Robert Sivard

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Georgetowner ‘Profile’, by Ami Stewart c.1955

“This could not be Robert Sivard’s house,” I thought, as I knocked on the door. There were no little people standing in front of the door, and no cat on either parapet or doorstep. If you have seen the reproductions of Sivard’s paintings in Time Magazine of April 18, or have visited the Midtown Gallery in New York City, where he is currentlly exhibiting his Paris paintings, you will understand my bewilderment.

From Paris to Georgetown- and there are no more attractive places to travel from and travel to- has come Robert Sivard, his wife, Ruth, and son Jimmy, to live in their own home on 34th Street, which I hope means that they will be with us for some time.

For the past six years, Robert Sivard has been in Paris as Chief of the Visual Information Service at the United States Embassy, and during that time has had two exhibitions. His first, called ‘an American in Paris’, was at the Galerie Creven, 5 rue des Beaux-Arts, in May 1953. This show was reviewed in ‘Illustration’ of August 1953, with an opening question “Does Sivard owe to his French-sounding name, his slightly mocking interest in the old quarters of the Left Bank...” In June, 1954, his second exhibition was held under the auspices of the Cultural Relations Services at the United States Embassy in Paris. The show was sold out in less than ten days, among the buyers being Mrs. Thompson Biddle who purchased ten of his paintings and has decorated a room around them in her Paris townhouse; and Artur Rubenstein, who bought four Sivards.

Known in Paris as the “painter-diplomat”, Sivard is a tall young man, rather reserved, and much better looking than his photographs reveal. One would never ask this man how he happened to paint...he uses his words as effectively as his colors, and with the same result. While he shows a sharp, sly sense of humor in his paintings, it is never malicious. OBS, a Stockholm publication, reviewed his exhibition at the Galerie Craven, in part as follows:

“Nothing is treated less ‘Hollywood’ than this new version of ‘an American in Paris.’

“Robert Sivard combines the old-fashioned miniature painter’s precision with the humor of the cartoonists in the New Yorker. His paintings are full of picturesque details. He includes scribbling on the house walls and the whiskers of the laundry-woman’s cat. He is not attracted by stylish composition or lively scenes. He cares little about perspective.

“When he finshes at the American Embassy, rue du Faubourg St. Honore, in the afternoons, he walks over to the other bank of the Seine and puts up his easel in one of the streets in his own neighborhood. He lives behind Academie Francaise, in the quartier de la Monnaie, that net of old streets that bind together St. Germain-des-Pres and Quartier Latin, with the ‘Quais de Bouquinistes.’ He installs himself in front of some shop that is especially full of signs and advertisements of different kinds, and he paints slowly, almost meticulously. But two camera-eyes register exactly, and lead the artist’s hand without mercy.

“Monsieur Sivard, you use your brushes like bayonnets," the butcher and the laundry women in the Rue de Seine say to him. Robert Sivard makes friendly protests. But it certainly is not only a coincidence that one finds a cat in almost all his pictures, the cat that scratches. However, there is no cat on the most famous of Sivard’s pictures: the dispensary for animals in the rue St. Andre-des-Arts. With some lack of respect, Sivard has presented the dispensary’s patron, the Duke of Windsor, with a poodle and a dog in tow, and all the characters in the scene have a striking likeness. The artist has perhaps thereby wished to express that special goodwill that the Duke carries for dogs...

“Sivard’s masterpiece, according to the critics, is not the dog-dispensary, but another painting which shows a surprising humor and a special gift of observation: ‘La Concierge.’ All the details that those who have lived on the Left Bank in Paris so well recognize are to be found there: the ‘door’ for the gas company’s inspection, the white lace curtains, the old-fashioned button for the bell which has almost disappeared under dirt and rust. And, above all, the old woman’s questioning eye.

“It would not be just to point only at Sivard’s humor, and not to say a word about the plastic qualities so evident in his paintings; his choice of colors are excellent and often extraordinarily expressive. The diplomat painter owes a great deal to his creative temperament, but he has, beyond all doubt, technique and great artistic gift.

“He was born in New York, 1914, of Italian parents and has behind him a solid art education...He has done murals for the La Guardia aerodrome in New York and illustrations in magazines like ‘Collier’s’ and ‘Holiday’, and so on. But it is in Paris that he became famous, and it is there that he has put up his easel. He has not cared about saving anything of his American origin, except his devotion to a bow-tie and his horror of lost time.”

During my interview with Robert Sivard, who is called “Bob” by his wife and friends, I asked him how he had time in Paris to paint with his demanding post as Chief of the Visual Information Service. He smiled and replied that his wife had literally pushed him out the door with his easel and paints, because she wanted some 'souvenirs' of Paris.

Sivard attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the National Academy and the New School for Social Research. He painted at the Academie Julian in Paris, but has little to say for the merits of this school. In 1938-39 he executed murals for the Oregon State Capital, New York World’s Fair, the San Francisco World’s Fair and the La Guardia Airport. For several years, until he went in the Army, he was Art Director for the Lexicon Advertising Agency in New York, and for Fawcett Publications. During World War II he served as a Captain with the Army Evacuation Hospitals in England, France and Germany.

In 1943, he was married to Ruth Leger, his sweetheart of High School days, in Leesburg, Virginia, and they have happy memories of their honeymoon which was spent in Charlottesville, Virginia, at Farnington. After the war, the Sivards spent several years in New York City.

In 1948, they returned to Europe, and Robert Sivard was given the post of Consulting Art Director for the International Refugee Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where he remained until 1949. The next year was spent in Paris where Sivard free-lanced with French advertising agencies, did ads for 'Scandale' corsets, and designed exhibitions for trade organizations. From 1950 to 1954 he was at the United States Embassy in Paris, as Chief of the Visual Information Service. He was sent as the US Delegate to the Cinema Schools conference, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954.

Mrs. Sivard had lived in Washington during World War II, having worked with OPA as an economist, and during that time she had seen something of Georgetown. It was probably due to her liking for the more leisurely pace of Georgetown and Washington as compared to the dizzy pace of Manhattan, that influenced the Sivards to come here on their return from Europe. They moved to 34th Street last Fall where they had rented the Charles Espey house, and after a few months bought a house of their own across the street, into which they will shortly move. Their young son, Jimmy, who was born in Paris and learned to speak French there, is now conforming to American ways. He told his father the other day that he is an American boy now and does not speak French anymore.

Sivard’s painting of the Georgetown Toy Shop on M Street is the only one he has done in our Town, but he says that there is so much to paint here that he is eager to get settled in his new home and establish a studio.

I remembered upon leaving the Sivard house that there wasn’t a white cat on the inside either. Apparently, “he can take them or leave them.”