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"Driggs... explores abstraction and figurative art with warmth and wit, and sometimes even with whimsy."
Known primarily as a Precisionist painter, Elsie Driggs also did floral and figurative paintings in watercolors, pastels, and oils. After studying at the Art Students League and in Italy, Driggs settled in New York City, where she enjoyed immediate success. During the 1920s, Driggs was associated with the Precisionists, also known as New Classicists or Immaculates. The group painted the modern landscape of factories, bridges, and skyscrapers with geometric precision and almost abstract spareness. Her most famous Precisionist painting was Pittsburgh (1926-1927), inspired by her memories of the steel mills where her father, an engineer, had worked.
Eventually, Driggs departed from Precisionism, producing more whimsical watercolors and figurative paintings, as well as murals for the WPA. For Driggs, watercolors were a means to explore the lyrical, fanciful, and even humorous side of her personality. This was especially true while she lived in Lambertville, enduring a difficult marriage and missing New York City. Driggs sought imaginative release through the wit and whimsy of her watercolors.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Driggs completed several figurative paintings in watercolor. With a nervous "wandering line" reminiscent of Paul Klee, she sketched figures superimposed over vibrant watercolors. For example, in Snow Scene, she drew six heavily dressed figures huddled together as snow falls around them, amidst the deep blue night. Furthermore, Driggs derived subject matter from literature, specifically relying on Dante's Inferno and Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones. In Balloons, inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson, Driggs painted sixteen multicolored spheres of different sizes drifting among sketches of nine swans against a wash of pale blue.
Driggs' watercolors of the 1940s and 1950s were brilliantly experimental. Watching her young daughter play with paints, Driggs conceived of an original medium: collages composed of watercolors and pastel. By incorporating pastel into her watercolors, Driggs achieved richer color and texture than she had before.
After marrying painter Lee Gatch, Driggs moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, in 1935 and devoted herself primarily to supporting her husband's career, a choice many female artists of her generation made. During the 1960s, Driggs resumed working actively, experimenting with mixed media constructions and figurative paintings in pastels and oils. Working until her death in 1992, Driggs was the most long-lived and productive of the Precisionist painters.
Elsie Driggs. Photograph by Peggy Lewis. James A. Michener Art Museum archives.
Education and Training
Art Students League, New York, New York, 1918-1921
Study in Italy, 1922-1924
Driggs studied with George Luks at the Art Students League.
She was a student in a small class that went to Italy with Maurice Sterne from the Art Students League. While there, Driggs met Leo and Gertrude Stein, who introduced her to the art of 15th century master Piero della Francesca.
While she never took formal painting classes from John Sloan, Driggs sat in on his criticism class held at his home.
Connection to Bucks County
Driggs lived in Lambertville, New Jersey, with her husband, artist Lee Gatch, from 1935 until 1968. After initially renting the Impressionist Robert Spencer's home at Rabbit Run Bridge in New Hope, the couple purchased a small, run-down stone house that lacked indoor plumbing on Coon Path in Lambertville. Gatch used their rugged studio while Driggs worked on the kitchen table. Their reclusive life in Lambertville motivated Driggs to draw upon her imagination for subjects and to experiment with new media, such as the pastel and watercolor collage. Although Gatch thrived in this rustic environment, Driggs, a sociable urbanite, felt constrained. After her husband's death in 1968, she returned to New York City.
Lee Gatch, her husband
Louis Stone, artist and neighbor
The Daniel Gallery in New York was known for its exhibitions of Precisionist painters during the 1920s. Driggs exhibited there along with Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Rarely did these artists know one another. Interestingly, Gatch and Driggs never exhibited at Phillips' Mill.
Driggs worked for the Works Progress Administration from the late 1920s to the 1930s.
Photograph of Lee Gatch and Elsie Driggs at the American Institute of Arts and Letters, 1967. James A. Michener Art Museum archives.
Major Group Exhibitions
Daniel Gallery, New York, New York, regular exhibitor, 1927 to 1935 One-woman show, Daniel Gallery, New York, New York, 1928
Whitney Club, 1928
First Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
New Hope Modernists: 1917-1950, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 1991
An Evolving Legacy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2009 - 2010
Major Solo Exhibitions
One Woman Show, Martin Diamond Gallery, New York, New York, 1980
Elsie Driggs: A Woman of Genius, New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, New Jersey, 1991, and The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1991
Elsie Driggs: The Quick and the Classical, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2008
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland
Ferdinand Howald Collection, Yale University, Connecticut
Gallagher Collection of the Phillips Gallery, Washington, DC
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Montclair Museum, New Jersey
Munson-Williams-Procor Institute, Utica, New York
Root Collection, New York University, Purchase, New York
Sheldon Memorial Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas
La Salle's Quest, WPA Mural, Rayville, Louisiana, 1939
Lee Gatch and Elsie Driggs with Pompeian Gesture, Gatch's stone collage and oil. Photograph by Peggy Lewis.
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