Kay Sage was born in New York, but settled down in Rome and eventually Paris where she became an important member of the Surrealist movement. See also: Gertrude Abercrombie, John Wilde and Leon Kelly.
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Katherine Lynn Sage was born on June 25, 1898. She was the second daughter of a prosperous middle class family in Albany, New York. Her parents, Anne and Henry Sage, divorced while Katherine was very young. She spent her childhood traveling between Europe with her mother, and New York, where her father, a state senator, remained. Her travels with her mother gave her an opportunity to see the world while establishing an eye for the arts.
In and out of schools as a child, Sage never took to formal education. As Judith Suther describes in her biography of Kay Sage, she never spent more than three years in a single institution. After spending time in San Francisco and Santa Barbara, Sage attended the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C. from 1919-1920, before moving to Rapallo, Italy in June of 1920. There she learned to paint, and immersed herself in the thriving contemporary art scene. Four years later, she met and married her first husband, Italian Prince Ranieri di San Faustino, whom she later divorced after ten years of marriage.
Following the divorce, Sage moved to Paris and became involved in the Parisian surrealist movement. In 1938, she met Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), who would later become her husband. She admired Tanguy’s style, as well as the work of their colleagues. This became an inspiration for Sage in her development as a surrealist. At the start of World War II, Sage and Tanguy moved from Paris to the United States, and in 1940, Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy married in Reno, Nevada, eventually settling in Woodbury, CT for the remainder of their lives.
While in Woodbury, Tanguy and Sage helped fellow Parisian surrealists escape the war and find solace in their home. It is during Sage’s marriage to Tanguy, and their lives together in Connecticut, that she created her best work. Her surrealist style emerged beautifully, despite the fact that her husband’s successful career overshadowed her own. In fact, it was this overshadowing that motivated her. Her surrealism was unique, reflecting personal experience and inspiration from everyday images. After her husband died in 1955, Kay Sage became a recluse and attempted suicide in 1959. On August 1, 1963, three days after her late husband’s birthday, Kay Sage attempted suicide a second time. She died at the age of 65 in Woodbury, of a gunshot wound to the heart. Her ashes were spread along the coast of Brittany, France.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Kay Sage lived during a period when women were not offered the freedoms and opportunities as men. Her mother was a social rebel, who remained a single, divorcee socialite in Europe. She was protective over Sage, and, despite Sage’s own opposition and rebellion, she tried very hard to remain a large part of Sage’s young adult life. It was her mother’s pressure, as well her desire not to conform to the standards of mainstream society that first drove the young Sage to art and drove her to Surrealism.
Sage’s work, while classified as surrealist, varies from her contemporaries of the time. While surrealist artists contemporary to Sage employed many colors and curvy, non-linear, and abstract shapes, Sage does the opposite, painting personal meanings with an architectural, draftsman-like style. Her enigmatic paintings allow the viewer to look into the artist’s own psyche to better understand her message. For this reason, it is necessary to understand Sage’s personal circumstances throughout her life, in order to make sense of the inspiration behind her work. As a woman in the early twentieth century, Sage encountered difficulties being recognized as a distinguished painter, and it has been said that her husband frequently humiliated her and downplayed her talent in front of their contemporaries. The strong-willed Sage pushed harder to be unique and recognized as her own. She longed to be distinct.
Sage’s oeuvre consists of muted colors and straight, architectural lines. Buildings and figures in her paintings often incorporate drape-like coverings. Her drape coverings suggest familiar, but unidentifiable shapes. In many of her works, these drapes take on a figurative illusion, as though there is a person wrapped in the garment. Rather than appearing soft, the textiles appear to be unnaturally rough. Her muted colors and strong geometric shapes suggest a certain aspect of absence and loneliness. In employing these techniques, Kay Sage demonstrates her own feelings of loneliness and solidarity in the world. Author Renee Riese Hubert analyzes Sage’s work by asserting that “her geometric structures, her architectural universe deprived of human signs, her smooth and uniformly colored surfaces, her juxtaposed tones devoid of shading, differed from the biomorphic delineations and the explosions or disseminations of color that characterize so many surrealist paintings.” An example of this aspect of her art can be seen in her work Margin of Silence (1942). The main figure is surrounded by and covered with draperies against a vacant backdrop, which is perhaps indicative of her personal feelings of emptiness.
Moreover, Sage adapted motifs of metaphysicality in her work as well. Her subjects and her paintings surpass the realm of the physical and real, into a dimension of the surreal. An example of both her drapery-like aesthetic and her aspect of metaphysicality is the painting I Saw Three Passages (1944). In this work, the drapery suggests a figure, covered by the textile and surrounded by a whimsical backdrop. The draped figure surpasses the physical dimension into another realm. The geometric shapes, as well as the shape of the drapery and the shading of the work, add to its imaginative quality. Her work is simple and minimal, and is so without any loss of significance or personal meaning.
Sage’s longing for independence, and her desire to rebel against her mother, her husband, and “real surrealism” (according to artists such as Andre Breton (1896-1966), who was critical of Sage’s work) manifest themselves in her work. As biographer Judith Suther remarked regarding Sage’s surrealism, “I call Kay Sage a Surrealist because her painting resonates with the unsettling paradoxes and hallucinatory qualities prized by Andre Breton and his group, which have given rise to the trendy journalistic shorthand. More fundamentally, I call Kay Sage a surrealist because her allegiance to the surrealist identity lies at the heart of her self-image as an artist.” In essence, Sage used structured blocks and lines, a lack of human figures, and muted colors to not only distinguish herself as a surrealist painter, but to also express her inner loneliness and disillusionment with society. After all, Sage began painting at a time when disillusionment in the American, as well as European societies was prevalent among artists and writers following World War I. Her detached paintings, when analyzed, are not actually detached, as Kay Sage painted what she felt, and how she felt it.
1898 Katherine Lynn Sage was born in Albany, New York (June 25).
1908 Katherine’s parents divorced; Katherine traveled to Europe with her mother, Anne Ward Sage.
1914-1915 Kay Sage spent her last year at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia
1917-1918 Sage acted as translator for the United States government censorship bureau in New York
1919-1920 Sage studied at the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C.
1920 Katherine Sage moved to Rapallo, Italy, with her mother.
1920-1921 Studied in Rome under Count Severi and Carlo Carosi.
1925 Katherine married Prince Ranieri di San Faustino in Rome.
1933-1934 Kay Sage’s father, Henry Sage and Anne Sage (her sister), passed away, respectively.
1935 Kay Sage and Ranieri di San Faustino divorced.
1936 Sage had her first solo exhibition at the Galleria del Milione in Milan.
1937 Published a book of verses, Piove in Giardino, dedicated to her step-nephew.
1937 Sage moved to Paris, and joined the Parisian surrealist movement.
1938 Exhibited at the Salon des Surindependants in Paris; met future husband Yves Tanguy.
1939 Kay Sage sailed to New York.
1940 Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy married in Reno, Nevada.
1940 Kay Sage had her first solo show in New York.
1941 Visited California with her husband; exhibited at the Tone Price Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
1941 Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy moved to Woodbury, Connecticut.
1945 Anne Ward Sage, Kay’s mother, passed away.
1947 Sage exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery.
1948 Sage entered Carnegie Institute Exhibit.
1950 Sage exhibited with Catherine Viviano in her gallery.
1952 Exhibited in the second solo show with Viviano, which reestablished her as a leading surrealist artist. She also exhibited in Rome and Paris at the Galerie Nina Dausset and the Gallerie dell’Obelisco.
1954 Tanguy and Sage jointly exhibited at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
1955 Yves Tanguy died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage on January 15; Kay Sage created a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art.
1959 Sage attempted suicide with sleeping pills.
1963 Sage commited suicide by shooting herself in the heart, on January 8.
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, New York
Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, Arizona
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, California
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NYC
National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts
Snite Museum of Art, Notre Dame, Indiana
The De Young Museum, San Francisco, California
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
The Mattatuck Museum of the Mattatuck Historical Society, Waterbury, Connecticut
The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona
The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
1936 Galeria Del Milione, Milan, solo show, Milan, Italy
1938 Salon des Surindependants, Paris, France
1940 Matisse Gallery, solo show, Riverton, Utah
1941 San Francisco Museum of Art, solo show, San Francisco, California
1941 Tone Price Gallery
1944, 1947 Julien Levy Gallery, NYC
1948 Carnegie Institute Exhibit, Washington, DC
1950,1952 Catherine Viviano Gallery, NYC
1951 Corcoran Gallery Biennials, Washington, DC
1951 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
1952 Galerie Nina Dausset, Rome, Gallerie dell’ Obelisco, Rome, Italy
1954 Wadsworth Atheneum with Yves Tanguy, Hartford, Connecticut
1954 Guggenheim Museum, NYC
1951 Connecticut Development Community Award
- 1. “Kay Sage,” Albany Institute of History and Art, http://www.albanyinstitute.org/collections/Painting/Sage.htm . Accessed 3 May 2006.
- 2. “Kay Sage,” AskArt.com, http://www.askart.com/askart/artists.aspx?artist=30098
- 3. Grund, Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Vol. XII. 2006.
- 4. Falk, Peter Hastings, Who’s Who in American Art: 1564-1975, Vol. III, Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1994.
- 5. Hubert, Renee Riese, Magnifying Mirrors: Women, Surrealism, and Partnership, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
- 6. Petteys, Chris, Dictionary of Women Artists. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985.
- 7. Suther, Judith D., A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. (Please see: Stephen Robeson Miller, Research Material on Kay Sage, 1898-1983, Washington, DC: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1983, reels: 2886-2888.)
- 8. “Kay Sage,” World Wide Arts Resources, http://wwar.com/masters/s/sage-kay.html. Accessed 7 March 2006.
- Updated 5/14/08.