No one had a better eye for probing into the secrets of old houses than Buffalo painter Virginia Cuthbert. She gave inanimate things a strange, independent life, almost as though a shabby building, a cluttered yard or an ordinary city street could somehow absorb and reflect back human emotions.
For a 1958 Rehn Gallery show in New York City, Cuthbert wrote how delighted she was by her subject matter: "plants in the back yard, the positivism of reconstruction, the tragic and impersonal beauty of urban blight, cats and dogs, and all these things this side of outer space compel me."
But finally it wasn't things that moved her most, but people. When she was asked a few years ago what place art had in her life, it came in second place to her late husband, artist Philip C. Elliott (1903-1985). "I loved Phil first and then art," she said.
Virginia Cuthbert Elliott died on Jan. 24 in the Commons at Kenmore, the senior home where she had lived for a number of years in a pleasant two-room suite whose walls were crowded with art. She was 92.
According to reports of those who knew her, she was unable to paint in those last years because of her health, but she still had her sharp mind.
"She lived a long life and was happy to the end," says the artist's dealer and friend, Nina Freudenheim.
Freudenheim, who had mounted the impressive 1990 exhibition, "Virginia Cuthbert: A Retrospective" at her gallery, had visited the artist a few weeks before her death. "She was very generous in her lifetime... and a wonderful artist. I will miss her."
Cuthbert once said that she suspects that her artistic talent came from her father, R.B. Cuthbert, a Pittsburgh minister, who, according to Cuthbert, "had great penmanship." With a degree from Syracuse University and a fellowship in hand, she went to study in Paris in 1930, moved on to Florence the next year and then to London, where her work received critiques from the flamboyant British portraitist Augustus John.
Back in this country she went to New York City to study under a different sort of master, George Luks, the rough-hewn painter of the Ashcan School. In 1932 she even painted a portrait of Luks, trying to imitate Luks' masculine, painterly style.
By the late '30s she had developed her own kind of "magic realism," a popular style that mixed sharp precision of form with a strangely disquieting mood. In Pittsburgh, Cuthbert quickly established her career, gathering many major prizes and honors. A one-person exhibition at the Carnegie in 1938 was a singular honor for a woman at that time and place.
Cuthbert and Elliott were married in 1935 and were living happily in Pittsburgh when Elliott was offered the directorship of the Albright Art School, which he took in 1941.
After the hills of Pittsburgh, Buffalo seemed to Cuthbert a horribly flat and boring place. But the wonder of its houses and those in the surrounding locale made up for the lack of hills. The vernacular architecture would inspire some of her most beloved paintings, such as "Buffalo Gothic" (1947) and "Brown World" (1945).
And the honors kept coming. She showed in such prestigious exhibitions as the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual show of contemporary painting a number of times and, from 1937 until 1952, she was in almost every Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. During the '40s and '50s she showed in New York City at Contemporary Arts and at the Rehn Gallery in New York City, the same gallery that showed the work of Cuthbert's famous Buffalo friend, Charles Burchfield.
Freudenheim sees the painting Cuthbert did before she moved to Buffalo in 1941 as her most enduring work. "It was much stranger. The work of those years stands up with anything done at that time. It is really important."
During those early years she was on the cusp of a truly international recognition. But the coming of abstract Expressionism wiped away much of the interest in realistic painting, especially that with surrealistic overtones. Cuthbert continued to paint wonderful pictures, but her reputation was never to regain the momentum of the early days.
Once in Buffalo, though, Cuthbert added an important element to her painting: real people she knew from her life. A 1956-57 work called "The Birthday Party" shows Elliott bringing in drinks from one side to such artist-friends as Seymour Drumlevitch and his wife, Harriet Greif, Virginia Tillou and her husband, Manley, and Martha Visser't Hooft. Pets lurk around the edges and Cuthbert herself appears in the dappled light of this backyard scene. It was a kind of group portrait of reigning Buffalo artists, but it still had some of Cuthbert's special brand of uneasy, distantly ominous moodiness.
Cuthbert, like Elliott, was a great traveler, and trips to such places as Cuba, Mexico and Haiti all led to paintings. In her later years landscape took on greater importance. Her aggressive nose-dives into lush, exotic plant life made for some very distinctive paintings.
In 1954, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded her a $1,000 grant in recognition of her contribution to American painting, the same year George Grosz, who had immigrated from Germany, Reginald Marsh and Edwin Dickinson (also with Buffalo ties) were honored.
More recently, in 1994, she was honored, with Virginia Tillou - her longtime colleague and friend who died in 1995 at 89 - by the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie County in the Professional Artist Category.
Then there came recognition of her vital contribution to American art in the 20th century with a national honor. In 1996, Cuthbert's work was recorded and preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
"When I heard of Ginny's passing I felt that it reflected the end of an era," said Douglas Schulz, Albright-Knox Art Gallery director and Cuthbert's friend. "A whole group of artists who had come to Buffalo and were associated with the Albright Art School. They are all gone. Ginny was the last."
As a memorial to the artist, the Albright-Knox will display Cuthbert's 1952 painting, "Memories of Childhood," given to the gallery by the artist in 1999. A remembrance of the artist will be held in the coming weeks at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, on a date to be announced.