Milton Avery spent 50 years of his life painting -- in some cases all day for weeks at a time, sometimes creating as many as 5 or 6 paintings or studies in one day. His total lifetime output of paintings numbers in the thousands, many of which are either unlocated or undocumented. The landscape study in the Davistown Museum collection is an example of one of Milton's quick studies. Milton loved to paint and to travel; he also loved nature, natural landscapes, and color and spent a lifetime learning how to express himself as a color field painter.
As early as 1905, Milton began attending the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford, where he remained an occasional life drawing student through 1919. After 1911, he listed his occupation as artist according to Hobbs' biography of Milton Avery. In 1915, he had his first public exhibition at the Annex Gallery of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford; Hobbs indicates the current location of the painting exhibited there is unknown. During 1918 he transferred to the School of the Art Society in Hartford, CT. It was at this point that he began nearly annual visits to Gloucester. In 1926, he married Sally Michael; in 1928, Bernard Karfoil exhibited two Avery paintings in The Opportunity Gallery group show that also featured Mark Rothko (another of the important color field painters). In 1929, Duncan Phillips purchased the first of many Avery paintings to enter museum collections, Winter Riders for the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington. After this date, Avery had a widening circle of museum and gallery exhibitions and an increasing number of friendships with artists such as Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and, later, Barnet Newman. Milton also became close friends with a another unique American modernist, Marsden Hartley. Their mutual friendship lasted until Marsden's death in 1965. Milton Avery had profound impact on the other painters he befriended, on American color field painting, and on the evolution of modernism in the last half of the 20th century. The importance of his oeuvre is the subject of a vast literature, which is beyond the scope of this brief biographical sketch.
Milton Avery's roots lie in the conjunction of American regionalism and European and American impressionism. While Avery began as a relatively traditional painter in the 1920s, his style quickly ran counter to the social realism of the time. He combined elements of American impressionism with the simplified shapes of Matisse to forge a unique style that became increasingly abstract later in his career. Yet Avery cannot be judged by the later abstract masterpieces alone. His tendency to resort to multiple stylistic approaches is illustrated in his later work (see Barbara Haskell's comments on Sea Moon and Stars, 1960, vs. Sand Sea and Sky, 1960, in Portfolio, Sept/Oct 1982) as well as by the landscape in the museum collection.
Avery was a unique painter; he never participated in the cerebral introspection and philosophizing of many of his fellow color field associates. He was also the direct opposite in personality of his close friend Marsden Hartley, who was often depressed and unsure of himself. Avery was an enthusiastic painter who loved his work and had the benefit of intimate family ties that Marsden Hartley lacked. His awkward nativism and humorous naturalism long hid his growing influence on the younger painters whom he befriended after 1928. Milton was taciturn -- a reticent person dedicated to painting. He traveled to paint and returned frequently to the hills of south central Vermont where the landscape now on loan to the museum was painted. His stylistic tendencies embraced both awkwardness and a deliberate lack of finish, combined with humor and a love of nature. The soft naturalism of Avery's radiant primitivism obscures his radically innovative use of color relationships to express form and space. As Hobbs and others note in their writings on Avery, his fundamental approach to painting was the use of hues with similar values to unite color, form, and space. In this context, the soft ambiance of Avery's paintings joined modernism with folk art in a unique oeuvre not imitated by any other American painter. His use of tonality to define space also references the work of Cezanne's use of hue to express form and space. Avery also utilized distinct linear elements in many of his paintings to express figures and forms within the context of his color fields contributions. Hobbs (pg. 46) has a particularly apt quote from Milton "Keep painting - day in - day out. Be absorbed by it." This expresses the essence of Milton's life as a painter -- his friendly impudence, his dedication, his centeredness on simple domestic themes and natural landscapes.
Above: Digital photograph of the Milton Avery landscape hanging at the Davistown Museum.
Below: Scan of a photograph (transparency) that was made in 1980 of the Milton Avery landscape.
In the world of art as commodity objects and the concomitant demand for finished masterpieces with decorative value, this landscape study on loan to the Davistown Museum references the everyday life of a working painter. Milton may not have spent more than several hours executing this quick study of the area around Cole Pond in Rawsonville, Vermont; a study that utilizes the bare ground of the canvas as the background and also illustrates Avery's habitual use of orthogonals and his occasional use of linear slashes to express structure -- in this case, the structures of the houses on the far side of Cole Pond. The use of muted color to express both form and space and a mood of peaceful contentment is a fundamental characteristic of Avery's work at this time. The traditional perspective in this study references Avery's training as a traditional painter in Connecticut in his early career. The soft lyricism of his colors and their integrated expression of space reference the more abstract masterpieces of the future where the picture plane is entirely flat and two dimensional, but the use of color remains the essence of Avery's anti-analytical primitivism. Elements in this landscape study reference paintings both before and after 1945, particularly Dark Hills Dark Sea (1938) and Gaspé - Pink Sky (1940). Other paintings which this study references include Burlesque (1936), as well as numerous post-1945 works: Montaublan (1953), White Wave (1954), Sea and Sand Dune (1955), Sand Bar and Sea Birds (1958), Dark Mountain (1958), Sea Grass and Blue Sea (1958), Mountain Lake (1960), and Hills at Rosy Dawn (1962). Avery executed thousands of paintings during his career, yet as is the case with many a great artist, only created a few dozen color field masterpieces. One can only wonder at the hundreds of other studies by Milton Avery and other artists that must have been lost because they didn't meet the decorative standards of the art-as-commodity market. This particular painting hung in a dark second floor hallway of a large Boston area home for over 30 years before it came into the possession of the collector who has loaned it to the museum. It still retains its original bland frame and a coating of grime from four decades of neglect. It nearly went to a landfill in the late 1980s -- was this also the fate of many another Milton Avery or Marsden Hartley study?
H. G. Brack, curator