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Doris Lee (1904 – 1983)

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

Landscape with Fisherman, oil on canvas, 32 x 25 inches, 1935, signed lower right, ex collection of Walker Galleries, New York, and Associated American Artists Gallery, New York (label verso with gallery name and address, as well as the artist’s name, the title of the painting, the medium and original price); Exhibited: 1) the Forty-Second Annual Exhibition of American Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, May 15 through June 9, 1935, where it was voted the most popular painting in the exhibition (see the June 7, 1935 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “The first choice represents in vivid colors – natural but intensified in hue – a small figure of a fisherman under towering trees, enlivened by leaping squirrels, with glimpses of peaceful pastures and cloudy sky beyond.”); 2) Paintings by Doris Lee, her first one-person show in New York, in April, 1936, at Walker Galleries (writing of this show, Charles Offin noted in his review, “Doris Lee, a gifted young painter born and raised in the middle west and now living in New York, heads in importance the long list of ‘one man’ exhibitions by women artists that are current this week. . . . Miss Lee is by no means always pensive in her paintings. In fact, when she introduces animation into her street scenes, she goes a bit too far for the good of her compositions. In her ‘Washington Square,’ she crowds more activities of kids and toughs than could have happened in a week. But we don’t mind in the least the scampering of squirrels on the upper branches of the trees in her ‘Landscape with Fisherman.’ Miss Lee has already received the recognition of some of the outstanding museums, a recognition which is well deserved.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1936, p. C13); 3) Junior League Exhibition of Paintings by Doris Lee, John Stewart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton at the William Penn Club Rooms in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in November, 1936 - the exhibition included ten paintings by Lee, six by Curry and five by Benton (writing of this exhibit in the November 10, 1936, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jeanette Jena noted, “In these pictures too as in ‘Landscape with Fisherman’ . . . one cannot escape the great skill of their artist in depicting nature’s moods . . . .” and characterized Lee as having a “vividness of Currier and Ives”); 4) Art of the Americas: Pre-Columbian and Contemporary, at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, June 12 through October 31, 1937, #64 (illustrated in catalog); 5) the Forty-Eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, at the Art Institute of Chicago, November 18, 1937 through January 16, 1938, #128; 6) First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, March 12 through April 24, 1938; and 7) the Central Illinois Art Exhibition in Bloomington, Illinois, from March 19 through April 8, 1939; Literature: 1) Doris Lee: An American Painter with a Humorous Sense of Violence, Life Magazine, September 20, 1937, pp. 44 – 47; and 2) Wolfe, Melissa, Simple Pleasures the Art of Doris Lee, The Westmorland Museum of Art, D. Giles Ltd. (2021), pp. 220, 228


About the Painting

In its September 20, 1937, issue, Life Magazine educated its one million readers about the art of Doris Lee. In an article entitled, Doris Lee: An American Painter with a Humorous Sense of Violence, Lee quipped about her paintings, “What I feel is a sort of violence.” Life used Landscape with Fisherman as one of three paintings to exemplify what Lee meant. In writing about this work, Life noted, “In Landscape with Fisherman, on what is apparently a fly rod, the man has hooked what appears to be a record brook trout – about three-quarters the length of his entire arm. The dead branches sticking up from otherwise luxuriant trees are a touch of desolation typical of most Doris Lee landscapes, whether peopled with fishermen or hunters.” Lee was an active and capable outdoorswoman who enjoyed fishing around her Woodstock New York home, so when she painted scenes like Landscape with Fisherman, she knew what she was doing. Lee captures the moment when the fish fights for its life, jumping out of the water and trying to throw off the hook, while the squirrels in the trees above bark encouragement at the action below. She depicts the image in her trademark naïve and highly accessible American Scene style inspired by Bruegel, 19th Century genre painting, Currier & Ives prints, and a ground swell of interest in all things antique. Although it may be difficult to see from our 21st Century vantage point, a return to American “folk” traditions and imagery formed an important strain of American modern art in the 1920s and 1930s. Lee’s brand of “modernism” won great recognition during the 1930s as she became one of America’s best known female artists. In addition to its publication in Life, Landscape with Fisherman was voted the most popular painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum’s 42nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings in 1935 and it was then shown at six other significant exhibitions across the country during the following four years where it garnered critical praise. The painting comes from an important period in Lee’s career. It was painted the same year as Lee’s painting Thanksgiving, which won the $500 purchase prize at the Chicago Art Institute and caused national notoriety when the award’s patron expressed her displeasure at the selection. Apparently, Mrs. Logan did not appreciate what one reviewer called Lee’s “sly humor” or the hint of violence hiding just below the surface of a domestic kitchen. The thing about Lee is there is always something more hiding just below the surface of her seemingly sweet and familiar images.

About the Artist

Doris Lee was among the most important female chroniclers of the Depression Era American Scene. Later during her career, she moved away from the American Scene genre and focused on more simplified, stylized and flattened forms. She was born in Aledo, Illinois, where her retired grandfather filled his days painting, and her grandmother was a wood carver. From an early age, Lee took up drawing. She studied at Rockford College (A.B. 1927), the Kansas City Art Institute (1928-29) and the California School of Fine Art and in Europe, both in 1931. One of her European teachers was Andre Lhote. Lee was initially married to photographer Russell Lee and later in life to her former painting teacher, Arnold Blanch. She was a mainstay of the Woodstock artists’ colony in upstate New York, but also spent time in Florida. Lee exhibited at most major institutions and exhibitions, including the Corcoran Gallery, the Chicago Art Institute (prize), the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Worcester Art Museum (prize), the Carnegie Institute (prize), and the New York World’s Fair. She was represented by Walker Gallery and Associated American Artist Gallery, both in New York, and was an active member of the American Artists Congress, the Woodstock Artists Association (President 1952), and the National Association of Women Artists. Lee completed murals for Section for Fine Arts, a WPA era program. Lee’s works are the collections of over two dozen American Museums, including the Phillips Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Between 2021 and 2023, Lee is being honored with a retrospective of her work at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Figge Art Museum, Vero Beach Art Museum, and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. She is listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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