George Ault was an American painter trained in British Impressionism whose style was shaped by his interests in the avant-gardes, realism, and folk art. He became associated with Precisionists such as Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, who had in common a prominent interest in architecture and the stark use of line, geometry, and planes of color. In Ault’s work, scenes of urban modernity and the nostalgic rural were captured and preserved in streamlined compositions of ordered shapes. Through the presentation of stabilized, depopulated environments, Ault invited reflection on their psychic and aesthetic impact.
Ault was born into a well-off family in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 11, 1891. At the age of eight, father Charles Ault moved the family of seven to London, where his printing ink company introduced American prinking ink to Europe. Charles himself was an amateur painter who exhibited at the Salon of Paris and was a portrait subject for acquaintance William Merritt Chase. He had a number of important artistic contacts, and was heavily involved in the City Museum of St. Luis, the Western Art Association in America, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Charles cultivated his son’s interest in art during childhood, taking him on trips to London and Paris to see works of the Old Masters.
George Ault was ill as a child, with rheumatic fever preventing him from attending school before the age of eight. In London, he attended the University College School, the Slade School of the University of London, and St. John’s Wood School of Art. In 1908 St. John’s Wood School of Art was the site of his first exhibition. His art education in London was based in the techniques of British Impressionism. At the Slade School he received instruction from Philip Wilson Steer and Henry Tonks, and was taught at St. John’s Wood School of Art by George Clausen and William Quiller Orchardson. The methods founding Ault’s artistic technique included teaching reliance on memory over the aid of photographs or sketches. His education was on the whole conservative and wholly apart from the avant-garde European movements Ault later took inspiration from.
The Ault family moved back stateside in 1911, and soon settled into the New York City suburb of Hillside, New Jersey. Three years later, Ault married Beatrice Hoffman and obtained a home and studio in Hillside. With the influence of his conservative, British training at hand, he began experimenting with the representation of landscapes and architecture. Ault became more interested in the forms of the urban environment, and his works began to suggest a slicker, heightened style of realism, joined with the cubist’s interest in geometry. In 1920 Ault participated in the fourth annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, then exhibited at the Whitney Studio Club and in the Bourgeois Gallery’s “American Painters and Sculptors Annual.” As he became estranged from his wife, Ault moved to New York City through the benefaction of his father, who nevertheless disapproved of Ault’s unemployment and modernist tendencies. Ault held solo exhibitions at the J.B. Neumann Galleries and Downtown Gallery, and his works entered the Newark, Los Angeles County, and Whitney Museums.
As Ault’s work matured he began to widen his artistic influences. He showed interest in the work of the Surrealists, particularly painter Giorgio de Chirico. From de Chirico, one can find in Ault’s work a similar sense of the mysterious and improbable environment, where the habitual is transformed into strangeness. Both the architecture of the modern city and landscapes of the rural are marked down in clear, communicative terms that suggest unfamiliarity as much as wonder at their beings. Ault was an admirer, too, of American romanticist Albert Pinkham Ryder, and shared similar tendencies to pare down landscapes to clear and easily read forms. Ault also developed an interest in the folk, which was in keeping with the current modernist rediscovery of indigenous primitive art and may have also resonated as a connection to his mother’s rustic mid-western childhood. His vacation site in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was an area rife with artifacts, and Ault began a personal collection. His graphic style suggested links to the simplified forms of primitive art, and art dealer Stephan Bourgeois went as far as to present Ault as a so-called “Naïve” in an exhibit at the Bourgeois Gallery.
With successful showings at The Downtown Gallery, J.B. Neumann’s New Art Circle, and the Bourgeois Galleries, Ault gathered critical acclaim as he found himself in physical and mental decline. Before the age of thirty, Ault suffered the death of his psychologically and physically troubled mother, then lost his brother Donald, whose wife died with him in a suicide pact. Ault developed reclusive tendencies and became more dependent on alcohol, alienating figures in his life such as prominent dealer Edith Halpert. He petitioned Beatrice for divorce in 1935 after becoming involved with Louise Jonas, an aspiring writer from Iowa. In the intervening years Ault had lost his father to cancer and two remaining brothers to suicide, while the family fortune vanished as a result of the Great Depression. His remaining sibling, sister Esther, gave financial support which allowed Ault to spend summers in the artistic community of Woodstock N.Y. Woodstock artists benefited greatly from government funding, and Ault produced a total sixty-seven works for the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Works Progress Administration. When Ault and Louise made a permanent move to Woodstock in 1937, money was still of great concern. The two lived apart from the artistic community, renting a modest house a mile from town. They experienced continuing hardship financially, and George traded paintings for services, giving two oils to a dentist who provided care to Louise. Circa 1945, Ault began to find more success amidst the post-war boom, and continued his attempts to improve his sobriety.
In 1948, Ault was discovered dead five days after drowning in the Sawkill Brook on December 30, when he had taken a solitary walk in stormy and dark weather. The death was deemed a suicide by the coroner, though it was contested by Louise as a fall caused by missing guard rails and ill health. Memorial exhibitions followed at the Woodstock Art Gallery and Milch Galleries. In 1973, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented George Ault: Nocturnes, the first museum-run solo exhibition devoted to Ault. More comprehensive insight into Ault’s life and work was provided by widow Louise Ault’s memoirs, published in 1978 as Artist In Woodstock, George Ault: The Independent Years. Through his documentation of metropolitan visions, the ambition of industry, and the simple satisfactions of the rural, George Ault continues to encourage introspection on the impact of the forms and functions of everyday surroundings.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate