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Nell Blaine - Biography and Legacy

American Artist

Born: July 11, 1922 - Richmond, Virginia
Died: November 14, 1996 - New York, New York

Biography of Nell Blaine

Childhood and Education

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.

A sickly child, Blaine was both cross-eyed and severely nearsighted and received her first pair of glasses at the age of two. According to Sawin, "Blaine was so thin and pale when she started school that she was put in a 'Fresh Air Class' that required naps, a special diet, and more outdoor activity than the regular classes. Because one eye turned in toward her nose, other children made fun of her and she became adept at defending herself, often with fists, and was thought of as a tomboy. She reacted against parental disapproval by rebelling. " Fortunately, operations on her eyes at the age of thirteen improved her vision and cross-eyedness, which eased her social awkwardness to some degree.

Drawing was one of the few early pleasures Blaine experienced and already by the age of five she declared her desire to be an artist. During high school, she furthered this interest by taking an art correspondence course and working as an illustrator on the school paper; she also created the posters for school plays and earned money creating drawings for the children's page in the local paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Early Training

Blaine received her first formal art training at the age of sixteen when she enrolled at the School of Art of the Richmond Professional Institute. Because of her family's poor financial state after the death of her father, Blaine received a work scholarship. While at school, Blaine made extra money working for the college newspaper where she interviewed visiting celebrities such as Walter Brennan, Jeanette MacDonald, and Katharine Hepburn, drawing their portraits to accompany her articles.

In order to make ends meet, Blaine had to leave school full time to take a job making illustrations for an advertising agency, but she continued her education by enrolling in an evening class. While there, her teacher, Worden Day, encouraged her to move to New York City so she could study under the great abstract painter Hans Hofmann. Putting aside any extra money she could from her job, eventually Blaine saved enough to make the move. Her mother was extremely unhappy about her decision and according to Sawin, she "tried to stop her from going and called the dean of the college, threatening to have her daughter committed. " Blaine, who went despite her mother's concerns, said of her decision that "it was the crucial act of my life. "

Immediately upon arriving in New York in 1942, Blaine went straight to the Hofmann School to express her interest in enrolling. After showing her drawings and paintings to Hofmann, she was given a two-year scholarship and began attending classes. Blaine thrived at school and later reflected, "This was my Mecca, Hofmann, the Master's street, the center of all things I longed to know, the gateway to abstract and all modern art, a holy place. " Her ability to learn from the art world greats continued four years later when she studied etching and engraving at Atelier 17 under Stanley William Hayter.

Once in the city, Blaine quickly made friends and fell into a social circle that included artists Leland Bell, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Robert De Niro along with poets John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Experiencing independence for the first time, free from the control of her mother, Nell Blaine reflected: "The moment I hit New York, I was like a bird out of a cage."

Mature Period

While a disciple of Hofmann, Blaine was also inspired by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, and her earliest abstract works, such as Red and Black (1945), show this influence. Committed to abstraction, she became the youngest member of the American Abstract Artists organization in 1944 and the next year was included in an exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery. Blaine also joined the artist cooperative, the Jane Street Gallery, and quickly became one of the driving forces behind keeping the group prosperous and productive.

Jazz music also became an important influence, and as a result she learned to play the drums, often playing them at the parties she hosted in her apartment, which were famously open to anyone who wanted to attend with guests free to stay as long as they liked. Her interest in music also impacted her personal life; while at a music club, she met Robert Bass and the two married three months later in July of 1943. That same year, the couple made their first visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Blaine found inspiration for her art in the landscape and gardens of the area. Bass also introduced Blaine to painters Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, enlarging her circle of artist friends.

Blaine's marriage was not a solid one, largely due to Blaine's infidelities. Already aware of her bisexuality, according to author Cathy Curtis, Blaine "would have more than thirty lovers of both sexes, often several at a time during her younger days. " The marriage did not last, with the breaking point occurring after Blaine suffered a miscarriage, and it was eventually annulled in 1948. Recognizing her inability to be happy in a traditional domestic arrangement, Blaine stated of Bass, "He was almost too nice. He was very devoted and did everything for me and I got bored. "

After the end of her marriage, Blaine threw herself into her art. She took her first trip to Europe in 1949 and spent significant time in France, where she drew inspiration from the Impressionists. After six months overseas, Blaine returned to New York where her art, while still incorporating the loose, gestural brushstrokes characteristic of abstraction, became more pictorial in nature, and she began to add people and landscapes into some of her compositions.

In the early 1950s, Blaine, along with Freilicher, Rivers, Grace Hartigan, and others, was part of the stable of artists shown at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Championed by gallerist John Myers, the artists often collaborated with poets such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbury, and Kenneth Koch.

Increasingly, the inspiration for Blaine's works came from her travels, which in addition to Europe, included a residency at the artist community of Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1957, a trip to Mexico that same year, as well as repeated summer stays in Gloucester. Finding it difficult to support herself solely through her art in these early years of her career, she supplemented her income by working as a commercial artist; her most notable job came in 1955 when working for the Village Voice she designed the paper's iconic logo.

Later Period

An extended stay in Greece in 1959 proved to be a life-changing event for Blaine. While living in Mykonos for the summer, she was highly productive, creating many paintings of the country landscape, flowers, and room interiors. While there, she began to feel unwell. Growing increasingly tired, the thirty-seven year old Blaine eventually collapsed. While the local doctors were unable to discover the cause of her illness, German doctors, who were vacationing in the area, examined her and diagnosed her with bulbar-spinal polio. The life-threatening nature of the illness led to Blaine being flown to Athens where she was temporarily put in an iron lung. She later described the experience: "Sometimes the pain was visual, like a bird pecking at my legs." Later, she was flown home and taken to New York's Mount Sinai Hospital. Blaine later recalled, "It took three months for them to be sure I would live. Apparently all the functions had gone. I was almost completely paralyzed for several months. I could move one hand and one lower arm a bit; my head a little bit. But otherwise nothing. " Eventually more movement would return, but she would only have the use of half her diaphragm, making breathing difficult, and she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

When a social worker at the hospital told her she would never paint again, Blaine became angry and refused to accept it. Unable to fully lift her right arm, she taught herself to paint with her left hand. While she would continue to have a highly productive career for the last decades of her life, it was only because she completely changed her approach. Years later, Blaine reflected how her polio diagnosis impacted her art, saying, "I tend to work more compactly and I think the forms are simpler. The worst limitation is working so close. I used to be very athletic while painting; I would run back and run forward so I wouldn't lose the knowledge of where that stroke should go. Now I blur my eyes so I will get the all over.... What I did before my illness tended to have the feeling of over-expenditure of energy. What I did afterward represents me myself, free and detached." Perhaps because of her need to reinvent how she painted, Blaine's paintings became more detailed and increasingly featured people, views of building rooftops from her city apartment, and paintings of flowers and gardens.

While recovering in the hospital, Blaine met a nurse Dilys Evans who would eventually become her lover, but Evans's immigration status as a British citizen proved a problem; the two were forced to return to Europe while Evans applied for permanent residency in America. In addition to a stay in England, the couple spent eleven months on a banana plantation on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, inspiring many paintings. However, upon returning to New York, Blaine's relationship with Evans fell apart. Soon after, in 1967, she met artist Carolyn Harris, and the two began a relationship that would last the rest of Blaine's life.

Having struggled financially throughout her career, Blaine unexpectedly benefitted from two inheritances late in her life. When her mother died in 1971, the money she received from her estate allowed Blaine to purchase a house in Gloucester in 1974. From that point on, Blaine and Harris would spend half the year, from June until November, in Gloucester and the rest of the year in New York. Around the same time in 1975, friend Howard Griffin, whom Blaine had stayed with while in London, died and left her his home in Austria.

Many awards and critical praise for Blaine's work happened in the last decade of her career, including two honorary doctorates, of which she later joked, "The students chose me. Isn't that a laugh? Me without even an earned certificate. See what happens when you get old. " Her fighting spirit also did not fade with age. Always one to speak her mind, this tendency increased as she got older, and biographer Cathy Curtis describes how she often wrote letters to express her frustration with various situations, including a letter to President Ronald Regan in support of women's rights; the Scott Paper Company about the texture of their toilet paper products, which she felt had lessened because they absorbed less of the excess liquid from her watercolors than they used to; and to President Bill Clinton about the need to strengthen environmental protection laws.

Despite painting prolifically in the last years of her life, Blaine's health continued to fail. In addition to the complications of polio known as postpolio syndrome, in June 1993 she learned she had breast cancer and underwent an operation. Later the cancer returned in lymph nodes under her arms, requiring further treatment. Shortly after, in June 1996 she contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. Her health never truly recovered. On November 6, the pneumonia recurred, and she died eight days later at the age of seventy-four.

The Legacy of Nell Blaine

Though not recognized as widely as she should be, Nell Blaine's career stands as a microcosm of post-World War II stylistic tendencies - from gestural Abstract Expressionism to the geometries of pure abstraction and eventually to a lyrical realism that included still lifes, landscapes, and interior views. Importantly, she also played a key social role in gathering artists together to create a vibrant community of painters, poets, and musicians who created a collaborative environment that opened many avenues of exploration. She helped to lay the foundation for future generations of landscape and nature artists showing how that genre could be brought into the second half of the 20th century. Her influence can be seen especially in other artists who also turned to her beloved Gloucester for inspiration, including Laurel Hughes, Reed Kay, and Erma Wheeler.

Blaine's perseverance in the face of adversity is also a key aspect of her legacy. Refusing to let polio end her career she taught herself to paint in a new way. Like the Photorealist Chuck Close, she demonstrated to the world that physical limitations do not have to end artistic pursuits.

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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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