Doris Lee, born in Aledo, Illinois, was one of the most successful artists of the Depression era. Lee studied at the Kansas City Art Institute with the noted American Impressionist Ernest Lawson. She also studied in Paris with the influential cubist painter Andre Lhote and at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco, with Arnold Blanch, whom she later married.
In 1931 Lee moved permanently to Woodstock, New York, and established herself as a leader in that important artist colony. The town’s close proximity to New York City guaranteed a regular flow of artists between the colony and the metropolis, keeping in touch with current development in the arts. The Art Students League of New York helped to create that flow when it established a summer school in Woodstock in 1906 that brought hundreds of art students into the town each summer.
The 1930s marked the beginning of a long and productive career for Doris Lee. Her work included easel paintings, murals, prints and illustrations, as well as costume, textile and ceramic design. Lee’s work from this period was concerned with life in rural America, and in a stylistic and ideological sense, has much in common with Regionalism. Lee portrayed the simple joys of American life in touching, nostalgic and sometimes fanciful ways. Lee’s work was exhibited in the first Whitney Biennial exhibition in 1931. In 1932 The Rhode Island School of Design acquired April Storm. Her earliest major career achievement came in 1935 when she was awarded the Logan Prize for her painting Thanksgiving from the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting, a view of a farm kitchen full of “bustle and bounce and sly humor,” was subsequently purchased by the Institute. Shorty after the Logan Prize, Lee was awarded two commissions by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for murals of the Washington, D.C. Post Office Building.
An additional boost to the artist’s fame and prestige came in 1937 with the purchase of her painting Catastrophe by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 1936 to 1939, Doris Lee was invited to be a summer guest artist at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. The 1930s finished with a flourish when Lee was invited to exhibit in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This early support given Lee by the museums and the art establishment was an impressive accomplishment for a young woman struggling for acceptance in the male dominated art world of the time.
Starting in the late 1930s, Doris Lee and her husband, Arnold Blanch, began to spend their winters in Key West, Florida. During the winters of the 1940s through the 1960s Lee painted her unique Florida subjects: fishermen, bathers, beaches, mangrove swamps, and Florida’s plant and wildlife. Lee combined the sophistication of her knowledge of pure abstraction with her love of American folk art to create her unique style. In the 1940s Lee’s work became more stylized, more concerned with pure form and color. Her simple, flat paintings portrayed gardens, seasonal landscapes, and women and children, as well as birds and other beasts. In 1943 and 1944 Lee was guest artist at Michigan State College in Lansing, Michigan. She received many paintings assignments from Life magazine during these years. She was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Prize in 1944 and was included in the fifteen of the annual juried exhibition at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Lee worked in Hollywood, California and Hawaii during the winter months of the 1945. She toured Central America in 1946 and went to North Africa in 1951. During the 1950s until the end of the 1960s, Lee dealers were Associated American Artists Gallery and World House Galleries in New York City and the Rudolf Gallery in Woodstock. She participated in both one-man and group exhibition with these dealers. Her paintings from this period are characterized by a bold move to pure abstraction. They are richly colored and geometric in design, with realistic references still discernible.
Lee produced a significant body of abstract work during the 1960s. In these paintings she combined her knowledge of international style, her interest in American folk art, and her early training with Andre Lhote in abstract painting. The works celebrate Lee’s private experience of the world and synthesize her personal, emotional response to her subject matter. In an effort to engage the viewer’s entire field of vision, Lee used broad expanses of color, often geometrically organized. During this period, Lee experimented with a black and white, biomorphic shapes, and calligraphic brushwork. The late work is painterly yet is still contains the subtle, wry humor of her earlier work. Doris Lee retired from painting at the end of the 1960s. She died in Clearwater, Florida in 1983.