Mountains & Meadows, 1979 was painted late in Sally Michel Avery’s lifetime but not late in her career as an artist. The picture displays an affinity in style to that of her husband Milton Avery, a fact that is understandable as the two artists painted side-by-side for forty years in their small living room in New York City. And yet upon closer inspection and study there is a subtle individuality that characterizes her work in this immensely appealing landscape. Uninspired by any previous or parallel art movements Sally was known to paint commonplace locales that were known to her, and this painting of mountains and meadows could very well be a familiar site in New England or Europe where Sally would vacation with her family. In her very personal and modernist signature style of painting there is a joyous spontaneity to the composition, and Sally was known to complete a work within a day’s time. There is also a strong graphic content that is indicative of her years spent supporting the family with her illustrations for children’s books, department stores, and newspapers. Sally has both flattened and simplified in an almost childlike and guileless folk art characterization the forms in her landscape as well as the foreground and background of her canvas. Additionally the colors of the evergreen trees, the mountains in the distance, and the meadow in the foreground are provocatively and fully saturated as well as somewhat fanciful and capricious, as the color palette does not accurately portray nature’s reality. The resulting image, however, is a harmonious and inviting composition that is both charming and appealing for its playfulness, its familiarity, and its gaiety of spirit.
Sally Michel was born in 1902. Knowing as young as five years old that she wanted to be an artist, she enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City directly after completing high school. In 1924 she traveled to East Gloucester, Massachusetts to spend the summer painting. There she met Milton Avery (1893-1965) whom she married just two years later. For forty years until Milton Avery’s passing in 1965, the two resided in a modest top floor apartment at 294 West 11th Street in New York City and painted side-by-side in their living room. While Milton was alive, Sally assumed the role of bread winner, promoter of her husband’s career, mother to their daughter March who was born in 1932, and general maintainer of the household. In order to support the family Sally worked as an illustrator for Macy’s, The New York Times under the “Child and Home” column, various children’s books and other publications. Consequently Sally found little time to paint herself except during extended summer vacations when as a family they would often travel throughout New England, Canada, Mexico, and Europe with their close friends and fellow artists Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman. Still and all there was a mutual respect between Sally and Milton that lasted throughout their marriage due in large part to Sally’s strength of character, unflagging optimism, and faith in Milton’s art. It was not until the 1940’s that Sally had time to paint when her daughter went to school, and Milton’s paintings began to sell modestly. Although many of her works were of very high quality, Sally never attempted to show or to sell any of them. She steadfastly and consistently subjugated her work and career to that of her husband as she continued to play the role of staunch defender and manager of her husband’s art and legacy. In the 1950’s when her daughter went off to college, Sally slowly found support for her work. She became a resident at the Yaddo Art Colony and at the MacDowell Art Colony. She even had a show at the Provincetown Art Gallery and shared billing with her husband at the Rudolph Gallery in Florida. Yet even after Milton’s death in 1965 Sally continued to promote his work and to be evasive, almost dismissive, of any discussion of her personal works. Sally Michel Avery died on January 9, 2003 at the age of 100.