Nell Blaine: The American Abstract Artist From 1900s

With an excellent grab of Abstract Expressionism, Contemporary Realism & American Realism, Nell Blaine was an American artist who presented her successful take on art during the 1900s.

Nell Blaine

Every time I write about a woman artist, I feel that to get the chance to delve into and learn about her life and craftsmanship is a moment of pride, and everyone should know about her and feel the same. The reason is no longer gender but rather to see the field of humanities through the eyes of women, who have achieved distinction through their work but were deliberately ignored for a long time. Reading up about male artists involves learning about their lives and struggles along with their artworks. And we know that it shapes their paintings. Besides, I believe that a true scholar is one who perceives the inner-directed commitment and sacrifice of both genders in light of the different ways in which society treats and holds them. Hence, it becomes significant for us to learn about various women artists. Now, I would like to bring your attention to one compulsive dynamism that occurred in New York. In the 1970s and 1980s, women artists’ fortunes changed dramatically, resulting in the coercion of several university art departments, museums, and galleries to give them better representation. Nearly, all of them were suddenly under pressure to make the women artists popular and their artworks worthy of attention. It still seems that there is much left to do despite all of this. So today, we are here to celebrate female endocrinology through one of the significant American women artists, Nell Blaine.

Interestingly, most of the surviving abstract paintings of the artist are from the mid-forties, a period of less than a decade, which was over by the time Nell was 30, a time by which many painters have little to show but false starts and apprenticeships. In addition to painting still lifes, landscapes, and figures, Blaine had an impressive career spanning four and a half decades. Nevertheless, she made her mark as a painter of abstracts, and these paintings are as striking today as they were at the time. Let us learn about the artist profusely through the article.

Artist Abstract: Who Was Nell Blaine?

“Organic is a word I’ll stick by. It means the work is an extension of your blood and body; it has the rhythm of nature. It is something artists don’t talk about much, and it’s not even well understood: the fact that there exists a state of feeling and that when you reach it, when you hit it, you can’t go wrong.” 

The words describe a bit about the painter, Nell Blaine. 

Coming to New York when there was a rise in Abstract Expressionism, Nell helped to create a group of young artists, poets and musicians who were committed towards abstraction with the subject matter in intimate depictions of friends, nature and mundane views. Along with Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher, Blaine ushered in a new movement, Contemporary Realism, focusing on the familiar and everyday theme in a way that anticipated Pop art, but with a more lyrical and thoughtful approach.

Portrait of Nell Blaine
Nell Blaine | Source: National Portrait Gallery

The evolution of Nell from an abstract painter to a painter of portraits and landscapes never excluded her interest in dynamic relations between form and colour, creating an intimate viewing experience, regardless of the type of subject.

NameNell Blaine
BirthJuly 11, 1922; Richmond, Virginia
DiedNovember 14, 1996; New York
StyleAbstract Expressionism, Contemporary Realism, American Realism
GenreStill Life, Landscapes, and Figures

Nell Blaine | Fast Knowledge

Nell Blaine (Full name: Nell Blair Walden Blaine) was a 20th-century American abstract expressionist and contemporary realist who devised respectable approaches for both movements and celebrated a career of four and a half decades, leaving behind a number of landscapes, still life, and figuristic artworks when she passed away in 1996 in New York.

Life of the Artist.

Nell Blaine grew up cross-eyed and severely nearsighted in Richmond, in an unhappy family where her father had an unmanageable temper, while her mother went further into religion after her first child was stillborn, with a strong distrust of art. Her father was a farmer and hard-working. Nell used to have some buying trips to forests with her father, but she was always afraid of him due to his frightening and terrible temper, which got out of control several times. Her illness and nearsightedness, to such an extent that she wore glasses at two, kept her away from school for long periods. One of her aunts and uncles living in Baltimore nurtured her interest in art and literature, and a cousin paid for her corrective eye surgery. And just after the humble blessings from her relatives, Nell started reading Hugo, Walpole and Dostoyevsky in high school, writing plays and poetries and learning about art fundamentals.

Nell writes, 

“A haunting and major image from my childhood is the backwoods of Virginia, where we had relatives who were farm people. Life was different from the one I knew in Richmond. Lush trees and, in the backwoods, wooden-slat and white-sand roads, with people selling melons and other incredible beautiful fruits in abundance. I loved those old areas.”

About her childhood, Nell says, 

“I was often sickly as a child, and I had astigmatism and crossed eyes, as well as being nearsighted. For two years, no one recognized the severity of the problem. When I was two, I was given glass, and I was so thrilled. I went around exclaiming, ‘What a treat!’ and named everything. ‘Tree! House! Water! The world opened up. Something about the deprivation, I think now, made me feel that visual things were extraordinary.”

At an early age, she began drawing on her own and at five, Nell decided to be an artist. She said,

“I had a cousin, Ruth, who came over one day bringing some watercolours. She made a little sailboat. I liked the way the watercolours sat on the picture, and I said, ‘If only I could do that!’ I had a cousin who was an artist, and my mother’s sister painter-all of them as women did in that time: deer in the deep woods with a little sunset behind.” 

In explaining her bond with her mother, her mother would read her adventure and nature books while she was sick. The first time Nell began to think about art seriously was when her very good teacher in a public school hung pictures of Egypt around the classroom, and the still life enthralled her. 

At sixteen, Nell Blaine went to college at Virginia Commonwealth University, as an art major. Now, as she started her academic realist style painting here, Nell visited an exhibition of Mondrian and Carl Holty abstract paintings at the Virginia Museum. The experience made a profound impact on her, so much so that Nell decided to enrol at the Hofmann School in New York. In addition, the teachers were unable to improve her academic art skills because she had little skills in it. She wrote about it,

“I didn’t fit in, and I felt miserable and cut off, and yet I obviously wanted to learn. It wasn’t until the second year, when the painter and teacher Worden Day came, that I began to understand. She had studied at the Art Students League with Vaclav Vytlacil, who had talked about studying with Hofmann in Munich.”

As a nineteen-year-old, Nell debarked at Penn Station from a train from Richmond, Virginia and walked straight into the Hoffmann school of Eight Street, still carrying her suitcase. Wanting to get acquainted with the master immediately, she introduced herself to him right away. She described her experience as,

“It was the fall of 42 when I arrived. All that hot Southern summer before, I had saved every nickel till I had ninety dollars. I went right away to Hofmann with a portfolio, asked him for a scholarship, and he gave it to me. He was very, very sweet. He looked at this work that was so tight and pointed out that the oils had a leathery look. I was very crestfallen. Secretly I thought I was a genius.”

While at the Hoffman school, Nell was under the influence of Leland Bell, a fellow student and friend of Al Kresch. And for the next five years, she converted herself to abstract painting, and her work from this period looks astonishingly mature. 

In her second year at Hoffmann School, the artist completed a composition after hours, based on a still life Hoffman had rigged for his students, and it seems appropriate to begin with this painting. With Blain’s abstract art style, we can see how the principles of swing and sway already have a dynamic establishing themselves. It’s not uncommon for Nell to be unconcerned about a duck in the upper portion of the painting, hence its title. While comparing her painting with the late forties painting of Milton Resnick, he described his frustration over not being able to remove a passage that resembled a duck. Whereas Nell readily converted from realism to abstraction, and it was less of an internal struggle than perhaps Resnick, which says that her tolerance of ambiguity was greater than Resnick’s.

In 1944, Nell Blaine became the youngest member of the American Abstract Artists group, a professional organisation for abstracts. In the same year, Nell was invited by Hyde Solomon to join the Jane Street Gallery, the vanguard cooperative at 35 Jane Street.

Photograph of Nell Blaine
Nell Blaine, Photograph, 1943 | Source: American Women Artists

The first show of Nell was in 1945. She describes this period in a few words, 

“One day, I was working on a drawing from a still life, and suddenly I found myself dividing up the page in a way that was interesting to me. It worked spatially and yet was kind of witty and inventive. I went right home and made a painting that was larger than anything I’d done before and fresher.”

The later years of Nell’s life had many burdens and troubles. While living in Mykonos for the summers of 1959, Nell had a highly productive career when she created many paintings of landscapes, flowers, and room interiors. While there, she started feeling unwell. For instance, she increasingly became tired and even collapsed. On her visit to the doctor, they were unable to trace her cause of illness. But in Germany, doctors diagnosed her with bulbar-spinal polio. And the nature of this illness was so life-threatening that she was flown to Athens while temporarily put in an iron lung. In later months, she almost felt paralyzed for several months, and the only thing she could move was one hand, her head and one lower arm a bit. Eventually, she would be able to move again, but she can only be able to use half her diaphragm, making breathing strenuous, confined to a wheelchair for a lifetime.

And in the hospital, a social worker told her that she could never paint again, which she held in her mind to teach herself to paint with her left hand. It might be the most productive period of her career, but it proved Nell wrong. And after years, when Nell reflected on how her art greatly suffered, she said,

“I tend to work more compactly, and I think the forms are simpler. The worst limitation is working so close. I used to be very athletic while painting; I would run back and run forward so I wouldn’t lose the knowledge of where that stroke should go. Now I blur my eyes so I will get the all over… What I did before my illness tended to have the feeling of over-expenditure of energy. What I did afterwards represents me myself, free and detached.”

Nell Blaine’s paintings became more detailed as a result of her need to reinvent how she painted, focusing more on people, building rooftops, and flowers and gardens from her city apartment.

While recovering in the hospital, Nell Blaine met a British nurse named Dilys Evans, whom she would eventually fall in love with; however, Evans’ immigration status caused them to be forced back to Europe while she applied for permanent residency in America. Besides their stay in England, the couple spent eleven months on a banana plantation in St. Lucia, which inspired many of their paintings. Following Blaine’s return to New York, Evans and Blaine’s relationship soured. Following this, in 1967, Blaine met artist Carolyn Harris, and the two began a relationship that lasted the rest of her life.

Blaine struggled financially during her career but received two inheritances unexpectedly late in life. In 1974, Blaine purchased a house in Gloucester with the money she received from her mother’s estate when she died in 1971. As a result, Blaine and Harris spent half of the year in Gloucester, from June until November, and the rest in New York. The same year, Blaine’s friend Howard Griffin, with whom she had stayed while in London, died and left her his Austrian home.

Age did not diminish her fighting spirit either.

The health of Nell continued to deteriorate despite her prolific painting during her last years. Additionally, in June 1993, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery as a result of complications caused by polio. Afterwards, the cancer returned to her lymph nodes under her arms, which required further treatment. Soon after, she contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. It was never possible for her to fully recover from her illness. Pneumonia recurred on 6 November, and Nell died eight days later at seventy-four.

Briefly Analysing Nell Blaine Paintings.

Starting to move inside the gallery of Nell Blaine, let us first look at the Rubrum Lily. It showcases a pink spotted lily in the centre of the bouquet, with another closed lily and small white flowers with green leaves, elongated with long colourful strips. The canvas looks appealing to the viewer, holding the first glance at the middle of a pink flower. The use of brilliant colour combinations and simplicity in the delineations clutches the centre of attention of the viewer. Lastly, the subtle energy of the composition is embodied in the red dots in the centre of the flowers.

Rubrum Lily Nell Blaine
Rubrum Lily by Nell Blaine | Source: CAPE ANN Museum

An artwork by Nell, Carolyn at the Table, 1976, shows a man staring over the desk, appearing to be working. With the use of blasts of colours, linear lines and abstract shapes, Nell portrayed the man with such delicacy. There is a profuse use of elements of art in the most visible form.

Carolyn at the Table Nell Blaine paintings
Carolyn at the Table by Nell Blaine | Source: Michaan’s Auction

Another painting, Orange Lilies and Blazing Star, 1982, showcases the simpler brush strokes of the artist through the representation of a colourful still-life. The canvas portrays different flowers in an arrangement, combining representational imagery with gestural handling of paint reminiscence. The use of purples and blues in the background to cherish the intimacy of nature and flowers is a wise choice of the artist.

Orange Lilies and Blazing Stars by Nell Blaine
Orange Lilies and Blazing Stars by Nell Blaine | Source: Artsy

In the composition, Big Table with Pomegranates, Nell displayed a domestic and intimate breakfast table with a colourful blast. The canvas consists of different kinds of flower vases with candle stands, pomegranates, fruits, coffee mugs, and eggs, with colour contrast, loose strokes, and textures. One might see that it has vertical, horizontal and impression-style strokes.

The painting, Three Friends at a Table, features three figures, two women and a man, who are sitted at a large table scattered with saucers, cups, a tea kettle, fruit and a vase filled with abundant flowers. As Nell forecasts her vibrant colour palette and intimate choice of subjects, the painting has a less brushy and impressionistic texture than other of her works. Furthermore, it has a background with works of her art hanging on the wall and the windows delineated in the composition. It doesn’t seem disjointed at all because of the strong, trapezoidal shape of the table and its colourful objects, which draws and holds the eye for quite some time before it begins to scan the tired faces of the three friends. Blaine explained her new interest in portraiture by saying,

“Suddenly it just seemed terribly exciting to get a face that’s alive, that’s a kind of permanent image of this person with some life in it. I mostly paint people I know very well, and I keep painting them over and over and keep penetrating.”

Three Friends at a table Nell Blaine
Three Friends at a Table by Nell Blaine | Source: Artnet

So of the other Nell Blaine paintings are Summer, Quaker Hill 1969; Touch of Fall, 1964; Daisies, 1961; and Yellow Table with Flowers, 1974

Final Words.

Nell Blaine through her artworks, showed a great way to cherish colours to show the intact form of nature. I greatly admire the spirit of Nell, to refuse every trouble and helplessness in her later years and still clasp her art grippingly hard. Tell me what artwork of the artist inspired you the most.


1. Originals: American Women Artists by Eleanor Munro.

2. American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who was Nell Blaine?

Nell Blaine was an American abstract artist who enjoyed a career spanning more than four and a half decades. She majorly commissioned still lifes, landscapes and figures.

What kind of art did Nell Blaine make?

Nell Blaine made abstract art consisting of intimate interior scenes with an expressionist style. She used a blast of colours, linear lines and shapes to form landscapes and still life with poignant quality, which is similar to the works of Fairfield Porter, Louisa Matthíasdóttir, and Jane Freilicher.

What is Nell Blaine known for?

Nell Blaine is known for her exceptional expressionist abstract art with bright colours and loose brushstrokes, making her paint lyrical realism.


(are you paying attention)

We want your e-mail. In return to that, we promise to knock you with great content once a week.


We hate spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Related Reads.

Emma Sandys: A Lesser Known Pre-Raphaelite Woman Artist
The mold of Pre-Raphaelite broke upon Britain in 1848 when a group of seven men…
Read more
Giulia Lama: A Venetian Painter Who Exceeded Superiority
An infinite number of artists, despite their extraordinary artistry, have been forgotten throughout time. And…
Read more
Laura Knight: The British Modernist Who Created History
Before I begin to introduce you to one of the finest British painters of her…
Read more
Gwen John: Dissecting Her Life & Emotional Artworks
'People are like shadows to me, and I am like a shadow,' wrote Gwen John…
Read more
Carol Rama: Snooping Inside Her Difficult Life & Emotive Art
From the shadows of the Alps in the northwestern region of Piedmont shines a woman…
Read more
Rembrandt Self Portrait: The Artist's Way to Depict His Life
Among the several seventeenth-century documents, the paper from 1632 describes Rembrandt being briefly visited by…
Read more

Do we have your back?

You might have seen ads on SimplyKalaa, a way that supports most online publications economically. It is only when you learn that these ads perform poorly for many reasons, including the economy, you start looking for more ways to sustain consistency and informative stories without propaganda.

This is a call to seek your support through donations and an announcement of a subscription model starting next year. While the latter will allow us to grow in many ways, we have no plans to make our reads paid.

To remain updated, sign up for our newsletter.

In the meantime, will you buy us time to write for you?

Our goal is to reach 100 donors by the end of 2023.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments