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.