George Ault and 1940s America

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D. C., March 11 to September 5; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, October 8 to December 31; and the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, February 18, 2012 to April 16, 2012

1 John Ruggles, “Ault of Woodstock,” Art News, vol. 48 (September 1949), p.   46. Housman’s words are from Poem XII (“The laws of God, the laws of man”) in Last Poems (1922; Mayflower Press, Plymouth, England, 1937), p. 18. 

2 Louise Ault, “Remember a Thistle:  A Novel (Factual),” p. 113 (collection of Maurice and Suzanne Vanderwoude). Louise wrote three separate but overlapping accounts of her life with her husband. “Remember a Thistle” and “George Ault:  A Biography” (George Ault Papers, Archives of American Art) are unpublished. The third is Artist in Woodstock, George Ault:  The Independent Years (Dorrance, Philadelphia., 1978). “Remember a Thistle,” though subtitled “A Novel,” contains hardly any information differing substantially from that contained in the two non-fiction accounts.

3 Louise Jonas, “Henry Mattson’s Philosophy:  ‘I’ve Been Able to Paint—I’m Darn Lucky,’” Poughkeepsie Sunday New Yorker, December 20, 1942, p. 4A. Louise used her maiden name, Jonas, in her byline. 

4 “Remember a Thistle,” pp. 164, 109–110. 

5 Louise Jonas, “Spirit of Gothic Artists Alive Today in Alfeo Faggi, Sculptor,” Poughkeepsie Sunday New Yorker, June 13, 1943, p. 3A; and “Her Light Came to be Symbol of Courage,” ibid., November 21, 1943, p. 2A. 

6 “Brief Chronology” and Susan Lubowsky Talbott, “George Ault’s Disquieting Vision,” in Eila M. Kokkinen, George Ault: The Woodstock Years (Woodstock Artists Association, Woodstock, N.Y.,  2001), pp. 44, 18. For the specifics of Donald’s and Charles’s suicides in 1930 and 1931, see “George Ault:  A Biography,” p. 17. 

7 Philip Rahv, “The Cult of Experience in American Writing,” Partisan Review, vol. 7 (November–December 1940), p.  423. For Ault’s praise of Rahv, see George C. Ault, “Letters,” ibid., vol. 8 (March–April 1941), p. 159. Ault called Rahv’s essay and another one by Meyer Schapiro “top-hole.” 

8 “Remember a Thistle,” pp. 127–128; “George Ault:  A Biography,” p. 54. 

9 Thornton Wilder, Our Town:  A Play in Three Acts (Perennial, New York,  2003), p. 46. 

10 Housman, Poem IX  (“The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers”), in Last Poems, p. 15; Ault’s appreciation of the poem is in “Remember a Thistle,” p. 92. 

11 “George Ault: A Biography,” p. 42. 

12 George Ault to Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Lawrence, May 18, 1948, George Ault Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C. 

13 “Remember a Thistle,” p. 163. 

14 Artist in Woodstock, p. 150. 

15 Robert Frost, “Directive,” in Steeple Bush (Henry Holt, New York, 1947), pp. 7–9. The poem first appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 22 (Winter 1946), pp. 1–3. 

16 “George Ault:  A Biography,” p. 54; Artist in Woodstock, p. 14; “Remember a Thistle,” p. 123.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Walter Kaufmann (Modern Library, New York, 1995), p. 17 (where it is rendered as “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”). The variant translation of this sentence, “Unless there be chaos within, no dancing star is born,” is the epigraph for “Remember a Thistle” and “George Ault:  A Biography.” 

18 Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pp. 63, 74. 

19 Ibid., p. 106. 

20 “George Ault:  A Biography,” p. 59; “Remember a Thistle,” p. 245. 

21 “George Ault:  A Biography,” p. 72.

Alexander Nemerov is Vincent Scully Professor and chair of the History of Art Department at Yale University. He is the curator of To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America and the author of the accompanying catalogue. His most recent book is Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War.


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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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