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Nell Blaine Photo

Nell Blaine

American Artist

Born: July 11, 1922 - Richmond, Virginia
Died: November 14, 1996 - New York, New York
"I never thought of abstraction as divorced from nature. Vital abstractions conveyed...a sense of breathing and an essence of rhythm as in growing things."
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Nell Blaine
"I think you look at things differently after having the abstract experience. It forces you always to look for rhythms."
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Nell Blaine
"As I paint I see more. [Nothing] comes all at once - or I should say very rarely."
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Nell Blaine
"The ordinary is really never ordinary when one examines it closer."
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Nell Blaine
"Nature is bigger than you are.... And somehow, it's liberating."
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Nell Blaine
"I have the firm belief that the only things that are worth doing are those that are a little scary."
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Nell Blaine
"Although I use abstract or concrete forms and my most immediate stimulation and consideration before beginning a painting is the shape and size of the canvas before me at the moment, my strongest initial impressions are from nature itself. I am so saturated with intervals, measures and quantities when I have observed."
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Nell Blaine
"Old age is a revelation, isn't it? The only way to survive is to keep working and being involved and to have young people as well as contemporaries around...."
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Nell Blaine

Summary of Nell Blaine

Arriving in New York in the midst of Abstract Expressionism's rise, Nell Blaine became a part of, and in fact helped to create, a vibrant community of young artists, poets, and musicians who drank up Abstract Expressionism's commitment to abstraction, color, and gestural brushwork but found new subject matter in intimate depictions of friends, nature, and mundane views. Blaine, along with Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, helped to usher in a new, Contemporary Realism, that took up the familiar and everyday that in some ways anticipated the subjects of Pop Art but that was more lyrical and introspective.

Blaine's evolution from an abstract painter to a painter of portraits and landscapes may seem an about-face, but she remained interested in the dynamic relations between form and color and creating an intimate viewing experience no matter what her subject matter. Her adaptations to a mid-life medical condition created new challenges but also new ways of working that enhanced her intimate portrayals of friends and her surrounding environs that continue to influence contemporary landscape painters.


  • Pulling inspiration from the gamut of modern art as well as jazz music, Nell Blaine created dynamic paintings that pulsed with vibrant colors and layered perspectives that captured the felt sense of nature, places, and people. Though initially dedicated to abstraction, Blaine carried the compositional effects she learned from Hans Hofmann into her realist paintings.
  • Blaine's participation in the trend toward figuration in the 1950s, a trend that encompassed such diverse artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Bearden, and Jane Freilicher, demonstrated that realism, even when subtle and quiet, was a powerful response to the growing cacophony of Cold War consumer culture.
  • While immersed in the social scene of the Abstract Expressionists, Blaine's closest friends, all represented by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, created a smaller, more intimate community that engaged in collaborative projects with poets that were often more playful and intimate than the grand scale of her Abstract Expressionist colleagues.

Biography of Nell Blaine

Nell Blaine Photo

Nell Blaine's childhood was a difficult one. She experienced little love from her father, Harry Blaine who seemed to never recover from the death of his first wife even after remarrying and having Nell. In contrast, her mother, Eudora Blaine, a devoutly religious woman who had already birthed one stillborn son, almost smothered her daughter with attention and controlling judgement throughout her childhood.

Important Art by Nell Blaine

Progression of Art

Red and Black

Nell Blaine's painting Red and Black features curvilinear shapes in black, blue, and red that sit atop a lightly painted, milky white background. The shapes are not strictly geometric but have a more organic quality in the way they fit together and relate to one another dynamically and recall some of the chance-inspired collages and paintings of Dadaist Jean Arp. This piece is an important example of Blaine's early commitment to abstract painting after she moved to New York City. Less gestural and more controlled than some of the other artists working in this genre, this painting shows the influence of her teacher Hans Hofmann, who advocated for abstraction and the visual tension of a push-pull composition.

Exposure to jazz music also influenced Blaine's work. Reveling in its sound, she began to think of her abstract compositions as coming together the way jazz musicians form their unique sounds. She once stated, "We painters were in love with the idea of creating new forms and rhythms related to the spirit we felt moving in this music.... Like each improvisation in jazz, each color in abstract painting was to have a life of its own in the picture. Color relationships were to be more keenly felt and weighed. So it was with the role of the players in a jazz ensemble. " In this painting, then, each form, can be seen not as an individual shape but as a part (or note if you will) in the larger composition of the painting.

Oil on canvas - Collection of estate of the artist


Street Encounter

Nell Blaine's painting depicts a street scene rendered in simplified, geometric shapes and a myriad of colors that makes the work look slightly abstract while simultaneously being reminiscent of Fernand Leger's Cubist forms. One can see numerous cars on a busy street, but the focal point is the right half of the canvas in which a large male figure seems to either rest his hand on the headlight of a parked car or perhaps straddles a motorcycle while he looks downward.

Blaine was still deeply absorbed in Abstract Expressionism when she made her first trip to Europe in 1949; however, during her stay, she fell under the influence of the city sights as well as the nature around her and began to experiment with the depiction of more realistic imagery in her works. This painting, an early example of the beginning of this shift in her work, shows one of her first incorporations of the figure. This change was due in part to French artist Jean Hélion, who Blaine met during her stay and whose open studio sessions she attended with other young artists. Art historian Martica Sawin explains, "It was his late 1940s hard-edged, more stylized paintings of newspaper readers, umbrellas, and nudes that played a part in leading Blaine back to the figure. " While her paintings would eventually become more figurative and gestural, here we see the beginning of her transition away from abstraction.

Oil on canvas - Collection of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York


Wharf Studio, Gloucester

Wharf Studio is a lush celebration of color. In the foreground, a small vase of pink flowers, a green glass, and a colorful plate of food sit atop a teal colored table. Behind the table, one sees a wicker sofa covered in green cushions and vibrantly striped blankets. Further in the background, a wall of windows lets in the streaming sun.

In this work, one finds two recurring themes in Blaine's art. Room interiors became a favorite subject of hers once she made the transition from abstraction to realism in the 1950s. It also shows the inspiration she took from the many places she visited and lived; in this instance Gloucester, Massachusetts, which Blaine subtly references in the glimpse of the water through her studio windows.

While realistic in subject matter, Blaine loosely renders objects with broad brushstrokes, reveling in her love of Impressionism. Here one experiences the sense of the place, an intimacy that would be lost if the work was more precisely rendered. Not abandoning the lessons she learned from her abstract compositions, Blaine explained, "Realism in painting consists of order, rhythms, growth, and shapes, rather than the actual appearance of things."

Oil on canvas - Collection of Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts


Rooftops, Rain

In this painting, Nell Blaine depicts a series of city rooftops in a range of pastel colors and shades of blue. The surface of the roof that dominates the foreground appears to shimmer in the fallen rain.

After her diagnosis of bulbar-spinal polio in 1959, Blaine had to adapt to painting with her left hand and limited range of mobility, as she was confined to a wheel chair. As a result, her paint handling became looser in many ways and her subject matter closer to home, in this case the view of New York City rooftops from the window of her Riverside Drive apartment.

One of Blaine's striking abilities is to turn mundane, even dirty, things into beautifully colored compositions. Art historian Martica Sawin observed that "garbage into flowers is a good metaphor for Blaine's vision, a vision that dwells on natural beauty and sees the world in rainbow colors, even when looking at city rooftops." Writing about this series for an 1968 ARTNews article, poet and critic James Schuyler stated, "It is one of those 'least' views with which the city abounds: its apparent merit not anything to see, but that you can see further across the street.... And how extraordinarily beautiful it is, painted like this, an inextricable delight of interlocking shapes, a plane geometry of the continuous right-angled skin of the city. So many surprises and incongruities.... "

Oil on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC


Three Friends at a Table II

This painting features three figures, two women and a man, seated at a large table scattered with saucers, cups, a tea kettle, fruit, and a vase filled with abundant flowers. Blaine retains her vibrant color palette and intimate choice of subjects, but Three Friends at a Table II feels less brushy and impressionistic than her work usually does and instead exhibits a new crispness and detail. Additionally, the background with individual works of art hanging on the wall and the view through the window are more delineated in the composition compared to other backgrounds in Blaine's paintings.

Importantly, this work is a striking example of one of Blaine's later interests beginning in the mid-1960s - portraiture - and one of the biggest she painted while in her wheelchair. Featuring her lover, Carolyn Harris, and friends Flora Kriezi and Marshall Clements, art historian Martica Sawin describes the closeness Blaine captures: "Although each of the immobile three is lost in his or her own thoughts, there is a quality of unspoken intimacy that holds them together. Since Blaine had only limited movement in her left arm and less in her right, it was necessary to move back and forth in the wheelchair to get from one side of the canvas to the other. Yet the painting does not seem in any way disjointed, probably because the strong, trapezoidal shape of the table with its colorful objects draws and holds the eye, which only afterward begins to scan the weary faces of the three friends. " Blaine explained her new-found interest in portraiture, saying, "[S]uddenly it just seemed terribly exciting to get a face that's alive, that is a kind of permanent image of this person with some life coming through it. Mostly I paint people I know very well, and I like to paint them over and over and keep on sort of penetrating. "

Oil on canvas - Collection of Estate of the Artist


Rubrum Lily

A large, pink spotted lily fills the center of a bouquet, accompanied by another closed lily and smaller white flowers with vibrant green leaves. The clear glass vase rests on a small table covered in a light blue cloth, and a soft greenish-pink subtly pulsates in the background.

Floral still lifes, often rendered in a fashion reminiscent of Post-Impressionist artists such as Vincent van Gogh, were a recurring theme in Blaine's art during the last three decades of her life. While she had long been drawn to nature and especially gardens, author Martica Sawin explains how after polio confined her to a wheelchair Blaine "began having [nature] come to her in the form of cut flowers. Delicate bouquets of field flowers or bunches of bright, luxuriant August blossoms...became the subject of close-focus scrutiny, bringing into the interior some of the outdoor color and light that were so exhilarating for her. From the start it was clear that she wanted these flower paintings not to be detached from nature in stiff or contrived arrangements, but to be an extension of the place where they grew, subjected to as little artifice as possible. " Despite her inability to easily explore the gardens she loved, Blaine was still able to capture the grandeur of nature through these intimate flower portraits.

Oil on canvas - Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts


Emerald Gardens

In Emerald Gardens, Blaine depicts a lush garden full of green foliage and flowers in vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows. A pot of red flowers sits on a walkway that meanders into the composition from the bottom right, and the pale blue of the bay and further landscape are hazy in the background.

This painting, created in the final year of her life, is a celebration and culmination of Blaine's decades-long passion for nature and gardens, especially those around her cottage in Gloucester, Massachusetts. So dedicated to the subject, she endured the difficult process of having herself and her wheelchair placed outdoors to engage in plein air painting. Acknowledging her struggles, Blaine stated, "The upheaval and packing are strenuous, but worthwhile once we're there smelling the pine, picking the flowers. " According to art historian Martica Sawin, "She derived great pleasure from the latter, moving in her wheelchair from one bed to another and exclaiming over new blossoms. "

In particular, this painting highlights the importance of light in Blaine's painting in the ways in which she surrounds many of the impressionistic strokes of color with white, creating a sense of reflected light. Blaine revealed her desire to capture the perfect light of nature by explaining, "My true subject is the life of forms as revealed by light. Light reveals or conceals as it moves. Even colors in close values can give a feeling of light saturation.... I have no desire to copy shadows or light patches, although they give me clues and directions and help me structure space. I pick and choose even while I empathize, becoming what is before me and surrounds me. "

Watercolor and pastel on paper - Reynolds Gallery, Richmond, Virginia

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Nell Blaine
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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Nell Blaine Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 21 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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