Artist Stories

American Colorist: Milton Avery

Nikolina Konjevod 12 February 2024 min Read

American artist Milton Avery employed wide strokes of vivid colors and simple forms in his acclaimed portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman admired Avery, who valued the atmosphere over the intricate details of a scene.

I try to construct a picture in which shapes, spaces, and colors form a set of unique relationships, independent of any subject matter.

Milton Avery

Impressed by Impressionism

Avery was raised in Hartford, Connecticut, where he began taking art classes alongside working several other jobs. Over a 15-year training period, Avery became captivated by American Impressionists, notably John Henry Twachtman and Ernest Lawson. The influence of these two artists, as well as of famous French painter Henri Matisse, is seen both in Avery’s mode of painting and in the choice of subject matter. The early phase of his artistic career is characterized by representational art, primarily focusing on American landscapes and seascapes.

Milton Avery: Milton Avery, Blossoming, 1918, Milton Avery Trust. Photo: Adam Reich.

Milton Avery, Blossoming, 1918, Milton Avery Trust. Photo: Adam Reich.

He also followed other typical Impressionists’ techniques, such as the practice of painting outside, en plein air. Since he was a student, he carried small canvases into the countryside or along the seaside so he could sketch and paint. Even while he was living in vibrant New York, he didn’t use cityscapes as his inspiration, but rather revisited the landscapes of his early years from family holidays in Connecticut, where he created an extensive amount of sketches.

Avery’s Breakthrough

It was 1925 when he moved to New York with his wife, Sally Michel Avery, who was also an artist. She provided for both of them by working as a commercial illustrator. In 1929, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. became the first museum to acquire his pieces. Before that, Milton Avery was mostly unnoticed by critics. Subsequent exhibitions at the Phillips Collection and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York played a crucial role in establishing his reputation as a master colorist.

I like to seize one sharp instant in nature, imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships to convey the ecstasy of the moment. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving nothing but color and pattern.

Milton Avery

Milton Avery: 
Milton Avery, Seated Girl with Dog, 1944, Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift from the Estate of Roy R. Neuberger. Photo: Jim Frank.

Milton Avery, Seated Girl with Dog, 1944, Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift from the Estate of Roy R. Neuberger. Photo: Jim Frank.

Alongside landscapes, as a recurring subject matter he portrayed his friends and family members. In the early 1940s, figures continued to hold an important role in his oeuvre; however, Avery demonstrated a shift from conventional portraiture. Surely, his artistic evolution demonstrates a significant influence of Fauvism and Post-Impressionism revealed to him through institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). 

Avery’s Artistic Innovations 

For Milton Avery, the mid-1940s were the most significant years of his artistic journey. In this period, the artist introduced some of his most revered innovations. He started using thinner applications of oil and deliberately flattened the planes of complementary hues. Avery suggested depth and atmosphere with his specific color selections rather than depending solely on traditional norms of perspective. It was specifically Avery’s understanding of balance and the relationship between colors that profoundly influenced younger artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb.

Milton Avery: Milton Avery, Boathouse by the Sea, 1959, Victoria Miro, London, UK.

Milton Avery, Boathouse by the Sea, 1959, Victoria Miro, London, UK.

Precursor of Abstract Expressionism

Milton Avery is regarded as a forerunner of later American Abstract Expressionism. His creations wielded a distinct influence on later Color Field painters. After they were featured in the same group exhibition in 1928, Avery and Rothko even became close friends. Subsequently, Rothko introduced him to Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman, other abstract painters of the era. In the 1950s, Avery shifted from figurative art to landscapes inspired by journeys to the US East Coast: such as Gloucester, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. Black Sea reveals his influence from European Modernists, particularly Henri Matisse. He continued to minimize detail and used less naturalistic colors to introduce more variety and contrast. 

Milton Avery: Milton Avery, Black Sea, 1959, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, USA.

Milton Avery, Black Sea, 1959, The Phillips Collection, Washington DC, USA.

A Master Colorist

Milton Avery, the master colorist, left an indelible mark on the art world, seamlessly bridging early modernist movements with mid-century innovations. His flattened planes and vibrant hues transformed quiet canvases into vibrant expressions of emotion and atmosphere. Avery’s influence extended far beyond his time, echoing through the works of artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. As a precursor to later American Expressionism, Avery’s legacy continues to radiate color and inspiration across the ever-evolving canvas of art history.

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time

Recommended

Artist Stories

Henri Rivière: Parisian Master Printmaker

Henri Rivière was a painter, printmaker, and designer. He had a unique aesthetic that combined an Impressionist sensibility, Japanese printmaking...

Louisa Mahoney 6 June 2024

Artist Stories

Polish Art Nouveau Genius – Stanisław Wyspiański

Likened by his 19th century Polish compatriots to a modern Leonardo da Vinci, Stanisław Wyspiański’s talents encompassed more than just the...

Pola Otterstein, Szymon Jocek 11 April 2024

Photograph showing Hundertwasserhaus, a residential building with colorful facade and vegetation on the roof. Artist Stories

Colorful World of Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 5 Works

Step into the world of Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) as we explore his 5 extraordinary works of art and architecture bursting with colors...

Nikolina Konjevod 25 March 2024

Hermenegildo Bustos. Hermenegildo Bustos, Self-portrait, 1891, Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City, Mexico. Detail. Artist Stories

Hermenegildo Bustos: Self-Taught Painter of the People

Hermenegildo Bustos was one of Mexico’s most renowned painters of the 19th century. Despite the lack of Academic training, his portraits stood out...

Jimena Escoto 20 March 2024