Shipped off to boarding school as a teenager in 1920 “to get the edges polished off and prepare for college,” the artist Doris Lee cut her hair to rebel against her surroundings — “the least adventuresome and imaginative” in her life, with no access to painting. This act of rebellion was met with suspension and the school’s admonishment that “nice girls have long hair.”
Judging from the many photos that remain of Lee (1904—1983), she never chopped off her hair again. But she continued to cut a path of her own for the next four decades.
An accomplished Depression-era figurative painter and tremendously successful commercial artist through the 1940s and ’50s, Lee learned at a young age that to stay in the game she had to at least pretend to play by the rules. Her farm scenes and family gatherings might summon a Rockwellian sentimentality or the wholesomeness of Grandma Moses (with whom she’s sometimes compared), but beneath the surface of her Americana is a simmering feminism.
Fearless and confident women star in most of her works, and they are not restricted to stereotypically female activities. We see them wrangling horses, shooting arrows, and taking pleasure. Vladimir Nabokov even referred to one of her paintings in “Lolita.” It’s a perspective we don’t see elsewhere at the time — not in Thomas Hart Benton’s men in the fields, Grant Wood’s self-righteous small-town folk, or Reginald Marsh’s silver-screen wannabes.
Lee showed with prominent galleries, sold works to major museums and painted three murals for the W.P.A. Life magazine sent her around the world as an artist-correspondent and she produced award-winning art for major advertising campaigns. But like many figurative painters of the era, especially women, Lee fell into relative obscurity when Abstract Expressionism took over 20th-century taste. Such artists working in the 1930s and ’40s were simply “marginalized by fashion,” said the art dealer Deedee Wigmore, who has represented Doris Lee’s estate since 1990.
But a major new retrospective, “Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee,” traveling nationally through 2023, is reintroducing her to the public through more than 70 examples of her fine and commercial artworks. A companion show at D. Wigmore Fine Art in Manhattan, through Jan. 28, is presenting another 40 works.
“She’s at this really interesting nexus of folk art, American Scene and Modernism,” said Melissa Wolfe of the Saint Louis Art Museum, who curated the current retrospective with Barbara Jones of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pa., where it’s on view through Jan. 9. “But basically, she was seen as too unserious to take seriously. Her work is figurative, accessible, and could be decorative and these things were perceived as feminized and not taken seriously. I know the New York School wasn’t monolithic but work that was perceived as masculine — the active, big, aggressive, troubled, full of doubt — that’s what was taken seriously.”
Born Doris Emrick in Aledo, Ill., to a banker-merchant father and a schoolteacher mother, Lee grew up a self-described “tomboy” on her grandparents’ farms, skipping piano lessons to paint on her neighbor’s porch. She graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1927 and married Russell Lee, who became an acclaimed photographer for the Farm Security Administration.
Lee studied painting in Paris with Andre L’Hote, a Cubist painter, and also in San Francisco with the realist painter Arnold Blanch. In 1931, the Lees followed Blanch and his artist wife, Lucile Lundquist, to the artists’ colony in Woodstock. Lee also took a studio on 14th Street in Manhattan. Lee left Russell for Blanch in 1939. They lived together but never married, spending summers in Woodstock, where they were central figures in the art world’s social scene and exhibited regularly, and winters in Florida.
Woodstock was a progressive place, and Lee fit in. She joined the American Artists’ Congress, which aimed to combat the rise of fascism in Europe, and she made her opinions clear on inequality. In a talk in 1951 titled “Women as Artists,” she pointed out how “stupid” it was that young women were taught to find husbands, and told the audience, “We cannot afford to neglect or discourage any talent because of the artificial barriers of race, class, or sex.”
If her work wasn’t overtly political, she sneaked some messaging in there, often diffusing any overt cultural critique with a playful and humanizing sense of humor. In “Illinois River Town” (1937), one of several works critics called “Bruegelian,” figures buzz around a beach as a woman lifts her drawers to relieve herself. In “The View, Woodstock” (1946), a woman stands before a blue house tending her kitchen garden with a pitchfork as a man lazes nearby. “Usually, it’s the man who introduces us to the estate,” said Ms. Wolfe, who suspects that Lee is slyly quoting Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930).
Lee first rose up with the American Scene painters — a movement that flourished during the Depression, when artists like Wood and Benton forsook European modernism to develop their own art form, recording whatever they imagined it was that made America American — its land, customs, ideals, aspirations. Lee also brought in folk art, which she and Blanch collected, and which MoMA had recognized as a distinctly American art form. And she never forgot her European education.
Lee’s work was not for everyone. (She did however report that she received “lots of fan mail from people in prisons and asylums, long letters telling all.”) Public criticism catapulted her to the national stage, when her painting “Thanksgiving” — a busy kitchen scene of multigenerational women — won the prestigious $500 Logan Purchase Prize at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935. If Lee’s cartoonlike figures channel the German Dada artist George Grosz, her focus — the intensity of the women’s labor — feels much truer to life than the era’s more typical depictions of the idyllic Thanksgiving table.
The award’s donor, Josephine Hancock Logan, publicly called Lee’s work an “awful thing” and then founded the Sanity in Art movement to purge the “modernistic grotesqueries” of Surrealism and Dada from American art.The Art Institute of Chicago responded by buying the work. Lee, meanwhile, told The Washington Post that “to paint beautiful pictures was not my aim” and that if some of the faces looked “like cartoons,” as had been suggested by Time Magazine and others, “so do some people.”
That same year, Fortune magazine wrote that “she particularly dislikes that the last word about her painting is ‘optimism,’” and quoted her saying that what she actually felt was “a sort of violence.” Life magazine later interpreted her comment as a “comic sense of violence,” but Wolfe thinks otherwise.
“Many of her early works seem to be about this kind of inner churning or a desire for physical freedom,” the curator said, referring to works like “The Runaway” (1935), which shows a woman on horseback speeding away from a farm.
Lee’s relative privilege helped her subsist as an artist during the Depression, as did Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. As the cultural historian John Fagg, who contributed to the “Simple Pleasures” catalog noted, the renegade heiress created the Whitney Studio Club, where artists like Lee could show and sell their work.(Lee was included in the first Whitney Biennial, in 1932.)
Soon she caught the attention of art directors and editors, too. Lee’s style had become crisper and flatter, with large areas of juicy delineated color, which made it easier to reproduce. (She also had an eye for design details — furniture, architecture, plant life, technology, jewelry — which lent itself well to illustrations.)
In 1941 she joined Associated American Artists, the buzzy gallery of entrepreneur Reeves Lewenthal, who aimed to make money by bringing fine art to the masses. As consumerism and the advertising age exploded, he produced her prints and landed her jobs with companies like American Tobacco and General Mills, and also got her designing fabric and ceramics and illustrating books, including the Rogers & Hart Songbook. “She was so tenacious,” Jones said. “She went after everything. She was often the only woman working with these groups of men, and she could really hold her own.”
Her first assignment for Life, in 1939, was to commemorate the musical “Showboat.” It was the first Broadway production with a racially integrated cast, which she portrayed rehearsing. Life then commissioned her to paint African American women in South Carolina “as a source of fashion inspiration” for a 1941 issue. She later reworked one of the nine fashion plates into “Siesta” (1944) — a vaguely eroticized painting of a Dionysian Black woman — which won third prize in the Carnegie Institute show. Assignments in North Africa, Mexico, Cuba, and Hollywood followed.
Lee didn’t differentiate much between her fine and commercial art. One common thread is her persistent depiction of women as happy and confident, whether on the farm or in Hollywood. “She makes no apologies for her women and their joy, which I think shows a great deal of liberation,” said Emily Lenz, director and partner at D. Wigmore.
Her work became more streamlined and abstract in the 1950s and ’60s. Lee and Blanch were close with Milton Avery and his wife, Sally Michel, and some argue that she was under their influence. (Wolfe argues that it was reciprocal.) Lee was spending more time in Florida, and her paintings reflect the sunny, nautical surroundings.
In 1968 Lee was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She died in 1983 in Clearwater, Fla. She did not have children and in a 1951 talk discussed how it riled people. “I remember hearing one woman say, ‘The most wonderful thing a woman can create is her family and home and you’ll never know that feeling’,” she recounted. Her rebuttal: “And you’ll never know the feeling of being an artist.”