Historical Note


The painter John Raphael Covert (1882-1960) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1882. He entered the Pittsburgh School of Design in 1902 where he studied with the realist painter Martin Leisser and developed a conservative, academic style. At the age of twenty-six, Covert won a German government scholarship and travelled to Munich where he studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste from 1909 to 1912. From Munich, he moved to Paris where he remained for three years, continuing to paint realistic nudes and portraits ignoring the modernist influences around him.

Covert's style changed dramatically shortly after his return to the United States in February 1915. Covert settled in New York City where he became a regularly participant in the frequent gatherings of American and European artists, intellectuals, and writers at the W. 67th Street apartment of Covert's cousin, Walter Arensberg, and his wife, Louise, between 1915 and 1921. The Arensbergs' were avid patrons of modern art. Covert responded to these many modernist influences by abandoning his academic style. He first produced Cubist paintings, and later integrated unusual materials such as string and upholstery tacks into his works. Between 1915 and 1918, Covert was particularly close with Marcel Duchamp. Together with a group of like-minded individuals, Covert helped to form the Society of Independent Artists in 1916. He served as the Society's first secretary and helped to organize its 1917 inaugural exhibition.

Despite representation by the de Zayas Gallery, Covert's paintings received little recognition and he was not able to sustain himself financially. Covert abandoned his professional life as a painter in 1923 and became a traveling salesman for the Vesuvius Crucible Company, his family's Pittsburgh based company which provided parts for the steel industry. Despite his removal from the avant-garde art world, Covert continued to pursue interests he shared with Walter Arensberg and others in his New York circle of friends, namely cryptography, mathematics and puns. Like his cousin, Covert believed that cryptography could be used to solve the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy, the principal theory pursued by Walter and his research institute, The Francis Bacon Foundation. Covert spent years experimenting with complex number and word puzzles, including magic squares, anagrams and acrostics, in an attempt to show Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of William Shakespeare's plays. Following the Arensbergs' move to Hollywood, California in 1921, he visited the couple at least once to collaborate with Walter on his studies. Covert also used code to record many of the entries in the financial daybooks and ledgers he kept while a salesman.

Covert never seemed to adjust fully to his new professional life. He made a point of visiting galleries whenever in New York and continually implied that he wanted to paint but was unable. He suffered from many health problems, underwent two major operations in 1945, and died in 1960. His works are in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery, the Seattle Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as a number of private collections.

Works Consulted

Davidson, Abraham A. "Two from the Second Decade: Manierre Dawson and John Covert." Art in America 63 (Sept. 1975): 50-55.

De Angelus, Michele D. "John Covert (1882-1960)." Avant-garde Painting and Sculpture in America, 1910-25: [exhibition] Delaware Art Museum, April 4-May 18, 1975 (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, [1975]).

Hamilton, George Heard. "John Covert: Early American Modern." Art Journal 12.1 (Fall 1952): 37-42.

Klein, Michael. "John Covert and the Arensberg Circle: Symbolism, Cubism, and Protosurrealism." Arts 51.9 (May 1977): 113-15.

Klein, Michael. "John Covert's Studios in 1916 and 1923: Two Views into the Past." Art Journal 39.1 (Fall 1979): 22-29.

Klein, Michael. "John Covert's 'Time': Cubism, Duchamp, Einstein-A Quasi-Scientific Fantasy." Art Journal 33.4 (Summer 1974): 314-320.