The Bruce Museum, Milton Avery

A Family Affair by Sharon Lorenzo.

As many families travel with children during the months of summer vacation, I recommend a restful stop at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, very conveniently located near the major highway I- 95 and in close proximity to relaxing dining on Long Island Sound just down the street. There is even a playground adjacent with bronze dinosaurs for climbing and selfies amidst the quiet of a forested park. This summer the consulting curator, Kenneth Silver, Professor of Art History at New York University, has assembled an exhibition of photographs, sketch books and primary works of art by all three of the members of the Avery family: Milton, his wife Sally and daughter March, noted below:

1938: Photo by Consuelo Kanaga.

Milton Avery (1885-1965) grew up as the son of a tanner and worked odd jobs to help support the family until he took his first art classes while working at night at the Connecticut League for Art Students in Hartford. He took his first real vacation to Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1920 and returned each summer when he had free time, loving the chance to paint outside. It was in the summer of 1924 that he spied Sally Michel sketching on the beach, and they were married two years later![i]

Sally continued to work as a professional illustrator for publications and trade magazines until the birth of their one child, March, in 1932. The three were then inseparable and traveled as often as they could to paint, sketch and vacation for visual inspiration. American art curator, Barbara Haskell, from the Whitney Museum in New York, says that the work of both Milton and Sally Avery was a sublime distillation of their travels from Vermont to Mexico.[ii]

Sea Gazers, Milton Avery, 1956, Oil on canvas. Whitney Museum of American Art.

Kenneth Silver noted that Sally’s transition from a commercial to a fine artist was encouraged by their peers from New York whom they enjoyed as friends of the family: Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko.  Rothko commented on Milton Avery’s work as follows in a memoir:

“What was Avery’s repertoire? His living room, Central Park, his wife Sally, his daughter March, the beaches and mountains where they summered; cows, fish heads, the flight of birds; his friends and whatever world strayed through his studio: a domestic, unheroic cast. But from these there have been fashioned great canvases, that far from the casual and transitory implications of the subjects, have always a gripping lyricism, and often achieve the permanence and monumentality of Egypt.”[iii]

Sally’s work stands on its own two feet as she eliminated anything narrative and used her decorative impulse to capture the bright palette and quiet repose of a forest in this work from the spring of 1956.

Sally Michel Avery, 1956, Spring, Oil on Board, Avery Foundation.

One of the gifts in this exhibition is the inclusion of the artists’ notebooks so the viewer can see how they recorded their moments on the beach or in a forest. From the drawings you have a sense of the space, the quiet, and their tranquility.  They would recreate these ideas in oil paints in their studios.

Sally Michel Avery, Milton and the Sea, Ink on paper.

One of the first institutions in the United States to buy the work of Milton Avery was the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. where we can see the artist has painted his daughter March at work at her desk in 1941. The Phillips hosted his first retrospective in 1944 which put Avery at the top of the field of American painting.

Girl Writing, Oil on canvas, 1941. Phillips Collection.

Art collector, Roy Neuberger, also noted the contribution of Milton Avery to the discipline of American modernism and bought 100 of his paintings that are now in collections all over the globe. The Averys enjoyed a number of summers in Mexico and noted scholar Edward Sullivan stated that Milton Avery absorbed the brilliant colors of the Mexican muralists and folk art that they saw in their travels south of the border. [iv] Milton’s paintings from those voyages embrace the colors of artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the grand synthesis of abstract form and narrative compositions.

Milton Avery, Woman and Palms, oil on canvas, 1957.

The Averys’ daughter March (1932-) graduated from Barnard College and is a recognized painter as well. This image of her mother combing the cat is one of my favorites.

March Avery
March Avery, Sally Combing Caleb, oil on canvas, 1967.

Milton Avery died of a heart attack in 1965 and was buried in the Artists Cemetery in Woodstock, New York. His wife passed away at age 100 in 2003.  Their daughter continues to travel and paint and has formed a foundation to protect the family legacy and scholarship. At a recent Sotheby’s auction, one of Milton’s pictures, The Seamstress, sold for $2,175,000.[v]

Milton Avery, The Seamstress, 1944. Oil on canvas.

The Bruce Museum show is a delight for a summer visit for all ages. Director Peter Sutton has announced both a major expansion of the museum as well as a new director who will succeed him this year from Bennington, Vermont. With a PhD in Art History from Princeton University, Robert Wolterstorff will no doubt continue this legacy of wonderful art exhibitions which bring together the best of kind in both artistic expression and the accompanying scholarship which enriches the experience for all.

Robert Wolterstorff, Future Director of the Bruce Museum.

 

 

 

[i] Kenneth Silver, On the Road with Milton, Sally and March. The Bruce Museum, 2019, p.11.

[ii] Ibid, p. 14.

[iii] Mark Rothko, New York Society for Ethical Culture, 1965, after the death of Milton Avery.

[iv] Silver, p. 18.

[v]  Sotheby’s Sale, May 21, 2019, The Seamstress, $2,175,000. The Collection of Patrick and Carlyn Duffy.