The art of Rex Goreleigh
The couple wanted that painting – badly. I understood. I had seen it as I walked into the auction gallery, on a wall slightly to the right, the rectangular-shaped oil painting that had its own space.
It showed the back of a black man, ax in hand facing a forest of trees with stark bare branches. What I didn’t discern until I read the description in the Swann Auction Galleries catalog was the faint nooses hanging from the limbs.
This painting, I presumed, was African American artist Rex Goreleigh’s outcry against lynchings. It was painted in 1966 long after the time when the South considered lynching of black men – an image that author Lillian Smith and singer Billie Holiday called “Strange Fruit” – a spectator sport and a regional pastime. Goreleigh’s painting seemed to show the black man’s new ability to cut out that dark era of the country’s history with a tool as simple as an ax and a will as strong as his back.
Malcolm Peyton and his wife Barbara Winchester had come to the auction last week to buy this oil that had been painted by a longtime friend. Peyton had met Goreleigh when Peyton was a grad student in his 20s and they both were performing in a play in Princeton, NJ. When Goreleigh moved to the city permanently in the 1940s, Peyton helped him set up his Studio-On-The-Canal.
“I helped finance that,” said Peyton, a composer who with Winchester (a soprano) have a long association with the New England Conservatory of Music. “He gave me some nice paintings in return.”
I was very familiar with the name Rex Goreleigh and had seen examples of his works in art books. This was the first time, though, I had actually seen one real, live. It was an oil-on-canvas, size 66″ x 42″ and titled “Spring Pruning.” According to the Swann catalog, this was the first oil painting by Goreleigh to appear at auction.
The couple had first seen the painting on the cover of a book, Winchester said, and she went searching for it. “I wrote to Hughie Lee-Smith (an artist friend of Goreleigh’s) who told me who owned it. She lived in Amsterdam. I wrote her a letter,” she said.
When the woman died, her son inherited the painting, found the letter and contacted Winchester, she said. The painting had some damage, she said, and the owner wanted $40,000 for it – more than they were willing to pay since it had some issues.
The owner apparently decided to sell it at auction. During the bidding, the couple went tit-for-tat and finally got it for $26,000, plus Swann’s premium of 20 percent. They got it at a bargain and, they said, the damage had been repaired.
Interestingly, I found the prices at this auction comparatively lower than prices at some of the others in the past. A woman who sat next to my art-buddy Kristin had consigned a large pen and ink and gouache piece that was estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $120,000 (not including the buyer’s premium), which the woman found disappointing.
Many of the works by several African American artists of the late 19th century – among them Charles Ethan Porter and Robert S. Duncanson – did not sell at all. This was for people like Peyton and Winchester a buyer’s market.
Goreleigh was born in 1902 in Penllyn, PA (northwest of Philadelphia), and as a teenager moved to Washington, DC, and later to New York, where in the 1920s he was said to have seen the first Harmon Foundation exhibit of African American art.
He apparently did some acting during that time. On the web, I found a Playbill for a 1929 show called “Harlem” at the Apollo Theater in which he was listed as a performer and member of the ensemble. He portrayed himself (the character was named Rex) in the play by Wallace Thurman and William Jourdan Rapp about a family migrating to the city during the Great Migration of the early 20th century.
While Goreleigh was waiting tables in New York in the 1930s, artist Diego Rivera suggested he drop by to watch the Mexican muralist paint frescoes on Rockefeller Center. Goreleigh knew then that he wanted to be an artist. He worked with artist Ben Shahn as part of the federal Works Projects Administration on art projects during the Depression. He also traveled to Europe, and came back home to New York teach at the Utopia House and the Harlem YMCA.
He opened an art center in Greensboro, NC, with artist Norman Lewis. Around this time, he apparently produced paintings and prints of the rural south and its workers in the “Planter’s Series” and “Tobacco Series.”
Goreleigh managed the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago during the 1940s before heading to Princeton to run Princeton Group Arts in 1947. He stayed there for six years before it closed in 1954. Then, he opened his Studio-On-The-Canal.
When the Princeton program closed, Goreleigh wrote a letter to the editor at the local newspaper, which said in part:
“My reward: memories of the patter of toddlers’ feet; their utterings and excitement amidst paint, clay, toys, music, storytelling; their expressions of amazement at a newcomer, and their eagerness to return after the closing of each session. The after-school children, free from classroom routine, coming into the workshops, giving vent to their youthful exuberance and artistic effusions.”
It was in the Princeton area where he saw African American migrant workers who would be the focus of his “Migrant Series” of watercolors and oil paintings. These are said to be the works for which he is best known.
“He did a whole series on migrant workers who picked tomatoes, apples in Princeton,” said Peyton, who has several of Goreleigh’s migrant watercolors and oil paintings, along with other Princeton scenes.
At his studio, Goreleigh offered classes in painting, ceramics and sculpture for adults, along with children’s classes. Lee-Smith was among the instructors, and Peyton’s first wife took classes there. The studio itself was located on the first floor of the building, and the ground floor “was like a garage,” remembered Peyton. One site noted that it was a garage. Goreleigh lived in a house in back of the building, Peyton said.
“He was a serious artist,” he said of Goreleigh. “He was married to a lovely woman named Estelle (his first wife) who cooked lovely dinners.”
“His manner was very warm,” Winchester said of the man whom she remembered often smoking a pipe. “He was a very warm person in his manner but reserved in his judgment.”
Goreleigh died in 1986 in a fire at his house.