LUXURIOUS Leif's 'Distant Building.'
Somewhere around the 1950s, Florence Leif drastically changed her style. During the previous decade, she had painted dry dirt roads running down rolling green hills to the sea. She favored views from North Truro, Massachusetts, where she summered at a house she built with her husband, the painter and RISD professor Gordon Peers.
Or, as you can see in a handful of her oil paintings that are on view at Bert Gallery (24 Bridge St, Providence, through July 31), she might paint a road winding among homes and a church tower nestled in a valley that perhaps she spotted when her husband chaired RISD’s European study-abroad program.
Leif, who was born in New York in 1913, graduated from RISD in 1934, and died from a brain tumor at age 55 in 1968, distilled and simplified reality for emotional effect while still painting with persnickety precision in hues of sun-bleached greens and tans. You might call her style late American Impressionism.
But something happened in the 1950s that altered her direction. Maybe it was years of hanging around with all the art freaks of Provincetown, which attracted visits from leading American modernists like Milton Avery and the vanguard of the splashy New York-style Abstract Expressionism, including Hans Hofmann (who ran a hugely influential school there), Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell. Bert Gallery owner Cathy Bert says Leif wasn’t a fan of Abstract Expressionism, but suggests the influence of Cezanne.
I wonder if Leif was also looking at Matisse based on the way she begins to flatten forms and create space not through objects receding into the background, but by stacking rocks and foliage and houses one above the next, as in her painting Distant Buildings. In Near the Dunes, four large green circles — odd suns or moons — hang above dunes. The space is created by how the sand is horizontally striped with blue and green.
Leif began putting on the paint thicker, almost frothy. Her earlier work often felt parched under the hot sun. So I wonder if Matisse’s influence might also be behind how her later paintings seem to luxuriate in the sea. For example, in Abstracted Landscape with Pond, we look past the scrubby trees and pond and sand dunes that frame a blue sailboat, tiny in the distance, but seemingly heeled over, dashing along in the brisk summer breeze.