2 Paintings in Collection
(1904 - 1983) United States
Works in Public Collections
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, NY; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; Greenville County Museum of Art, SC; Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Bentonville, AK
Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA, 2021-2022. Traveled to Figge Art Museum, Davenport, IA, 2022; Vero Beach Museum of Art, FL, 2022; Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN 2022-2023
Naples Collects, Artis-Naples, The Baker Museum, Naples, FL, 2023
Seascape #2 included
Doris Lee: American Painter and Illustrator, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., 2014-2015
America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, Art Institute of Chicago, IL, 2016. Traveled to Musée de l’ Orangerie, Paris, France, 2017; Royal Academy, London, U.K., 2017
Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee, Melissa Wolfe, Editor, Westmoreland Museum of Art, Greensburg, PA.
Born 1904 Aledo, Illinois
Died 1983 Clearwater, Florida
Doris Lee’s was an American painter and illustrator whose body of work ranges from naïve narrative realism to modern abstraction. She is best known for her folk life gouaches that record scenes of Americana, but her abstract works reveal a knowledgeable hold on modernist principles and practices. During her lifetime Lee exhibited with prominent galleries and had work purchased by important museums. She was also a successful commercial artist as well as a muralist for the WPA, but as was true for many women working in the middle of the twentieth century, Doris Lee has been sidelined by the mainstream art history narrative that focused on male, New York-based abstractionists.
Born Doris Emrick in Aledo, Illinois, Lee came from a large extended family all of who were engaged in crafts and the domestic arts. Considered a tomboy in her youth, she was reluctant to tow the line prescribed by her gender, resisting the strictures of preparatory school by chopping her hair off. She graduated from Rockford College in 1927, majoring in philosophy. After college she married Russell Lee, an engineer who later became an accomplished photographer. They traveled together to Europe and Lee studied art in Paris. Returning to the United States, she enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute, taking a class with American Impressionist Ernest Lawson. In 1930 she attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where she met the painter Arnold Blanch, who would later become her partner for many decades. That summer Lee returned to Paris to study with cubist André Lhote, where she gained additional exposure to modernist concepts.
In 1931 Doris and Russell Lee settled in Woodstock, NY where Doris took inspiration from small town life as well as the many talented artists that Woodstock attracted including Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Peggy Bacon and Leon Kroll. Arnold Blanch and his wife Lucile were also living in Woodstock where Blanch taught at the Art Students League local branch. In the early 1930s Russell Lee took up photography, eventually becoming one of the Farm Security Administration’s most prolific photographers, a position that sent him all over the country. By 1939 Doris and Russell Lee were divorced and she and Arnold Blanch began a partnership that would last until Blanch’s death in 1968.
Woodstock’s beauty and quaintness appealed to Lee and offered her many subjects to paint. The lush rural landscape and the small-town scenes were fodder for her early works which combined the style of American folk art with the subject matter of the American Regionalists. The paintings are sentimental, lyrical and well-executed pieces and illustrate an American way of life that many were nostalgic for during the Great Depression. With fine brushwork and an acute attention to detail, Lee created images that were both touching as well as playful. Many of the pieces from this time period focus on women and their traditional duties as homemakers but there is a strain of active independence that is also evident in the work. Lee’s women also wrangle horses, shoot and occasionally appear lustful. They were women of action and she herself was vocal about injustice and inequality. In 1951 she told an audience: “We cannot afford to neglect or discourage any talent because of the artificial barriers of race, class, or sex.”
In 1932 Lee was included in the first Whitney Biennial. True national recognition came to Lee in 1935 when she was awarded the Logan Medal of the Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago for a work called Thanksgiving, a detail-rich painting of women working in a kitchen preparing the annual feast. The prize garnered Lee significant attention because it was controversial. The donor of the Logan prize called Lee’s work “an awful thing,” dismissing it as provincial and cartoonish and prompting her to found the conservative “Sanity in Art movement.” The Art Institute’s response was also clear as they opted to buy Lee’s painting for their permanent collection.
By the mid 1930s Lee’s career was accelerating. In 1935 she had a solo exhibition at Duncan Phillips Studio House and was commissioned by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to create two murals in the main Post Office in Washington, D.C. (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building) and another in the Post Office in Summerville, Georgia. In 1937 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Lee’s painting, Catastrophe. In 1939 she was invited to exhibit in the New York World’s Fair. During this time, she also regularly won competitions including the Carnegie Prize in 1944. Between 1936 and 1950 Lee exhibited frequently with the Maynard Walker Art Gallery in New York.
Lee was stylistically nimble and easily transitioned between folk work and abstraction, paintings and illustration. At periods in her life she also did costume and textile design as well as ceramics. Hoot! is an example of Lee’s comfort with multiple mediums. Her humor and playfulness are evident in this collage that incorporates paint, fabric scraps and drawing.
In addition to painting, Lee had an active career as an illustrator and teacher. During the 1940s and 1950s she was commissioned by Life magazine to illustrate travel articles, which sent her to California, Cuba, Mexico and Morocco. She also did illustrations for other magazines and books including The Rodgers and Hart Songbook and a number of children’s books. She and Blanch both enjoyed teaching and they often accepted posts around the country. Lee’s guest positions included the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center (summers 1936-39), Michigan State University (1943 and 1944), and the University of Hawaii (1957). In 1955 together the couple published a book Painting for Enjoyment.
By the 1950s Lee’s work became more and more abstract. Simplified shapes and flat blocks of luminous color illustrate a knowledge of European modernism and reflect exposure to the work of postwar American abstractionists who were showing in New York and also present at the Woodstock Art Conferences between 1947 and 1952. As Melissa Wolfe notes in the 2021 catalog on Lee (Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee) Adolph Gottlieb, Milton Avery and Lee were all in Woodstock in the early 1950s and each of them began to float abstract, colorful shapes on canvases where the forms loosely referenced actual objects.
In Woodstock, Lee and Blanch became close friends with Milton Avery and his wife Sally Michel. In addition to time together in New York, the couples traveled to Key West together and the artists clearly influenced one another. It is important to recognize that the dialogue among these artists was fluid and to assume that the better known, male artist was the influencer would be presumptuous. At this moment Avery and Lee were both working through new approaches that simplified and abstracted their relationship to the natural world. Gardens and the sea, beach and seasonal scenes are increasingly defined with less specific detail and more pure form and color.
Lee rarely executed complete abstractions and, like the work in the Jeri L. Wolfson Collection, many of her abstract works are rooted in the life she observed around her. Seascape #2 is inspired by the landscape and light of Florida, where the couple spent many winters. For Lee biomorphic forms and geometric shapes define her abstract canvases. Flat areas of color are laid down on a neutral field. In Seascape #2 brightly colored soft-edged geometric forms suggest a sun, a fish, a sailboat and a platform. These shapes float on a divided canvas of sea and sky.
In her late sixties Lee was disabled with Alzheimer’s disease but she continued to paint up to her death in 1983. Until very recently her name has largely been left out of art history. In 2021 Barbara Jones, of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and Melissa Wolfe, of the St. Louis Art Museum put together an exhibition that has reasserted Lee into consideration. Through Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee they propose that there were a number of connected reasons that her work had largely been forgotten. Decorative and joyful, detailed and domestic, Lee’s art was not taken as seriously as the aggressive gestural mark making of the abstraction expressionists. Colorful work that had humor and emphasized a positive American way of life and, was made by a woman, was a combination of attributes that was easily dismissed in an age that was troubled by the Atom bomb and the horrors of WWII. But the reexamination of Lee’s work has resurrected an interest in this modernist who was adept in multiple mediums and who held the daily life of women as a central focus of our shared life.