Archive for December 1st, 2015

I could not do without a Syringa for the sake of Cowper’s line (Jane Austen’s letter, Sunday, 8-9 February 1807, Southampton home)

Myself creating what I saw — Mr Knightley before a fire at “twilight” (Emma, III:5)

Harbor and Clouds (1970s) (Gloucester, Massachusetts)

There is a sort of stillness and acute sense of privacy that I try to achieve when working directly from nature. The moment of the dying of the light is my favorite moment to paint landscape. for me this time is a great flaring up of life and a revelation. I become more alive, too. It’s a time when I gather my energies — I am physically more alert to my surroundings. The main reason is the excitement that the color takes on — it illuminates everything (Blaine, quoted in Martica Sawin, Nell Blaine her life and art 100)

Trees, near Studio, Late Afternoon 1 (black and white watercolor, 1972)

Dear friends and readers,

I feel about Nell Blaine’s paintings the way Jane Austen felt about William Cowper’s poetry: deep loved Nell Blaine’s paintings since I came across her India Ink sketches,

Cookie Shop (1959)

Two Trees, Mykonoes

I may be unusual for loving her work in black-and-white and her ink skatches as strongly as I do her landscapes.

i find her depictions of the strange colors the snow sky takes on deeply pleasurable and comforting:

November Snow (1987)

In this one the whole surface of the lights of the world reflecting off it at night:

Night Lights, Snow (1994).

She holds to the idea that painting is an affair of the surface: the effect of depth, especially in some mountain landscapes, owes nothing to perspective, but to varying intensities of colors. Different ‘families’ of colors are distributed over the surface like groups of solo instruments in an orchestra. But colors which seem to echo each other often differ vastly in intensity and saturation, resulting in an exciting counterpoint. The spiritual counterpoint of her bold inventive style is an intense but discriminating joie de vivre: pleasure in English walls, the flowers, the sweep of sky, mountains and trees (John Ashberry, quoted in Sawin 81)

River Lights

I am drawn to the lacy-quality of her more exquisite work,

Layered Clouds and Shore (1982)

Jordi Vigee, Great Women Masters of Art 430): The artist painted in watercolor wash. Her extraordinary vision of the pictorial composition, based on a structured combination of multiple patches of color, allows the artist in this work to conjugate the natural transparency of the watercolor medium with touches of more intense colors. The shore reveals how a meticulous distribution of patches of solid color allow tiny unpainted white spaces to define and outline the composition.
The artist renders the sea and the sky through more patches of watercolor applications. The varied tones that make up the sky barely merge with one another. The grayish tones, blues, and yellows are completed with white, which heightens the expressiveness of the landscape. Blaine uses a palette of colors that produce harmonized contrast through the wash technique, in which the different tones of the sky appear to merge. Although the artist uses the same to tones to paint the water against the shore as she does for the sea and the sky, their expressive capacity is not subordinated to the surrounding colors. Instead, Blaine achieves a rhythmic sensartion that sets off the calm continuity of color displayed in the clouds and on the horizon

Campanula (1986) — she loved painting flowers


Northern Sky with Ireland

I could scarce believe when I read about her, and was told she was an abstract expressionist, a follower of Mondrian, at least started out that way, and there was a time she competed in “the rampantly divise macho and politicized late 1950s” (Eleanor Munro, Original American Women Artists 261). I thought to myself, there the critic is determined to put her work in among males. This is abstract expressionism?

Big Table with Pomegranates (earlier work, but after abstract period)

So I bought myself Marita Sawin’s full-length study and life so as to assure myself of affinities that Sawin reported were far more fundamental: Vuillard, Bonnard, the plein air and impressionists’ art and mood, Courbet; as Blaine put it (in Munro’s book which is filled with good passages by Blaine explicating her work), the “matter of rejoining the past was important … The idea now is everything has been started from scratch”(Munro 271).

It’s true these Mondrian and crude canvases of bold solid outlined chunks of unmodified color (one across a space) are reprinted at the start of those studies of Blaine I’ve come across, but this does not come alive until mixed with Cezanne and other influences:

Public Square (1951)

And in Blaine’s beginning we find equally Braque-like

Mountain Towns (1951)

and what I call New Yorker-like mood pieces:

Bryant Park 1 (pre-1950s?),

She would paint characterizations of her friends and (just a little later) followers in the early 50s too — both absorbed in books, interwoven with the colors of their environment, coming out of these:

Jane Freilicher on Twenty-First Street (1953)

Phyllis Reading (1957)

We must feel her meditative presence (as Austen did Cowper’s):

View from Torre

Harbour from Banner Hill (1986)

This authentic living work, her signature kind of picture begins early and is a projection of her own (as she says) world-view orderly impress on the natural world coursing through her:

Harbour and Green Cloth II (1958)

Here is Blaine describing her break-away from this Hofmanesque (the name of the man running the school she had gone to) system of “planes:”

I went through a difficult transitional period. I didn’t meet my own standards anymore. Now I was sticking my neck out, and the work didn’t look as confident. But there was no turning back. I had to go that way. Gradually, I became interested in natural light translated into pictorial light, and since then it’s been all of a piece (Sawin, 42)


Photograph of her when younger

A second problem is that Blaine’s disability is sometimes omitted altogether (in Jordi) and her lesbianism is not made clear (Jordi again, see Nicola Smith’s obituary in the New York Times, Nov 15, 1996). Both are central aspects of the woman’s life arc; thus her later painting techniques and full sensibility are marginalized or passed over in silence. Blaine’s childhood sicknesses (astigmatism and crossed eyes) are not sufficiently paid attention to by others: she brings these up several times (Munro, 263): her mother would read to her when she did not go to school. We are told of an early “amiable” marriage to a male musician, Robert Bass; that it mysteriously somehow “collapsed” because, it’s implied, she had a miscarriage. That’s it.

To begin with, her disability began at age 37 (1959): while in Greece, Blaine was attacked by a polio virus, came near death, before she was put into a large iron lung for months, then a smaller one; she found herself utterly paralyzed and was told she’d never paint again. Only slowly did she gain mobility, a show of art was organized to fund her, and intensive physical therapy enabled her to draw and make watercolors with her right hand, do oils with her left; she spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair, in need of a live-in companion-nurse. The relationships she formed, where she lived, and what she could attempt changed. Dilys Evans, a British nurse became Blaine’s live-in help, partner-companion and finally art student for seven years.

Dilys in their studio in the afternoon — a cat on the floor (?)

Here Blaine describes one small portion of a heroic trip she and Evans took together in 1965 to England (Dorsetshire), onto Paris (where they made it to an opera), to Madrid, tPortugal, then across the ocean to Santa Lucia in the British West Indies, where they lived in a house modified for Blaine’s use:

It took months to get a road up there so I was penned up on the mountainside. We didn’t have furniture or proper water, but it was a wonderful experience to be close to so much raw nature. It was a wild place — the natives call it Font de Serpents because of the deadly fer-de-lance vipers-and we had scorpions and tarantulas. Dilys had to treat a banana picker’s nearly deadly snakebite. The flowers and fruit were heavenly We could pick papayas right off the porch mangoes and avocados grew in abundance. I began to learn about shells and back with hundreds of them. It rained every day except in the dry season. I worked on the porch, and the rain would come so suddenly and sometimes there would be ten terrible downpours in a day, as well as landslides and one bad hurricane. I did many watercolors, but the oils were difficult to complete. There were other dramas such as being threatened by a mau mau letter that came from London saying: “Americans, Anse Galet Valley, my spies are surrounding you. The day of your death is in my dairy [sic J.” The letter was taken to the police who contacted Scotland Yard, and the man was caught in England — a former Saint Lucian unhappy about a land dispute. During that period we slept with machete under our beds, and Lennards [Blaine’s teenaged assistant] and our dog Tonka kept watch on the porch (Sawin)

Anse Galet Valley

Anse Galet Valley

When Evans left in 1966 Blaine was distraught, desolate, and as usual her mood emerged in all her paintings. A good friend was Marshall Clements:


She was introduced her to Carolyn Harris who had lived in San Francisco, and two became devoted lesbian partners for the next 29 years.

Portrait of Carolyn (1977)

It does a disservice especially to disabled women (and men too) to ignore these realities of Blaine’s life and her friendships; the effect is to magnify and suggest we must hide something, say a whole transformation of her personality; where the truth is a disability (at least) affects only those parts of your body that are disabled, when you are provided with effective help to build a life with and around or through your limitations. Blaine had by the early 1950s begun to live her sexual orientation out, and by 1959 had acquired the friends, connections, access to money (Arthur Cohen was a generous supporter), respect, and in 1964 an English patron, Howard Griffin at whose house she had stayed left her all he owned: including an English country estate, mountainside house in Haderleh, antique furnishings, art collection, valuable library, unpublished ms’s including extensive correspondence with artists and writers (e.g., W.H. Auden), not to omit a Volvo station wagon (Sawin 108). She died from a spreading cancer, a return of some of the symptoms of the earlier polio attack (“post-polio syndrome).

She is a major towering figure among artists of the 20th century and yet is not well-known outside artistic circles — not mentioned in several of the surveys I have. Why and how is this? I suspect in part her apolitical comforting vision. She sees the world in “rainbow colors,” even when looking at rooftops of tenements in NYC:

Rooftops (1967)

But it’s more that like other women artists she is being judged by male aesthetics and preoccupations: her art belongs to the lesbian aesthetic discussed by Lisa Moore (see “a lesbian aesthetic”; “sister and lesbian arts”; Erotics of).


Eudora Room, 1988

Her southern background may have something to do with her apolitical outlook: she was taught to be lady, discreet and unobtrusive. She was ill — I suspect didn’t fit in in school from her stories of her tomboy ways. Slowly she broke away:

A haunting and major image from my childhood is the backwoods of Virginia, where we had relatives who were farm people. The life was different from the one I knew in Richmond. Lush trees and, in the backwoods, wooden-slat and white-sand roads, with people selling melons and other incredibly beautiful fruits in abundance. I loved those old areas! “Our cabin was extraordinarily beautiful, too, on Mobjack Bay. It was roughly built, and the spaces between the floorboards were so wide I could lie and watch snakes crawl under the house. The pines around were extremely all, with foliage way up at the top. We would put planks between the trees to clean the fish on. It was a way of life as well as beautiful country, a magic place in my memory. I’ve always felt I’d like to go back, to see it again. But it would probably be changed or not even there at all-any of what I remember so well (Munro 262-63).

Her father was a farmer, owned a lumber business and was a violent man, her mother “a very provincial Southern lady, very domestic and fiercely religious;” all Blaine’s unlady-like impulses, her tomboy ways were tolerated, and her mother read to her books like Swiss Family Robinson, but was unalterably opposed to her becoming an artist (it would not be remunerative). She had gradually to leave her Virginia environment, where what she was being taught was academic kinds of art, and go to New York. A central influence was clearly a woman, painter and teacher, Worden Day, who had studied at the Students Art League and came into contact with people who had studied in Munich.

Worden did something even more important. She took me out to look at my own home town in a way I’d never seen it before. I’d get up early in the morning and go out onto the hills and other old parts of town. I did lots of big watercolors influenced by her. I must have had enormous energy then, because I’d be out on my bike by six in the morning, then home for breakfast and then rush off to a job I had, clean across town. Evenings I’d ride the bicycle back across town and visit with Worden. We’d talk, talk, talk. She’d tell me about New York and say I should go there with her. The whole idea was magic. My mother, however, was getting more upset by the moment, knowing she was going to lose me. She fought to the point of hysteria, but she couldn’t stop me. And ultimately, reluctantly, she helped me pack my suitcases. “It was the fall of ’42 when I arrived. All that hot Southern summer before, I had saved every nickel till I had ninety dollars. I went right away to Hofmann with a portfolio, asked him for a scholarship, and he gave it to me (quoted in Munro 264-66)

She painted in a studio in her early years — there’s may be a pet or pets (a cat?) under the table

Then came her early period imitating abstract studies which were at first liberating. The period of the 40s was one of her meeting unconventional bohemian people in New York City, but she was also very poor, and it was wartime, exciting. It was during this time she met her husband and married; she met Jane Freilicher and her husband, a jazz musician. Her first show in 1945 gave her great confidence.

Midi and Brook (1955)

A tree at the edge of a field (1967)

The Jane Street gallery became a site for these groups to integrate into, and was promoted by Clement Greenberg (whose early death was setback to Blaine’s career at the time). I quote briefly from her description of her time at the Jane Street cooperative and eventual break with dgomatic American ideological art:

“I was very dogmatic, in those days, about purist abstraction. I thought it was the only way to work. It was very narrow of me … Then I joined the Jane Street cooperative, the first serious one of its kind. There were about ten members; we put our money into the operation and each spent time sitting in the gallery. It wasn’t a moneymaking thing, however; it was ideological. Hyde Solomon, one of the pioneers, invited me to join. Later on, Larry Rivers would have his first show with us, and Clement Greenberg would say it was the best gallery in New York. We had very strong principles. In fact, we threw out members who were working figuratively and gave the place the homogeneous character we wanted. … Later on I began to dare to use a little bit of paint quality: it was a big thing if you made a little scumble in the paint, or a little modeling.
    By that time I’d met de Kooning and many of the artists of the other, Expressionist tendency. We liked them personally and we were stimulated by them, but felt, in our arrogant way, that we knew what structure was and that they were going up the garden path. For our part, we felt an allegiance to the European influence — Mondrian and Arp and Jean Helion. Eventually, the schism became very deep. Those artists who retained a connection with European ideas were treated with hostility by the others. We, on the other hand, felt we wanted continuity. That we weren’t unfresh or lacking in the ‘American spirit,’ but that this talk of ‘American art’ as superior and cut off from European was not only a distortion but also silly … By that time-even more later-the atmosphere was one in which the Abstract Expressionist idea only was being promoted by various cliques. The idea was America the Great. I thought this view was destructive. But I suppose it’s the same as with any minority group: American artists had had such an inferiority complex they needed to feel a sense of independence and at the same time create their own heritage. But I never wanted to break with the past ….
    Then, in 1950, I went to Paris … I liked working on the banks of the Seine. I liked going to the villages. The fact that the landscape was different from home helped me make the transition. My love affair with the past had something to do with it, too, especially the Impressionists. Theirs seemed a natural way of painting, and I was always trying to find the natural and honest way, looking to be more direct and clearer, with less artifice (quoted in Munro 268-69)

Low Tide, Smith Cove (after she has recovered to paint again, 1971)

While her traveling in Europe and the Mediterranean before and after her polio were important, it seems that going to the shore of Massachusetts, Gloucester, the harbour, was a final stage in making her the artist she became.

Something about Gloucester connects with my childhood, with those trips to the backwoods of Virginia. There’s a wildness to the scene. I found a spot by the shore with lots of trees, crazy rocks and water in the distance. The house has old beams and doors from the Shaker times. And hen I had the roof raised up so there’s that beautiful Gloucester light and an open feeling of clouds and sky (quoted in Munro 270).

Dories, Gloucester


A photograph of Blaine in Gloucester (1943)

To understand her work, you have to recognize the strong lesbian aesthetic intermixing with her rooting her art in the European past once she stopped the early brief abstract period.

What’s called her eclectism, its content

Mixed Media, near Woodstock

makes sense when you see she belongs to the world of artists to which Jane Austen belongs (discussed by Emma Donoghue as part of a lesbian spinster world).

A very Mary Delany [Herr Furuter’s] Field (1984)

In the viscerally masculine, aggressive and predatory world of art of the 1950s, it would have taken nerve to produce even at its close

Dephi Bouquet (1959)

or, earlier, Merry-go-Round (1951)


It took decades for her to come to her own lacy-delicate style

Dahlias and Rubdeckia (1986)

Palm and Wheat (1959)

though during her trip to Europe we find her producing landscapes of mounds like Georgia O’Keefe

View from Tarr and Winston (1971)

Hers is the world we find in the cosy worlds of Gaskell’s Cranford and Wives and Daughters:

Summer Interior with a Book (1986)

in the lesbian novels discussed in Suzanne Jushasz’s Reading from the Heart:

Studio Interior from her time at Yaddo


Painting on an autumn afternoon in Gloucester late in life

On the rare occasions she paints animals they are the small creatures of women’s poetry

Fish (Walaya, 1965)

Her towns look like shellwork:

Santorini Vista (1959)



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