The Animal Imagery of Margaret Sutton
The spring 2020 semester began as usual with excitement for new classes and the possibilities they offered. Alas, the carefully designed syllabi, collaborative projects, field trips, and the comfortable normalcy of the semester collapsed as COVID-19 embraced the world.
Students, faculty, staff, and administrators at the University of Mary Washington retreated from classrooms, offices, and the communal spaces of our campus to the varied and isolated environments of our homes. Our work continued, although often taking directions and shapes neither planned nor imagined when the semester began. ARTH 317: Laboratory in Museum Studies was finalizing the installation and catalogue of the spring semester’s exhibition, Margaret’s Menagerie, when we left campus in the middle of March. Like other classes at UMW we went online. The exhibition will open in the Phyllis Ridderhof Martin Gallery when we return to campus, and the catalogue will be published. For now, we are very pleased to offer Margaret’s Menagerie online. Thank you for visiting.
There is every reason to believe that Margaret Sutton loved animals. Living creatures – either real or quite imagined – appear in most of her works and, at least for some period during Margaret’s long life with Alfred and Gertrude Levitt, the trio enjoyed the company of a brilliant yellow canary.
Birds, cats, and dogs are the most prevalent creatures in Margaret’s work. Birds, in particular, seem to have held a meaning for her similar to a personal avatar. The Country Sparrow Comes to Town includes one of the most ubiquitous of birds, the little sparrow, talisman-like at the bottom right of the composition with the text suggesting it has come a long way from the country to witness and become part of the dynamic life of this urban and urbane community. Could that sparrow be Margaret remembering her arrival in New York City from the small southern towns of her childhood and college days?
Margaret was sensitive to the companionship that animals offer and the physical places they share in our lives, whether that be in her local diner in Greenwich Village or prancing on their way to a city park, as we see in the two works below.
Throughout her sketches and paintings, we see evidence of how Margaret worked. The Country Sparrow Comes to Town was carefully delineated in pencil before she drew with ink, utilizing hatching, circles, dots, and lines to indicate the different textures of nature and city.
That drawing is quite different from the untitled work depicting two people walking their dogs, at left. The heavy application of ink here suggests Sutton’s adoption of bold printing techniques for drawing. On the other hand, the undated cafe scene, at right, shows a lighter drawing beneath the confident darker line of the finished work, evoking the linear style of Matisse.
Both works remind us of Sutton’s intense study of modern art. For example, the untitled drawing of a dog dated 1948, below, demonstrates her familiarity with Picasso’s work of the 1940s. Picasso’s lithographic series of 1945, The Bull, showing his study of this animal from precise understanding of anatomy to the most essential lines, was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1947, and may have inspired Margaret to reimagine how an animal appears.
The tiny watercolor, at right, showing three green horses drawn and painted onto a scrap of paper allows us to consider the vibrant colors that characterize Margaret’s painting. These bobbing horses evoke the movement of horses on a carousel, perhaps the one in Central Park or at Coney Island, two of Margaret’s favorite haunts. The image also suggests ways that Margaret reworked modern art, such as the paintings of blue horses by Franz Marc, and folk art to create her own animal imagery. We might also see here Margaret’s textile designs for Herman Blanc, and Goodman and Theise (1940-41), and one can imagine these three green horses repeated beyond a swatch of cloth for a dramatic, swirling skirt.
The selection of works that follows is only a fraction of the approximately 4000 paintings and drawings by Margaret Sutton in the Permanent Collection of UMWG. They give some idea of this artist’s vivid imagination and the deep resource of inspiration that she found in animals and nature.
-Marjorie Och, Professor of Art History, UMW
This exhibition is made possible with support from the Department of Art and Art History, UMW Galleries, the Museum Studies Program, and most especially the generosity of Alfred Levitt, Margaret Sutton’s lifelong friend and companion. Special thanks to Angie Kemp, Digital Resources Librarian, Simpson Library; Shannon Hauser, Associate Director, Digital Knowledge Center, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies; and my co-curators, the students in ARTH 317: Laboratory in Museum Studies, whose work follows.
What do you see in Fox and Fowl? The title indicates a fox and bird may be found, but the abstract nature of the work leaves it open to multiple interpretations. Birds dance around the edges of many of Sutton’s works including Roaned (1993.11.0063) and Birds (1993.11.0054). The head of the bird in this work is likely represented by a pair of triangles connected to a circle near the center of the left side. The fox is subtle and harder to see, recalling the relationship between a silently stalking predator and its prey. The possibility of multiple interpretations complicates the matter, and the abstraction of the animals requires the viewer to carefully consider the work. The enclosing frame is original, indicating that Fox and Fowl may have been exhibited during Sutton’s lifetime. Both the frame and style of this work are similar to Sutton’s work Birds, and the two works were possibly exhibited together as part of a series. One interpretation of Birds is that it shows a bear catching a fish. If this is what Sutton intended, then the two works are further linked by portrayals of predators in the act of hunting.
Sutton’s life in New York City and her visits to the city’s new museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (opened 1929) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (opened in 1931), led her to work with increasingly bold colors and abstraction. In Birds, she evokes New York’s crowded streets and her own excitement about contemporary art. Sutton condenses the abstracted forms of three exotic birds into one composition, using the dynamic black lines of charcoal not only to outline feathers but also direct the viewer’s attention around the composition, as if walking the asphalt streets of Manhattan. Here Sutton evokes chaos and transformation by condensing the forms of three exotic birds into one image. The birds’ feathers create an optical illusion as the charcoal lines can also form the outline of a bear’s head.
Sutton experimented with different styles throughout her career. Many of her early works, including this one, show the influence of George Grosz, a German artist known for his caricatures and critiques of contemporary society and teaching at the Art Students League in New York City when Sutton studied there. In this painting, three men reach towards a woman, possibly a prostitute, with oversized and outstretched hands. The distorted bodies of the three men exemplify their lonely, depressed state, as they beg for the woman’s attention. Not even the cat is spared from the “beggar’s cup,” creating a scene that exaggerates the sense of despair felt across New York City during the 1930s and 40s.
The work at left features a main figure dressed like a witch with a tall pointed hat standing on an odd trampoline-like stage, a green dog, and a house in the left background that is open for observation. The dog walks on a yellow road between the witch and the house, and that yellow road evokes The Wizard of Oz. When looking closely at the house we notice that the missing a wall reveals a small figure in a bed, possibly Dorothy waking up after her adventure in Oz. The film was released in 1939 and was one of the first movies to be released in Technicolor. Sutton could have used this movie as inspiration, perhaps drawing comparisons between the strange new world that was her life in New York City and Dorothy’s adventures in Oz.
Sutton often drew inspiration from the Surrealists who turned reality into an abstract work of their imagination. Because of her proximity to the Coney Island Amusement Park in New York City, she would have been familiar with the Cyclone roller coaster. The Cyclone, built in 1927, has been a staple of the Coney Island experience ever since its conception. Sutton has created a dreamlike scene, full of childlike playfulness with a clown-like boy and distorted cat roller skating along the Cyclone-esque tracks. Such a fanciful subject displays Sutton’s connection to the Surrealists. The brightly colored and simple flowers surrounding the tracks, as well as the clown’s costume show Sutton’s youthful perspective of Coney Island. The contorted cat could represent a fearful passenger, or “scaredy-cat”; a feeling Sutton may have experienced while riding the Cyclone. The ink drawing at left may be a study for the watercolor.
Margaret Sutton’s use of birds in The Hen and the Victorious Rooster is reminiscent of other works in the exhibition, such as Roaned (1993.11.0063). The painting’s color and technique allow it to tell the story of a male attempting to attract or even taunt a female, as shown by the angered expression of the hen. The beach ball appears to play a dual role, emphasizing both the male’s actions and the fluid motion and rounded shapes Sutton conveys. The painting is both clear and abstract, and the small details through which she anthropomorphizes the birds, such as depicting the hen wearing a pearl necklace, catch the viewers’ eyes.
The watercolor at left, Roaned, presents a puzzle to the viewer: how does the title connect to the subject? “Roan” refers to a cow or horse when it has a multicolored coat. Sutton draws on her childhood familiarity with farm animals in rural Virginia and refers to their multicolored nature with the fantasy creature and birds in the painting. The central eight-legged figure features multicolored tones on the body with four yellow legs and four reddish ones further highlighting the multicolored meaning behind this work. This creature is unlike any of Sutton’s other works, having a heart-shaped face, two large eyes, a round nose and a leaf for a mouth with a green pipe protruding from it. Each foot has Sutton’s characteristic ankle boots with crossed laces, reminiscent of the study for Cat & Boy on Railroad Bridge. The surreal animal, surrounded by forest and flying birds, straddles a vine that connects to trees on either side. Four legs are in front of the vine while the others are behind, indicating the creature is stepping over the vine, moving toward the viewer. A similar creature is sketched in the undated drawing at right.
The focal point in this watercolor and collage is in the center of the composition where we can decipher a human head tilted to the right and looking downwards, suggestive of a Jack-in-the-box whose “pop” is created by Sutton’s manipulation of depth and perspective. Sutton’s love for birds is evident here, but equally as abstracted and hidden as the Jack-in-the-box. A close examination reveals three birds, one peacock with five elongated feathers projecting behind the human head, and two hummingbirds in the top-right, above the human head. Sutton’s desire to include, yet hide, birds is conclusively evident in this work. The obscured, even suppressed birds and toy are suggestive of Surrealism, a movement of the 1940s that flourished in New York City. The Surrealist style focused heavily on individual thought and juxtaposition of images and techniques, therefore making this collage a perfect representation of the Surrealist style.
Little is known about this pair of pencil sketches beyond their common medium. Based on other examples from the permanent collection of the University of Mary Washington Galleries, it is possible that this avian duo were studies for one of Sutton’s more complete paintings. It is also conceivable that they were fun doodles from the hand of an artist who commonly featured animals as central figures in her creations. The silhouette employed in creating this pair was often used and can be observed in other birds displayed in the exhibition. Although these images are small in stature and faint in line, the artist is still able to bestow both personality and character upon these tiny winged creatures.
This miniature specimen features a goose painted against a vibrant, abstract background of arches and a clock tower reminiscent of New York architecture, specifically the Delacorte Music Clock in Central Park. Built in 1965, the clock serves as the entranceway to the Central Park Zoo and is within walking distance of one of the park’s famous duck ponds. Another probable influence on this watercolor is Frederick Roth’s statue of Mother Goose, particularly the goose she is riding. Dedicated in 1938 before eager crowds, it pays homage to the much beloved children’s stories and has been a popular landmark since its installation adjacent to the Zoo entrance. It likely served as inspiration for other paintings in this exhibition, particularly the untitled painting of a woman in a pointed hat (1993.11.0065). Sutton called New York City home for many years and its influence over her art is readily identified in this composition. The prominence of the goose is in keeping with a familiar theme of the artist – the painting of animals, a subject for which there are many examples. Never one to shy away from bold colors, Sutton makes use of a limited, yet complementary, palette to execute her design.
Here the viewer looks through a stained glass window onto eerie woodlands full of shadowy animals. Sutton would have encountered forests with wildlife during her summer trips to England between 1971 and 1982. The animals depicted along the bottom are likely the fallow and roe deer species native to Europe and abundant in England. The branches of this dark forest and the silhouettes of the animals suggest a stained glass window not unlike those in the Gothic cathedrals Sutton traveled to England to visit. Like another work in this exhibition, Untitled (Stained Glass Window with Queen’s Head, 1993.01.0050), Sutton uses intertwining lines and geometric patterns to form a cathedral-like forest. Together the compositions show how Sutton used her perception of an animated environment to influence her subjective depiction of reality.
In this ink drawing, Sutton brings us into a Gothic cathedral where we see the head of a crowned queen emerging at the center. But as the queen blossoms on the page the wings of a butterfly emerge, suggesting the inspiration of nature in Sutton’s understanding of the built environment. The stained glass on both sides of the queen have high, looming arches similar to that of Gothic architecture. Much like another work in the exhibition, Untitled (Reindeer, 1993.11.0317), this drawing is also from Sutton’s Cathedral Series created during her 1973 trip to Great Britain. This series contrasts with an earlier work in this exhibition, Birds (1993.11.0054), which is louder and more colorful. That vibrant work can be traced to her early years in New York City when she experimented with abstract and impressionist techniques and styles.
Sutton’s deliberate use of black and white in the Cathedral Series presents fluid and rounded geometric shapes that showcase her continuing development as an artist.