NEW YORK CITY – Spanierman Gallery, LLC will open, on February 20, “Hayley Lever (1876-1958),” an exhibition and sale that highlights key aspects of this talented Australian American artist’s career, ranging from his deftly rendered portrayals of the Cornish seacoast to his equally remarkable views of New York City, New England and New Jersey.
As demonstrated by the 60 oils and works on paper that comprise the exhibition, Lever was a versatile artist who embraced the modern spirit without sacrificing naturalistic interpretation. Lauded by critics of his day for his “invigoratingly personal point of view,” he was a tremendously prolific artist whose oils, drawings and watercolors reveal his aesthetic individualism and his distinctive treatment of color, line and form.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a 112-page catalog with 40 color plates, featuring an essay, chronology and bibliography by Carol Lowrey and a preface by Marte Previti.
After establishing a notable presence in British art circles, Lever settled in New York City in 1912 and quickly made a name for himself on the national art scene, winning awards and honors in the leading annuals, enjoying solo exhibitions at public and commercial galleries, and attracting accolades from a host of critics who praised his modernity, the diversity of his subject matter and his artistic autonomy. By the early 1920s, his oils had found their way into major public collections in New York, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and his patrons included such influential collectors as Duncan Phillips.
In the wake of his death in 1958, however, Lever’s reputation fell into eclipse. Although his name crops up in publications devoted to artistic activity in St Ives, Cornwall and Cape Ann, Mass., he remains something of an enigma to contemporary art audiences in the United States — an underappreciated artist whose work has nonetheless been promoted by a coterie of dedicated dealers and acquired by many discerning collectors.
Both the exhibition and its accompanying catalog restore Lever to his rightful place in the history of Twentieth Century American art, calling attention to his links with the Impressionist, Post-Impres-sionist, Modernist and Realist traditions, highlighting his principal thematic concerns, and exploring his critical reception in American art circles.
Born in 1876 in Bowden Tannery, a suburb of Adelaide, Australia, Lever initiated his artistic training at Adelaide’s Prince Alfred College, where he was taught by the English marine painter James Ashton. During the early 1890s, he undertook further study at Ashton’s Academy of Arts in Adelaide, after which time he went to London. Around the turn-of-the-century, he spent two winters in Paris studying the figure. More significantly, around 1899 he went to St Ives, an ancient fishing port and artists’ colony on England’s Cornish seacoast, where he received instruction in plein air painting methods from the British Impressionists Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage.
Lever painted nocturnal seascapes, typical examples being “Harbor Scene, St Ives,” 1904, and “Harbor by Moonlight, St Ives,” circa 1910 — evocative paintings that reflect the artist’s desire to convey mood and poetic effect. A turning point in Lever’s aesthetic development occurred around 1908, , however, when, on a trip to the Continent, he had the opportunity to view the paintings of the Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh.
Stimulated by the Dutchman’s vigorous brushwork, bold chromaticism and emphasis on line, Lever developed a bolder mode of painting that he applied to canvases such as “Landing Fish, St Ives, Cornwall,” circa 1910, “The Port of St Ives, Cornwall, England,” circa 1910, and “Sunshine in the Hills – The River Exe,” 1910 — striking canvases characterized by complex designs, stylized shapes and a vivid sense of line and pattern.
Lever was also making a name for himself in the United States. He made his debut at the Carnegie Institute’s international exhibition in 1910 and arrived in New York two years later, making the United States his permanent home. Like his growing circle of friends, which included the Impressionist painter Ernest Lawson and Realists such as Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Bellows, Lever quickly turned his attention to the contemporary metropolis, producing intimate works on paper such as “USA Battleships, River Hudson, New York,” 1912, as well as ambitious paintings such as “Flags,” 1917, a sparkling canvas inspired by the visits of the British and French war commissioners to New York in 1917.
In 1915, Lever began looking for an American equivalent of St Ives. He found it in the venerable seaport town of Gloucester, Mass., where he made regular seasonal visits into the early 1930s. Indeed, Gloucester figures prominently in Lever’s iconography, its harbor, fishing boats and architecture the subject of paintings such as “Fishing Schooners Gloucester,” circa 1920, and “Gloucester, Massachusetts,” circa 1920s.
Lever was at the height of his popularity during the 1910s and 20s, during which time he reaped critical acclaim from the likes of Charles Caffin and Catherine Beach Ely and enjoyed numerous exhibitions at museums and commercial galleries. He remained in New York until about 1930, at which time he moved to Caldwell, N.J., remaining there until 1938, when he settled in Mount Vernon, N.Y. During these years, Level painted marines and landscapes in New Jersey, Vermont, New England, New York and the Canadian Maritimes.
When debilitating arthritis curtailed Lever’s seasonal painting trips after 1940, he devoted most of his time to still lifes and learned to paint with his left hand. After spending several years at Crestview Hall, a nursing home in Mount Vernon, he died in the local hospital on December 6, 1958.
Spanierman Gallery is at 45 East 58th Street. For more information, 212-832-0208 or www.spanierman.com. The exhibit runs through April 5 and gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.