Roger Medearis (1920-2001)

Roger Medearis (1920-2001)

The son of a Baptist minister, Roger Medearis was born in Fayette, Missouri, and spent his early years in a series of small towns there and in Oklahoma, a region that long influenced his art.  As a boy he was fascinated with illustration, and spent hours copying the ads of Norman Rockwell, an early artistic idol, to hang on his wall.  He left home at eighteen to study at the Kansas City Art Institute.  His new idol and teacher for the next three years, Thomas Hart Benton, supplanted Rockwell and influenced Medearis profoundly.  Benton introduced him to the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York, which sold several of Medearis’ student works, the last of which was a portrait of his grandmother, entitled Godly Susan, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.   

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After Pearl Harbor, Medearis assisted all three branches of the armed forces in various graphic capacities, and worked with such distinction that an admiral refused to let him formally enlist in the Army, writing that it would be impossible to replace him.  During the war years he yearned to return to his art, and for two years he continued painting in his Regionalist style in a new studio in Chester, Connecticut; he showed rather successfully in New York at the Kende Galleries.  His work brought acclaim, but not sufficient income, and he also began to see the magnitude of the trend away from Regionalism. 

The works of a fellow Benton student, Jackson Pollock, especially baffled him, but he could see that the future of American art did not include his style.  Depressed at this, along with the failure of his marriage, he put away his brushes for the next ten years.  He returned to the Midwest to a successful career as a salesman for the paper industry, remarried, moved to a suburb of Los Angeles, and began to rekindle his interest in art.  A dealer in Maryland happened by chance to see the 1949 painting Family Reunion, and couldn’t get the work out of his head.  He tried for months to find a trace of the artist, and finally contacted Thomas Hart Benton.  Benton, who considered Medearis his finest pupil, gave the dealer the artist’s California address.  This was the beginning of a long relationship with Philip Desind of Capricorn Galleries in Bethesda, Maryland, who showed Medearis’ work for over thirty years.

With such encouragement, the artist quit his industry job in 1969 to devote his career to painting.  His subjects continued to be the imagery of Midwestern Regionalism, later the Western landscape, and his style upheld his devotion to the work of his mentor, Benton.  As always, he worked as slowly and patiently as needed for the perfection he sought because if there is one word to describe Medearis, it is meticulous – in his paintings, which often took months to complete – and, happily for art historians, in his record keeping. His ledger follows his entire career, from his student days in the 1940s to his death in 2001, which included an entry for his last painting, East of Lone Pine, #274. Describing his approach to painting, Medearis explains, “I am a slow painter and devote to each painting all the time it seems to require. The whole purpose of art is excellence, and one good painting is better than 10,000 bad ones.” As a result, major paintings by the artist are scarce. Only three large works have passed through auction since his death, and Vose Galleries has handled only two, one of which was sold for a record price that still stands.

In 2012, Medearis was finally given the recognition he so richly deserved. The Huntington Museum and Gardens in Pasadena, California, where he lived for the latter part of this life, exhibited thirty of his paintings, many from their own impressive collection, in a retrospective aptly called My Realism, the title of Medearis’ autobiography. Today his work is held in many American museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Butler Institute of Art in Youngstown, Ohio, as well as numerous private collections. 

References: See Who Was Who; Marianne Berard:  Under the Influence:  The Students of Thomas Hart Benton, pub. Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, 1993, pp. 106 – 111; Writings by the artist held by his son Thomas Medearis.  

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