Description

    RICHARD E. MILLER (American, 1875-1943)
    Zilpha and the Clam Digger, 1935
    Oil on canvas
    48 x 49 inches (121.9 x 124.5 cm)
    Signed lower left: Miller

    PROVENANCE:
    Private collection.

    EXHIBITED:
    "Fourteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings," Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., March 24 - May 5, 1935, no. 227.

    LITERATURE:
    Catalogue of the Fourteenth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1935, ill. opposite p. 85.

    Most serious artists at one time or another during the course of their careers depart from the well-known idiom that made them famous to create something quite different, but equally compelling. Such was the case with the immensely successful American Impressionist, Richard E. Miller, a St. Louis, Missouri, native whose paintings of beautiful women in gorgeous gowns arranged almost like still lifes in sun-drenched domestic interiors were avidly collected by museums and private collectors alike. His energetic brushwork, fluid paint and luscious color, mastered over the course of many years in the Giverny artists' colony in France, described worlds of elegance and leisure. But following the stock market crash of 1929, Miller sharply turned his back on radiant Impressionism and refined subject matter, to paint for half a decade the fisher families of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was a subject closely associated with his longtime friend and associate Charles Hawthorne. However, the somber palette and sculptural solidity Miller adopted for these sensitive works were characteristic of the newly emerging American Regionalist style, a brand of realism born, incidentally, in his native Midwest with Thomas Hart Benton, John Stuart Curry and Grant Wood.

    Although he had lived and worked in Provincetown, Massachusetts, since 1918, Miller had never made the hardworking "sea-going farmers" of the Cape-the subject of this marvelous painting of a girl and her father (Zilpha and the Clam Digger of 1935)-the subject of his art. His new interest in their quiet dignity, sobered by years of hard manual labor at a way of life that was rapidly disappearing, had everything to do with cultural relevance and his own social conscience. As the United States plunged into the Great Depression, images of sun-dappled ladies of leisure struck the wrong visual chord. Figures tied actually and metaphorically to the land they worked had far more gravitas. They became the motifs Miller wanted to put on canvas.

    Miller was doubtless aware of Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic of 1930 (Art Institute of Chicago), where the figure of the farmer and his wife are presented front and center before a pinched and tidy house with chintz curtains in the windows and neatly trimmed lawn all around. While the insistent monumentality of Wood's figures bears some resemblance to Miller's fisher folk, his biting narrative does not. Miller's depictions of the Cape's hardworking farmer-fishermen were softer and more sympathetic, both in execution and in sentiment. He stressed their nobility.

    The two greatest paintings from this fascinating moment in Richard Miller's career were Cape Cod of 1932 in the permanent collection of the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, and the present work, Zilpha and the Clam Digger of 1935, a painting much less-well known having been held continuously in private collections. Both paintings are nearly identical in size, measuring almost 50 inches square. Both present pairs of figures against what Mary Louise Kane termed, "barren yet enduring hills," which she notes Miller himself had identified as the same Truro hills playwright "Eugene O'Neil [sic] used in 'Beyond the Horizon'" (M. L. Kane, A Bright Oasis: The Paintings of Richard E. Miller, The Jordan Volpe Gallery, New York, 1997, p. 67). As Kane points out, Miller gave the flesh of these figures the same color as the pale Truro hills, thereby linking them to the bedrock of their country.

    Whether Miller conceived these two large paintings as part of a series is unknown, for no other works of this particular type featuring figures of such quiet grandeur and prominence have been traced. The artist painted still lifes and landscapes in a similar vein, but without the human element which sets these two works apart from the rest in artistic potency. Miller's decision to send these two canvases to two Corcoran Biennial exhibitions, in 1932 and in 1935, shows that he regarded them as his most important achievements of the period.


    Estimate: $90,000 - $120,000.

    Condition Report*:

    Paint film is in very good, stable condition. Unframed and relined. UV examination reveals that the painting has been restored at locations coinciding with the cross bars of the stretcher frame, doubtless where the canvas, prior to relining, had pressed against the wooden support. The lower lip and curl of hair on the right side of the girl's face are the only restoration on that primary passage. The shadow defining the side of the man's face, coinciding with the location stretcher bar, has been conserved. There are scattered areas of restoration across the background.

    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

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    Auction Dates
    November, 2009
    11th-12th Wednesday-Thursday
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