Milton Avery Sweeps Viewers to the Ocean with ‘Beach Scene’

By Elizabeth Johns, Ph.D. (1937‒2022, former Trustee and Museum Scholar)
Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

We hope you enjoy this watercolor from our collection.

Milton Avery (American, 1885‒1965)
Beach Scene, 1944
Watercolor and gouache on paper over charcoal
29 ½ “h x 37 ¼ “w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Donald Gillett, A1773,73.0203 

Created in flat, radiant planes of color with a wide brush, Beach Scene exemplifies Milton Avery’s signature style. In the foreground, the large figure sitting on the beach is presumably the father of the family of four enjoying the shore. Represented in bright orange-red and brilliant yellow, he stretches out on the sand near a large beach bag and items of clothing, while family members clothed in light blue sit near the water on the right and left. The ocean, a deep green, rushes toward the beach, the breakers capped by swirling white foam. The high horizon draws us into the scene, where we can indulge our curiosity about the family and stand in awe of the active sea. The watercolor’s palette is reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s (1869–1954) and André Derain’s (1880–1954) early Fauvist work, which Avery admired for their simple shapes that feature unmodulated colors, both warm and cool.

Born in Altmar, New York, Avery grew up in Connecticut. He taught himself to paint, with limited studies at the Connecticut League of Art Students, Hartford. At night, Avery supported himself with blue-collar jobs so that he could paint during the day. In 1925, Avery moved to New York City where he married the illustrator, Sally Michel (1902–2003). Interestingly, she made it possible for him to paint full-time by serving as his manager and critic. In addition, the couple shared a studio and developed a shared style characterized by abstracted subjects, the expressionistic use of color, and simplified forms. Avery began to be recognized by Abstract Expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko (1903–70), who became a close friend. Critics and fellow artists hailed Avery as a link between the dazzling color of Matisse and the avant-garde work of the American Abstract Expressionists during the 1950s.

In 2022, Avery’s work was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition organized by the Royal Academy of Art, London, in association with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (TX) and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT). To learn more, click here: https://www.thewadsworth.org/milton-avery/