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George Copeland Ault

 (1891 - 1948)
George Copeland Ault was active/lived in New York, Ohio / England.  George Ault is known for precisionist architectural views and still-life painting.

George Copeland Ault

Biography from the Archives of askART

A precisionist and surrealist painter, especially noted for nocturnes, George Ault had the ability to depict lonely, everyday beauty of the world in a moment of absolute stillness.  He also experimented with more traditional styles of realism, but was relatively untouched by modernist abstraction.  His paintings were based on what he saw around him, many of them architectural subjects, and rendered in a quietly controlled manner.

He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1899 moved to London with his family and attended the Slade School and St. John's Wood Art School.  He traveled extensively on the Continent, which exposed him to avant-garde art movements.  In 1911, he returned to the United States, and by 1937 was settled in Woodstock, New York where he freely explored his passion for the play of light at a favorite spot called Russell's Corners.  He did numerous scenes that are almost entirely black, illuminated by a light high on an electrical pole.

Although his childhood had been a happy one, from his mid 20s, he experienced mounting tragedy.  His family lost their fortune; his mother died in a mental hospital; all three of his brothers committed suicide; he had a losing battle with alcoholism; and he lost his eyesight.  He and his wife lived a reclusive, impoverished existence in Woodstock, without electricity or plumbing and his studio was exceedingly spartan.  His own death in 1948 appeared to be suicide.

In his work he explored a variety of modern styles, but about 1920 settled on architectural, urban themes rendered carefully and geometrically, with a great sense of design and careful paint application.  The paintings had a romantic, poetic quality, and, perhaps reflecting his own personal sadnesses, often depicted isolated objects in spare settings as well as many nocturnes.

By 1946, he turned to primarily abstract subjects, a world of random shapes and imaginary landscapes. He was a great admirer of Giorgio de Chirico, Italian surrealist, and Ault's later work showed more and more of this influence.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art, p. 20

Biography from the Archives of askART

The following information was submitted by Lisa Wallerstein, a relative of the artist:

Uncle George was often so poor that he had to cut his paints with alcohol to make them last, pouring the same substance into his art that he did into his body.  It seems hauntingly appropriate that he died
walking over a bridge that wasn't there, the way people in the movies sometimes step into paintings: The bridge on the way home had been washed away in a blizzard while he was in town at his favorite tavern, and at closing time he strode home through the night, only to vanish into his favorite Woodstock scenery.  Perhaps the idea of diluting himself into Nature's palette would have appealed to him.

Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
George Ault was an American painter trained in British Impressionism whose style was shaped by his interests in the avant-gardes, realism, and folk art. He became associated with Precisionists such as Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, who had in common a prominent interest in architecture and the stark use of line, geometry, and planes of color. In Ault’s work, scenes of urban modernity and the nostalgic rural were captured and preserved in streamlined compositions of ordered shapes. Through the presentation of stabilized, depopulated environments, Ault invited reflection on their psychic and aesthetic impact.

Ault was born into a well-off family in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 11, 1891. At the age of eight, father Charles Ault moved the family of seven to London, where his printing ink company introduced American prinking ink to Europe. Charles himself was an amateur painter who exhibited at the Salon of Paris and was a portrait subject for acquaintance William Merritt Chase. He had a number of important artistic contacts, and was heavily involved in the City Museum of St. Luis, the Western Art Association in America, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Charles cultivated his son’s interest in art during childhood, taking him on trips to London and Paris to see works of the Old Masters.

George Ault was ill as a child, with rheumatic fever preventing him from attending school before the age of eight. In London, he attended the University College School, the Slade School of the University of London, and St. John’s Wood School of Art. In 1908 St. John’s Wood School of Art was the site of his first exhibition. His art education in London was based in the techniques of British Impressionism. At the Slade School he received instruction from Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks, and was taught at St. John’s Wood School of Art by George Clausen and William Quiller Orchardson. The methods founding Ault’s artistic technique included teaching reliance on memory over the aid of photographs or sketches. His education was on the whole conservative and wholly apart from the avant-garde European movements Ault later took inspiration from.

The Ault family moved back stateside in 1911, and soon settled into the New York City suburb of Hillside, New Jersey. Three years later, Ault married Beatrice Hoffman and obtained a home and studio in Hillside. With the influence of his conservative, British training at hand, he began experimenting with the representation of landscapes and architecture. Ault became more interested in the forms of the urban environment, and his works began to suggest a slicker, heightened style of realism, joined with the cubist’s interest in geometry. In 1920 Ault participated in the fourth annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, then exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club and in the Bourgeois Gallery’s “American Painters and Sculptors Annual.” As he became estranged from his wife, Ault moved to New York City through the benefaction of his father, who nevertheless disapproved of Ault’s unemployment and modernist tendencies. Ault held solo exhibitions at the J.B. Neumann Galleries and Downtown Gallery, and his works entered the Newark, Los Angeles County, and Whitney Museums.

As Ault’s work matured he began to widen his artistic influences. He showed interest in the work of the Surrealists, particularly painter Giorgio de Chirico. From de Chirico, one can find in Ault’s work a similar sense of the mysterious and improbable environment, where the habitual is transformed into strangeness. Both the architecture of the modern city and landscapes of the rural are marked down in clear, communicative terms that suggest unfamiliarity as much as wonder at their beings. Ault was an admirer, too, of American romanticist Albert Pinkham Ryder, and shared similar tendencies to pare down landscapes to clear and easily read forms. Ault also developed an interest in the folk, which was in keeping with the current modernist rediscovery of indigenous primitive art and may have also resonated as a connection to his mother’s rustic mid-western childhood. His vacation site in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was an area rife with artifacts, and Ault began a personal collection. His graphic style suggested links to the simplified forms of primitive art, and art dealer Stephan Bourgeois went as far as to present Ault as a so-called “Naïve” in an exhibit at the Bourgeois Gallery.

With successful showings at The Downtown Gallery, J.B. Neumann’s New Art Circle, and the Bourgeois Galleries, Ault gathered critical acclaim as he found himself in physical and mental decline. Before the age of thirty, Ault suffered the death of his psychologically and physically troubled mother, then lost his brother Donald, whose wife died with him in a suicide pact. Ault developed reclusive tendencies and became more dependent on alcohol, alienating figures in his life such as prominent dealer Edith Halpert. He petitioned Beatrice for divorce in 1935 after becoming involved with Louise Jonas, an aspiring writer from Iowa. In the intervening years Ault had lost his father to cancer and two remaining brothers to suicide, while the family fortune vanished as a result of the Great Depression. His remaining sibling, sister Esther, gave financial support which allowed Ault to spend summers in the artistic community of Woodstock N.Y. Woodstock artists benefited greatly from government funding, and Ault produced a total sixty-seven works for the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. When Ault and Louise made a permanent move to Woodstock in 1937, money was still of great concern. The two lived apart from the artistic community, renting a modest house a mile from town. They experienced continuing hardship financially, and George traded paintings for services, giving two oils to a dentist who provided care to Louise. Circa 1945, Ault began to find more success amidst the post-war boom, and continued his attempts to improve his sobriety.

In 1948, Ault was discovered dead five days after drowning in the Sawkill Brook on December 30, when he had taken a solitary walk in stormy and dark weather. The death was deemed a suicide by the coroner, though it was contested by Louise as a fall caused by missing guard rails and ill health. Memorial exhibitions followed at the Woodstock Art Gallery and Milch Galleries. In 1973, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented George Ault: Nocturnes, the first museum-run solo exhibition devoted to Ault. More comprehensive insight into Ault’s life and work was provided by widow Louise Ault’s memoirs, published in 1978 as Artist In Woodstock, George Ault: The Independent Years. Through his documentation of metropolitan visions, the ambition of industry, and the simple satisfactions of the rural, George Ault continues to encourage introspection on the impact of the forms and functions of everyday surroundings.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
George Copeland Ault was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1891 and at age eight, moved  to London, England where his family opened a printing shop and introduced American inks and printing techniques to London.  It is during this time that Ault received training at the Slade School of Art and St. John's Wood School of Art before returning to America in 1911.

Although Ault is often grouped with the Precisionist movement, he did not follow in their pattern of idealizing modern life.  Instead, Ault's art is a combination of Cubism, Surrealism, and American folk art that accurately portrays the American scene.  In addition, his style shows an influence of European Modernism because of the underlying geometry.

The 1920s were an emotionally turbulent time in the life of Ault: his parents' deaths and suicides of three of his brothers contributed to his reclusive behavior.  In 1937, Ault moved to Woodstock, New York hoping to make a new start.  This move failed and he became even more depressed, leading to his suicide in 1948.

Submitted by Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  George Copeland Ault

Born:  1891 - Cleveland, Ohio
Died:   1948 - Woodstock, New York
Known for:  precisionist architectural views and still-life painting