Paintings by
Rolph Scarlett
The Collection of
Leonard A. Kestenbaum
view collection

Rolph Scarlett (1889-1984) was born in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He received early training and encouragement in art, with private tutoring in the academic basics of form, perspective and color. At age fourteen, when Scarlett announced his intention to be an artist, his father insisted that he learn a trade and apprenticed him to his uncle for four years to learn jewelry-making. This training was to serve him well throughout his life, and he continued to make jewelry until his death.

In 1908, at age 18, Scarlett made his first trip to New York. He did not return to Canada until four years later at the start of World War I. Scarlett continued to make periodic trips to New York after the war, including a visit to the Armory Show in 1913 where he saw and was fascinated with the modern and abstract art on display.

A decade later, while working for a large wholesale jewelry business in Toronto, Scarlett visited Switzerland where he met the artist Paul Klee. Klee suggested that Scarlett try to make some small abstract compositions. This experience caused him to move away from realism to abstraction in his own work. At this point he began a serious study of nonobjective art as well as stage design.

In 1930, Scarlett went to California where his abstract paintings and watercolors were shown in a solo exhibition. He also executed set designs for the Pasadena Playhouse that were described by a local critic as "daringly effective." Scarlett settled in New York in 1932, working for Design Associates, a company that produced modern furniture designs and planned several pavilions at the New York World's Fair.

By 1939, Scarlett had begun his long association with The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (then the Museum of Non-Objective Painting) directed by Baroness Hilla von Rebay. He lectured there for fifteen years and his paintings were shown in numerous exhibitions, in New York as well as Paris. The Museum acquired sixty of his paintings for their permanent collection, but when Guggenheim died, Rebay and the artists she championed were forced out of the gallery, and Scarlett's paintings were put in storage. According to Scarlett's memoirs, "This caused me great financial hardship, loss of prestige and loss of artistic recognition."

Before the end of his nearly 90-year career, Scarlett had returned to geometric abstraction with a greatly brightened palette and a denser composition than used in his earlier work. His commitment to abstraction never wavered and he continued to explore it until his death at age 94.
view collection