Writing about the George Ault Retrospective Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1988, the critic Roberta Smith observed: “. . . Ault’s firm, unflamboyant way with a brush, his feeling for a building’s austere, carefully dovetailed planes and, above all, his love of light as painting’s form-giving, mood-setting force, sustained him at nearly every turn, in any direction he chose to move. His forte was the nocturne, which he painted from the beginning to the end of his career.”1

George Copeland Ault was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1891. Between 1899 and 1911 the Ault family lived in London where his father represented his family’s business. During this time George was encouraged by his father to study at the Slade School of Art. Four years after the family’s return to the States in 1915, George’s younger brother committed suicide. Five years later, his Mother died of pernicious anemia in a New Jersey mental hospital. In 1929 his Father died and the family fortune was lost in the stock market crash. Within the next two years both of his older brothers committed suicide. George and his sister Esther were the only remaining family members at that time. Ault continued working on his paintings of city views during the early nineteen-thirties. However, he left his affiliation with the Downtown Gallery in New York City in 1937 and sought isolation outside of the city.2

In this late series of paintings one might see and understand how George Ault came to embrace the darkness and solitude of an isolated country crossroads. For several years he was often grouped with other early 20th Century artists. His Precisionist tendencies, combined with an understated surrealist sensibility placed him in good company with the likes of Ralston Crawford, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Hopper, and even the early city-scapes of Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe.

George Ault
“Hudson Street”
Oil on linen
24 3/16” x 20”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Moving north, George Ault found his isolation in small town America, and an even smaller crossroads just a short walk outside of Woodstock, New York. It was there that he found a particular quietude, and his vision as an artist. From 1943 through 1948 Ault painted five views of Russell’s Corners, one in daylight and four at night. George Ault’s life and work has sparked new interest recently: from Roberta Smith to Alexander Nemerov, and especially for the art historian and poet, Joseph Stanton.

George Ault
“Black Night at Russell’s Corners”
Oil on canvas
18” x 24 1/16”
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Stanton’s writing has often had as a source, specific works of visual art, in the true ekphrastic tradition. These have included many works by Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer, and even one painting by Marjorie Phillips of Joe DiMaggio coming up to the plate for the last time at the old Griffith Stadium against the Washington Senators.

Joseph Stanton has captured that sense of isolation that is particularly American in certain paintings: the lone batsman, standing at home plate; or the architectural abstractions of both Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. Not nearly as well known as Hopper, or other of his contemporaries, George Ault nonetheless created a powerful and haunting body of work.

“Bright Light at Russell’s Corners”
Oil on canvas
19 5/8” x 25”
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Washington, DC.

George Ault’s Last Painting of Russell’s Corners

“He loved the lamp that made the corner bright,
adored it as a stay against the dark,
but dark returned when he moved past the light.

The chaos of this era out of sight,
his deft Precision kept his vision stark,
shaped by the lamp that made the corner bright.

Against the tumult of the world he posed this site;
he dreamt geometry as if a truth were clear,
but dark returned when he moved past the light.

This Catskill village was his whole delight,
his universe had Woodstock at its heart,
a tiny town had made his corner bright.

He painted roofs to shoulder up the night,
and walked this road, avoiding shadowed forks,
but dark returned when he moved past the light.

Beyond himself in art, he could not quite
decide to live and plunged into dark.
He loved the lamp that made the corner bright,
but dark returned when he moved past the light.”3

On the night of 30 December 1948, George Ault was walking alone in a storm along the Sawkill Brook, in Woodstock, New York, where he drowned. What we are left with is this sense of loneliness, and that feeling of the solitary figure or place. Isolation, and a uniquely American sense of place and light.

Roberta Smith again describes this work: “The setting is the same in each case—a solitary streetlight, the same bend in the road, the same collection of barns and sheds—but seen from different vantage points. In them, Ault has summoned up the poetry of darkness in an unforgettable way—the implacable solitude and strangeness that night bestows upon once-familiar forms and places.”4

George Ault
“August Night at Russell’s Corners
Oil on canvas
18” x 24”
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska

1 Smith, Roberta; “George Ault’s Sad, Everyday Beauty in Stillness;” The New York Times; 29 April 1988; Section C, p. 17.

2 Nemerov, Alexander; To Make a World: George Ault and 1940’s America; Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press; New Haven, London, and Washington, DC.; 2011. This information summarized from the more extensive chronological information, pp. 131-133.

3 Stanton, Joseph; Prevailing Winds; Shanti Arts Publishing; Brunswick, Maine; 2022; p. 37.

4 Smith, Roberta; “George Ault’s Sad, Everyday Beauty in Stillness;” The New York Times; 29 April 1988; Section C, p. 17.

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