Milton Avery Biography

Milton Avery, an American modernist painter, is renowned for his vibrant and groundbreaking landscape paintings. Despite being born into a working-class family and having to support them from a young age, Milton’s passion for art led him to explore a career in painting. After joining an art class in his early twenties, he honed his drawing skills and discovered his true calling. Moving to New York in the 1920s and immersing himself in the city’s art scene further fueled his artistic ambitions. It was during the Second World War that Milton’s career took a significant turn when he met Paul Rosenberg, leading to a solo exhibition of his work in 1944. Although his success waned after a heart attack in 1949 and the emergence of American expressionist painters, Milton continued to paint until his death in 1965, earning posthumous recognition and respect from the art community.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Milton Clark Avery
  • Died At Age: 79
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Sally Michel
  • Born Country: United States
  • Artists
  • American Men
  • Died on: January 3, 1965
  • Place of Death: New York, United States
  • U.S. State: New Yorkers
  • More Facts
  • Education: Connecticut League of Art Students

Childhood & Early Life

Milton Avery was born Milton Clark Avery on March 7, 1885, in Altmar, New York. He grew up in a working-class family and faced financial struggles throughout his childhood. His father worked as a tanner and supported a family of six, including Milton. As a result, Milton had to work from a young age to help support his family. Despite his upbringing, he had no initial interest in becoming an artist.

When Milton was 13, his family moved to Connecticut. He took on various blue-collar jobs to provide for his family. By the time he was 30, he was the sole provider for a family of 11. Throughout his adulthood, he worked as an assembler, leatherman, and mechanic, with no exposure to the world of art. Although he took a drawing course in his early 20s, painting remained just a hobby for him as he focused on earning a living for his family.


While working at a factory, Milton heard about a lettering class conducted by the Connecticut League of Art Students. He joined the classes not because he aspired to become a painter, but because it offered a slightly more comfortable way to make money. However, he was unable to secure a spot in the classes, which shut down after a month. Despite this setback, he found encouragement from Charles Flagg, the founder of the league, and began attending drawing classes at night while working at the factory during the day.

Milton’s work started gaining recognition in local competitions, which allowed him to consider art as a potential career. After receiving training from the School of the Art Society of Hartford, he became more interested in pursuing art full-time. In the mid-1920s, he moved to New York, following a young painter named Sally, whom he later married.

In New York, Milton was exposed to different styles of painting and began attending art galleries. He was particularly inspired by the abstract world of modern art. He started experimenting with different styles and eventually developed a unique style that combined elements of Matisse and Picasso’s work. While his wife supported him financially, Milton devoted all his time to painting.

In the early 1930s, Milton and his wife faced financial difficulties. He tried to gain recognition for his work by exhibiting it to patrons and galleries, but he faced numerous rejections. Despite these challenges, his New York apartment became a meeting place for young painters, and he also started teaching sketching classes to support his family. He continued to visit art exhibitions, paint various subjects, and develop his own artistic voice.

The turning point in Milton’s career came in 1943 when he met Paul Rosenberg, a renowned art dealer who had fled Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. Their friendship led to an exhibition of Milton’s work at the Philips Memorial Gallery in 1944, which brought him nationwide fame. Despite this recognition, he did not achieve the same level of wealth and fame as his contemporaries.

Milton received critical acclaim for his use of colors, and he was even dubbed the “American Fauve” by famous critic Hilton Kramer. However, he continued to strive for improvement. In 1946, he visited Mexico and painted some of his most acclaimed works. He organized more exhibitions and by the end of the decade, he was known as one of the best modernist painters in the New York art community. Some of his notable works include “Man Fishing,” “Spring Orchard,” “Gray Sea,” “Flight,” and “Dark Dune.”

Unfortunately, Milton’s career took a downturn in 1949 when he suffered a heart attack. His relationship with Paul Rosenberg ended, and his new work received low prices in the market. Additionally, American post-war Expressionism became dominant in the art scene, causing Milton’s style to lose relevance.

Despite his decline, Milton continued to paint and exhibited a new attitude towards art. His late paintings showcased bolder use of colors and refined forms. However, he never regained the same level of success he experienced in the 1940s. Following his death, his work was rediscovered, and his late paintings were recognized as some of the greatest examples of American modernist art.

Personal Life & Death

Milton Avery married fellow artist Sally Michel in 1926. They had a daughter named March Avery in 1932. Milton suffered a heart attack in 1949, and although he never fully recovered, he continued to paint. He had another heart attack in 1960 and passed away on January 3, 1965, after a long illness. Following his death, his wife donated his personal documents to the Archives of American Art.

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