by Melissa Wolfe. D. Giles, September 2020. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9781911282679 (h/c), $54.95.
Reviewed September 2020
Lindsay King, Associate Director for Research and Access Services, Haas Arts Library, Yale University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Though Doris Emrick Lee was one of the best-known women artists of the early twentieth century, most twenty-first century readers will not recognize her name. Lee’s style, influenced by both modernism and folk art, has been underestimated as whimsical in subject matter and too commercial to be high art. However, Lee made a comfortable living as an artist, as well as a teacher and speaker, and was well-connected to the art world of her era. She was part of a circle of prominent artists in Woodstock, New York, and exhibited work at the Phillips Collection, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Biennial. Her papers, including many of the archival photographs reproduced in this catalog, are held in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
This catalog for the touring exhibition Simple Pleasures: The Art of Doris Lee, co-curated by Melissa Wolfe at the Saint Louis Art Museum and Barbara Jones at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, includes four essays contextualizing Lee’s work. Wolfe’s essay introduces Lee’s career and the major themes of her art, including discussion of the strongly gendered ways in which her work was received both during the artist’s lifetime and after. John Fagg examines the humor in Lee’s art. Tom Wolf writes about her time in Woodstock and important relationships with other artists, including her husband, the photographer Russell Lee, and her partner of several decades, the painter Arnold Blanch. Jones traces Lee’s work as a commercial illustrator for Life, Seventeen, Reader’s Digest, Vogue, and the Saturday Evening Post, among many others. Judging by the detail and density of endnotes, the essays are based on extensive primary-source research, but non-specialists will find the writing style engaging and easily readable.
A section reproducing dozens of full-color drawings and paintings from the exhibition gives readers a visual sense of how Lee’s style shifted but kept its essential feeling: modern, accessible, and pleasurable, with keenly observed narrative. The catalog concludes with a chronology of her life and career and a list of her published illustrations and exhibitions.
Lee was progressive in her politics and often spoke about the role of women in the art world, aware of the ways in which illustrative or decorative paintings by women were valued less than “serious” paintings by men. Despite the renown Lee achieved as an artist and illustrator, she has not been the subject of many publications, aside from a number of gallery catalogs from D. Wigmore Fine Art. Simple Pleasures provides a welcome full-length scholarly treatment of Lee’s life and work, appropriate for all types of libraries.