Milton Avery's painting Study in Blues features a young woman sitting on a couch.

Discover Milton Avery's "Study in Blues"

By Beth Hamilton

The success of Milton Avery’s art lies in his ability to modernize familiar scenes in nature and domestic life by transforming them into carefully orchestrated arrangements of color and form. Avery was born in Sand Bank (now Altmar), New York, in 1885 to a working-class family. By 1898, the family moved to an area near East Hartford, Connecticut, where he began formal art studies in 1905. At night, Avery took classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students while working at a factory in Hartford to help support his family. In 1918 he transferred to the School of the Art Society in Hartford to continue his arts education, which centered on the basic tenets of academic drawing as well as the work of American Impressionist artists John Henry Twachtman and Childe Hassam. Following his studies, Avery worked in a Post-Impressionist style, depicting traditional figurative and genre subjects.

In 1924, Avery met New York artist Sally Michel during a summer trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts. The following year, Avery joined Michel in New York and the pair wed in 1926. Avery then attended evening classes at the Art Students League and took up painting full-time. Already in his forties, Avery had the confidence to experiment in a number of styles through constant experimentation and a rigorous work ethic. While the majority of American painters aligned with the American Scene movement during the 1930s, Avery’s style defied classification. His version of modernism was a blending of realism and abstraction, using color and simplified forms to create a unified whole. Unlike American Scene painters, Avery emphasized color and form over the content of his paintings. As Avery described, “I like to seize the one sharp instant in nature, to imprison it by means of ordered shapes and space relationships. To this end I eliminate and simplify, leaving apparently nothing but color and pattern. I am not seeking pure abstraction; rather, the purity and essence of the idea—expressed in its simplest form” (Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery [New York: Hudson Mills Press, 1990], p. 166). Avery’s commitment to his own unique style prevailed even after befriending leading Abstract Expressionist artists Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman.

Avery’s maverick spirit was eventually rewarded when he was invited to join Valentine Dudensing’s gallery in 1935. The support of the Valentine Gallery allowed Avery to freely develop his abstract subject matter and color harmonies as his career progressed. In 1943, Avery joined the roster of progressive European and American artists represented by Paul Rosenberg, followed by joint representation by Durand-Ruel Galleries. In 1944, after nearly two decades of painting, Avery had his first solo museum exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery. The critical recognition that Avery earned during the 1940s cemented his confidence as he reached his mature style.

Study in Blues was painted in 1959, during the final phase of Avery’s career. Considered his most important and influential period, Avery’s work during the years of 1947-1963 positioned him as one of the earliest American painters of chromatic abstraction. Thus, his work served as a model for Rothko, Newman, and Gottlieb in exploring the expressive possibilities of color. In the present work, Avery has simplified the central female figure, rejecting any extraneous background details. The flat picture plane and two-dimensional representation is instead defined by its richness in color harmonies.

Barbara Haskell states of Avery’s late period, “As the scale of his paintings increased, the devices for conveying harmony and calm…became even more accentuated. He eliminated disturbing color contrasts by building chromatic harmonies around closely allied hues, equalizing values so that even complementaries had similar intensity. The homogenous color areas of previous work now yielded to mottled effects produced either by applying uneven densities of the same color or by brushing strokes of dark color over lighter grounds. The result—shimmering rhythms within color zones. Still, each painting possessed an overall balance in which no shape or color dominated. Favoring pastel colors, Avery tinted his paint with white pigment which imparted a coolness of tone even when colors were highly saturated. This ability to create pastel color harmonies which were voluptuous and opulent was one of the distinguishing features of Avery’s late paintings.” (Barbara Haskell, Milton Avery [New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1982], p. 158)

Cover image: Milton Avery, American, 1885-1965. Study in Blues, 1959. Oil on canvas. 50 x 40 inches. Signed and dated lower right.