Sage, Kay (1898–1963)

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Sage, Kay (1898–1963)

American painter whose works embodied an elegant and refined form of Surrealism. Name variations: Katherine Linn Sage; Katherine Sage Tanguy; K. di San Faustino or Kay di San Faustino; Princess di San Faustino. Born Katherine Linn Sage in Albany, New York, on June 25, 1898; died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on January 8, 1963, in Woodbury, Connecticut; daughter of Henry Manning Sage (heir to an industrial fortune and a member of the New York Legislature) and Anne Wheeler (Ward) Sage (daughter of an Albany physician); educated at various girls' schools including Brearley and Foxcroft in the United States as well as in Europe, 1908–15; attended Corcoran Art School, 1919–20; attended Italian art schools in Rome and private study with individual artists, 1920–23; married Prince Ranieri di San Faustino, in 1925 (divorced, marriage annulled by Catholic Church, 1935); married Yves Tanguy, in 1940 (died 1955).

Parents divorced (1908); worked as a government censor during World War I (1917–18); had first solo exhibit (1936); moved to Paris (1937); attended International Surrealist Exhibit in Paris and held her first exhibit there (1938); returned to the U.S. to live (1939); had first solo exhibit there (1940); moved to Woodbury, Connecticut (1941); won Watson F. Blair Purchase Prize at Art Institute of Chicago (1945); exhibited work at Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York City (1950); made first postwar trip back to Europe (1953); eyesight began to fail (1958); made first suicide attempt (1959); first full-scale retrospective showing of her work (1960).

Major works:

Monolith (Albany Institute of History and Art, 1937); Egg on Sill (Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, 1939); Danger, Construction Ahead (Yale University Art Gallery, 1940); I Saw Three Cities (The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J., 1944); The Unicorns Came Down to the Sea (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1948); This is Another Day (Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1949); Tomorrow is Never (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1955).

Katherine Linn Sage was an American heiress and socialite who transformed herself into a major figure in the art world of the mid-20th century. Although she enjoyed the benefits of inherited wealth throughout her life, she abandoned the role of social dilettante, as well as her marriage to her first husband, an Italian noble, in 1935 to become a serious artist. Upon moving to Paris, the center of the European art world, in 1937, she took the name Kay Sage and quickly came under the influence of such Surrealist painters as André Breton and her future husband Yves Tanguy.

Despite the unwillingness of most Surrealist painters to take a woman colleague seriously, Sage managed to enter the Surrealist circle and to learn from the leaders of the movement while developing her own unique style. Her close relationship and eventual marriage to Tanguy served for a long period to put her achievements in his shadow. Nonetheless, in the years after 1940 when she had relocated to her home country of the United States, and especially from 1946 onward, she began to produce paintings of striking originality which won her a considerable degree of recognition. Her work is distinguished from that of many of her fellow Surrealists by the lack of living creatures and the absence of any attempt to tell a complex narrative. Instead, she created an eerie world of geometric shapes, draperies, and lattices. Feminist art critics like Whitney Chadwick , working in the last several decades, have promoted recognition of Sage as a major artist who was long overshadowed by the males who dominated Surrealism.

Sage made no concessions to critics and buyers who might have been uncomfortable with her grim visions. Many critics such as Elizabeth Martin and Vivian Meyer have commented on the painter's longtime use of a dark palette, "the haunting air of melancholy and unease which pervades much of her work." For Chadwick, Sage's works were "barren vistas stripped of human habitation." Moreover, she gave no hint of the mind-set that directed her work. Of her own gripping images, Sage noted, "There is no reason why anything should mean more than its own statement." Nonetheless, some viewers found her achievement noteworthy. As critic James Thrall Soby put it, Sage's art "creates its own silence: lovely, serene, and memorable."

Kay Sage was also a talented writer. Fluent in three languages—a result of spending much of her childhood and early adult years in Europe—she could write verse in French and Italian as well as in English. In the final years of her life, she found her work as a painter hindered by her deteriorating eyesight. As a consequence she turned her creative efforts toward poetry.

The Surrealist movement in which Sage claimed a position flourished in Europe during the period between World War I and World War II. Surrealist art reflected the shock that World War I had brought to European life and to the sensibilities of European artists. It sought, for example, to combine unlikely groups of images in order to open the door to the subconscious mind. When World War II made France a dangerous and inhospitable place for such artists, approximately a dozen major Surrealists took refuge in the United States. Many critics contend that the American art world that was just departing from the socialist realism of the 1930s took crucial inspiration from the Surrealist refugees. "It is incontrovertible that not only was there a new mode of painting developing in New York," notes Martica Sawin , "it was emerging among those artists who had the greatest amount of contact with the Surrealist emigrés." Sage's earlier relationship with the Surrealist movement in Paris in the late 1930s, and the inspiration she drew from the Surrealist circle, was an early harbinger of this wave of artistic cross-fertilization.

Katherine Linn Sage was born into a family of wealth and privilege on June 25, 1898, in Albany, New York. She was the daughter of Henry Manning Sage and Anne Ward Sage . Her father's family had passed on to him a fortune based on lumber and real estate, and, at the time of Katherine's birth, Henry Sage was already a rising Republican member of the New York State Legislature. Henry and Anne Sage had a troubled marriage, with Anne unwilling to devote herself to the duties expected from a socially prominent politician's wife. The two effectively separated when Katherine and her sister were young, and the marriage came to a formal end in 1908. By then Katherine and her mother, sometimes accompanied by Katherine's sister, had begun to spend most of their time traveling in Europe. Rapallo, a seaport and winter resort in Italy, was a favorite residence for the females of the Sage family, and, for Katherine, after visits to her father, returning to Rapallo "seemed like going home."

Sage's adolescence was marked by her unusual family situation, her extensive travel, and the absence of any stability in her education. She attended a handful of private girls' schools in both the United States and Europe between 1908 and 1915. These years gave the young woman both a taste for solitude and, paradoxically, a veneer of social sophistication. One cousin described her as having "the essence of elegance, cosmopolitan glamour and savoir faire." Her talent for languages became evident as her residence in several foreign countries made her completely at home in French and Italian. Among her intimates, she enjoyed showing off her skill in using both the language of the educated and the coarser forms of popular speech. But Sage exhibited other talents as well. Even as a young child, the future artist showed an interest in painting.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 pushed the Sage women to return to the United States. In 1917 and 1918, Katherine used her linguistic talents to work in the U.S. Government Censorship Office in New York. A shadowy wartime love affair with an older man made her reluctant to accompany her mother back to Europe, and, with the onset of peace, she spent some time at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1920, Sage returned to Europe, where she spent the next two decades of her life. To her family, Katherine's interest in art still seemed the dilettantish desire of a wealthy young woman with time on her hands, but a testimony to the seriousness of her attraction to painting was evident when she continued her art studies in Italy in the early years of the 1920s. Her paintings from this period showed some talent, but they were conventional pieces such as portraits of young girls. Notes her biographer Judith Suther , these works differ in every respect—"subject matter, mood, and technique"—from her mature efforts after 1940. Sage subsequently dismissed the significance not only of her early works but of the teachers who had provided her with the technical tools she would subsequently employ. As she grew older, she contended that she was a self-taught artist.

In Suther's words, Sage spent "the aimless years" of her life from the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s as the wife of an Italian aristocrat, Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. They met in 1923 and were married, first in a civil ceremony on March 30, 1925, then in a religious wedding the following day. Although she continued to paint for a time, her social life as an Italian princess soon pushed her active work as an artist aside. Her husband held a variety of nebulous and undemanding positions mainly arranged for him by Henry Sage, his father-in-law, and other members of his family. The young socialite couple traveled extensively.

The decade of her marriage saw Sage grow increasingly restless with both her aimless existence and her charming but unambitious husband. The death of close relatives—her father in 1933 and her sister the following year—may have focused her discontent and motivated her to make a sharp turn in her life. Another factor may have been her acquaintance with the American poet Ezra Pound. The two met frequently to discuss their shared interest in the arts.

Sage's emergence as a serious and ambitious artist came in December 1936, when she put on display six oil paintings at a Milan art gallery. These works were, in Suther's words, "experimental abstract compositions." Another mark of her new sense of purpose was her decision to move to Paris, the artistic capital of the Continent. The Parisian art world had always intimidated her, but she apparently now felt ready to make an attempt to join it. She had an amicable separation from Ranieri and agreed, so that he could remarry, to let him end their marriage via a papal annulment.

In Paris, Sage's wealth allowed her to set herself up in style in early 1937 in one of the city's most glamorous neighborhoods. One year later, she received a lasting influence on her career as a painter when she attended the International Surrealist Exhibit in the early months of 1938. Although Sage had already encountered Surrealist art during a visit to Paris in 1936, Suther calls the 1938 exhibit "the catalyst that fired her imagination." She now abandoned any ties to traditional painting and plunged feverishly into the new style. In the fall of 1938, she exhibited six of her paintings, of which five drew heavily on Surrealist techniques. At approximately this time Sage first encountered Yves Tanguy, a merchant sailor turned Surrealist painter with whom she quickly fell in love.

Sage's view of herself as a Surrealist painter did not gain her easy entry into Surrealist circles. These were filled with resolutely masculine artists like André Breton who offered no welcome to female colleagues, despite the fact that Breton had been impressed by her exhibition in the fall of 1938. Her financial independence probably combined with her fiery desire to become a serious artist to help her shrug off the half-hostile, half-indifferent response she evoked. Her entry into the world of Surrealist artists was eased somewhat through her romantic link with Tanguy. Nonetheless, some of Tanguy's established friendships, notably the one with André Breton, came under strain as he turned his attention to Sage. In addition, her wealth and her aristocratic bearing and title grated on the nerves of Surrealists who were both poor and openly contemptuous of the gap between Europe's social classes. Although she provided them with money in time of need and helped several to reach the United States after the outbreak of World War II, Sage was viewed with distrust and often open dislike.

Sage progressed swiftly as a painter in the last years of the 1930s. Her contact with the Surrealists between 1937 and 1939 saw her stimulated as never before. As war approached in the summer of 1939, she was silent about her reactions to the growing political crisis. An American citizen, she was free to return to the United States as the conflict started to involve Europe. It was her social status and high-level connections, however, that helped her to bring Tanguy along with her. She left in October 1939, and Tanguy, freed from French military service on medical grounds, followed a month later. Back home, she continued to display a solid indifference to the great political events transpiring except as they affected Surrealist art and her acquaintances among the circle of Surrealist artists.

The time in Paris provided the groundwork for an outburst of creativity that appeared when she was back on American soil. In those earlier years, notes Suther, "she had been painting steadily, preparing the way for the distinctive Surrealist style that emerged in her pictures from the 1940s." Sage participated in a number of shows of Surrealist art, most of them greeted

without enthusiasm by American art critics unfamiliar with the Surrealist movement. But she was determined to build a personal reputation as a painter. Her first one-woman show in the United States—in which she displayed seventeen paintings done in the past three years—took place in June 1940 at the Matisse Gallery in New York City.

A crucial painting in this initial exhibit was Danger, Construction, completed in 1940. It seemed to show a prehistoric landscape combined with rock formations and a group of the "sentinel figures" that would become one of her chief artistic motifs. Critics took due note of her social prominence by referring to her as "princess," but they also perceived the power of her pictures' dream-like quality while noting that she was not as obscure or frightening as her fellow Surrealists. An American surrealist with an accessible style may have had a particular appeal in an artistic venue that had never embraced the movement. The exiled Surrealists newly transplanted to New York, writes Dickran Tashjian, "merely heightened the cultural ambivalence felt by many American artists and writers toward the European avant-garde now in their midst."

With her first marriage severed by both church annulment and civil divorce, Sage formalized her longtime love affair with Yves Tanguy by marrying him in August 1940. In November 1941, the two moved to the small town of Woodbury, Connecticut, and, four years later, decided to make it their permanent home. A traditional artists' colony, Woodbury was removed from the immediate frenzy of New York City's artistic scene. In particular, it distanced her from immediate contact with many of the exiled Surrealists such as André Breton who rewarded her generosity with surliness. With Kay's fortune available to them, she and Yves were able in 1946 to establish themselves in a comfortable home on the northern fringe of Woodbury, using the barn to provide them with a set of studios for their work. Ironically, their house was the former poor farm for 19th-century Woodbury's residents. One of the couple's favorite recreations was holding informal shooting matches for their friends, using the extensive set of guns Tanguy collected at their home.

Sage's painting became even more striking by the mid-1940s, even as critics continued to refer to her primarily as the wife of Yves Tanguy. I Saw Three Cities, completed in 1944, featured a particularly dominant "sentinel figure" towering over sail-like vertical slabs. Her use of color employed intense greens and bright reds in marked contrast to the grays, greens, and browns that had been featured in her earlier work. Shadows also came to play an increasingly important role in the imagined world she was busy exploring. It is possible that she deliberately made her figures less and less organic in order to draw a clear line between her work and her husband's. Ironically, Sawin suggests that the sharper focus and brighter colors in Tanguy's own work at this time may have come from his close contact with Kay Sage and "the decisive shapes, sharp edges, and strong light of her paintings."

A breakthrough in the range of acceptance for Sage's work came in 1945 when she won a prize from the Art Institute of Chicago. She now regularly received invitations to participate in national exhibits in locations ranging from the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A new motif in her work—along with shadows and sentinel figures—was scaffolding and latticework. Since the house at Woodbury was undergoing extensive renovation at this time, the new forms came apparently from the practical side of Sage's life. On the other hand, as Suther notes, they may represent "the inner reconstruction Sage had begun upon leaving Rapallo" in the mid-1930s.

Their small circle of friends remarked on the strong personal differences between Sage and her husband. She struck most of those who met her as a chilly, remote figure who still carried herself with the airs of an American heiress and an Italian princess. Yves Tanguy, on the other hand, was often a drunken buffoon whose party behavior included butting his head against those of his guests in order to see whose was harder. His behavior in public often included openly insulting his wife. In a more discreet way, Sage also engaged in heavy drinking while they lived together in Connecticut. The strains on her personality may have come from the fact that their friends and acquaintances still saw him as the more significant artist.

For some students of her work, Sage reached artistic maturity with her 1950 exhibit at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York. By then, the troublesome set of European Surrealists had returned home and thus freed her energies to concentrate on her easel. Her works now showed a new level of refinement and elaboration of earlier themes such as drapery and latticework. Sage's style increasingly focused on perfecting her earlier techniques. She rejected the practice of the European Surrealists in conducting an endless round of casting off old motifs and restlessly seeking new ones.

By the early 1950s, New York critics increasingly lauded Sage's work. Moreover, they did so without the backhanded compliments of earlier years in which they had characterized her work as an accessible and elegant form of Surrealism. In 1952, for example, The New York Times did not even mention Surrealism in remarking upon "the dream world that she both creates and renders on canvas with encyclopedic fidelity." Nonetheless, positive judgments of Sage's work were often laced with remarks about its chilly and intellectualized character.

Sage's life took a decisive turn downward in January 1955 when Tanguy suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. His health had been precarious for years, and in 1953 he was found to be suffering from a stomach ulcer and high blood pressure. Kay Sage's efforts to wean him away from hard liquor seemed to have some success, but he apparently never made an effective recovery. Her husband's death sent her into years of despair that cut off her career as a painter. Notes Sawin, she "stayed on in the house she and Tanguy had shared, increasingly lonely, depressed and alcoholic." Her work as a painter continued, but she mainly repeated the motifs she had established in the previous decade and a half. Her works now bore somber titles far different from the playful ones she had favored before, e.g. For the Wind to Tear, The Circle Never Sleeps, Tomorrow is Never.

Sage's talents as a writer had been evident as early as her teenage years. During her first marriage, when it had been difficult for her to paint, she apparently turned most of her creative energy to poetry; none has survived. There is some evidence that she wrote poetry during the late 1930s when she was beginning her career as a Surrealist painter. In the 1940s, she continued to produce a trickle of what Suther calls "laconic rhymes" to reflect her inner feelings. Now, in the aftermath of Tanguy's death, she turned increasingly away from painting, impelled in part by the fact that her eyesight was growing weaker. In 1955, she put together a record of her life in an imaginatively constructed autobiography that she called China Eggs. In 1958, in another concession to her eyesight problems, she began producing collages.

By the late 1950s, Sage was in the grip of unmanageable depression. After pondering the possibility of ending her life for several years, she made an unsuccessful suicide attempt with sleeping pills in early 1959. Surgery later that year and again in June 1960 failed to improve her eyesight, and her success in publishing poetry—several volumes appeared written in Sage's fluent French—did not lift her spirits. Even a showing of her paintings at the Viviano Gallery in April 1960—the first complete retrospective of her work—and the uniformly favorable notices it received made no permanent impression on her failing spirits. Perhaps addled by alcohol, she suffered a damaging fall in her home in late 1960. Then on January 8, 1963, in the home in Woodbury, where she had remained after her husband's death, she used a gun to end her life.


Caws, Mary Ann, et al., eds. Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

——. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames & Hudson, 1985.

Martin, Elizabeth, and Vivian Meyer. Female Gazes: Seventy-Five Women Artists. Toronto: Second Story Press, 1997.

Sawin, Martica. Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Suther, Judith D. A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Tashjian, Dickran. A Boatload of Madmen: Surrealism and the American Avant-garde, 1920–1950. NY: Thames & Hudson, 1995.

suggested reading:

Chadwick, Whitney, and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership. NY: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Dunford, Penny. A Biographical Dictionary of Women Artists in Europe and America since 1850. NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990.

Fine, Elsa Honig. Women and Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld and Schram, 1978.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California