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Leland Bell Photo

Leland Bell

American Painter

Born: September 17, 1922 - Cambridge, Maryland
Died: September 18, 1991 - New York, New York, USA
Movements and Styles:
American Realism
"The artist's role is to invent rhythms and forms to reveal a deeper apprehension of reality for the viewer."
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Leland Bell
"I want the shuffles and echoes, and a certain mysteriousness... It's so bloody hard to paint."
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Leland Bell
"Of course the psychological thing is there - and is important - but you find psychological drama in just about anything you wish. That has nothing to do with the painting."
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Leland Bell
"Everything... has to be resolved through rhythms. You're constantly massaging each form, trying to get it home, pushing further and further until these all coalesce into a marvelous kind of rhythm that reveals the life of the painting."
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Leland Bell

Summary of Leland Bell

Leland Bell, a post-war American painter, musician and instructor, defied categorization, creating works that were simultaneously classical, abstract, and representational. He set himself apart from his peers with a unique, rhythmic style that employed strong outlines, bold sections of color, and an engaging dynamism. Bell embraced the human figure as a primary subject when other artists were moving away from figurative representation. His artwork's exuberant take on everyday life did not conform to any one movement, making Bell distinctive within the art world.


  • A former jazz drummer, Bell was drawn to the rhythmic movement in the artwork of Balthus, Alberto Giacometti, and Piet Mondrian, all of whom greatly influenced Bell's own aesthetic style.
  • Bell's most frequent subject was his own personal, domestic life. Unlike his contemporaries who sought to transcend or re-imagine the everyday world, Bell rejoiced in it.
  • Bell reworked his artworks numerous times, even after they were displayed or published, remaining passionate about painting as a continual process rather than a means to create a final product.

Biography of Leland Bell

Leland Bell Photo

Leland Bell was born in Cambridge, Maryland, in 1922, and grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. As a young boy, he was interested in drawing, often copying Norman Rockwell's illustrations and pictures in cowboy books. He also earned extra money by drawing caricatures for people on the street. Bell's other passion, jazz, led him to frequent New York's jazz clubs. In high school, Bell's Russian-Jewish parents moved the family to Washington, D.C. where he occasionally cut class to copy the works he saw at Phillips Memorial Gallery (now the Philips Collection) and the Library of Congress, and was particularly drawn to works by Paul Klee and Thomas Eakins.

Important Art by Leland Bell

Progression of Art

Croquet Party

Based on photographs of a weekend spent with family and friends, Croquet Game is one of the few paintings Bell has not modified since its original creation. It is representative of the recurring, career-long motif of family and domestic scenes. At the far left is Bell with his arm around his wife Ulla, who appeared in many of Bell's works, showing a tender connection between the two. The profound influence of Helion and Léger on Bell's work is apparent even in these early works, particularly in Bell's dark outlines that would become starker and crisper in his later paintings.

Oil on canvas - Center for Figurative Painting, New York


Still Life with Portrait of Temma

Given his focus on domestic life, still life arrangements were unsurprisingly a frequent subject for Bell. In these paintings, he often included disparate objects such as roses, skulls and cymbals, the latter a reference to his musical interests. Even in this seemingly static scene, Bell found ways to integrate movement through shadow and in the folds of the fabric. While remaining abstract, the carefully placed objects in these still life paintings each have a strong, distinct presence; the black outlines give clarity to the individual parts while bringing harmonious balance to the composition. In addition to the outlines, Bell's use of flat color and manipulations of perspective are reminiscent of works by Léger.

Oil on canvas - Center for Figurative Painting, New York


Temma in Orange Dress

In many of Bell's works, the arms and legs are a primary focus to convey a feeling of movement. Here, the curves of Temma's limbs are echoed in various parts of the chair, the curved shadow under the chair and the shapes delineated on her dress. These curves contrast with the sharp, geometric shapes of the furniture and surrounding architectural frame. Temma in Orange Dress is one of many canvases Bell painted of his daughter throughout his career.

Oil on canvas - Estate of the artist



Numerous Bell paintings recreate a scene similar to that of Dusk, where a domestic group responds to a butterfly or bird, taking inspiration from Balthus' La Phalene (The Moth), in both the intrusion of nature and the figures' lively gestures. Bell's playful, almost choreographed images make expressive use of the arms, both to denote a celebratory mood and to visually connect sections of the painting, almost like a Greek frieze. Bell depicts each figure as an individual entity, while also drawing them together through nearly sculptural use of light and shadow.

Acrylic on canvas - Center for Figurative Painting, New York


Morning II

Part of a series of paintings of similar titles and subjects, Morning II is one of Bell's largest two-figure works. Bell placed these statuesque bodies within an intimate scene of intersecting planes, diverse angles and rhythmic movement to evoke the energy and flow of life. He connected the figures through outstretched, moving limbs and planes of flat color. In contrast to the distinct, black lines outlining the forms within his paintings, Bell often blurred fingers and toes into the surrounding colors, further suggesting continued movement. Balthus, one of Bell's main sources of influence, uses a similar tactic in his La Phalene, in which a nude woman's outstretched hands and feet recede into the background.

Acrylic on canvas - Estate of the artist


Standing self-portrait

Bell's self-portraits, of which he painted many, are striking and powerful images. Many focus only on the face, while others, such as Standing self-portrait, feature the entire body. In all of them, Bell presents the head in a very sculptural manner, giving it weight and intensity as well as a psychological depth in the carefully rendered features. This painting also includes everal personal references: one of his Morning paintings hangs on the back wall, and to the right are drums that denote Bell's proficiency as a jazz musician.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Leland Bell
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Rachel Gershman, Kate Beaver

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Leland Bell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rachel Gershman, Kate Beaver
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Jan 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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