A national retrospective takes a fresh look at the art of Aledo native Doris Lee. See the exhibition now at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport | Local News

Just looking at the “Thanksgiving” painting, you would think – oh, it looks like it’s by Grant Wood, the famous regionalist style painter.

The image of a holiday dinner kitchen was painted in 1935 by Doris Emerick Lee (1904-1983), a native of Aledo, Illinois, who was one of the best known and most prolific American painters – man or woman – from the mid 1930s. through the 1950s.

If you’ve never heard of her, it’s because her largely figurative work faded with her name as other styles of painting, especially abstract expressionism, gained popularity in the later part of the 1900s.

But his art is getting a second look in a traveling exhibition billed as the first major critical appraisal of his work on display until May 8 at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport.

Organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, “Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee” consists of 77 paintings and other objects from approximately 60 locations.

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“Simple Pleasures” is a descriptive title because most of Lee’s paintings – especially the early ones – depict everyday events or scenes that bring joy into people’s lives, often infused with humor.

As the art world changed and began to view tragic or gritty themes as the only “true” art, Lee’s depictions – often folkloric and featuring domestic subjects, especially women – came to be considered trivial and certainly outdated. , according to the commentary in the catalog accompanying the exhibition.

Spectators of the retrospective at Figge can form their own opinion.

It’s unclear if there are relatives in the Quad-City area to enjoy the new retrospective. Lee was born in 1904 in Aledo, a town in Mercer County about 35 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities, but spent her adult life elsewhere. In 1968, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and died in Florida in 1983, her remains being returned to the family mausoleum in Aledo Cemetery. Lee married but had no children. His obituary in what is now the Quad-City Times listed a brother, from Florida and Kentucky, as his sole survivor.

The scope of his work

The Figge’s exhibition is presented on two levels, starting with the ground floor where works from all periods of his career are presented to give a “tease” to what visitors to the museum will find on the third floor, Vanessa Sage, assistant curator told the Figge.

Long-time Quad-Citizens might recognize the names of Jim and Deba Leach printed next to one of the downstairs paintings. Jim Leach is a Davenport native who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 2007. He and his wife Deba, who now live in Iowa City, loaned three of their paintings to the exhibit, paintings which are not included in the traveling exhibition. .

The ground floor work dates from the end of 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 of when they did something similar, and the joy they found. to do it. So, although the detail of Lee’s early works is gone, the pleasant sensations evoked by the smaller works are the same.

As Lee herself once said, “I don’t think the content of an artist’s work changes very much, even if the means (or style) changes drastically.”

The exhibition reflects the breadth of his work, which has been prolific.

Lee has created artwork for gallery exhibitions in New York. The Treasury Department commissioned her to paint murals at a post office in Washington, DC. She painted images that were used in magazine advertisements promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes, beer and Maxwell House coffee. Life magazine asked him to travel to Mexico, Cuba, North Africa and Hollywood, California to paint scenes accompanying articles, 63 in all. She designed patterns for draperies and ceramics, showing that practical everyday objects could also be art.

Her work has appeared in numerous magazines including Seventeen, Mademoiselle, Collier’s, Vogue, Fortune, McCall’s and Better Homes & Gardens. She painted pictures for the Encyclopedia Britannica, playing cards, calendars, restaurant menus, a puzzle and a book by James Thurber. She has also taught art, notably at Michigan State University, East Lansing.

His life, his career

Doris Emerick’s father was a wealthy banker and merchant, and her mother was a schoolteacher. They wanted their daughter to have a full education, so they sent her to Lake Forest, Illinois, for high school, and then to Rockford College.

After graduating 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 — his great-grandfather was a stonemason, his grandfather retired from his farm to paint and his grandmother made quilts, according to the exhibit catalog. .

In 1931 the couple moved to Woodstock, NY, a prominent arts 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 , over time, the two couples divorced. In 1939, Doris Lee and Arnold Blanche became partners, remaining together for most of their careers, spending summers in Woodstock and winters in Florida.

Lee’s rise to the pinnacle of American artists was sealed in the fall of 1935, when his painting “Thanksgiving” won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is a detailed image of a kitchen in which four women are busy with various aspects of the holiday feast – checking the turkey, rolling out the pastry, reaching for a tray and carrying a basket of vegetables. But there are other things going on too – a woman taking off her hat, a boy standing in front of a door doing nothing, a little girl giving a cat a piece of the table, and two babies waving their arms in a chair. high.

However, the woman for whom the award was named – Josephine Logan – hated the painting, calling it “excruciating”, which caused a stir and earned Lee more publicity and media coverage than she could have. receive otherwise, indicates the catalog of the exhibition.

Over time, Lee’s style became more abstract, more concerned with pure form and color, a change Figge’s Sage admires in Lee.

“She was very adept at making changes as she went along,” Sage said.

Asked which qualities of Lee she finds most striking, Sage highlighted “her tenacity, her openness to changing the way she works, aware of everything that is going on around her”.

“She wasn’t stuck in one place. She didn’t do the same thing over and over again. But the changes she made came from her; it is his personal vision. She does not imitate others. (The changes) come from a personal place, it evolves, and I respect all of that.

Le Figge signed on for the exhibit when staff members first heard about it several years ago, Sage said.

“The quality of his work, his connections to American scene painting (important in our collection and in the region), our recent acquisition of Lee’s painting “New House” (featured in the exhibition) and local connections de Lee, 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 has two other Lee paintings and several lithographs.

Lee’s paintings are also in the Art Institute of Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York; and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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