Nan Phelps


Phelps was a memory painter who first gained recognition in the 1940s. Her early portraits of family members, characterized by restrained brushwork and documentaryimpulse, recall nineteenth-century folk portraiture. Phelps’s later work, especially her scenes of everyday pleasures like baseball games, employ looser brushstrokesand a more expressive use of color.Although Phelps enjoyed drawing as a child, she did not begin to paint until she had escaped the hardships of her early life in London, Kentucky. Responsible for thecare of her brothers and sisters, Phelps was forced to drop out of school after completing the eighth grade. She married an abusive man but, after three years, fled withher two children to Hamilton, Ohio, where she met her second husband, Bob Phelps. In the 1930s, Phelps enrolled in a correspondence course in design. Purchasingoil paints from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, Phelps began to create paintings in a naive style and sent a painting to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Although the museumat first doubted that a local housewife had created the painting, it exhibited three of Phelps’s paintings after she had proved herself in classes at the Cincinnati ArtAcademy.Devoted to her artmaking, Phelps asked advice of Dorothy Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Miller referred Phelps to the GalerieSt. Etienne, whose director, Otto Kallir, had promoted the career of Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known as Grandma Moses. Kallir exhibited Phelps’s paintings, as did several other New York galleries.