Hayley Lever (1875-1958)

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Spanierman Gallery, NYC

Hayley Lever’s exceptional career path took him from the shores of his native Australia to those of England, and then the United States.[1]  Described as an artist of “individuality,”[2] he refused to ally himself with any particular style or movement; rather, guided by his belief that “art is the re-creation of mood in line, form and color,” he incorporated the precepts of Realism, Impressionism, Tonalism and Post-Impressionism into his art, applying those strategies in accordance with the emotion and aesthetic affect he wished to convey.[3]  In America, where he achieved his greatest acclaim, he was viewed as a proto-modernist, lauded by critics such as Edgar Holger Cahill, who declared:

in all his painting, whether it is of boats dancing on the waters of the Cornish coast, the ferry bridges and boats and streets of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the steaming asphalt highways of New York City, or the gently upheaving Catskills about Woodstock, it is always Lever who addresses us.[4]

Hayley Lever - Self-Portrait, 1932 Hayley Lever was born on September 28, 1875 in Bowden Tannery, a suburb of Adelaide, Australia.[5]  The son of Albion W. Lever and his wife, Catherine (Hayley) Lever, he was christened Richard, but as a professional artist he used his second and last names only.

Lever attended Adelaide’s Prince Alfred College from 1883 to 1891, during which time he received drawing lessons from the marine painter, James Ashton.  As a boy, he loved to watch incoming clipper ships at the port of Adelaide, an experience that influenced his later penchant for maritime themes.  Upon graduating from Prince Alfred College, he took classes with Ashton at the Norwood Art School and later attended Ashton’s Academy of Art in Adelaide.  During these years, Lever spent his free time painting and sketching in the local countryside, exhibiting his work at the Adelaide Easel Club and at other local venues.  His interest in painting outdoors was likely influenced, to some extent, by the achievements of artists such as Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and other painters of the so-called “Heidelberg School,” who introduced the tenets of Impressionism and pleinairism to Australian art during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

A turning point in Hayley Lever’s artistic evolution occurred in the autumn of 1899, when he sailed to England for further study.  He initially went to London, studying the art of both the past and present in the city’s galleries and museums.  In early January of 1900, he settled in St. Ives, an ancient fishing port and art colony on England’s Cornish seacoast, where he proceeded to refine his skills as a painter under the tutelage of the British impressionists Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage.  Working out of a studio located on the top floor of a local art gallery, he painted views of the town and harbor, as well as scenes of Devon.  In keeping with the tonal impressionist proclivities of St. Ives painters at that time, he became especially interested in conveying evening effects, going on to paint atmospheric moonlight scenes with soft brushwork and a low-keyed palette.  At the same time, Lever was also looking beyond St. Ives for inspiration.  He continued to make trips to London and his proximity to the Continent allowed him to travel to Paris, where he familiarized himself with styles such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and exhibited his paintings at the Salon. 

Hayley Lever  - Fishing Boats (Nantucket)During 1904-05, Lever made a six-month trip back to Adelaide to visit his ailing mother, at which time he painted colorful seascapes and did some teaching.  He also furthered his reputation in local art circles, displaying his views of St. Ives, Paris and London in group shows at the Society of Arts and in one-man exhibitions as well.  In addition to receiving rave reviews in the South Australian press, his work was acquired by local patrons such as The Right Honorable Sir Samuel Way, the deputy governor.  By the time he returned to England in November of 1905, Lever was known in his homeland as “a rising artist of whom Australia should be proud.”[6]

During his years in Cornwall, Hayley Lever also made painting excursions to coastal locales in France, such as Dieppe, Honfleur, and Concarneau.  He made his debut at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1904, exhibiting an oil entitled Eventide, St. Ives Harbour, and he likewise participated in shows at the St. Ives Art Club, the New English Art Club, the Royal West of England Academy, and the Society of Royal British Artists, as well as exhibitions in Paris, Nice, and Venice, going on to earn a reputation as an artist of “daring resource and with an unusual gift for eloquent design.”[7]  Indeed, taking his cue from the contemporary art he saw in London and Paris, Lever eventually began to incorporate post-impressionist precepts into this paintings, favoring the use of dark outlines, simplified shapes, forceful designs and active patterning––a very progressive aesthetic approach that set him apart from other members of the St. Ives art colony.  A trip abroad in 1908 was especially significant in Lever’s development, for it provided him with an opportunity to see the colorful and boldly rendered work of Vincent van Gogh, which affected him deeply.  He subsequently painted a series of canvases entitled Van Gogh’s Hospital, Holland, in which he emulated the Dutchman’s forceful style.  A passionate individual, Lever later adopted van Gogh’s practice of painting images of himself, creating many self-portraits that, in their expressive handling and liberal use of color, served as vehicles for revealing his inner feelings.

Hayley Lever made his American debut in 1910, when he exhibited his Port of St. Ives, Cornwall, at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh by special invitation.  He participated in the 1911 annual as well, and was so encouraged by the positive response to his work that he traveled to New York in 1912 and went on to settle there permanently. 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 major 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.”[8]

Hayley Lever - Gloucester Harbor, 1920s  Responding to the demand for his St. Ives pictures, Lever continued to paint views of Cornwall throughout the 1910s and 1920s.  Drawn to the hustle and bustle of his new surroundings, he also painted views of the buildings and waterways of New York.  In 1915, he made his first visit to Gloucester––the picturesque fishing town on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann peninsula––where he painted harbor scenes and taught painting and sketching classes.  Lever would continue to make summer excursions to Gloucester, and to other littoral locales in Massachusetts, until the early 1930s.  By that point, his penchant for depicting boats and the sea had become legendary; in 1924, for example, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the presidential yacht, “Mayflower,” which was subsequently presented to President Coolidge in the Cabinet Room of the White House.

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 Lever’s high ranking in the American art world.  Critics and commentators who were 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,[9] 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.”[10]   The aforementioned Cahill was also among Lever’s admirers; in an article published in Shadowland in 1922, he identified him as an artist who believed “the only deadly sin is imitation,” his personal approach to painting setting him apart from the rest of the pack.[11]  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.”[12]

In 1919, Lever joined the faculty of the Art Students League of New York, where he provided painting instruction until 1931.  Around 1930, he moved to Caldwell, New Jersey, but he continued to maintain a New York studio and teach Saturday art classes.  Although he continued to win recognition in the national annuals, including the National Academy’s of Design’s Edwin Palmer Memorial Prize (1936, 1938), sales of his work were minimal due to the sluggish art market.  He subsequently supplemented his income by teaching, serving as director of the Art Students League’s Green Mountain Summer Art School in Stowe, Vermont in 1933 and teaching painting classes at the Forum School of Art in Bronxville, New York during 1934-35.  In 1938, after losing his home in Caldwell, he moved to Mount Vernon, New York, where he became the director of the Studio Art Club.  Consistent with his temperamental personality and the personal problems that plagued him later in life, his work took on more expressionistic overtones as he replaced the graceful lines and controlled touch of the previous years with agitated brushwork and an electric palette, often injecting strong light-dark contrasts into his paintings to create powerful visual statements; some of Lever’s later paintings go beyond mere representation into the realm of fantasy and the symbolic.

In 1940, Hayley Lever traveled to Nova Scotia and Grand Manan Island, Canada, but his extended trips to coastal New England became fewer and fewer.  He continued to paint scenes of industrial and maritime life in New York, New Jersey and Long Island; however, as the years went by he turned increasingly to still-life subjects, especially when debilitating arthritis prevented further travel.  As his illness progressed, Lever even learned to paint with his left hand.

In 1954, Lever was admitted into Crestview Hall, a nursing home in Mount Vernon.  He died at Mount Vernon Hospital on December 6, 1958, leaving behind a legacy of oils, watercolors, drawings and etchings that reflect his maxim that

It’s not what an artist paints—it’s how he paints it.  Paintings may be abstract or realistic—it doesn’t matter.  The greatest art of all is great enough to cover any method . . . If there’s enthusiasm in you, nothing on earth stops you.  Painting is a joyful agony—a labor of love.[13]

Examples of Lever’s work can be found in major collections throughout the United States, including the Dallas Museum of Art; the Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan; the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; the Nantucket Historical Association, Massachusetts; the New Britain Museum of Art, Connecticut; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Academy of Design, New York; the National Arts Club, New York; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.


© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC,  nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

For the most comprehensive treatment of Lever’s life and career, see Carol Lowrey, Hayley Lever and the Modern Spirit, exh. cat. (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2010).

[2] Edgar Holger Cahill, “Hayley Lever, Individualist,” Shadowland 7 (November 1922): 11.

[3]Hayley Lever quoted in Cheryl A. Kempler, Hayley Lever (1876-1958): Works in Various Media, exh. cat. (Wilmington, Del.: Delaware Art Museum, 1978), 14.

[4]Cahill, 11.

[5] Lever’s birthdate has consistently appeared in the literature as 1876, however, his birth certificate and World War I Draft Registration card indicate that he was actually born in 1875.

[6] “Exhibition of Paintings,” The Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 December 1904.

[7] “Studio-Talk,” Studio 55 (15 February 1912): 47.

[8] “National Academy Influenced by New Art; Pictures Once Extreme Now Commonplace,” New York Herald, 19 December 1913.

[9]Christian Brinton, “American Painting at the Panama-Pacific Exposition,” International Studio 56 (August 1915): xxxi.

[10]Catherine Beach Ely, “The Modern Tendency in Lawson, Lever and Glackens,” Art in America 10 (December 1921): 31-32.

[11]Cahill, 77.

[12] Forbes Watson, unidentified newspaper clipping, ca. 1925-29, Hayley Lever Publicity Book and Archive, Collection of Geoffrey K. Fleming, Southhold, N.Y.

[13] Hayley Lever, quoted in Lolita Flockhart, Art and Artists of New Jersey (Somerville, N.J.: C. P. Hoagland Co., 1938), 88.

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