Biography of Milton Avery, American Modernist Painter

milton avery seaside
"Seaside (Beach Scene)" (1945). Rob Corder / Creative Commons 2.0

Milton Avery (March 7, 1885 - January 3, 1965) was an American modernist painter. He created a unique style of representational art, abstracted into its most basic shapes and colors. His fame as an artist rose and fell during his lifetime, but more recent re-evaluations place him among the most significant American artists of the 20th century.

Fast Facts: Milton Avery

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Born: March 7, 1885 in Altmar, New York
  • Died: January 3, 1965 in New York, New York
  • Spouse: Sally Michel
  • Daughter: March
  • Movement: Abstract expressionism
  • Selected Works: "Seascape with Birds" (1945), "Breaking Wave" (1948), "Clear Cut Landscape" (1951)
  • Notable Quote: "Why talk when you can paint?"

Early Life and Training

Born the son of a tanner, Milton Avery became a working artist relatively late in life. His family lived in upstate New York when he was born, and they moved to Connecticut when he was 13. Avery started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company at age 16 and proceeded to work a wide range of factory jobs to support himself and his family. In 1915, when he was 30, the death of a brother-in-law left Avery as the only adult male in a family of 11.

Portrait of Milton Avery
Portrait of Milton Avery by his wife, Sally Michel, 1961. Public Domain CC0 1.0 Universal 

While laboring in factories, Milton Avery attended a lettering class conducted by the Connecticut League of Art Students. Unfortunately, the course shut down after the first month. The league's founder, Charles Noel Flagg, stepped in and encouraged Avery to attend a life-drawing class. He followed the advice and began attending art classes in the evenings after working eight hours in the factory.

In 1920, Avery spent the summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, to paint from nature in the plein-air style. It was the first of many summers he would spend seeking inspiration for painting from time spent admiring natural settings. In the summer of 1924, he met Sally Michel and began a romantic relationship. After the couple married in 1926, they made the unconventional decision to have Sally support them through her illustration work so Milton could continue his art studies without distraction. "Harbour Scene" and its quiet depiction of boats in a marina is representative of Avery's work during this period.

When Milton and Sally moved to New York City in the late 1920s, Milton's painting was still very traditional, taking much of its inspiration from classic impressionism. After the move, a conversion to modernism enabled the development of Avery's mature style.

milton avery harbour scene
"Harbour Scene" (1921-1925). Gandalf's Gallery / Creative Commons 2.0

American Fauve

One of Milton Avery's strongest influences in the development of his painting was the work of post-impressionist French painter Henri Matisse. The bright colors and flattening of perspective into two dimensions are crucial elements of Avery's approach. The similarities were so apparent that Avery was sometimes referred to as the "American Fauve," referring to the early 20th-century French movement, Fauvism, that veered away from strict realism to a brightly-colored emphasis on shapes and brushstrokes.

Avery found it challenging to be accepted into the New York art mainstream of the 1930s, which was dominated by gritty social realism on the one hand and the reach for pure non-representational abstraction on the other. Many observers considered him old-fashioned in his pursuit of a style that abstracted the real world into its most basic bright colors and shapes but steadfastly refused to abandon a representational attachment to reality.

Despite the lack of widespread acceptance, Avery did find encouragement from two specific individuals in the 1930s. Famed Wall Street financier and modern art patron Roy Neuberger believed that Milton Avery's work deserved wider notice. He began collecting the artist's work with the painting "Gaspe Landscape," which still hung on the wall in Neuberger's apartment at his death in 2010. Ultimately, he bought more than 100 Avery paintings and eventually donated many to museums around the world. The presence of Avery's work in collections around the globe helped grow his reputation decades after his death.

In the 1930s, Avery also became close friends with fellow artist Mark Rothko. Avery's work strongly influenced the latter's landmark color field paintings. Rothko later wrote that the work of Milton Avery has a "gripping lyricism."

milton avery rothko with pipe
"Rothko with Pipe" (1936), by Milton Avery. Rob Corder / Creative Commons 2.0

Following a solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, in 1944, Avery's star finally began to rise. He was the subject of two concurrent 1945 exhibitions at galleries operated by Paul Rosenberg and Durand-Ruel in New York. As the end of the decade approached, Avery was one of the top American modernist painters working in New York.

Health Problems and Fall From Prominence

Tragedy struck in 1949. Milton Avery suffered a massive heart attack. It created ongoing health problems that the artist never entirely recovered from. Art dealer Paul Rosenberg struck another blow by ending his relationship with Avery in 1950 and selling his stock of 50 paintings to Roy Neuberger at a low price. The impact instantly lowered the asking price for new works by Avery.

milton avery breaking wave
"Breaking Wave" (1948). Rob Corder / Creative Commons 2.0

Despite the blows to his professional reputation, Avery continued to work when he recovered enough strength to create new paintings. Late in the 1950s, the art world began to take another look at his work. In 1957, famed art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that he underestimated the value of Milton Avery's work. In 1960, the Whitney Museum of American Art held an Avery retrospective.

Late Career

Avery spent the summers from 1957 through 1960 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, by the ocean. It was the inspiration for the bold colors and the massive size of his late-career work. Art historians believe that the large-scale work by abstract expressionist painters impacted Avery's decision to create paintings that were six feet wide.

A piece like Milton Avery's "Clear Cut Landscape" shows his late-career style. The basic shapes are almost simple enough to be paper cut-outs, but they are still discernible as the elements of a landscape view. The bold colors cause the painting to practically leap off the canvas for the viewer.

milton avery clear cut landscape
"Clear Cut Landscape" (1951). Rob Corder / Creative Commons 2.0

Although Avery recovered a degree of acceptance among art critics and historians, he never again rose to the level of fame he experienced in the 1940s. It's difficult to know whether the rise and fall in acclaim had a personal impact on the artist. He wrote very little about his life and rarely made public appearances. His work is left to speak for itself.

Milton Avery suffered another heart attack in the early 1960s, and he spent the last years of his life in a hospital in the Bronx in New York City. He died quietly in 1965. His wife, Sally, donated his personal papers to the Smithsonian Institution.

Legacy

Avery's reputation among American artists of the 20th century rose even higher in the decades after his death. His painting found a unique middle ground between representation and abstraction. Once he developed his mature style, Avery remained steadfast in the pursuit of his muse. Although his canvases grew larger and the colors bolder late in his career, his paintings were a refinement of the earlier work and not a shift in direction.

milton avery seascape with birds
"Seascape with Birds" (1945). Geoffrey Clements / Getty Images

Color field painters like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Hans Hofmann owe perhaps the most significant debt to the new ground broken by Milton Avery. He demonstrated a way to abstract his work into the most elemental shapes and colors while maintaining a strong tie to the real essence of his subject matter.

Sources

  • Haskell, Barbara. Milton Avery. Harper & Row, 1982.
  • Hobbs, Robert. Milton Avery: The Late Paintings. Harry N. Abrams, 2011.