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Elsie Driggs (1898 – 1992)

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

Young Man Sleeping (also known as Mexican Peasant), c. 1935, oil on canvas, 53 x 25 inches, signed verso, exhibited at the James A. Michener Art Museum in the exhibition Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical, January 19 – April 13, 2008, illustrated in Kimmerle, Constance, Elise Driggs: The Quick and the Classical, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (2007), pp. 90-91, provenance: Merriman Gatch (daughter of the artist), letter of authenticity from Dr. Thomas D. Folk


About the Painting

Young Man Sleeping is a remarkably rare oil painting by Elsie Driggs from the 1930s. According to Driggs scholar, Dr. Thomas Folk, only about a dozen early oil paintings survive. Four of these are precisionist works which are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Chrystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Museum Fine Art Houston, and Montclair Art Museum. Driggs likely completed Young Man Sleeping in the mid-1930s around the time Edward Bruce asked her to become the first female artist to participate in the inaugural New Deal art program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Keeping with the prevailing aesthetics of the early New Deal art projects, Driggs’ Young Man Sleeping is a modernist figurative painting which is closely associated with her well documented 1934 PWAP work, Paul Bunyon. Both works owe a debt to the Mexican muralists, who cast a long shadow over American Scene and American Modernist painting during the Great Depression. As the ground-breaking 2019 exhibition, Vida Americana, at the Whitney Museum, teaches us, the brand of modernism practiced by Los Tres Grandes (Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco) had a profound impact on American artists, perhaps even outpacing the significance of French modernism during the same period. Young Man Sleeping was likely one of the last oil paintings Driggs completed during the 1930s. Late in 1935, Driggs married fellow artist, Lee Gatch, and after a brief stint in a cramped New York City apartment, the couple moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, where their daughter, Merriman Gatch, was born in 1938. Unfortunately, Driggs’ career took a back seat to her husband’s, as she did not have a studio of her own until 1966 and was relegated to creating beautifully composed and nuanced watercolors at the family’s kitchen table. Since Gatch’s death, Driggs reputation has been revitalized and is now viewed as the much more important artist, having solo retrospectives at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC in 1991 and at the James A. Michener Art Museum in 2008, where Young Man Sleeping was prominently exhibited and featured in a two-page layout in the show’s catalog.

About the Artist

Elsie Driggs was one of the most significant early female modernist painters working in the United States. After studying at the Art Students League in New York with members of The Eight (Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks) and eventually with Maurice Sterne, Driggs decamped to Italy in 1923 and 1924. Upon her return to the United States, Driggs was represented by the Charles Daniel Gallery, where her earliest works were favorably reviewed by the prominent critic Forbes Watson. The Daniel Gallery was a hotbed for American modernists. Driggs quickly became associated with the otherwise all-male group of precisionist painters in the Daniel Gallery stable, including Charles Sheeler, Preston Dickinson, Charles Goeller, Henry Billings and Niles Spencer. During the 1920s, she completed a half dozen precisionist oils which cemented her bona fides and led to her inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1930 exhibition 46 Painters and Sculptors Under 35. After the Daniel Gallery closed in 1932, Driggs was represented by JB Newman’s New Circle Gallery and then by Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries. Throughout the 1930s, Driggs showed at many of the nation’s premiere venues for American art, including at the Whitney, the Corcoran, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Driggs was an active participant in the New Deal art projects during the Great Depression. Not only was she the first female artist to be selected for the PWAP, but she also collaborated on commissioned mural projects for the Treasury Relief Art Project. As her marriage and motherhood took time away from her artistic practice, Driggs turned increasingly to delicate and beautifully rendered watercolors. During the 1950s and 1960s and beyond, Driggs’ work became more abstract with the exception of a few neo-precisionist works from the 1980s. She continued to work nearly until her death in 1992. Driggs is listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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