Spanierman Gallery is pleased to announce the opening on November 24, 2010, of Hayley Lever and the Modern Spirit, an exhibition featuring sixty oils from public and private collections, in addition to our gallery inventory. Renowned for his views of the Cornish seaport of St. Ives, coastal New England and New York City, Hayley Lever (1875-1958) created bold, energetic paintings in which he combined progressive precepts of color, form and design with an objective realism––an enlightened approach that, as one commentator observed in 1914, made “an irresistible appeal to the modern spirit.”
An important, re-emerging figure who made a strong impact on American art of the first half of the twentieth century, Hayley Lever was the subject of a comprehensive exhibition held at Spanierman Gallery in 2003. The catalogue, written by Carol Lowrey, Ph.D., brought new attention to Lever and helped secure his recognition in the annals of American art. Since that time, Dr. Lowrey has discovered new information about his life and art–– including the correct year of his birth and details relative to his activity in Australia, St. Ives and Europe––and this, along with documentary photographs from the Lever Family Archive, has been incorporated into the publication that accompanies the current show. An examination of contemporary reviews by important American critics, as well as writers in England and Australia, has also uncovered fresh material that further underscores Lever’s emphasis on artistic autonomy and the undisputed modernity of his art. The most thorough treatment of Lever’s career to date, the 48-page color Hayley Lever and the Modern Spirit catalogue features an essay, as well as a chronology, bibliography and collections list, and is available for $40.00.
The son of English parents, Lever was born in Bowden, a suburb of Adelaide, Australia, in 1875––not in 1876, as had been thought. As a schoolboy at Adelaide’s Prince Alfred College, he studied drawing under James Ashton and spent his spare time watching clipper ships arriving at the local port––an experience that influenced his later penchant for marine painting. Lever went on to study at the Norwood Art School and at Ashton’s Academy of Art, exhibiting his early oils and watercolors at the Adelaide Easel Club. Wanting to refine his technique further, he traveled to England in the autumn of 1899, spending time in London before settling in St. Ives––a popular artists’ colony on the Cornish seacoast––where he honed his skills under the tutelage of the British impressionists Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage.
Lever’s arrival in St. Ives coincided with the era of “St. Ives Tonalism,” when painters captured the poetic aspects of nature by means of broad brushwork, a low-keyed palette and an emphasis on quiet scenes of dawn, dusk and moonlight. Lever responded accordingly, creating evocative views of the local waterfront, as apparent in works such as Harbor by Moonlight, St. Ives (ca. 1910). During his early years in St. Ives, he also made frequent trips to London and Paris, where he familiarized himself with the latest trends in art, ranging from Impressionism to Fauvism. A versatile painter with an eye toward experimentation, Lever went on to incorporate advanced pictorial strategies into his painting, including the dark outlines, simplified shapes and forceful designs associated with Post-Impressionism. A summer visit to the Continent in 1908 was especially significant in that it provided Lever with the opportunity to see Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, with their bold hues and dynamic technique. He subsequently paid tribute to the Dutchman in canvases such as Van Gogh’s Hospital (1908; private collection), in which he combines vibrant hues and active brushwork with the decorative shapes of Japanese art. A passionate individual who felt that “art was the re-creation of mood in line, form and color,” Lever also took up van Gogh’s practice of painting images of himself, employing arbitrary hues and a robust handling to convey his inner state of mind, as in his Self-Portrait, from 1932.
While residing in St. Ives, Hayley Lever participated in local and regional exhibitions in England, as well as in shows in Paris, Venice, Nice and elsewhere, earning a reputation as an artist of “daring resource and with an unusual gift for eloquent design”––words that bring to mind the stunning Sunshine in the Hills––The River Exe (1910). He made his American debut at the Carnegie Institute’s annual international exhibition in 1910 and exhibited there again in 1911, submitting a Cornish snow scene that the New York critic, Arthur Hoeber, felt was “not surpassed in the display.” Encouraged by his success in Pittsburgh and by the support he received from various American artists he had met in St. Ives, Lever visited New York in 1912 and liked it so much that he decided to stay. The timing of his move to America was propitious: Impressionism, the dominant aesthetic of the previous two decades, was on the decline, and the once-shocking urban realism of the Ashcan School had become part of the mainstream. Art audiences were clearly ready for something novel and different and Lever’s work met those needs: his depictions of St. Ives were admired by the public for their exotic subject matter while members of the art press were drawn to his style, as exemplified in oils such as Winter, St. Ives (ca. 1914; Brooklyn Museum, New York); noting its articulated composition and stylized shapes, a writer for the New York Herald called it a “modified post-impressionist picture” that signified “the very best that is in the new school.”
Solo exhibitions at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery and the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in 1914––as well as regular participation in exhibitions at the National Academy of Design and at the Macbeth, Milch and Daniel galleries in New York––helped secure Hayley Lever’s high ranking in the American art world. Critics and commentators sympathetic to modern art also helped propel him into the spotlight, among them Christian Brinton, an internationally renowned writer who identified Lever as a painter who eschewed orthodox Impressionism in favor of more unconventional artistic models, and Catherine Beach Ely, a critic for Art in America who praised Lever’s interest in conveying movement. “Like other modernists,” she said, “he breaks away from scholasticism in Art and abjures the static; he makes a creed of motion . . . His sympathies extend even to the extremely modern yet his own work does not offence against beauty and good taste”—comments that would certainly apply to St. Ives, Cornwall (1910-20s, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York) and The Harbor at Douarnenez (ca. 1927; Duquesne Club, Pittsburgh). Edgar Holger Cahill, a much-respected curator, was also among Lever’s admirers; in an article published in Shadowland in 1922, he identified him as an “individualist” whose personal approach to painting set him apart from the rest of the pack. In his book, A Collection in the Making (1926), the eminent art patron Duncan Phillips also weighed in on Lever’s merits, calling him a “vigorous painter” with a “fine sense of pattern . . . [and] zest for design.” Perhaps the most astute assessment of Lever’s position within his milieu came from Forbes Watson, a writer for The Arts and other publications, who observed:
Mr. Lever sometimes plays with the moderns and at other times plays with the academicians. That makes him all the more interesting . . . He acts as a bridge or password between two opposing camps . . . the work of Mr. Lever is especially useful in opening the eyes of an audience opposed to modern art and in weaning that audience away from the more perfectly conventional towards the more original art of to-day.
Ironically, Hayley Lever seems to have been unaware of the role he played in American art of the early twentieth century, telling a reporter for the Newark Evening News in 1936 that he was amused at being called a modernist (“Why, I’m one of the old fellows,” he said). However, as revealed in Hayley Lever and the Modern Spirit, Lever brought advanced precepts of European painting to New York at a time when art aficionados were ready to embrace a fresh perspective—one that involved pictorial devices such as forceful brushwork, structure designs, patterning and liberal color along with an emphasis on the role of the artist’s emotions in the creative process. His “fine-spirited modernity” (as the New York Herald Tribune’s critic, Carlyle Burrows, put it), helped ease the transition between the outmoded styles of the impressionists and the New York realists and the more extreme methods of painters such as John Marin. Little wonder that Lever’s knack for reconciling sophisticated techniques with a desire to communicate his inner voice prompted one pundit to exclaim: “Hayley Lever is really in advance of the times in his theory and practice of art––his work is an expression of the soul.”