Virginia Cuthbert grew up in a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania and from a young age aspired to be an artist.  In high school, she had a small business selling hand-painted household goods. A series of art classes at Carnegie Institute of Technology confirmed her interest in painting and after high school she enrolled in Syracuse University, receiving a Fine Arts degree in 1930.  That summer she continued her education at the popular Provincetown Art Colony in Massachusetts with Charles Hawthorne.

In keeping with many American artists of the mid 20th century, Cuthbert then made her way to Europe, working with genre painter Colin Gill in London and Felice Carena in Florence, whose style of expressive realism had a significant impact on the young artist. She also studied briefly in Paris at the Academie Colarossi.  It was in France that Cuthbert met her husband, Buffalo painter Philip Elliott. In 1932 Cuthbert returned to the United States and took classes with Ash Can school painter George Luks at his New York school. Cuthbert’s propensity to use familiar surroundings as her subject was reinforced through her exposure to Luks, who encouraged his students to make art from everyday life.  She spent a great deal of time observing daily life in the communities that she lived in, using those scenes as her subject matter. Her works in watercolor or oil were often poignant, particularly when she focused on the conditions of Pennsylvania's poor.  Her observational skills and straightforward approach to painting served as a solid foundation throughout her life.  In 1934 Cuthbert received an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and four years later was the first woman to have a one person exhibition at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute.

During the 30s many artists were calling for art which specified a uniquely American style.  At this time Pittsburgh was a major industrial center and painters were inspired by its factories and steel mills.  For Cuthbert these factories were the vernacular architecture of her home. Her training with Luks combined with the prevalence of precisionist painters' images of coolly rendered machines gave Cuthbert permission and precedence to look to Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape for subject matter. In the early thirties American factories were the new cathedrals but there was also an awareness of the dirt, smell and pollution associated with this new economic force. Cuthbert often remarked on the foul nature of Pittsburgh’s air but recognized the factories as part of the American landscape and understood their potential as artistic content.

In 1935 Cuthbert married Buffalo artist Philip Elliott. They lived and worked in Pittsburgh until 1942 when Elliott was offered the Directorship of the Albright School of Art in Buffalo, New York.  The painting in the JLW Collection was done shortly after the couple moved to Buffalo and is a result of Cuthbert's approach to art making. Immediately upon moving to the new community she set out to investigate subjects, wandering around the city to ferret out what was unique about Buffalo. She found and was intrigued by the architectural qualities of an older industry--agriculture's priapic grain silos. In Inner City Industrial Scene Cuthbert demonstrates her craftsmanship and precision as a painter--the cool flat surface is typical of the approach taken by magic realists who were leery of painterly expression and instead injected images with mystery by subtle juxtapositions of unlikely objects.  In this image we look through an abandoned storefront to the solid structures of the grain elevators beyond.  The opened, crumbled cardboard boxes offer an eerie sensation of an event not fully disclosed that Cuthbert developed in later canvases. 

Cuthbert has been referenced as magic realist, precisionist as well as a surrealist. This ambiguity of categorization is less about this individual artist than the tendency of many mid-century modernists to pick and choose elements of evolving styles. Cuthbert's early works are more aligned with the style and subject matter of the American regionalist painters.  Her later, more hard-edged style of painting came out of precisionism where anything overtly emotional was rejected but her inclusion of surprise or mysterious elements suggests an alignment with magic realism. 

Throughout her lifetime Cuthbert had art related jobs. She taught painting at the University of Buffalo and at the Albright School from 1941 to 1961. Later in her life she taught at State University of New York at Buffalo. In the mid-fifties she did a number of covers for Fortune magazine and served as a critic and art columnist for the Buffalo Courier-Express and the Buffalo Evening News. Cuthbert struggled with alcohol during her lifetime and as a result was not as prolific as her peers. Nonetheless, she exhibited frequently in Buffalo, New York and Pittsburgh. In 1943 and 1944 she was included in group exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in 1944 and 1945 was in the Whitney's annual exhibitions of contemporary American painters. Her work can be found in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Albright-Knox Gallery in New York, Princeton University Art Museum, The Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts and the Everson Museum. 

In 1985 Cuthbert's husband, Philip Elliott, died and two years later she suffered a stroke, which made it difficult for her to speak.  She continued to paint for ten more years.


Dee Dee Wigmore Fine Arts, biography of artist.

Kappa Alpha Theta Magazine, November 1938,
    Volume 53, No 1, (no author).

Exhibition gallery guide, Carnegie Institute,
    Dept. of Fine Arts, May 16-June 12, 1938.

Virginia Cuthbert and Philip Elliott, exhibition catalog, Charles Burchfield Center, Western New York Forum for American Art,
    State University College at Buffalo, Nov. 14-Dec. 30, 1971.

Virginia Cuthbert, exhibition catalog, Nina Freudenheim Gallery,                   
    Buffalo, NY 1990, essay written by Albert L. Michaels.

Also telephone conversations with Albert Michaels, December 2010 and January 2011 

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Virginia Cuthbert (b. 1908 - 2001) United States


Inner City Industrial Scene

1942, oil on canvas, 28 x 38