I recently came across yet another artist, George Ault who was new to me but whose work really sparked my imagination. Like many of the other under-recognized artists, he led a fairly tragic life, achieving bits of recognition yet struggling to ever find footing. His life was consumed by alcoholism and personal demons that led to his death at the age of 57.
Here’s a brief bio from a 1988 catalog from an exhibit of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art:
George Copeland Ault (1891–1948) was an American painter loosely grouped with the Precisionist movement and, though influenced by Cubism and Surrealism, his most lasting work is of a realist nature.
Ault was born in Cleveland into a wealthy family and spent his youth in London where he studied at the Slade School of Art and St John’s Wood School of Art. Returning to the United States in 1911, he spent the rest of his life in New York and New Jersey. His personal life henceforth was troubled. He became alcoholic during the 1920s, after the death of his mother in a mental institution. Each of his three brothers committed suicide, two after the loss of the family fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.
Although he had exhibited his works with some success, by the early 1930’s his neurotic behavior and reclusiveness had alienated him from the gallery world. In 1937, Ault moved to Woodstock, New York with Louise Jonas, who would become his second wife, and tried to put his difficulties in the past. In Woodstock the couple lived a penurious existence in a small rented cottage that had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Depending on Louise for income, Ault created some of his finest paintings during this time, but had difficulty selling them. In 1948, Ault was discovered dead five days after drowning in the Sawkill Brook on December 30, when he had taken a solitary walk in stormy and dark weather. The death was deemed a suicide by the coroner. In his lifetime, his works were displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Addison Gallery of American Art (in Andover, Massachusetts), among others.
Though I like much of his other work, the work that interests me most are a handful of night scenes. One series of four depicts the same intersection in an area of Woodstock, Russell’s Corners. Below are the four along with the same scene painted in daylight. You can see how the darkness of night transforms the scene, adding emotional weight and a deepened sense of mystery. I find them to be powerful images, filled with the same ominous darkness that seemed to haunt Ault.
I don’t know if his personal problems contributed to the strength of this work but it seems a shame that he never found peace in his life or in his work, although on that point I am making an assumption. Ault left a fine body of work, one that deserves a look and I am glad to have come across it.