Osvaldo Luigi Guglielmi was born in Cairo, Egypt, where his parents had lived for almost two years, while Talmiro Guglielmi played the violin and viola with an Italian orchestra led by Arturo Toscanini. (Although Guglielmi is regularly mentioned and illustrated in accounts of American Modernism, the only monographic treatment of this artist remains John Baker, “O. Louis Guglielmi: A Reconsideration.” in Archives of American Art Journal XV , pp. 15–20; and Baker’s subsequent exhibition catalogue, O. Louis Guglielmi: A Retrospective Exhibition (exhib. cat. [New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Art Gallery, 1980]). Dometilla Secchi Guglielmi returned shortly after the child’s birth to her native Milan, while Talmiro traveled widely, pursuing his livelihood throughout Europe, Australia, and North and South America. In 1914, after touring Brazil, Canada, and America with the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, Talmiro sent for his family to join him in New York City. They lived near relations who had previously settled in East Harlem, at that time the center of a largely poor Italian immigrant community.
Louis (a suitable name for an American boy) showed an early interest in sculpture, and worked, as a boy, in a local bronze casting factory. In 1920, he began to attend evening art classes at the school of the National Academy of Design, and sculpture classes at the Beaux Arts Institute, dropping out of Townsend Harris High School, in 1923, to pursue a full-time course at the National Academy. In 1927, when he was twenty-one years old, he became an American citizen. Guglielmi was a precocious artist whose skill in both drawing and modeling brought him early notice. His training, grounded in a conservative, academic ethos, gave him a firm grasp of technique, though he quickly came to regard his experience as unimaginative and confining. Upon leaving the N.A.D. school, he became a modernist with all the enthusiasm of a convert. In 1943, he wrote:
I realized that I had learned nothing of value, that the teachers were unimaginative, knew little and gave out less. The walls of the school were covered from floor to ceiling with innocuous pictures, the testament of several generations of forgotten painters.... I left art school, like a gravedigger in a hurry to bury an unclaimed body. I had discovered Cézanne and the entire modern movement!
Guglielmi matured as an artist in the turbulent decade of the 1930s. Needing to support himself, he recalled that after he left art school in 1926:
The next half dozen years were spent in one inadequate job after another. It was not until 1932 that I began to paint seriously again and I consider that year my beginning as an artist. A summer fellowship at the MacDowell Colony was a great help. The plight of humanity caught in the law of change [the Great Depression] was the necessary stimulus. The loneliness of the artist began to dissolve in the understanding of people. Later, the Federal Art Project provided a weekly check. Later still, I acquired a patient wife.
These excerpts from Guglielmi’s artist’s statement in the 1943 Museum of Modern Art Realists and Magic Realists catalogue offer a capsule glimpse of his career in the 1930s. He spent eleven happy and productive summers at the prestigious art Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1932–35, 1938, 1941–42, and 1946–49, after his wartime army service. In 1934, he was selected as an easel painter for the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), a New Deal program that subsidized artists. The “patient wife” was Anne Di Maggio, whom Gugliemi married in 1939. What Guglielmi did not reference in his statement, however, was the beginning of his critical relationship with Edith Gregor Halpert. Halpert was an important New York art dealer who nurtured and showcased the work of contemporary American modernist artists. In 1936, having seen his work for the PWAP, Halpert invited Guglielmi to become part of the group of artists at her Downtown Gallery on West 13th Street in Greenwich Village. In 1938, Halpert gave him his first one-man show, which proved a major critical success.
Guglielmi did not paint from 1943 through 1945, years that he spent in the United States Army. His postwar work took a notably different turn, more concerned with formal issues and often using the language of cubism. While Guglielmi experimented with form, he was never tempted by the dominant postwar American school of abstract expressionism, a choice which may have marginalized his status as a contemporary painter. His work, rather, reflected the influence of Joan Miro, Henri Matisse, and most notably, his friend and eulogist, Stuart Davis. The emotional tone of his work also lightened, communicating optimism and energy. Guglielmi taught and painted through the 1950s. In the spring of 1956, he traveled to Italy, intending to remain in Europe for the summer. Instead, he returned after only four days, “homesick.” That summer he moved with his wife and ten-year-old son to Amagansett, Long Island, where he died suddenly on September 3 of a heart attack.