American painters like George Ault fought to make sense—and beauty—of a world at war.
The world had exploded into chaos. A nation already staggering from the Great Depression was plunged into World War II, touching everyone, whether at home or abroad. An exhibition now (August 2011) at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” surveys the responses to wartime of a troubled artist and several of his contemporaries. George Ault made a name for himself in the 1920s and ’30s painting precise, architectural canvases of New York City. Then his personal world fell to pieces: His father lost all his money in the stock market crash and died of cancer; his mother died in a mental institution; his three brothers committed suicide. Ault retreated into alcohol and the rural seclusion of an artists’ colony in Woodstock, N.Y. But the darkness of war found him there. He would read the headlines of the New York Times, hands trembling. “I have a complete sense of unreality, especially after reading in the newspapers what is going on,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable world.” And so he set out to construct his own, a still center of peace and calm, in the only way he could, recalled his wife, Louise, “on his canvas, bringing order out of chaos.”
Field of Dreams
For some, the battlefields were in faraway lands; for some they were in backyards or behind shuttered windows. Ault’s misanthropy and erratic behavior alienated friends in the art world. Today people might say he suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder—he could not paint unless the whole house was perfectly clean and neat, including his library. He catalogued his books and even schooled Louise in the proper way to turn a page. As Ault became increasingly hermetic, sales of his paintings slipped. Louise supported the household by working for a newspaper, but even she fled to family for a while, exhausted by marital battles and the struggle to survive. In stony solitude, Ault escaped a clamorous world of wars, foreign and domestic, in his empty, preternaturally orderly buildings and landscapes.
Heart of Darkness
In a world of blackouts and bombing raids, night evoked Ault’s most numinous paintings. The series of the crossroads after dark follow the tension of telephone lines to the promise of the streetlight’s star. “Ault’s isolation gave him a chance to speak broadly—to address the sorrow and moody loneliness others felt then too,” says the Smithsonian show’s curator, Alexander Nemerov. Peacetime brought no peace to Ault himself, and the darkness claimed him. Presumably on his way home from another late-night bender, he drowned in a flooded stream at age 57 in what was ruled an accident. His wife spent the postwar decades reestablishing his artistic reputation in the world he had shunned and saw her efforts rewarded: In 1973 the New York Times lauded his “poetry of darkness.” It was telegraphed from the heart.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.