Lot 30
  • 30

Milton Avery 1885 - 1965

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • Milton Avery
  • Music Makers
  • signed Milton Avery and dated 1947 (lower left); also signed Milton Avery, titled "Music Makers," dated 1946 and inscribed 36 x 43 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 36 by 41 3/4 inches
  • (90.2 by 106.1 cm)


Collection of Sally M. Avery, 1965
Gregory and Veronique Peck, Los Angeles, California, 1989


Scottsdale, Arizona, Yares Gallery, Milton Avery: Paintings and Watercolors Mexican Series: 1946-1947, February-March 1989, no. 1, illustrated in color
Houston, Texas, Sarah Campbell Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Texas; Mexico City, Mexico, Museo de Arte Moderno de Mexico; Monterrey, Mexico, Museo de Monterrey; Caracas, Venezuela, El Museo de Bellas Artes; Newport Beach, California, Newport Harbor Art Museum, Milton Avery: Milton Avery in Mexico and After, August 1981-July 1982, p. 48, illustrated in color


Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery, New York, 1990, pp. 153, 157, illustrated in color


This painting is in excellent, original condition. There is stretcher bar stress visible along the four edges of the canvas. Under UV: there is no apparent inpainting. This work may benefit from a light cleaning.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Milton Avery’s figurative images from the 1940s exemplify the unique aesthetic approach that has made him among the most admired artists of mid-20th century America. During this period, a distinct shift transpired in Avery’s consideration of color: the darker, more subdued palette that characterized his earlier work began to brighten and become more brilliantly saturated, which he combined with his earlier technique of reducing pictorial elements into abstract planes. As he eschewed many conventional compositional devices, color became his principal means of expression: he began to employ expansive, flat planes of monochromatic hues to indicate depth, space and even mood. Consequently, Avery is today revered as one of America’s greatest colorists; his body of work proved immensely inspirational for such iconic painters as Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko and other painters of the Color Field movement, who similarly utilized “fields” of vibrant color to evoke subtle emotion (Fig. 1). Beautifully painted in a vivid palette of expressive colors, Music Makers exemplifies this new moment in Avery’s oeuvre, and distinguishes itself as a masterwork of the decade by demonstrating the unique balance of form and content that came to define the artist’s most celebrated style.

Music Makers was painted in 1946-47, four years after Avery joined Paul Rosenberg’s gallery in New York. Aspects of the style and iconography of Music Makers consequently reflect the artist’s new professional partnership with this renowned French art dealer who, upon arriving in New York from Paris in 1940, represented such storied European painters as Georges Braque, Pierre Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Rosenberg’s interest in Avery provided the monetary support and the critical artistic encouragement that undoubtedly helped fuel this highly creative period. Their new affiliation, however, also reintroduced Avery to the work of Picasso, who was represented exclusively by the dealer in Paris. Avery began to study the Spanish master with zeal during this phase. As a result, many of the works he subsequently produced echo Picasso both in the modulation of color and in the simplification of forms into geometric shapes.

In the present work, Avery modernizes a scene of two guitarists performing in an interior space as a young woman rests behind them. Although the artist never fully abandoned figurative representation for pure abstraction, his best work often deconstructs both the human body and their environments into distilled components, minimizing detail and flattening forms in the process. Both the environment and the figures of Music Makers are dramatically reduced, articulated instead as component planes of subtly modulated color. By interpreting each shape as a single color area, Avery simply suggests illusionistic recession through the large expanses of yellow, red and brown hues that compose the walls and floor of the room. This technique compounds with the canvas’s slanted perspective to achieve the flattened sense of pictorial space that Avery intended. As a result, Music Makers emerges as a dazzling arrangement of pattern and color that showcases the distinctive blend of realism and abstraction that has become the artist’s signature.

Music Makers also pays homage to a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Man with a Blue Guitar” (1937). Stevens, a prominent American modernist poet, deeply influenced Avery’s aesthetic philosophies on the reconciliation of realism and abstraction. Although the two men likely never met, Avery was well acquainted with the poet’s work. According to his daughter Sally, Avery particularly admired “Man with a Blue Guitar,” and he utilized its imagery on canvas several times in the 1940s, also illustrated in his 1943 work March Playing the Cello (Fig. 2). Stevens’ stanzas, which were inspired by Picasso’s 1903 Blue Period masterpiece The Old Guitarist (Fig. 3), comment on the interrelationship of life and art and the power of imagination to alter one’s reality. While Avery’s painting is not an exact illustration of the poem, it successfully conjures Stevens’ imagery in visual terms. Just as the poet invokes Picasso’s image through his verses, Music Makers also references The Old Guitarist by visually echoing the palette and composition of the earlier work. Avery’s reference to Picasso is particularly evident in his extensive use of rich blue hues and in the distorted positioning of the guitarist on the right. Although the allusion inverts Stevens’ process—as Avery reflexively uses an image to conjure the lines of a text—both ultimately reflect on the artistically reciprocated relationship between poet and artist.

A work of enormous sophistication in both content and form, Music Makers not only demonstrates the significant transition Avery’s work made in this decade, but also embodies the intersection of visual art, music and literature the artist explored throughout his career. Indeed, Avery’s works were often explicitly described as transcending pure visuals to engage multiple senses and art forms. Henry McBride, the celebrated art critic for the New York Sun, described Milton Avery as “a poet, a colorist and a decorator, so excellent in each of these divisions that he might exist on any one of them; yet I presume that being a poet will eventually be his strongest claim” (quoted in Robert Hobbs, Milton Avery: The Late Paintings, New York, 2001, p. 58). Imbued with a lyrical sense of melody and motion, the canvas exemplifies Avery’s desire to visually distill the expressive and communicative power of color. “I know what intrigues me,” Gregory Peck once wrote of this significant painting. “It is the quality of the enigmatic, captured in a perfect composition, with a bold use of color. The subject that attracts me is almost always people. Music Makers fits that description perfectly. It has been a source of real enjoyment and inspiration.”