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 James Augustus McLean  (1904 - 1989)

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Lived/Active: North Carolina      Known for: figure, portrait, landscape

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These Notes from AskART represent the beginning of a possible future biography for this artist. Please click here if you wish to help in its development:
A figure, portrait, and landscape painter and professor of art at the University of North Carolina, James McLean was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:

JAMES AUGUSTUS McLEAN (1904-1989)

Born in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the seventh child of a stone cutter, James McLean was raised in North Carolina. Though he began drawing at an early age, he had little opportunity to pursue a career in art, since the subject was not taught in the North Carolina schools at that time, not even in Chapel Hill, where McLean spent his first year of college in 1922.

Following the death of his father, in 1923, McLean was offered a job in a local cotton mill. Desperate to study art, he answered a magazine ad, placed by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The ad assured that part time jobs would be available for needy students. Though he was convinced that he had no chance, McLean sent an application, along with a sketch of one of his neighbors, to Philadelphia.

He began classes at the Academy’s summer school at Chester Springs in April 1923 and spent the next five years there, and in Philadelphia, where he studied under Daniel Garber, Charles Garner, and Joseph Pearson. In 1926 he won the coveted Cresson Traveling Scholarship, which enabled him to spend the summer in Italy, Paris, Germany and the Netherlands. During that time, McLean seems to have acquired a great admiration for the Pennsylvania landscape artists, particularly Garber, whose version of impressionism---modified by a traditional attention to draftsmanship and well organized composition---remained a model throughout his career.

Offered a teaching position at the conclusion of his senior year, McLean was prepared to stay in Philadelphia when a group of visitors from the newly formed North Carolina State Society convinced him to return to North Carolina to help set up an art school. The Southern School of Creative Arts opened in Raleigh in the fall of 1929 with McLean its only teacher. Taking a cue from the academy, he made plans to hold classes on the coast the following summer. The stock market crash and the depression that followed put his plans on hold. Most of the students dropped out before the semester began, but McLean remained, even hiring a young dance teacher, whom he married in 1930.

When the WPA came to North Carolina in the mid-1930s, McLean joined the Federal Arts Project (FAP). He painted murals in different parts of the state and taught classes to the general public. Initially, the state’s WPA officials allowed artists to select projects that they especially wanted to create. McLean decided to paint murals for the four walls of the library rotunda at State College (now North Carolina State University). The sketches for the murals were unanimously approved, but the modern style of their execution was rejected, and in 1941, they were removed. Three of the four were subsequently lost.

McLean painted two other sets of murals for the WPA; two for Greensboro’s Grimsley High School; another for the Charles Cannon Library in Concord. In addition to his mural work, McLean supervised the programs for the Art Center in Raleigh, which opened on May 1, 1936, and produced his own work. Though he has not been the subject of scholarly attention, recent market activity indicates that he was active during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and that he painted a variety of subjects.

Like Garber, his favorite motif seems to have been the landscape surrounding his home. His views of Blowing Rock and Smokey Hollow, composed with distinctive foreground trees which separate the fore, middle and far grounds, are particularly attractive. However, McLean’s work also differs from Garber because in the majority of his landscapes, architecture plays a dominant role. Like other artists of his generation, McLean vacillated between impressionism and more avant-garde methods, and while he continued to paint in an impressionist style throughout his career, he experimented with a variety of others, including cubism, often settling into techniques of decorative patterning while still maintaining a strong sense of realism.

McLean lived long enough to see most of the experiences he had valued come into being. North Carolina opened the North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem. A fine arts department was begun in Chapel Hill, and State College in Raleigh started its School of Design. Most important to McLean, art became a basic course in the public schools of North Carolina. The artist was honored in several local exhibitions in the early 1980s. He died in Raleigh in 1989.

Nancy Rivard Shaw, 2001© Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

References:

Falk, Peter Hastings. "Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975", vol. II. New York: Sound View Press, 1999.

Cooper, Richard. "James Augustus McLean: A Life of Art". Raleigh, North Carolina: Creative Productions, 1985.

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