Rediscover Woodstock artist Doris Lee

Doris Lee’s mural Country Post at the Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, DC ( Carol M. Highsmith Archive | Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Portrait of Doris Lee, ca. 1935 (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

When people write about the eminent visual artists associated with the Town of Woodstock since the founding of the Byrdcliffe Colony in 1902, it’s easy for the reader to get the impression that nearly all of them were male. Here as elsewhere in art history, it takes some digging to find out who the talented women were. Among the most accomplished of these – and by some accounts, one of the most successful female American artists of the Depression era – was Doris Lee.

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Her adopted hometown hasn’t given Lee a one-woman show since 1984, the year after her death, at the Woodstock Artists Association. But the National Museum of Women in the Arts devoted a retrospective exhibition to her work in 2014/15, “Doris Lee: American Painter and Illustrator,” and included Lee in four earlier shows. Manhattan gallerist Deedee Wigmore , who has probably done more than anyone to ensure that Lee’s oeuvre is still seen and appreciated, is now serving as curator of her estate. Since Lee’s long painting and printmaking career spanned many of the 20th century’s artistic movements and styles, Wigmore has found works of hers appropriate to include in shows and collections focused on Realism, Precisionism and Modernism. “Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee” will be coming to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Pennsylvania in 2020.

Born in Aledo, Illinois, Doris Emrick studied art and philosophy at Rockford College. Upon graduation in 1927, she married Russell Werner Lee, an engineer who later became a noted photographer with the Farm Security Administration. During their honeymoon year abroad in Italy and France, Lee studied painting, and she later returned to Paris for lessons with the Cubist painter André Lhote. She also studied with the American Impressionist/Ashcan School painter Ernest Lawson at the Kansas City Art Institute, and in San Francisco, at the California School of Fine Arts with Arnold Blanch, whom she later married following her 1939 divorce. Lee worked for a time in a New York studio on East 14th Street and discovered Woodstock, where she soon settled. Blanch joined her and went on to teach for many years at the Art Students League.

Lee’s paintings were exhibited in the first Whitney Biennial exhibition in 1932, but her widest early fame came when she won when her painting Thanksgiving won the Art Institute of Chicago’s prestigious Logan Medal of the Arts in 1935, four years after she moved to Woodstock, and was acquired for the Institute’s permanent collection. Ironically, the donor of the prize, Josephine Logan, disliked the painting, which featured rather caricatured rural characters preparing a holiday meal in a style suggestive both of WPA-era social realism and of the homespun sentimentality that made Norman Rockwell’s illustrations so popular with the public. Logan was so incensed that she founded a group called the Society for Sanity in Art in protest of the Art Institute’s decision.

Americana was hot during the Depression, though, and Lee was soon being offered commissions from the US Treasury Department to paint murals for the General Post Office in Washington, DC (now the Clinton Federal Building) and the Summerville, Georgia Post Office. In 1937, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired Catastrophe, her painting of the Hindenburg Disaster, for its permanent collection. She was also invited to exhibit in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Life magazine hired her as an illustrator, sending her on jaunts to Morocco, Cuba and Mexico, and also to paint scenes of offscreen interactions among actors on Hollywood movie sets. Other high-profile illustration works included a James Thurber book, The Great Quillo, and The Rodgers and Hart Songbook, commissioned by Richard Rodgers himself. She also painted scenes from Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, including Carousel and Oklahoma!

Lee left behind hundreds of paintings of scenes of rural life: people hoeing vegetables or picking apples, cooking or sewing, taking a tea break on a porch or attending a country wedding, maypole dancers, a girl practicing archery, a woman – black in one version, white in another – napping on an iron bedstead outdoors on a hot afternoon. But she started out with an inclination toward the abstract, and in the latter decades of her career her depictions became less self-consciously “folksy,” flatter, more gesturally concise, letting areas of color do more of the work. Even though the paintings remained representational, usually including human forms, individual detail receded in importance to the point where, in several depictions of groups of bathers, it’s unclear whether or not they are nude or clothed, male or female. She did some landscapes as well, but only a few recognizably depict Woodstock and its environs.

For health reasons, Lee retired from painting in the late 1960s. She and Blanch wintered in Clearwater, Florida up until his death in 1968 – her primitivist Florida paintings, which suggest the influence of Caribbean folk art, are worthy of a show in themselves – and it was there that Lee died in 1983. In addition to the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts  and the Met, Lee’s work is also represented at the National Gallery of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Phillips Collection in W

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