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 Harold Osman Kelly  (1884 - 1955)

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Lived/Active: Texas/Ohio      Known for: primitive landscape, rural scene

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Ad Code: 3
Harold Osman Kelly
from Auction House Records.
Sunday Morning
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Naive western genre and landscape painter Harold Osman Kelly, was born on March 6, 1884 in Bucyrus, Ohio. The pattern of Kelly's later life was apparently established in his youth by the roving, gypsy life he led with his family in moves to Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Nicknamed "H. O." or "Cowboy," Kelly's later life would be little changed.

He left home early, enthused by the lore of the American West, with dreams of making a living on horseback. He worked in thirty states, including Arizona, Nebraska, Wyoming, Arkansas and Oklahoma, as a cowboy, sheepherder, cowhand, logger, bullwhacker, grainfield and cottonfield worker, sharecropper, and, occasionally, rodeo rider. Kelly described himself, in a quote from Time magazine, as "becoming something of a nomad himself, a rambler, a restless fiddlefoot who never stopped traveling until he was too old to roam."

Western painter Tom Lea described Kelly as "a nineteenth-century man adrift in the twentieth, and the first sixteen years of his life were lived in the bucolic America of the nineteenth century, and a frontier frame of mind still lingered in it. It was this that shaped him. It remained, for his more than three score years and ten, his spirit's haven."

A self-taught artist who would paint from memory as an adult, Kelly drew as a child and continued thereafter, sketching at night when he lived in the Texas Panhandle. Kelly moved near Dalhart, Texas, in 1921. The years from 1929 until 1939 saw ten years of hard labor and failure as farmer. His family helped him buy a farm near Dalhart, in the Texas Panhandle just as the Depression and Dust Bowl came. He did what he could to work the farm and counter his elemental restlessness. When he couldn't sleep at night, he read the Bible, Melville and Dickens. Since he had, over the years, made little pictures to send to friends and relatives as gifts, Kelly decided to make a series of small paintings illustrating his favorite book, Dickens' "Pickwick Papers".

When the bank reclaimed the farm in 1939, Kelly, his wife and child moved to Blanket, Texas, where they lived for a while in a renovated chickenhouse. All the labor of a hard lifetime and the last ten years on a Depression, Dust Bowl farm left Kelly with broken health at the age of fifty-five. He would live another sixteen years, physically unable to work at anything but his painting. His wife, the former Jessie Bowers, whom Kelly had married in Arkansas around 1920, provided the family income by working in a Brownwood, Texas laundry.

Sometime in the 1940s, Harold Kelly finally caught a break. Lexie Dean Robertson of nearby Rising Star, Texas, was his guardian angel, bringing Kelly's work to the attention of artist Jerry Bywaters, Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, and a power in the Texas art world. Bywaters started selling Kelly's work, gave him a one-man show at the Museum in 1950, and appointed Kelly artist-in-residence each year at the Museum during the State Fair of Texas, a position he held until his death five years later.

Kelly started to paint more, moving to oils on canvas board, at artist Doris Lee's suggestion. For subject matter, he painted memories of landscapes, small towns, and people at work and play. Kelly painted slowly, producing a limited number of paintings that hindered his commercial success. There simply weren't enough works by Kelly to create and build his reputation, though his work was immediately popular. This was unfortunate, considering that a former Director of the Metropolitan Museum, in New York City, Francis Henry Taylor, declared that Kelly was "one of the few genuine primitive painters we have had in our country." Kelly lived and painted from the heart, not with any desire to find an artistic formula and churn out saleable product.

His paintings reflect a positive, upbeat view of life that must have played a compensatory role in Kelly's inner world for the poverty of his actual life. His painted people are well fed and cheerful and treat each other with equality. It has been said that "Kelly's painted world depicted a rural America that had largely disappeared more than half a century beforea world washed clean of all imperfection by the loving memory of an engaging old man." (Powers 274)

Harold Osman Kelly died in Brown county, Texas, on December 12, 1955.

His exhibitions include:

Panhandle-South Plains Fair, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, A Century of Art and Life in Texas, Seventy-Five Years of Art in Dallas, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts

John and Deborah Powers, "Texas Painters, Sculptors, and Graphic Artists"

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