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One Time Oxford Resident Was Renowned Controversial Artist

Phillip Evergood was a leading artist of the Depression and World War II.

More than 50 years ago, Oxford was home to one of the country's most controversial artists of his time. Philip Evergood was a leading artist of the Depression and World War II eras. Through his career, he demonstrated an amazing variety of styles and subjects, some of which had conservative folks very wary.

Evergood was born in 1901 in New York City, the only son of a Jewish artist father and an Englishwoman. His father's last name was Blashki, but when Evergood was young, his father changed the family name to Evergood because he wanted to sound less “foreign” to American and English (and presumably anti-Semitic) ears. (1)

At the ripe age of 4, young Philip Evergood began music lessons. By 1908, at just age 7, he played the piano in a concert with his teacher. He went on to attend various English boarding schools from 1909 onward and later studied at Eton and Cambridge University.

In 1921, he decided to study art. He left Cambridge and went to London to study at the Slade School. Evergood trained with various artists for several years in England, focusing primarily on drawing, rather than painting.

In 1923, he returned to New York and studied at the Art Students League. A year later, he returned to Europe.  He worked at various jobs in Paris, painted independently and attended the Academie Julian, where he studied engraving techniques. He also traveled to Spain and spent time at the Prado. There the works of Valazquez, Goya and El Greco inspired him and influenced his art.

In 1934, Evergood returned to New York to begin his career. On one particular evening, as legend has it, Evergood took an evening walk and saw a group of homeless men huddled around a fire. The men interested him, so he remained there all night, talking with them and sketching them. Evergood's Spring, a 25-by-30 oil on canvas, was a result of this meeting. It is now in the Columbus Museum of Art, Collection of American Social Commentary Art, 1930-1970. This use of art to make social and political statements was not popular, and, therefore, sales of his work were not lucrative.

Still, he learned the power of art and the impact it could have on society.

Evergood became heavily involved in art activist art groups. He joined the Artists Committee of Action and the American Artists Group and Artists Union (later serving as president in 1937.) The federal programs of the Great Depression supported him for years.

Evergood joined Public Works of Art Project and remained on board with its successor, WPA. He took part in the "219 Strike," getting arrested and beaten while protesting layoffs of artists by the WPA.

Today he is known for murals painted in public buildings and commissioned by the WPA. Evergood's first WPA mural was The Story of Richmond Hill, in the Richmond Hill, Long Island, Public Library. It caused an immediate controversy, with local residents demonstrating and demanding its removal.  Townspeople picketed the site and criticized the work for its "gross corporeal references." Only the efforts of the New York City Art Commission prevented its removal and destruction.

Another famous mural by Evergood is Cotton from Field to Mill. Completed in 1938 at the U.S. Post Office in Jackson, Georgia, it also met with local opposition.

Evergood was a member and exhibitor of shows by the John Reed Club, a group that encouraged artists to engage with social issues. Patricia Phagan mentions Evergoods work and the club in The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930 – 1946:

“The most unsettling of the images of blacks, however, are those that present them threatened or killed by mobs. The recurring themes of African Americans hiding from white supremacists and becoming their victims indicate the American artist's increasing outspokenness and participation in organized efforts for social justice in the 1930s. ...Many artists, sympathetic to the plight of blacks in the U.S. ... created emotional works on the theme of antilynching."

He became Artist in Residence at Kalamazoo College in Michigan in 1941. He was vacationing in the east when hospitalized for intestinal obstruction. He underwent several operations. After a slow recovery, he returned to Kalamazoo.  There he finished The Bridge of Life, a mural commissioned by the Kalamazoo Art Institute.

In 1942, he was teaching art in Pennsylvania. A year later, he received an appointment from the War Department, which hired several artists to record pictorially the "impact of battle." He prepared to leave to document the invasion of Africa. Before he could leave, he was rejected by the War Department. The official reason for the rejection was that he "joined the fight against fascism too early."

Disappointed and without regular work, he found temporary work framing pictures. About this time, the famous collector Joseph Hirshhorn bought several pictures. This provided the funds for Evergood to return to painting full time.

Recognition of his talent was sporadic and slow. John Sloan, a close friend, bought his paintings and promoted his works to museums. In 1943, Evergood met collector Joseph Hirshhorn, who purchased nine paintings.

In a 1968 interview, Evergood described the sale:

“We lived on Long Island at the time in a little suburb. And Mr. Hirshhorn said to me, "Would it be convenient for you next Sunday to put ten of your canvases in a taxi cab – I will pay the fare – and drive them down to Number 1 Fifth Avenue where I have a penthouse apartment and bring them there and show me what your recent work is." I said, "I think it's wonderful. Thank you so much. I'll be there." So I got my pictures out and I put them in the best frames I could manage and went to 1 Fifth Avenue. And I was treated royally by the commissionaire, who helped me with the pictures into the elevator and took me up. And there was Mr. Hirshhorn. And he grabbed the pictures out of the elevator excitedly and placed them around his beautiful great big penthouse living room and lined them up. And he went from one to another and said, ‘How much do you want for that?’ And I probably said, ‘Two hundred dollars.’ And he went the rounds of all the pictures, ‘How much do you want for that?’ And I may have said, Five hundred.

“So Mr. Hirshhorn went from one to another of these twenty or twenty-five pictures that were lined up. And I may have gotten a little bit braver after a little while and put the price of five hundred on a few of them. ‘Well,’ he said, puffing a cigar, and he offered me a glass of brandy, ‘Well, let's get to business, boy. I'll take that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that, that.’ And he bought… ten paintings? And he went over to a desk and wrote me a check for $3,500.

Mrs. Evergood added, “It saved our lives.” (2)

The proceeds from the sale, along with a good stock tip from Hirshhorn, gave Evergood an important degree of financial independence.

In 1944, Evergood joined the Independent Voters Committee, working for the reelection of President Theodore Roosevelt. He also painted illustrations for a Russia American Friendship calendar and taught at the State, County and Municipal Workers Union CIO, New York.

It wasn’t until 1952 when he moved to Oxford, Conn. His letterhead from that time lists his address as Hull’s Hill Road, R.F.D. No 2, Oxford, Connecticut. Some biographers mention that the home was a remodeled barn. (Several biographers list the house as being in Southbury; the Southbury Post Office delivered his mail to the Oxford home.)

By that time, Evergood was an accomplished artist earning international respect for his work. In 1952, he won a $5,000 first prize from the Terry Art Institute's National Competition for Happy Entrance.

In the late 1950s, Evergood’s emphasis on social commentary decreased. He concentrated more on symbolism, both Biblical and mythological. In 1954, Evergood painted The New Lazarus, which is now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Holland Cotter in the New York Times wrote, “Over time, Evergood's political work grew more emblematic, culminating in ‘The New Lazarus’… With its resurrected Everyman surrounded by ghostly soldiers, angels, weeping women, a lynched black man and a crucified Christ lifted from Grunewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece," it is a painting so densely packed and emotionally charged that even a viewer unmoved by its ideological message may find t compelling. It offers no pat solutions to the issues of racism and war it raises.

“Evergood's Lazarus… seems stunned and overwhelmed by the miseries that he has awakened to. Only the tiny flowers that blossom throughout the composition offer an unambiguous note of hope.”

The use of art in social and political commentary did not go unnoticed. In 1959, Evergood was among a variety of artists called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The published minutes of the committee findings read as follows:

"Philip Evergood, of Oxford, Connecticut, invoked the fifth amendment on nearly all questions asked him.  These included whether he was presently a member of the Communist Party; whether he had ever been a member of the party; whether he was the author of several articles published in the Daily worker, official Communist Party newspaper; whether he had taught in Communist Party schools; had been editor of the Communist magazine, Masses and Mainstream; had been affiliated with numerous Communist fronts in the art and other fields, and whether he had ever knowingly and consciously 'used his art 'for the purpose of furthering the objectives of the Communist Party of the United States."

The appearance before the committee did not tarnish Evergood's artistic reputation. He continued to sell his works successfully. In 1965, he received a citation from Who's Who in America in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the field of art, which said, “Mr. Evergood, in the face of mercurial fashions, has strengthened his position a one of America's foremost artists."

Evergood later moved from Oxford to Roxbury, which was home to many renowned famed artists including Arthur Miller. In December 1968, Forrest Selvig interviewed him a home he later moved to in Bridgewater. Evergood died in a house fire there in 1973.

The University of Kentucky has a self-portrait of Evergood in its Art Museum Collection. The univeristy notes that Evergood "maintained a socially conscious attitude in his art...and was in fact considered to be something of a maverick. He was a figurative painter when much of the art world placed greater value on abstraction, and he was a moralist when moralizing was not considered an option for serious painters. His best-known works are gritty, populist images of contemporary life, and are full of vitality and imagination. A blend of reality and fantasy gives his paintings an appealing, cartoonish quality, and his incisiveness as a social critic emboldens his work.

“His art is founded on contradiction: sophisticated intent is matched by intentionally crude technique, and tawdry overstatement is balanced with delicate lines."

Note: A good selection of Evergood paintings is available at:

http://oseculoprodigioso.blogspot.com/2009/06/evergood-philip-social-realismo.html

Citations:

1.)   The name change came about at the suggestion of then-First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Evergood’s father had written to Churchill to ask whether his son’s last name might prevent his admittance to the Royal Navy Training College.  Churchill reportedly replied in agreement. John I.H. Bauer, Philip Evergood (New York: Praeger with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1960), 19-20.

2.)   Oral history interview with Philip Evergood, 1968 Dec. 3, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Bill Duesing April 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM
Thanks so much Dorothy. Fascinating. I really believe in the social and political uses of art. I long ago heard that Marcel Duchamp lived in Southbury for a while, I believe on Kettletown Road. It would be interesting to know more.

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