By Erin Monroe
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2021-2022
Born in upstate New York, artist Milton Avery (1885 – 1965) in his early years called Connecticut home. He worked and took his first art classes in Hartford at the School of the Art Society of Hartford, then housed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Connecticut League of Art Students in the 1910s and 1920s. As a student and aspiring artist, his exploration of local destinations fostered a direct approach to painting from life that he maintained throughout his 40-year career.
The time he spent in the state also nurtured his long-standing connection to its art institutions and communities, especially the Wadsworth Atheneum (now the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art). Letters from the artist, early exhibition records, and reviews documenting his formative years are housed in the museum’s Auerbach Art Library and Museum Archives. This material offers insights into the humble beginnings of one of America’s leading Modern painters.
Avery first exhibited publicly in 1915 with The Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts in the Annex Gallery, a separate building located behind the Atheneum. He made his debut with a single painting, Glimpse of Farmington (unlocated). Based on other landscapes painted around the same time, it was likely painted in his early impressionistic style, which emulated the work of noted Connecticut artists such as Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir.
Avery created hundreds of drawings, watercolors, and paintings each year and continued to exhibit at the Atheneum and in Hartford’s downtown art galleries even after he relocated to New York City in 1925. Hartford art critics recognized Avery as a “talented … rising young man” and were the first to describe his paintings using terms such as “poetic” and “modern” well before the New York art world chimed in with similar descriptions of his distinctive aesthetic.
In 1953, nearly 40 years after Avery’s first public exhibition, the Atheneum presented a major retrospective of his work. Avery, his wife Sally Michel Avery, and their daughter March traveled to Hartford—a trip described as a “homecoming day” by The Hartford Times—to attend a reception in his honor. At the close of the show, the museum purchased its first painting by the artist, Old Orchard (1953). Avery explained the personal significance of this acquisition to then museum director Charles C. Cunningham:
Because I lived in Hartford during my formative years I am especially pleased and honored to have one of my paintings—one which I am especially fond of—in the Atheneum collection. I remember vividly the hours I spent at the museum studying the American landscape painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The museum’s collection of Avery’s works continued to grow, ultimately totaling eight works. Notable additions included another major painting, Husband and Wife, given by the financier, philanthropist, and Modern-art collector Roy R. Neuberger in 1955. The gift added a quintessential example of Avery’s mid-career portraiture featuring inventive colors and flattened forms. In his letter acknowledging Neuberger’s gift, Avery humbly described it as “a very good example” of the period. He went on to share the story behind it:
It was painted in oil on canvas from a note I made of two friends who were visiting one evening at my studio—the woman in the painting now runs an art gallery in Westport, Conn—the Tirca Karlis gallery.
In May 1964 the museum presented Paintings by Milton Avery, which included Dark Inlet, a semi-abstract black-and-white composition based on a summer stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In honor of the show, the Avery family gave the work to the museum. Owing to Avery’s declining health at the time, his wife Sally composed a letter sharing their sentiment:
This is the first time we have donated one of Milton’s works to any American museum. Milton feels so close to Hartford and so pleased with the honor the museum has shown him, that he wished in some small way to show his appreciation.
The exhibition was one of Avery’s last solo exhibitions during his lifetime. Milton Avery died on January 3, 1965. In a letter dated January 4, Cunningham offered his condolences to Sally and the family, writing, “although [Milton] was not born in Hartford we like to think of him as a native son.”
Erin C. Monroe is the Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, author of Milton Avery: The Connecticut Years (Wadsworth Atheneum, 2021), and the in-house curator of Milton Avery, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
on view February 25 – June 2, 2022
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford
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