A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

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20 Responses to “A New York painter creates “order against chaos””

  1. petlover1948 Says:

    So sad & quite the genius

  2. countrypaul Says:

    Almost art deco but a more brutal form, and definitely capturing one essence of New York. I can’t imagine the life this poor guy lived. (Qualifier: I’m not an artist or art critic, but I know what I like, and this resonates with me.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I am neither an artist or art critic, but Ault’s work resonated with me, too, and his story was one I thought should be told.

  3. Bob Says:

    “Hudson Street” shows the west side of Hudson looking north, at Gansevoort Street.

    The 1-story service station is long gone, and it outlasted the 8-story building to its north (https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-4173-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99).

    However, the 4-story building on the southwest corner of Hudson Street and Gansevoort Street remains, with the distinctive pentagon-shaped chimney still extant (https://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/NYCMA~5~5~206250~498176).

  4. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    On weekends in the late 60s Hudson Street looked just like that, deserted isolation for blocks and blocks on end. I remember and recall when NY looked like that, I loved it but strange and eerie how nowadays it’s being recaptured.

  5. Tom B Says:

    “His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.”
    According to the current protesters, isn’t this life style still going on?
    I don’t see how you can paint these straight lines, corners and edges free hand with a brush. Is there some kind of tracing technique that is used? Love these paintings, simple yet complicated.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I don’t know his technique, but however he painted, his work captures something unique about the quiet stillness of many city blocks…and how that shouldn’t be confused with lifeless or static.

  6. George Copeland Ault – This isn't happiness Says:

    […] George Copeland Ault […]

  7. China Dream Says:

    these are wonderful pictures.. really captured that era in the art world.

  8. Lady G. Says:

    I didn’t know about this artist. These are so beautiful. His life was full of chaos but his paintings were orderly and controlled.

  9. Diane Fischler Says:

    I’m in love with these! Thank you.

  10. Shankar Subramanian Says:

    Thanks. This reminds me of Edward Hopper in some way – I am connecting them on account of the urban landscapes which are common. But these are so simple and full of NY character.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      They are Hopper-esque, I agree…a similar haunting isolation with so much going on beneath the surface.

  11. Shankar Subramanian Says:

    Very structured work … yes agree… resonates with me as well

  12. EA Says:

    So sad! I see the stark depiction of the city as him feeling terribly alone even in a crowded place. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that I think a lot of city dwellers of every generation can identify with.

  13. The geometric stillness in a Precisionist painter’s view near Avenue A | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] that flourished in the early to mid-20th century. (George Copeland Ault is another Precisionist whose work can be seen here.) “Searching for a singular modern American subject, they venerated the machine and industry […]

  14. 20th Century New York, George Copeland Ault – This isnt happiness Says:

    […] 20th Century New York, George Copeland Ault […]

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