Sylvia Sleigh

1916Llandudno, United Kingdom | 2010New York, United States
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Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Self-Portrait at Belsize Square, 1941, Oil on canvas board, 17 ¾ x 13 in., 43.8 x 33.02 cm, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

British-American painter.

Sylvia Sleigh is one of the major feminist artists of the second half of the twentieth century. Her “realist” paintings and drawings offer a re-reading, not to say an aesthetic subversion, of the canons of Western painting, with particular reference to the genres of the portrait and nude.
Sleigh was born in Wales and studied at the Brighton School of Art where her teachers were not encouraging. She went on to work in a clothes shop until the beginning of the Second World War. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1953, at the Kensington Art Gallery in London. It featured still lifes, landscapes and portraits in which her signature style was already apparent, characterised by numerous references to art history (and to nineteenth-century painting in particular), a refined and meticulous rendering of the details and decorative motifs adorning or encompassing her figures, and the strikingly frontal nature of the compositions. In 1954 she married Lawrence Alloway (depicted in her canvas The Bride, 1949), an art critic specialising in pop art; in 1961 the couple moved to New York, where S. Sleigh remained for the rest of her life.

From the late 1960s the artist painted many male and female nudes, which she viewed as portraits in their own right, capable of standing up to the sexual objectification perpetrated by the “male gaze”. Borrowing her compositions and poses from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) (The Turkish Bath, 1976) or from Giorgione (1478-1510) (Concert champêtre, 1976), she melds them into a contemporary setting, lending them the traits of close male and female friends and relatives. Her erotic gaze sublimates rather than minimises the individualised nude bodies with their precisely depicted anatomy and body hair. Rather than overturning the relationship between painter, model and viewer, however, S. Sleigh’s art highlights the equilibrium between them, through positive eroticisation. This applies to her panel entitled Lilith, which she contributed to the collective installation The Sister Chapel (1978), conceived by Ilise Greenstein, in which male and female bodies become indistinguishable.

In the 1970s S. Sleigh began an active campaign to acknowledge women artists and bring about a feminist shift within the American art world. She painted a large number of portraits, established her own personal collection, frequently featuring the works in exhibitions, and supported galleries and artist-run venues such as the A.I.R. Gallery, the first feminist cooperative gallery in the United States, and the SOHO20 Gallery, for which she produced group portraits.
Although it was mainly her male nudes that attracted critical attention for their political impact, S. Sleigh’s oeuvre is to be perceived across a broader spectrum, as a form of celebration – of a community, a political battle and a certain beauty related to the human body but also to nature, rooted in Western art history and transformed by a personal and feminist viewpoint. It is this artistic vision that bursts through the colossal work inspired by Charles Baudelaire and entitled Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill (1979-1999), which unites in a bucolic setting – evoking a pastoral fête galante – the artist, her husband L. Alloway and several close friends.

During her lifetime S. Sleigh’s work was shown extensively in American art galleries and at the Hudson River Museum. Major museums such as the Tate in London and the Whitney Museum in New York have acquired her works. On her death, the artist left her collection of approximately one hundred works to the Rowan University Art Gallery in New Jersey. She posthumously received the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Aard.

Anatole Divoux

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor-Bouché.

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Pluto Robert Lucy, 1944, oil on linen, 228.6 x 137.16 cm, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Felicity Rainnie Reclining, 1972, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 107.3 cm, private collection, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Annunciation Paul Rosano, 1975, oil on canvas, 228.6 x 132 cm, Jeff and Leslie Fischer Collection, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, AIR Group Portrait, 1977-1978, 193 x 208.2 cm, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Lilith, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 274.6 x 52.4 cm, Rowan University Art Gallery, Sylvia Sleigh Collection, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Self Portrait with Amaryllis, 1982, oil on canvas, 66.04 x 38.74 cm, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Sylvia Sleigh, Douglas John and Mrs. Smith (FemFolio), 2007, digital print with hand lithography, ed. 26/60, 30.48 x 30.48 cm, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, © The Estate of Sylvia Sleigh

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