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Milton Avery: Watercolors

ON VIEW: May 11 - September 11, 2022

Milton Avery, well known for his influence on a wide variety of artists working in the United States, focused much of his work on color relationships. While his works were recognizable in subject matter, he was praised for expressing form through colors that had emotional value, rather than directly copying reality.

Following the death of his brother-in-law in 1915, Avery worked various jobs to support his extended family as the sole male head of household. With his growing interest in art, he attended a few traditional art classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students in Hartford. While still having familial responsibilities, Avery searched for night jobs, so that he could utilize natural daytime lighting to draw. In 1924, Avery married Sally Michel. It was with her income as an illustrator that he was able to quit his job and paint full-time. After moving to New York, he attended the Art Students League of New York in the 1930s. It was in New York that Roy R. Neuberger was first introduced to, and began purchasing, his work.

Avery spent many of his summers in New Hampshire and Vermont, returning to New York for the winters. During summers, Avery sketched landscape scenes en plein air, or out of doors, during his strolls along both the coastline and mainland. These sketches became the basis for many of his watercolor works. He also produced many still lifes and portraits in watercolor – from small scenes within his country studio, to seated portraits of his family. Many of his watercolors served as references for his larger oil paintings. Often, many years would stand between an original watercolor and the finished oil painting based on it.

Avery’s use of gouache and watercolor heavily influenced his oil paintings. The quick brushwork, fluidity, and luminosity of watercolor allowed for more experimentation, and he carried this into his oil paintings by thinning the pigments. As Avery’s work progressed into the 1930s, the artist’s use of large areas of isolated, uniform washes of color made more representational subjects into semi-abstracted forms. For the artist, figures and objects functioned best when they could blend into the overall design of the work and create dynamism between subjects and their background. Form and color were primary; subject matter was secondary. As Avery’s technique matured further, these large areas of experimental color became denser and more delineated, while keeping a recognizable subject matter.

These ten watercolors on paper highlight a small selection of Avery’s watercolor portfolio, ranging from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. These works from the Neuberger’s collection illustrate the artist’s vibrant, emotive color palettes, and experimental balance between realism and abstraction.


Generous support for Milton Avery: Watercolors is provided by the Roy R. Neuberger Legacy Program Endowment.