DescriptionRALSTON CRAWFORD (American 1906-1978)
Oil on canvas
26 x 22 inches (66 x 55.9 cm)
Signed lower right: CRAWFORD
Inscribed on stretcher: NANTUCKET, 26" X 22" / 1932
Stamped on stretcher: Ralston Crawford Estate 32.24
Lee Nordess Galleries, label verso (New York);
Art historically Ralston Crawford has been grouped with the American Precisionists-Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Morton Livingston Schamberg--whose slices of the American landscape and vernacular architecture have characteristic sharp-edged forms, and clearly distilled planes and volumes. Their iconic presentations of grain elevators, docks, shipyards, barns, even common garden flowers in inexpensive vases were, in the 1930s, a new brand of realism--streamlined realism--and were prized as archetypal American imagery. Indeed, within seven years of painting this silvery-blue arrangement of boats and houses at Nantucket, Ralston Crawford produced Overseas Highway (1939), the work which catapulted him to national fame. In Overseas Highway, an empty causeway rushes confidently and aggressively into deep perspective. As Carter Ratcliff noted, "After nearly a decade of economic depression, it [Crawford's painting] was a welcome message" of hope, and relief, and was reproduced in Life magazine.
Crawford produced the present work, Nantucket, in 1932, at the moment in his career when his pictorial style began the shift from a more painterly, European-inspired brand of modernism, to one that was more severe and reductive (Precisionist). Notably, in this and a handful of related works which Crawford produced during the summer of 1932, the artist chose the subject of the sea as the vehicle for exploring a tighter flattening of form, and a greater clarification of planes. For Crawford, the sea was the environment in which he felt most at home, and the motifs associated with it were those with enormous personal resonance for him.
Ralston Crawford was born in Ontario, Canada, to a Canadian mother and American father who worked as a captain on cargo ships. His father's work took the family to Buffalo where he grew up and where he discovered his aptitude for art. By the time he was fourteen, he had traveled all the Great Lakes with his father, and later worked on ships as an able-bodied seaman. In 1926-1927, he sailed on tramp steamers to Santiago, Honduras, Havana, Jamaica, and through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. The sea was in his blood--along with art.
In 1927, Crawford studied at the Otis Art Institute and worked in Walt Disney's garage studio before moving back east where he trained from 1927 to 1930 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There he became especially close to Hugh Breckenridge, whose summer school in Gloucester Crawford attended during the summer he painted the present work, and Henry McCarter, the most progressive artist on the faculty. During his period of study at the Pennsylvania Academy, Crawford worked for two years at the Barnes Foundation in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion, where he got to know Dr. Barnes personally, and became enormously inspired by the work of Cezanne. In particular, Crawford learned to appreciate the underlying structure of Cezanne's imagery, which eventually resulted in a more individual pictorial architecture expressed in the present work.
At some level, Crawford's experiences of making a painting and making a life on the sea were intricately related. As he once revealed to Edward H. Dwight, probably in preparation for his exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Center in 1958: "To go back to the sea, I remember lines in one of O'Neill's plays, Long Day's Journey Into Night, where he talked about the 'Dawn Watch'; I never heard it called that before but I know the watch that he is referring to. He refers to the four to eight watch in the morning which is also in effect in the evening. He talked about the beauty he found standing that watch. It was there I suppose that a particular kind of solitude related to color and movement were perhaps my deepest and most meaningful early experiences in relation to painting. . . . There was the color, and the intensely human character of many of the situations, involving my ship. Sometimes for a very young man, scarcely more than a boy, the action was a little bit frightening. . . . There was the courageous speculative character of the men living this life. . . . They were very high rollers and high rolling is essential to picture-making." (William Agee, Ralston Crawford, Twelve Trees Press, 1983, p. 8)
Condition report available upon request.
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