Just glancing at the painting “Thanksgiving,” one might think — oh, that looks like it’s by Grant Wood, the famous painter in the regionalist style.
The picture of a holiday dinner kitchen was painted in 1935 by Doris Emerick Lee (1904-1983), an Aledo, Ill., native who was one of the most widely known and prolific American painters — man or woman — from the mid-1930s through the 1950s.
If you have never heard of her, that is because her largely figurative work faded along with her name as other painting styles, especially abstract expressionism, gained favor in the latter part of the 1900s.
But her art is getting a second look in a traveling exhibition billed as the first major critical assessment of her work on display now through May 8 at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.
Organized by The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pa., “Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee” consists of 77 paintings and other objects gathered from about 60 locations.
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“Simple Pleasures” is a descriptive title because most of Lee’s paintings — particularly the early ones — depict everyday events or scenes that bring joy to people’s lives, often injected with humor.
As the art world changed and began to regard tragic or gritty themes as the only “real” art, Lee’s portrayals — often folksy and featuring domestic subjects, especially women — came to be regarded as trivial and certainly out-of-date with the times, according to commentary in the catalog accompanying the exhibit.
Viewers of the retrospective at the Figge can make up their own minds.
It’s not known whether there are any relatives in the Quad-City region to enjoy the new retrospective. Lee was born in 1904 in Aledo, a Mercer County town about 35 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities, but spent her adult life elsewhere. In 1968 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in Florida in 1983, with her remains returned to the family mausoleum in Aledo Cemetery. Lee married but did not have children. Her obituary in what is now the Quad-City Times listed a brother, of Florida and Kentucky, as her only survivor.
The range of her work
The exhibition at the Figge is displayed on two levels, beginning on the ground floor where works from all periods of her career are displayed to give a “tease” to what museum-goers will find on the third floor, Vanessa Sage, assistant curator at the Figge, said.
Longtime Quad-Citians might recognize the names of Jim and Deba Leach printed beside one of the paintings on the ground floor. Jim Leach is a Davenport native who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 2007, and he and his wife Deba, now living in Iowa City, loaned three of their paintings to the exhibit, paintings that aren’t in the traveling exhibit.
The ground floor work is from late in Lee’s career and is abstract, dominated by two masses of flat color, blue and a shade of coral. But the subject of a woman, presumably a mom, lying on her back and holding a baby in the air above her may remind viewers when they did something similar, and of the joy they found in doing that. So while the detail of Lee’s early work is gone, the pleasant feelings evoked by the more reduced works are the same.
As Lee herself once said, “I don’t think the content of an artist’s work changes much even though the means (or style) changes drastically.”
The exhibit captures the range of her work, which was prolific.
Lee created art for gallery shows in New York. The Treasury Department commissioned her to paint murals in a Washington, D.C., post office. She painted pictures that were used in magazine ads promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes, beer and Maxwell House coffee. Life magazine commissioned her to travel to Mexico, Cuba, north Africa and Hollywood, California, to paint scenes to accompany articles, 63 in all. She designed patterns for draperies and ceramics, showing that practical everyday objects could also be art.
Her work appeared in numerous magazines including Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Collier’s, Vogue, Fortune, McCall’s and Better Homes & Gardens. She painted pictures for Encyclopedia Britannica, playing cards, calendars, restaurant menus, a jigsaw puzzle and a book by James Thurber. She also taught art, including at Michigan State University, East Lansing.
Her life, career
Doris Emerick’s father was a wealthy banker and merchant, and her mother was a school teacher. They wanted their daughter to have well-rounded education so they sent her to Lake Forest, Ill., for high school, and then to Rockford College.
Upon graduation in 1927, she married the wealthy Russell Lee, and they both eventually became interested in creating art. An artistic nature ran in Lee’s family — her great-grandfather was a stonemason, her grandfather retired from his farm to paint and her grandmother made quilts, according to the exhibit catalog.
In 1931, the couple moved to Woodstock, N.Y., a leading art community (and yes, the same Woodstock where the infamous rock music festival was held in 1969.) The Lees were friends with Arnold and Lucile Blanche and, in time, both couples divorced. In 1939, Doris Lee and Arnold Blanche became partners, remaining together for nearly their entire careers, spending summers in Woodstock and winters in Florida.
Lee’s rise to the top ranks of American artists was sealed in the fall of 1935, when her painting “Thanksgiving” won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a detail-filled picture of a kitchen in which four women are toiling with various aspects of the holiday feast — checking the turkey, rolling pie dough, reaching for a platter and carrying a basket of vegetables. But there are other things going on, too — a woman taking off her hat, a boy standing in a doorway doing nothing, a little girl feeding a table scrap to a cat and two babies flailing their arms in a high chair.
However, the woman for whom the prize was named — Josephine Logan — hated the painting, deeming it “atrocious,” which caused a big stir and garnered Lee more publicity and newspaper coverage than she might have otherwise received, the exhibit catalog says.
As time went on, Lee’s style got more abstract, more concerned with pure form and color, a shift that the Figge’s Sage admires about Lee.
“She was very adept at making changes as she was moving along,” Sage said.
Asked what qualities about Lee she finds most striking, Sage singled out “her tenacity, her openness to changing how she was working, aware of all the things that were going on around her.”
“She was not stuck in one place. She was not making the same thing over and over again. But the changes she made are coming from her; it’s her personal vision. She’s not emulating others. (The changes) are coming from a personal place, it’s evolving, and I respect all of that.”
The Figge signed on for the exhibition when staffers first heard about it several years ago, Sage said.
“The quality of her body of work, her connections to American Scene painting (important within our collection and to the region), our recent acquisition of Lee’s painting “New House” (featured in the exhibit), and Lee’s local ties, being from Aledo, are just some of the reasons we felt it was important to share Lee’s work with the community,” Sage wrote in an email.
In addition to “New House,” the Figge owns two other Lee paintings and several lithograph prints.
Lee’s paintings also are found in the Art Institute of Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City; and the Cleveland Museum of Art.