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 Waldo Park Midgley  (1888 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: New York/Utah      Known for: landscape, cityscape and zoo animal painting

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Ad Code: 3
Waldo Park Midgley
from Auction House Records.
a fall golf course scene
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
From Utah, Waldo Midgley became an accomplished etcher, watercolorist and illustrator, and his paintings were landscapes of New York and the Northeast and harbor scenes.  As an etcher he did animals and landscapes.

He went to New York in 1907 and became a student of Robert Henri whom he credited as the most important artist to influence his life.  He became closely associated with the Henri circle including John Sloan, George Bellows and Walt Kuhn.

From 1908, he worked as a sign painter, muralist, and then illustrator designer for companies including the Mannheimer Company and Conde Nast Publications.  He was a member of the Salmagundi Club and lived ninety-eight years.

Midgley was a direct descendant of Thomas Midgley, a Utah Pioneer, who helped found the Mormon Church.

Biography from Anthony's Fine Art:
Waldo Midgley: An Introduction

By Donna L. Poulton

New York City at the turn of the 20th Century was a testament to the greatness of American ingenuity, vitality and spirit. Innovations in construction prompted the building of higher skyscrapers, longer bridges and wider and deeper subway tunnels than anywhere in the world. Merchants, construction workers, financiers, immigrants and factory workers were pouring into the city, and they needed an infrastructure to accommodate them.

It was this dynamic milieu of frenetic and creative energy that greeted eighteen-year-old Waldo Midgley and seventeen-year-old Hal Burrows when they arrived in New York City in the autumn of 1907.  The promising young artists from Salt Lake City, Utah, were hoping to further hone their craft.  Their first stop was the widely reputed Arts Students League, but it did not offer the type of experience they were looking for.  Fortunately they walked up 80th Street, where they found the New York School of Art, in which the charismatic Robert Henri was instructing. Waldo remembered the students were “laughing, talking, arguing and working. …Portraits [were still hanging] on the locker doors of students; painted by Bellows, Ireland and others. …The place bubbling like the Hot Pots at Heber. We signed for the day class.”

Time, chance and formidable talent had positioned Midgley and Burrows squarely in the heart of one of the most original and exciting groups in American Art History: "The Eight,” a name created by the press to refer to the eight artists that would later become known as the Ashcan School. Founded by Robert Henri (1865-1929), the Eight had rejected the constrained conservatism of the National Academy of Design in favor of art that expressed forceful themes and rich subject matter and that captured the excitement of New York scenes and people.  Besides Robert Henri, the Eight also included Arthur Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Pendergast, John Sloan, George Luks and Everett Shinn. In 1908, within six months of Midgley's arrival, the Eight would launch a controversial exhibition that convincingly set them apart from the more traditional art in America.

Midgley wrote in his journal that, “Mahonri Young taught me to draw and Robert Henri taught me to paint.” Henri urged his students to record the immediacy and reality of life around them in an adventurous style and to search for the potential in familiar images. The brushwork was freer and quicker; the strokes perceptible and impassioned. The palette was restrained, with dark tones and rich impasto, reflecting the shades of the urban realist environment.

Between 1907-1913, Midgle y studied with Henri at the New York School of Art and at The Henri School of Art. This was punctuated by trips to Utah and his studies with Bellows, Sloan, and Walt Kuhn.  After seeing the historic 1913 Armory Show, Midgley returned to Salt Lake City to work, and in 1914 he met and married Lucille Van Schoonhoven. The newlyweds relocated to the Windy City, where he studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for one year.

By the early twenties both Midgley and Burrows were back in New York City, along with John Held Jr. and Mahonri Young. The advertising agency where Waldo was working, Black and Ross, sponsored an exhibition in which Waldo sold seventeen paintings and won a fifty-dollar prize. The judge observed that Waldo’s work followed the Hamridge Theory of Design, which was based on the Greek theory of Dynamic Symmetry: "a series of geometric formulae governing the relationship of squares and rectangles within a composition.” The judge did not know that the sophisticated compositions were a result of Waldo’s innate understanding and intuitive use of the principles of the “Golden Mean.”

By now, the core group of Mahonri Young’s Utah students had become successful in their own right. Hal Burrows was the art director at MGM in New York City, John Held Jr. was busy with his enormously popular flapper series and Midgley had joined the staff of Conde Nast Publications. Over the next decade Midgley’s paintings and design would be featured in such upscale magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair and House and Garden. His work graced the cover of first three issues of American Golfer magazine.

In the early 1930s Midgley had an exhibition of watercolors in Scarsdale, New York. Mahonri Young, who had become a member of the National Academy of Design, wrote of Midgley’s exhibition:

“Then there is the series done around New York. Here again are the same qualities of unexpectedness, coupled with assured workmanship; but, how different the sentiment. …Whereas, in the Bronx River series, it is nature surprised in all her sweet intimacy, here it is nature, still, but with man’s work everywhere. An artist’s vision of our modern world in iron and steel and electricity.”

Though New York City became his adopted home, Midgley repeatedly returned to Salt Lake City for stays ranging from a few weeks to several years.  Besides visiting family and friends he worked on a public art project with Lee Greene Richards, held an exhibition at the Art Barn and taught classes.  Midgley’s nostalgia for his home state was evident when he wrote that there is no “place that can touch the color and atmosphere of Utah.  Even in the winter it is poignant to the artist.  I love Utah’s gorgeous mountains, her cool mountain streams and stately poplar trees, the sagebrush, the farm land, the Great Salt Lake and the unsurpassed sunsets.”

Waldo Midgley was the grandson of Joshua Midgley, an early Mormon pioneer who played cello for the theatre at night and painted signs during the day.  Waldo could never really break with Utah; it was in his blood.  But the old adage that “you can’t go home” seemed to haunt him or at least his art career.  Utah was a difficult art market at the time and it was challenging to develop a loyal customer base.  During his trips home, he also missed some opportunities in New York City.  Perhaps the most significant was Robert Henri’s “Exhibition of Independent Artists” in 1910. The show was comprised of one hundred artists and nearly five hundred works.  Most of the entrants were former students of Henri. As Robert Olpin exclaimed, “And Waldo Park Midgley wasn’t even in town! How very sad, because every indication points toward probable Midgley inclusion in the show."

By 1939 Waldo and his second wife, Nell, had moved to New York to stay for the next forty-plus years.  Midgley was energized by their return.  Nell Midgley told Robert Olpin that Waldo returned to the haunts of his early days, “Grand Central, the Harlem River, and the Hudson and Bronx Rivers.”

During the war years he taught at the Cavanaugh School of Art and later at the Jean Morgan School of Art.  He continued to paint and exhibit, and he worked in graphic design and printmaking.  He also worked at lettering, which brought him a commission from Mahonri Young to do the lettering for This is The Place Monument in 1947.

In 1951 Midgley was invited to join the prestigious and rarified Salmagundi Club. The club roster included such personalities as: Childe Hassam, William M. Chase, N.C. Wyeth, George Inness, J. Francis Murphy, Howard Pyle, Henry Ranger, Louis C. Tiffany, Stanford White, Anders Zorn, just to name a few.  Midgley juried several of the major art exhibits held at the club.  After the war Midgely taught painting at the Pratt Institute, considered to be one of the leading art schools in the United States.  He continued to paint and to exhibit, winning perhaps the most prestigious award that can be given to a watercolorist, the “Winsor and Newton Prize,” given by the famous arts materials company from Britain.

By the 1960s he could often be found painting at the Bronx Zoo and was given a life-time pass to enter and paint whenever he pleased.  Midgley remembered, “The old animal houses were pleasant to work in; good daylight. One could see the animals clearly.” Benny Goodman bought Midgley’s paintings, including some from the zoo series. Goodman would continue to do so into the mid 1970s as they became good friends, often seeing each other for dinner.

By the late 1970s Midgley’s health began to decline and he chose to spend his final years in Utah. By this time there were art historians and art lovers in general that came to understand the magnitude of his contribution and oeuvre.  At age ninety-four he was honored with a major art retrospective.  The exhibit featured works from different eras and a wide variety of images.  The early lesson that he had learned from Henri, “to paint what you see in your environment,” had guided his thematic choices for the remainder of his career.  Midgley described his subject matter best when he wrote in his journal that:

“…painting contains within itself all the things that nature produces or which result from the actions of men, and in short, whatever can be comprehended by the eyes, it would seem to me that he is but a poor master who only makes a single figure well. For do you not see how many different kind of animals there are, and also of trees and plants and flowers?  What variety of hilly and level places, of springs, rivers, cities, public and private buildings, of instruments fitted for man’s use?”

The exhibition toured Utah in 1984 starting in the north with a showcase of his work at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, then moving to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, and concluding at the Springville Museum of Art in Springville. Robert S. Olpin wrote an exhibition catalogue and history for the retrospective.

Waldo Midgley died in 1986, but his work survives and continues to thrill art collectors, museums and galleries.


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