Doris Lee’s body of work is a curious mix of naive narrative realism and modern abstraction. Lee is best known for her folk life gouaches that record scenes of Americana, but her abstract works reveal a knowledgeable hold on modernist principles and practices. These two separate styles are seemingly incongruent but this exploration of multiple approaches is not atypical of artists working in the twentieth century where modernism offered an array of approaches.

Born Doris Emrick in Aledo, Illinois, Lee came from a large extended family all of who were engaged in crafts and the domestic arts. She graduated from Rockford College in 1927, majoring in art and philosophy. After college she married Russell Lee, an engineer who later became an accomplished photographer for the Farm Security Administration. They traveled together to Europe and Lee studied art in Paris and Italy. Returning to the United States, she enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in a class with American Impressionist Ernest Lawson. In 1930 she attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where she studied with the painter Arnold Blanch, who she was to marry in 1939. Before this second marriage though Lee returned to France and worked with cubist André Lhote, where she gained additional exposure to modernist concepts.

Blanche and Lee initially settled in New York but spent summers in Woodstock, NY where she took inspiration from small town life. Blanch was a teacher at the Art Students League as well as in Woodstock and in Florida where they often spent winters. Lee’s early works combined the style of American folk art with the subject matter of American scene painters. The paintings are sweet, lyrical, well-executed pieces with fine brushwork and an acute attention to detail. National recognition came to her in 1935 when she was awarded the Logan Medal of the Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago for a work called Thanksgiving Dinner.  The prize was controversial with some calling her work provincial and cartoonish, and prompting the patron to call for sanity in art.

The controversy did not dissuade Lee and her work continued to garner attention.  That same year she had a solo exhibition at Duncan Phillips Studio House and was commissioned by the Works Project Administration (WPA) to create a mural in the main Post Office in Washington, D.C. and another in the Post Office in Summerville, Georgia. In 1937 the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a painting, Catastrophe and 1939 she exhibited in the New York World’s Fair.  She regularly won competitions including the Carnegie Prize in 1944. Between 1936 and1950 Lee exhibited frequently with the Maynard Walker Art Gallery in New York.

Lee was stylistically nimble and easily transitioned between folk work and abstraction, paintings and illustration. At periods in her life she also did costume and textile design as well as ceramics. Hoot! is a example of Lee’s comfort with multiple mediums.  Her humor and playfulness are evident in this collage that easily transitions between paint, fabric scraps and drawing. Lee’s abstract works illustrate knowledge of European modernism and reflect her exposure to American abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb who summered in Woodstock in 1939.  Biomorphic forms and simple geometric shapes define her abstract canvases where flat areas of color are laid down on a neutral field. In Seascape #2 floating soft-edged geometric forms are placed on a divided canvas of sea and sky. 

Lee rarely executed complete abstractions and like this work in the JLW Collection many of her abstract works are rooted in the life she observed around her.  This canvas is inspired by the landscape and light of Florida, where the couple spent many winters.   In Woodstock, Lee and her husband befriended Milton and Sally Avery.  In addition to time together in New York, the couples traveled to Key West together and clearly the two artists influenced one another.

In addition to painting, Lee had an active career as an illustrator and a teacher. During the 1940s and 1950s she was commissioned by Life magazine to illustrate travel articles, which sent her to California, Cuba, Mexico and Morocco. She also did illustrations for other magazines and books including The Rodgers and Hart Songbook and a number of children’s books. She and Blanche both enjoyed teaching and they often accepted posts around the country.  Lee’s guest positions included the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center (summers 1936-39), Michigan State University (1943 & 44), and the University of Hawaii (1957). In 1955 together the couple published a book “Painting for Enjoyment.”

In her early sixties Lee was disabled with Alzheimer’s disease but she continued to paint up to her death in 1983.  Lee’s work can be found in a number of public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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Doris Lee (1905 - 1983) United States  



 1950, oil and collage on canvas,

12 1/8 x 14 3/16


Seascape #2

c. 1950's, oil on canvas, 34" x 40"