About the Artist
Through the harmonious blending of color and form, the work of Milton Avery appears quiet and serene, yet extremely powerful. In his own reserved way, Avery influenced a generation of painters, including Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb.
The Early Years
Avery was born in 1885, in Altmar, a small town in upstate New York. His father was a tanner, who moved the family to a small town near Hartford, Connecticut when Avery was thirteen. The youngest of four children, Avery helped to support the family by doing factory work, starting at age sixteen.
A magazine ad that promised one could, “make money lettering” led Avery to take classes at the Connecticut League of Art Students in 1905. The lettering class was cancelled after just a month, but the founder of the school persuaded Avery to switch to a life-drawing class, instead of dropping out of the school. For years, Avery did factory work during the day and went to classes at night.
The deaths of his father, older brothers and his brother-in-law, left it up to Avery to support his mother, sister and sisters-in-law, which he did, while continuing to study art in the evenings. In 1917 Avery took a job on the night shift, as a file clerk for an insurance company, which enabled him to take classes at the School of the Art Society in Hartford.
When Avery Met Sally
Avery’s life, and certainly his luck, changed in 1924, when he met Sally Michel, an aspiring artist from Brooklyn. They were married in 1926 and moved to New York. Sally decided to support them both with her income as a freelance illustrator, so that Avery could focus completely on his art.
The couple was married for nearly forty years and had one child, March Avery Cavanaugh, an artist, and a grandson, Sean Avery Cavanaugh, also an artist.
In the late 1920s, Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and other young artists exhibited their works at the city-subsidized Opportunity Gallery in New York. Avery’s work attracted the younger artists to his studio.
“I have always thought he was a great artist. When Social Realism and the American scene were considered the important thing, he took an esthetic stand opposed to regional subject matter.” Gottlieb said. “I shared his point of view; and since he was ten years my senior and an artist I respected, his attitude helped to reinforce me in my chosen direction. I always regarded him as a brilliant colourist and draftsman, a solitary figure working against the stream.”
Avery had his first solo exhibit in 1935, at the Valentine Gallery, which also represented Matisse. Avery remained with the gallery through 1941.
Avery continued to paint throughout his lifetime, even through his recovery from a heart attack in 1949. During his convalescence, he created monotypes at the Research Art Colony in Maitland, Florida.
His work not only maintained the richness of color that inspired so many other artists, but seemed to become even stronger and more vibrant.
Sally Avery died in 2003, at the age of 100. When she met Avery, in 1924, she was 22 and he was nearly forty, so he told her he was about seven years younger than he actually was. She didn’t learn the truth about his age until 1982, when it was discovered by the curator of an exhibit of Avery’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Milton Avery died in 1965, at the age of 80. At Avery’s memorial service, Mark Rothko said this of his mentor and friend, “There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with that inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush. For Avery was a great poet-inventor who had invented sonorities never seen or heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come.”
Avery’s works are in the permanent collections of museums in America and Europe, including the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the National Gallery of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, The Phillips Collection, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.