In Praise of Early Work

Along the Harlem River, 1925. Malvin Gray Johnson (1896–1934). Oil on canvas board, 12 × 16 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Acquisition Fund, 2017.

Art history has a bias toward “mature work” and signature styles. Within our public galleries, most artists are represented by a single work, so museums tend to seek out and exhibit the most characteristic examples of an artist’s career. But I have to confess my affection for many artists’ early works. I love it when you can see an artist discovering their interests and talents. One of the things I admire most about the living artists I work with is how they constantly solve problems. I love a work that still has traces of that problem-solving labor and experimentation.

Upstairs in the gallery dedicated to modern American art, early works by Malvin Gray Johnson and Hughie Lee-Smith hang side by side. The Johnson is an impressionist glimpse across the Harlem River, and it was painted in 1925 when he was still a student. Johnson died of heart failure at age 38 and may never have settled on a mature style. Active at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, he was a relentless experimenter who quickly moved on to incorporate elements of cubism and African art into his work in the late 1920s. In 1934, he headed south, recording the daily life of rural African Americans in watercolors. His experiments with modern styles may have started with impressionism in works like Harlem River.

Hughie Lee-Smith lived a long life and gained fame for his psychologically charged depictions of isolated figures in urban settings. Holland Cotter described Lee-Smith’s work in the artist’s obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Lee-Smith’s paintings usually have spare settings suggestive of theater stages or bleak urban or seaside landscapes. Walls stretch out under gray skies. Men and women, as lithe as dancers, seem frozen in place. Most are dressed in street clothes; some wear exotic masks. Children frequently appear, as do props reminiscent of circuses. The work has an air of mystery associated with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Edward Hopper.

imageThe Bouquet, 1949. Hughie Lee-Smith (1915–1999). Oil on Masonite, 23 3/4 × 17 3/4 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Acquisition Fund, 2018 © Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith / VAGA for ARS, New York, NY.

DelArt’s painting by Lee-Smith, The Bouquet, has the artist’s characteristic bleak landscape and air of mystery, but it has a stronger implied narrative than many of his best known later works. There is urgency and energy in the figures’ interaction that is echoed in the rough, textured paint of her dress. It seems like a picture of young love gone wrong. The artist was about 34 when he made it. Four years later, Lee-Smith would launch his career, finishing his bachelor’s degree at Wayne State and winning a top prize for painting at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Chief Curator and Curator of American Art

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