Paul Sample, Movies-Canton Island, 1943, Oil on canvas, Army Art Center, U.S. Army Center of Military History, Washington, D.C.

George Ault, Festus Yayple and His Oxen, 1946, Oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Fund, Photo by Jamison Miller.

George Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners, 1944, Oil on canvas, Collection of Sam Simon, Image © Christie’s Images Limited 2002.

Edward Hopper, Dawn in Pennsylvania, 1942, Oil on canvas, Terra Museum of American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collections, Courtesy of Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago/Art Resource, NY22.

An American Original Born of a World in Turmoil and a Redefined Nation

George Ault, Memories of the Coast of France, 1944, Oil on canvas, Manhattan Art Investments, LP, Photo by David Heald.

George Ault, August Night at Russell’s Corners, 1948, Oil on canvas, Joslyn Art Museum, Museum Purchase.

George Ault, Black Night at Russell’s Corners, 1943, Oil on canvas, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, John Lambert Fund.

George Ault, January Full Moon, 1941, Oil on canvas, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Purchase: William
Rockhill Nelson Trust (by exchange), Photo by Jamison Miller.

George Ault, Old House, New Moon, 1943, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery, Anonymous Gift 8. George Ault.

 

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
45th and Oak
816-751-1278
Kansas City
To Make a World:
George Ault and 1940s America

October 15 2011-January 8, 2012

By AUSTIN JACOBS

George Ault (1891-1948) was an American painter from the 1920s to 1940s, some of the most turbulent times and darkest years of America’s history. The stock market crash of 1929, The Great Depression, and World War II all affected George Ault’s psyche in a terrible way, as with many other Americans at that time.

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum highlights his work, along with some of his contemporaries like Andrew Wyeth, Byron Thomas, and others. It appears evident from many of Ault’s paintings that he never emerged emotionally from those dark years. “He had a deep sense of the destructiveness and disintegration of the entire globe, as he felt it during that era, the 1940s,” Alexander Nemerov, curator for the exhibition said in an online video biography for the Smithsonian.

Born into a wealthy Midwestern American family, Ault spent his childhood in London where he studied at the Slade School of Art and John’s Woods School of Art. In 1911 Ault returned to the United States and settled in New York. Ault experienced a number of misfortunes during the next few decades, says Nemerov. The family fortune was lost in the stock market crash of 1929, his parents passed away not long after, he took to drinking and his two older brothers committed suicide. In 1937, Ault and his wife Louise Jonas moved to a cabin in Woodstock, New York with no electricity or running water. It was in this cabin during the late 1930s and early 1940s where he painted his most reticent work, the paintings which are featured in “To Make a World.”

The four works that stand out most in the exhibition are the four interpretations of Russell’s Corners, an intersection of two gravel roads near Ault’s Woodstock cabin. Black Night at Russell’s Corners (1943, oil on canvas) and Bright Light At Russell’s Corners (1946, oil on canvas), both offer a view of the rural crossroads in the dark of night lit only by a single, hanging street lamp. The trees give the appearance of late-fall to winter. There is a barn and white farmhouse in each painting, but any windows that we see are completely lifeless and devoid of light. The scenes, while dark and lonesome are also peaceful because of the impression that this small piece of the world is constant and unchanging whenever you look out the window. In each painting the background is completely dark, giving the sensation that outside of the small patch of light is an element of darkness and foreboding. “Ault’s pictures depend so heavily on the capacity of the slope of a barn roof, or the angle of a telephone pole, or telephone wire to shape and control a world that would otherwise be out of control,” says Nemerov.

Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944, oil on canvas) shows the crossroads in the daylight for the first time. The scene is bright, covered in snow and includes more buildings than the first two, yet is still bereft and devoid of life. The characteristic that makes Ault’s paintings feel so lonesome is the impression of being a solitary viewer observing a scene with empty space all around. Even in his paintings that do have people in them, such as Festus Yayple and His Oxen (1946, oil on canvas), or Nude and Torso (1945, oil on canvas), they are either looking away or far in the distance, not interacting with the viewer.

In August Night at Russell’s Corners (1948, oil on canvas), by far the darkest of the four interpretations, the intersection is portrayed from a different angle than the other three of similar perspectives. The majority of this painting is only a stark black background, which is surrounding a tiny circle of visible light emitted by the street lamp. Perhaps this dark scene is reminiscent of Ault’s declining mental state, as it would be one of his final paintings. He committed suicide in 1948 at the age of 57.

To Make a World attempts to show its viewers the opposite side of the 1940s than the main stream Americana view of World War II propaganda and Norman Rockwell that most people associate with the decade. Though the paintings of his contemporaries sometimes distract from the power of Ault’s work throughout the exhibit, overall •To Make a World• succeeds at displaying “a quieter, more contemplative and somehow more deeply aware art that makes us look at the 1940s anew.”

There will be presentations Friday Dec. 2, and Saturday Dec. 3 further discussing both George Ault and the 1940s. More information regarding the presentations can be found on the museum’s website www.nelson-atkins.org.

George Ault, Nude and Torso, 1945, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of Zabriskie Gallery, Photo by David Heald.

Andrew Wyeth, Public Sale, 1943, Tempera on panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret McKee Breyer, © Andrew Wyeth.

Andrew Wyeth, Night Hauling, 1944, Tempera on masonite, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Ernestine K. Smith, in memory of her husband, Burwell B. Smith, © Andrew Wyeth .

Rockwell Kent, December 8, 1941, 1941, Oil on canvas, Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Gift of Sally Kent Gorton.

Peter Hurd, Enemy Action Over American Bomber Station, 1942, Tempera on board, Army Art CollectiWashington, D.C.