© 2022 The Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Milton Avery’s paintings of nature and domestic life are transformed by his orchestrated arrangements of color and form. His achievements in modernism have made him one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Avery was born in Sand Bank, New York in 1885, and later moved with his family to an area near East Hartford, Connecticut. As an adolescent, he took night classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students while working at a factory in Hartford to help support his family. Avery later transferred to the School of the Art Society in Hartford to continue his arts education.
Avery moved to New York and married fellow artist Sally Michel in 1926. He took courses at The Art Students League had his first exhibition in New York in 1927, but it was not until 1935 that he had his first solo exhibition at the Valentine Gallery. In 1943, Avery joined the roster of progressive European and American artists represented by Paul Rosenberg, followed by joint representation by Durand-Ruel Galleries. In 1944, after nearly two decades of painting, Avery had his first solo museum exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery. This marked a turning point in Avery’s career, as he earned critical recognition and market success. The accolades achieved in the 1940s cemented Avery’s confidence as he reached his mature style.
Avery was committed to his own unique style despite the prevailing artistic trends. During the height of American scene painting in the 1930s, Avery was developing a unique blending of realism and abstraction. Avery was inspired directly from nature and his own family life, and his subjects included seascapes, landscapes, animals, figures, and still life compositions. He distilled the extraneous details of his subjects and painted them with smooth, flat areas of color and interlocking forms. Avery achieved his luminous fields of color with a technique similar to watercolor. He applied oil paint in multiple layers of thin, diluted wash, and then manipulated the medium with a rag to create subtle modulations of tone.
As his career progressed, Avery further simplified his subject matter and perfected his color harmonies. He was steadfast in his convictions even as his contemporaries achieved fame with the Abstract Expressionist movement. As Avery described, “I like to seize the one sharp instant in nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form.”
The present work, Seascape, was painted in 1952, the year Avery, Sally Michel and their daughter March traveled to Europe for the first time. The family visited London, Paris, and the French Riviera, gathering inspiration from the picturesque scenery of these destinations. The quintessential seascape was a beloved subject of Avery, captured throughout his career and painted with great intensity and devotion in his later years. Seascape depicts a calm and flat shoreline with an unusual palette. A band of black paint in the lower register of the painting depicts the water. The flatness of the black paint is accentuated by flecks and streaks of sea-foam green, suggesting movement in the water. The sky fills the majority of the canvas, and is painted a sensual shade of lavender. Abstract white birds and blue stars, delicately incised with a scratching motif are spread throughout the tranquil, glowing sky. Avery continued to depict the sea in later years, focusing on the coastal landscape of Cape Cod, where he spent his summers in the late 1950s.
Avery’s work during the years of 1947-1963 are considered his most important and influential period. With his reductive forms and original color theories, he positioned himself as one of the earliest American painters of chromatic abstraction. Avery paved the way for painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb in exploring the expressive possibilities of color.
Sea and birds, 1952
Oil on canvas
32 x 38 inches
Sid Deutsch Gallery, New York
Private Collection, New York acquired from the above in 1980
Private Collection, Tennessee acquired from the above
Guggenheim Asher Associates, New York on consignment from the above in 2005
Private Collection, acquired from the above in 2005