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Mary Ellen Bute (1906 – 1983)

Key Sketch for 60 Foot Movie Announcement on “Safety First,” 1948, oil on canvas, signed and dated lower right, 14.5 x 12.5 inches, titled in pencil verso; presented in a newer frame


Mary Ellen Bute is best known as a pioneering and experimental filmmaker. She was born in Houston, Texas and initially studied art in her home state. Bute later attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and further studied theatrical lighting at the Drama School of Yale University. Although trained as a painter, Bute sought out new technologies that would allow her to create a “color organ” to render “visual music” in living light. In pursuing this dream, she was drawn to the work of Leo Theremin and Thomas Wilfred and was inspired by the abstract films of Oscar Fischinger. Between 1934 and 1959, Bute created around a dozen well-regarded abstract short films which played in movie theaters across the country before the screening of the main features. Accordingly, millions of people viewed Bute’s art.  During the late 1930s through the early 1950s, Bute collaborated with her husband, Ted Nemeth, to produce some of her most successful work, including Tarantella and Color Rapsody. At her best, Bute blended music, new technologies, mathematical rigor, and a painter’s eye to animate novel moving images. Bute noted the goal of her project was to “bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music.” Bute’s films are in many museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1937 – 38) is projected on the Seventh Floor next to works by Paul Cadmus, Jerod French, George Tooker, and Peter Blume. The present work, Key Sketch, is a rare painting that combines Bute's art training at PAFA with her chosen vocation as a film maker. In fact, this fully realized concept study for an unfinished film project is the only oil on canvas by this artist to become available.


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