scenographer is always inventive and creator of new innovations… He then turned to oxygenography and dry engraving… Producing in both areas a significant body of projects. “A little later, Bagdatopoulos undertook the” demanding discipline of printmaking, producing a considerable body of work in both etching and drypoint. “

I first learned about Bagdatopoulos’ career when I came across reports of the placement of sixty-four of his later watercolors in the foyer of the United States National Museum in Washington, DC. In this specific exhibit, Bagdatopoulos chose subjects primarily found in Southern California. It turned out that Bagdatopoulos was “…[N]o foreign to the inhabitants of Washington, having exposed [there] twice in the past. (Evening Star (Washington, DC) February 8, 1938).

Bagdatopoulos is reported to have returned to England in 1958 (https://www.findagrave.com). According to one account, Bagdatopoulos, following the death of his wife Alice, may have remarried. The woman referred to was Caralisa Nichols from Galveston, TX and was four years his junior (https://www.findagrave.com). Another source gives this woman’s last name as “North” (https: // prabook). Various accounts attribute Bagdatopoulos’ return to England to his desire to be near his two younger sisters. In 1965, William Spenser Bagdatopoulos died in England, although his exact residence at the time is in dispute.

For reasons unknown, Bagdatopoulos has signed its wide array of artistic creations, except “William Spenser Bagdatopoulos” under a multitude of different names, including, but not limited to: “WS Bagdatopoulos”, “William Spenser Bagdatopoulos ”,“ Bylityllis ”. and even just ‘WSB’.

Today, Bagdatopoulos’ many wall paintings, travel paintings, portraits, engravings and other works can be found in museums and private collections around the world. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is just one place where his paintings can be viewed at leisure. Other institutions which hold the art of Bagdatopoulos include, but are certainly not limited to, the British Museum, London; Boyman Museum, Rotterdam; Municipal Art Gallery, Amsterdam; National Gallery Art, Washington DC; National Gallery of Art, Athens, and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Maybe that was the time he was living. Maybe with such an international personality it was sort of rude to ask questions about Bagdatopoulos’ “own sense of self”? I do not know. In our time, artists and certainly “celebrities” are continually asked what they think and feel about every little anecdote you can think of. Either way, perhaps like so many other forgotten Greeks, the life and contributions of William Spenser Bagdatopoulos in the United States and elsewhere are – outside of international art and museum circles – in large part. part forgotten. That said, there are rumors that someone is writing Bagdatopoulos’ biography.

When will Greco-American scholars look beyond the externally imposed limits on our collective history in the New World? When will everyone who stays out of these accounts finally be able to return home?


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