Photo: Paul Macapia



Morris Graves

born Fox Valley, Oregon, 1910; died Loleta, California, 2001

Who was Morris Graves? Even those who knew the artist well pondered the question in their writings about him. With his intense, searching gaze and his deeply self-absorbed demeanor, Graves was an arresting figurehe seemed to have looked every bit the part of a man on a solitary quest for enlightenment. Even his high school teacher recalled that Graves attracted attention just by his presence: "He was so fascinating that some students followed him around to observe his antics."

Self-discovery would seem to have been Graves' motivation to paint. This self-portrait is the result of unflinching self scrutiny. As he looked deeper into himself, Graves became interested not in his physical being but in his spiritual makeup. He imagined himself at one with nature's other life forms and saw himself as another solitary and vulnerable creaturelike a delicate bird, whose very existence is shaped by the forces of nature.

Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 19 3/4 in. (64.8 x 50.2 cm)
Gift of Florence Weinstein in memory of Max Weinstein
Provenance: Mr. and Mrs. Max Weinstein, Seattle, Washington, by 1956; to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, 1985
Photo: Paul Macapia
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

I believe . . . that in painting, one must convey the feeling of the subject, rather than the imperfect physical truth through photographically correct statement of the object.

Morris Graves, 1937

How Others Saw Him

Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail, 85.268
He comes from the Pacific Northwest; an exceedingly tall thin figure, with large transfixed, rather alarmed eyes. . . He is shy and self aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination. . . . In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory. . . He has the willful steely quality of a bird—its fierce capacity to survive.

—Frederick S. Wight, Director of the Art Galleries, University of California, Los Angeles, on meeting Morris Graves, 1956

He was a beautiful baby—big brown eyes and dark hair, with a little faraway look in his eye—and very friendly. We named him after Morris Cole, our favorite minister.

—The artist's mother

To be a struggling young painter like . . . Morris during the Depression took strength and crassness. Families needed money. Why didn't they even try for a job? Anything for a few dollars. Nobody needed pictures. Everybody was broke.

—The artist's brother, Wallace Graves, in reminiscence, "Summer of '34," published 1976
Photo: Art Hupy
"Morris Graves in a Seattle Art Museum gallery," ca. 1965
Graves has succeeded in surrounding himself with an aura of eccentricity to the point of becoming almost a legend . . . His physical appearance gives him a head start in this direction: he is exceptionally tall, perhaps 3 or 4 inches more than 6 feet, lanky of figure, handsome with exaggeratedly large, round, brown eyes. During the war years he grew a beard, which he has kept ever since and which adds a striking note to his already-arresting appearance. His manners are meticulous, tending toward the elegant, and his clothes are likely to be deliberately shabby, but never drab.

—Critic Margaret Callahan, on Morris Graves, Seattle Times, October 31, 1948
Morris Graves, 1950, Imogen Cunningham, 71.9
And to be sure, one must admit that Graves is mysterious—as mysterious . . . as the markings of a sand-dollar on a Puget Sound beach, or a hidden ginger flower in a Pacific Coast forest. As for his being "true," he is, at least, as true as the weather, with its seasons both warm and chilly. Like the birds Graves knows so intimately, he is a migratory creature; not so much willfully nomadic as purposefully so.

I share with Graves. . . the fortunate accident of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, a part of the American land to which Graves owes—and acknowledges—a real debt. It was in the Puget Sound country that he first began to put on paper the record of secret moments in the hidden existence of humble fellow creatures living in the luxuriant forests and ragged fields, on the little lost lakes, the silent mountain slopes and wild lonely beaches of America's inland sea.

—Novelist Nancy Wilson Ross, a friend of the artist, in "Something About Morris Graves," published 1963
Morris Graves in His Leek Garden, 1973, Imogen Cunningham, 79.72
From the very beginning. Graves was perceived as a mystical painter-hermit living in the woods of northern Washington State with only his Eastern spiritual texts and the small creatures of the wild for inspiration and company. Stories circulated about his deep attachment to Buddhist and Hindu precepts, his inaccessibility to anyone except those committed to the Spiritual Path, his eccentric behavior whenever he visited Seattle, and his uncanny ability to give provocative but convincing form to elusive metaphysical intuitions and ideas.

Some of these stories, especially those concerning his spiritual commitments and artistic abilities, were based on fact. The rest grew out of romanticized accounts, generally second- and third-hand, of his lifestyle, creative activities, and personal idiosyncrasies, and were often close to fiction. Even the few photographs of him tended more to shape the myth than to illuminate the reality—witness Imogen Cunningham's haunting and well-publicized 1950 study of Graves as a withdrawn, physically fragile painter-mystic, and her 1973 portrait in which he resembles nothing so much as a somewhat melancholy but benevolent biblical prophet.

—Critic Theodore Wolff, on perceptions of Morris Graves, 1994

Early Paintings & Technique

Graves had developed his style from the minute examination of moss and the study of scaly surfaces of old barns, and used loose painting with a palette knife on coarse, absorbent canvas hoping to attain the quality of antiquity of old frescos.

—Morris Graves' friend Elizabeth Bayley Willis, on the artist's early painting style in oils
Detail of brush work, 85.268
Photo: Paul Macapia

How Graves Saw Himself

"October 15, 1933, First Prize Oil at the Northwest Artists' Exhibition and the Artist: Morris Graves," published 1933, 1945, 1948
Morris Graves had won the Katherine Baker Memorial Award at the 1934 [sic—1933] Northwest Annual in the Seattle Art Museum. Subsequently, a picture of him was printed in the rotogravure section of the Seattle Times. Morris, thin and smoldering, wistful and folded up on one of the Art Museum benches, languid hand propping up his winning Moor Swan. I clipped out the picture and pasted it into my scrapbook. . . .

Winning the Annual was a major event in the life of the young artist. So Morris, the victor, sat having his picture taken, brooding and inward, exuding indifference while the Swan stood in its armor of pigment, remote, diffident, unseeing. An elegant and severe painting, one of the few winners over the years that stick in the memory. . .

I had seen the photo in the Times, clipped it, and had visited the Museum and seen the Swan, fingering the ragged impasto secretly when no one was near—had stared at the rough pigment from close up, my nose to the canvas, reading the forbidding relief-map of ridges and valleys. Then had leaped back to see it from across the room, the chaotic pattern of black and umber and muted pinks merged into a coherent image of regal bird

Up to now my acquaintance with great art was by the way of reproductions, page-sized, and reduced to the dot-pattern of printers' ink. Now I had met a great painting in the flesh, painted by an artist not much older than I, one who breathed the same air as I. The gray, softly muted air of the Pacific Northwest.

—Painter William Cumming, on the impact of seeing this photograph of Morris Graves with his prize-winning painting, from Cumming's memoir, 1984
Photo: Susan Cole
Drawing for Eagle of Inner Eye, 1941, Morris Graves, 46.217
Graves is seeking to symbolize the oneness of man with all that lives, and the wonder and strangeness of our consciousness at the edge of night, on the tides of infinity. He sees in human restlessness and spiritual searching a kinship to the migration of birds. . . . He broods on the struggle of beings meant to be free, destined to be the prey of the killer.

—Writer and collector Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), in Art Digest, 1944
Morris Graves and Imogen in his Garden, 1973, Imogen Cunningham, 2005.142
My ego is of the order of ego which also includes an unalterable feeling that the best part of my life is the intensely personal and private area which, for me, is violated. . . if someone is there watching with a camera.

—Morris Graves to photographer Imogen Cunningham, in his initial response to her request to photograph him, 1973

Who Was Morris Graves?

Morris Graves studied himself intensely, but he revealed little. Because of his natural reticence, Graves made others see him through the obscure symbolic subjects of his art. Over the decades, many observers described this enigmatic Northwest artist as the living representation of the ethereal subjects he painted.

Explore some of those impressions here.
"Morris Graves at the Seattle Art Museum," ca. 1965
Photo: Art Hupy
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Hupy 112-17


Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, on NW artists like Morris Graves & Mark Tobey


Exhibition HistoryLos Angeles, California, Art Galleries of the University of California , Los Angeles, Morris Graves Retrospective Exhibition, Nov. 5 - Dec. 2, 1956 (New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Feb. 28 - Apr. 8, 1965; Washington D.C., The Philips Collection, Apr. 15-May 7, 1956; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, May 19 - June 30, 1956; Des Moines, Iowa, Des Moines Art Center, July 21 - Aug. 26, 1956; San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum (no dates given); La Jolla, California, The Art Center, Dec. 10, 1956 - Jan. 15, 1957; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Feb.7 - Mar.10, 1957). Text by Frederick S. Wight, John I. H. Baur, and Duncan Phillips. Cat. no. 3.

Balboa, California, The Pavilion Gallery, Morris Graves Retrospective, organized by the Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor, California, and the Newport Harbor Service League, Mar. 1 - 31, 1963. Text by Frederick S. Wight. Cat. no. 3, n.p., reproduced. [Text adapted from Morris Graves by Frederick S. Wight, et al., published by the University of California Press in book form, and as catalogue for exhibition organized by UCLA Art Galleries, 1956].

Eugene, Oregon, Museum of Art, Morris Graves: A Retrospective, Feb. 8 - Mar. 13, 1966. Cat. no. 2.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Morris Graves and Northwest Masters, July 21 - Aug. 13, 1972. No catalogue.

La Conner, Washington, Museum of Northwest Art, Morris Graves: The Early Works, June 25 - Sept. 30, 1998 (Stamford, Connecticut, Whitney Museum of American Art-Fairfield County, Mar. 12 - June 3, 1998; Greenville, South Carolina, Greenville County Museum of Art, Mar. 17 - May 16, 1999; Beaumont, Texas, Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Sept. 9 - Nov. 30, 1999. No cat. no., pp. 67, 70, reproduced p. 4.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Northwest Traditions, June 29 - Dec. 10, 1978 (Des Moines, Iowa, Des Moines Art Center, Mar. 9 - Apr. 29, 1979). Text by Martha Kingsbury. No cat. no., p. 103.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Views and Visions in the Pacific Northwest, June 7 - Sept. 2, 1990. No catalogue.

La Conner, Washington, Museum of Northwest Art, Heads, Oct. 6, 2000 - Jan. 7, 2001. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Morris Graves and Seattle, Nov. 1, 2001 - Oct. 20, 2002. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, From New York to Seattle: Case Studies in American Abstraction and Realism, Jan. 15, 2020 - June 5, 2022.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, American Art: The Stories We Carry, Oct. 20, 2022 - ongoing.
Published ReferencesJohns, Barbara. Modern Art from the Pacific Northwest in the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1990; p. 2, reproduced.

Appelo, Tim. "Seattle Goes Boom." The Magazine Antiques (November 2008): reproduced fig. 10, p. 106.

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