Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Richard Hayley Lever: Story of a Painter

President Coolidge accepts Hayley Lever's painting
of the presidential yacht, Mayflower (1924)
(Smithsonian Archives of American Art)

Richard Hayley Lever is not considered an exceptional artist, although some of his paintings are very pretty and appear in the collections of important museums.  They are rarely displayed, however.

Perhaps his brightest moment came in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge commissioned him to paint a picture of the presidential yacht, the Mayflower.  The dour Coolidge always took an awkward photograph, and the one wherein he accepts the painting is the same. 

Born in Australia in 1876, Hayley Lever studied painting in England.  He became captivated by the wild sea and countryside at Cornwall, a peninsula at the southwest corner of England. Just before World War I, he left England for New York where he became friendly with George Bellows, John Sloan, and other artists who comprised the “Ashcan School.”

Hayley Lever's painting of the Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
train station, in the style of the Ashcan School, 1930s

The Ashcan painters were urban realists who coalesced during the early twentieth century in reaction to the Impressionists who had dominated painting for at least three decades.  Ashcan subjects included tenements, immigrants, and streetscapes.  

In New York, Hayley Lever became a member of the National Academy of Design, a prestigious honorary association of artists.  He also taught at the Art Students League, although the school does not list him among the famous artists who trained or taught there. Every summer he traveled to Gloucester, Mass., to paint the ocean and boats that reminded him of Cornwall.

During the early 1930s as the Depression set in, Hayley Lever fell on hard times.  He was forced to sell his home in New Jersey and faced limited options.

Fortunately, he received offers to run studio art clubs in two communities just outside of New York City.  As a well-known East Coast painter, he must have been considered quite a catch. 

The electric company building in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.
appears in Hayley Lever's paintings below.
(Westchester County Historical Society)

The artist probably didn’t earn much of a living, but he was of the moment.  

Through the 1920s, as the upper-middle class gained leisure time, a hobbyist culture had emerged in the U. S.  Wealthy men and women took up golf, bridge, ham radio and the like.  Civic involvement and club activities increased steadily until 1930.

Railroad Yards, Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
(Richard Hayley Lever, 

Eager to stay busy and develop their interests, many suburban women were drawn to painting. Unsurprisingly, Hayley Lever’s plein air classes became very popular as he took students around to lakes, a waterfall, a harbor, and woods.

Considering his love of nature, one might imagine that he lived in a pretty place.  But that was not the case.  He lived on a busy street, in a room in a bungalow overlooking a deep stone railroad cut where the New York-New Haven trains came through.

It’s those Ashcan scenes which he knew by heart, and painted again and again during the last two decades of his life. 

City Scene, painting of downtown Mt. Vernon, N. Y. by
Richard Hayley Lever, 
1943 (

*He died in 1958.

1 comment:

  1. What a discovery! I really like his style. I'm so glad he found his way though the depression. Rough time for artists in particular.


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