Milton Avery - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, October 14, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'Why talk when you can paint?' —Milton AveryExecuted in 1945, Gulls in Fog is a captivating example of Milton Avery’s celebrated seascape paintings. The present watercolour was created at the height of his career in the year following the American modernist's first solo museum exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. While Avery’s subject matter included portraits, domestic interiors, and people at work, his depiction of the natural world was widely perceived to be his greatest success. Indeed, writing in December 1957, the American critic Clement Greenberg noted, ‘I do see him far more often at his highest, broadest, strongest in his landscapes and seascapes’.i Gulls in Fog  epitomises the significant developments that occurred in Avery’s artistic practice in the 1940s including a powerful simplification of the compositional elements of his paintings. Serenely tranquil, the work demonstrates the artist’s virtuosic ability to convey compelling tonal registers through his sparingly applied lines and restrained colour palette.


    Seagulls and Shorelines in Avery’s Paintings

    Avery drew inspiration for his seascapes from his travels to the shorelines of the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His exposure to these locations gave rise to the recurring image of the seagull that occurs throughout his oeuvre. Particularly prevalent in his paintings from the mid-1940s onwards, the charismatic seabirds are perched atop rocks and weathered wooden posts or captured swooping through the air.


    Peter O’Toole with his family seated in front of Gulls in Fog. Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin.

    Avery’s penchant for travel did not solely provide the subject matter for his paintings but facilitated his artistic development through his contact with other significant contemporary artists working in America. Spending time in Provincetown, he worked alongside Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko and aligned his practice more closely with a shared European experimentalism rather than the American Impressionist landscape tradition dominant in the early decades of the 20th century. This European influence is evidenced in his signature ability to powerfully evoke the essence of a scene using brushstrokes softened through the use oil paint thinned with large quantities of turpentine rather than linseed oil or, as in the present work, watercolour. As Rothko described in his memorial address for Avery delivered on 7 January 1965, this technique meant that ‘poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush’.ii The poetic nature of Gulls in Fog emerges from its evocative atmospheric quality as the blotted orange sun attempts to burn through the misty air above the two seabirds.
    'From the beginning there was nothing tentative about Avery. He always had that naturalness, that exactness and that inevitable completeness which can be achieved only by those gifted with magical means, by those born to sing.'
    —Mark Rothko 

    Avery’s Legacy and Peter O’Toole


    Avery’s experimental approach to colour and composition inspired a younger generation of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting, asserting the pioneering nature of his artistic practice. Following a major retrospective at the Whitney 1960, the artist’s work has achieved the wide critical recognition it deserves and is now held in the collections of significant international museums including the Tate Galleries, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Reasserting Avery’s position as a modernist master of twentieth-century painting, the Royal Academy of Arts in London will offer a major retrospective of his work in 2022.


    Reflecting the impact of his practice on the landscape of contemporary painting, the support of fellow artists was of crucial importance in raising his international profile. The first major exhibition of his work to take place outside of America was staged at Waddington Galleries, London in 1962 following Patrick Heron’s recommendation to his London gallerist, Leslie Waddington. Soon after, a number of paintings by the artist were acquired from the gallery by the celebrated actor Peter O’Toole. Gulls in Fog is brought to auction from the actor’s significant collection of antiquities and contemporary art.


    Peter O’Toole at home in London, Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin.

    i Clement Greenberg, quoted in Milton Avery Late Work: Landscapes and Seascapes 1951-1963, exh. cat., Waddington Galleries, London, 2001, p. 6

    ii Mark Rothko, quoted in Milton Avery Late Work: Landscapes and Seascapes 1951-1963, exh. cat., Waddington Galleries, London, 2001, p. 7

    • Provenance

      The Waddington Galleries, London
      Peter O'Toole (acquired from the above in 1964)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Waddington Galleries, Milton Avery: Watercolours, 26 April - 21 May 1966, no. 16, n.p. (illustrated)

Works from the Collection of Peter O’Toole


Gulls in Fog

signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1945' lower left
watercolour on card
56.2 x 77.4 cm (22 1/8 x 30 1/2 in.)
Executed in 1945.

Full Cataloguing

£12,000 - 18,000 

Sold for £37,800

Contact Specialist

Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale

20th Century & Contemporary Art

+44 20 7318 4065

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 14 October 2021