In this work by George Copeland Ault, a road leads to a few houses on a green hills, in front of round white clouds

"Country Lane" is among George Ault’s Earliest Expressions of American Primitivism

Below, we look at the different elements in this idyllic composition, a work we placed into the Norton Museum of Art's collection

By Beth Hamilton

George Copeland Ault was born into a prosperous Cleveland family, and spent his formative years in London. Ault’s father was a wealthy businessman whose family owned a printing ink manufactory. His father was also an amateur artist and a devoted patron of the arts in New York and the Midwest, helping to found the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1899, the father’s business brought the family to London where they lived for the next twelve years. Ault received his formal and artistic education abroad at the University College, the Slade, and St. John’s Wood School. He supplemented his academic studies with regular trips to Paris and the French countryside. Although Ault was in Europe during a burgeoning period in modern art, his conservative education led him to prefer academic painting styles. His early paintings were impressionist in style, and he did not discover and experiment with modernism until he returned to the United States in 1911 at the age of twenty.

Ault married and settled into a new life in Hillside, New Jersey, a suburb of New York. He was restless with this slower pace of life and chose to spend most of his time wandering Greenwich Village and studying art. In 1920, Ault participated in his first exhibition in New York at the 4th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. Following this exposure, he began to more freely experiment with modernism by the early 1920s. In 1922, Ault abandoned his wife to live permanently in New York and devote his career to painting.

Ault quickly embraced the Precisionist style that he learned of through the works of Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford. The subjects of his works from this period were geometric cityscapes observed from his studio window and the rumbling factory buildings that increasingly populated the congested city. He reduced the buildings and skyline of the city into basic shapes with flat areas of color, hallmark characteristics of the Precisionist style. However, he developed his own unique style by also combining elements of surrealism into his paintings; Ault admired the surrealist works of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. By 1923, Ault was a regular exhibitor at the Whitney Studio Club, and later would show his work at major progressive New York galleries like Stephan Bourgeois and F. Valentine Dudensing, JB Neumann’s New Art Circle, and Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery. In 1932 and 1934, he exhibited at the first two biennials at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In this work by George Copeland Ault, a road leads to a few houses on a green hills, in front of round white clouds
George Copeland Ault, American, 1891-1948. Country Lane, 1926. Oil on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Work retains original George F. Of frame

While Precisionism celebrated the American industrial landscape, artists also returned to the concept of American primitivism. Simultaneous to Ault’s paintings of Brooklyn ice houses, factory smoke stacks, and urban street scenes, he painted a number of works that depicted simple, rural landscapes in a Precisionist manner using precise lines and reduced forms. Began around 1926, Ault would continually return to the rural theme throughout his career, especially during his final years in Woodstock. In the 1988 catalogue for the retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Susan Lubowsky stated,

“During the 1920s, indigenous primitive art was rediscovered by modernists like Elie Nadelman, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Sheeler. While their European counterparts turned to Africa and Oceania for inspiration, American artists looked to their native cultural heritage. Artists’ colonies, such as Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Ault had vacationed, were rife with artifacts, available for prices that even a painter could afford. The artist’s second wife, Louise Ault, recalls that he “was among those enthusiastically collecting ‘early American.’” Early America, 1927 (fig. 1) is among his first mature attempts to depict the rural landscape in the simple style of the naive genre. Ault focused on the juxtaposition of the farmhouses clustered around a white country church. As a Precisionist, he reduced the architecture to basic geometric shapes, the brick-red and white buildings recalling his earlier factories and lofts. The affinity between Precisionism and folk art is apparent here in the spare forms of the architecture, the geometric patchwork of plowed fields, and the clean, flat application of color. Personal as well as aesthetic connections may have motivated Ault to explore the folk milieu. According to Louise Ault, Early America, along with later works that expanded this theme, “undoubtedly referred back…to the days of his mother, a pioneer woman in Illinois (for he quoted often the things she had to tell, using the colloquialisms of the time).” While such homespun sentiments also inspired Regionalists like Grant Wood, who painted similar panoramic views, Ault and his peers used the folk idiom for the advancement of the modernist aesthetic.” (Susan Lubowsky, George Ault [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1988], p. 18-20)

The present work, Country Lane, was among Ault’s earliest expressions of American primitivism. Simple, white farmhouses and large trees stand at the center of the composition, with a winding road intersecting the scene. The other elements in the composition—a red barn, rolling green pastures, a picket fence, and an endless power line complete the idyllic country setting. However, the flat and saturated paint application and the repetition of geometric forms, seen in the tiny windows and the bulbous clouds and tree shapes, firmly situate this work among Ault’s best Precisionist paintings.

Ault’s artistic career was crippled by several family tragedies and personal struggles. Over the course of his career, he suffered the loss of all but one sibling from his immediate family. Ault also struggled to maintain gallery connections as he was disillusioned by the changing art market and severed ties with many of his peers and supporters. He preferred to work independently, and in 1937 he left New York to live in the Catskills with his wife, Louise. In the final years of his career, Ault focused on rural nocturnal scenes combined with elements of surrealism.

George Copeland Ault's view of an early American village from a hilltop.

Cover image: George Copeland Ault, American, 1891-1948. Country Lane (detail), 1926. Oil on canvas. 16 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Work retains original George F. Of frame