Nell Blaine was considered to be one of the most important American landscape painters of the 20th century. While she was originally part of the second generation of the New York School, she turned from pure abstraction to figurative painting. Her brightly colored oils and watercolors of parks, rivers, landscapes, interiors, flowers, and still lifes were executed in a loosely brushed style and defied the taboo against ‘prettiness’. “For me the word ‘pretty’ is not a bad word.”
She grew up in Richmond, Virginia during the Great Depression and underwent numerous surgeries to correct her severe vision problem. When she was sixteen years old, she enrolled in the Richmond School of Art (now Virginia Commonwealth University.) In 1942, she went to New York and immersed herself in the post-World War II New York art scene. She studied with Hans Hofmann where she became part of the New York School and painted in the style of Abstract Expressionism.
At the Jane Street Gallery, an artist’s cooperative founded in 1942, she showed her work, developed a love for jazz, and married a jazz musician. A few years later she would separate from him and would commit herself to long-term partnerships with women, one of whom was the painter Carolyn Harris.
She was the youngest member to join the American Abstract Artists and exhibited her hard-edged geometric paintings in “Art of This Century: The Women,” Peggy Guggenheim’s second landmark exhibition of women artists, held in 1945.
Along with artists Jane Wilson and Jane Freilicher, Blaine abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s in favor of realism. When she traveled to Paris in 1950, she realized that non-figuration deprived her “of some wonderful sensuous pleasure with painting.” She adopted figurative art, but in an abstracted style. For the most part the human figure was not all that important in her work. Her paintings of the 1950s focused on studio interiors, luminous landscapes in brilliant colors, still lifes, and a sub-genre of the still life: the floral bouquet. Like her friend Jane Freilicher, Blaine often painted a bouquet of flowers placed in front of a window.
In 1959 when she was 37 years old, she contracted polio while painting on the Greek island of Mykonos. She was totally paralyzed from the waist down and had to be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was forced to relearn how to paint. She began painting in oils with her left hand, which added a looseness to her work. With her right hand she could still work on a horizontal surface for her watercolors. She painted smaller pieces in oil and watercolor as she finally transitioned to a representative, figurative style.
After her recovery, she remained in New York, living in a big studio on Riverside Drive and painting from a wheelchair. She spent her summers painting in Gloucester, Massachusetts where she died in 1996.
She participated in many individual and group exhibitions in galleries and museums. She had a solo exhibition in 1973 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In 1980, she was elected into the National Academy of Design. In 1986, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Newark Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Denver Art Museum, and many others.