Mayhew, Richard 1924–

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Richard Mayhew 1924


Came From Heritage of Nature Lore

Influenced by New York and Europe

Joined in the Civil Rights Movement

Painted the Spirit in Landscape


An acclaimed painter of expressionists landscapes, Richard Mayhew is particularly admired for his exploration of the use of color. Inspired by the natural environment, Mayhew uses color, space, and form to express what he has called a universal space with the illusion of time. Mayhew told American Visions writer Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins that My art is based on a feeling of music and mood and sensitivity and the audio responses of sound and space. I want the essence of the inner soul to be on the canvas.

Came From Heritage of Nature Lore

Mayhews love of nature was part of his family heritage. He was born on April 3, 1924, in Amityville, New York. His father, Alvin Mayhew, descended from African-American and Shinnecock Indian families. His mother, Lillian Goldman Mayhew, was of Cherokee and African-American descent. From his grandmother, Sarah Steele Mayhew, the young Richard learned what he called the nature lore, ways and attitudes of Native Americans. He also learned to appreciate the water, earth, and sky he saw around him in his native Amityville, a small town on Long Island Sound. Generations earlier, the Shinnecock had ferried runaway slaves across the sound on the Underground Railroad.

Artists from New York City often spent summers in Amityville, and the young Mayhew enjoyed watching them work. He was fascinated by the artists dipping their brushes into the paint like a magic wand and the images coming out on the end of it, he told LeFalle-Collins. So exciting did he find this kind of creative work that Mayhew secretly began experimenting with the paints and brushes that belonged to his father, who had a house and sign painting business. One of the summer artists, James Wilson Peale, appreciated Mayhews talent and began teaching the aspiring painter the basics of drawing and painting. The pair later collaborated on the illustrations for a medical encyclopedia.

Mayhew also spent many hours in museums and galleries, taking day trips into New York City. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he discovered the works of Rembrandt and of the Hudson River school of landscape painters. These became important influences, as did the work of the abstract expressionists. By

At a Glance

Born on April 3, 1924 in Amityville, NY. Education: Art Students League, New York, NY; Brooklyn Museum Art School, 1951; Columbia University; Pratt Institute.

Career: Freelance medical illustrator and professional singer, 1945-50. Brooklyn Museum Art School, instructor of art, 1963-68; Art Students League, instructor, 1965-71; Smith College, instructor, 1971-75. Pennsylvania State University, professor, 1977-91.

Memberships: Spiral Group, founder, 1963-; National Academy of Design.

Awards: MacDowell Colony Fellowship, 1958; John Hay Whitney Fellowship, 1959; Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, 1960; Ford Foundation Purchase Award, 1962; Tiffany Foundation Award, 1963; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1965; Childe Hassam Purchase Award, 1963-1964; Henry Ward Ranger Purchase Prize, 1964; Benjamin Altman Award, 1970; National Academy of Design Merit Award, 1977; Grumbacher Gold Medal, 1983.

Addresses: HomeP.O. Box 7720, Santa Cruz, CA 95061. Agent Alitash Kebede Gallery, 964 North La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038.

1945 Mayhew had moved to New York City, where he looked for jobs as an illustrator.

Influenced by New York and Europe

In addition to frequenting the citys art museums and galleries, Mayhew also visited the New York Academy of Medicine, where he could examine Leonardo da Vincis drawings of the human body. Mayhews careful study of anatomy helped him find work as a medical illustrator. He also provided art for childrens books and for porcelain. In 1951 Mayhew enrolled at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, studying painting with such teachers as Ruben Tarn, Edwin Dickman, Hans Hofmann, Gregorio Prestopino, and Mex Beckman. Mayhew later attended the Art Students League and the Pratt Institute, and earned an art history degree from Columbia University. At the same time, he got jobs singing with jazz combos and performing with theater groups.

Mayhew held his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1955. Two years later he held a second solo show at the Morris Gallery in Greenwich Village. Critics admired his work, particularly his use of color, light and form. Reviews compared Mayhews work to that of Monet and Winslow Homer. After studying at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in 1958, Mayhew was awarded a John Hay Whitney fellowship, which he used to study painting at the Academia in Florence, Italy. He remained in Europe for three years, traveling around the continent to view works of the great masters.

Under the advice of his teachers, Mayhew went to Europe to study. As Mayhew observed to LeFalle-Collins, They told me that being away from my own environment would enable me to be more objective about who I was and where I was. Seeing the works of the French Impressionists, Rembrandt, and the Dutch and Flemish masters, Mayhew explained, helped him to achieve a new level of appreciation. I wasnt copying what they were doing, but I was learning from their color, their design and their composition. I was mesmerized by everything. I was also trying to get a sense of artists who were interpreting their lifestyles at the time, their environments. Later on, this was very good for me, because as a teacher I utilized the idea of the artist as reflective of the social development of the time.

Joined in the Civil Rights Movement

Mayhew was especially drawn to the work of the Impressionists. He studied their use of color, texture, line, and tone, and also explored the dynamics of atmospheric perspective. He received special permission to study in the archives of the Louvre, the Prado, and the Rijksmuseum. He enjoyed the arts culture in Europe, feeling that he had a clear identity there as an artist. When he returned to the United States in 1962, however, he felt more like an outsider in a culture that lacked this artistic tradition.

The early 1960s was a time of profound social unrest. The Civil Rights Movement had begun to challenge the entrenched racism in American culture, and artists joined the cause. Mayhew continued to paint and began teaching art courses at the Brooklyn Museum and the Pratt Institute. At the same time he joined in spirited debates with fellow artists about their role in creating social change. In 1963 Mayhew and several other artists helped to form the Spiral Group, an organization that met weekly to discuss art and political engagement. The group, founded by painters Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, also included Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, James Yeargans, Felrath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, Merton Simpson, Emma Amos, and Reginald Gammon. The groups name refers to the outward and upward movement of the spirala direction the artists hoped they could help their own society to take.

Spiral Group members passionately debated the influence of European artistic models and the path that African-American artists should take in their own work. Though some members chose to reject European themes and forms, Mayhew recognized that Asians, Africans, and Americans all shared elements from European culture. He never adopted the overt symbols of Afrocentrism in his art, but developed a style akin to both landscape painting and abstract expressionism.

Painted the Spirit in Landscape

Mayhew saw his work as a means of expressing the spiritual dimensions of nature. He works from memory, not from sketches of photographs, and created images that do not depend on a precise geographic location. My paintings, he pointed out on his website, are based on improvisational internalized creative experience: I paint the essence of nature, always seeking the unique spiritual mood of the landscape. Mayhew avoided hard shapes and distinct lines; his paintings are characterized by blurred contours with minimal detail. As a writer in St. James Guide to Black Artists noted, Exquisitely balanced forms, often general and summary, are suggested rather than delineated.

The emotive effects of these diffused forms are conveyed largely through color. As LeFalle-Collins observed, Such works are emotional abstractions of physical existence, characterized by subtle tonalities that bring harmony to the elements of the landscape so that they seem to merge into one another. According to Dr. Samella Lewis, quoted on the artists website, Mayhew sums up, rather than represents, nature, changing it as necessary for richness of color and linear grace.

The love of music, too, is evident in Mayhews work. He cites jazz musicians Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor as creative influences. His paintings Vibrato, Sonata in G Major, and Mood Indigo are among many of his paintings that allude directly to music.

Mayhews work has been featured in several solo and group exhibitions in New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Clara. His paintings are represented in the collections of several museums, including the Whitney Museum, the National Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Minnesota Museum of Art. After a long teaching career that included positions at the Pratt Institute, the Art Students League, Smith College, and Hunter College, Mayhew retired as professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University. He moved to Santa Cruz, California, where he continues to paint and to exhibit.



St. James Guide to Black Artists, Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1997.


American Visions, April 2000.

Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2002.


Richard Mayhew Website, (April 15,2003).


Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Richard Mayhew: Spiritual Landscapes video, by Linda Freeman, 2000.

Elizabeth Shostak