Tait, Agnes (c. 1897–1981)

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Tait, Agnes (c. 1897–1981)

American artist. Name variations: Mrs. William Mc-Nulty. Born around 1897 (some sources cite 1894) in Greenwich Village in New York City; died in 1981 in Santa Fe, New Mexico; educated at the National Academy of Design; married William McNulty (a journalist), in 1933.

Noted for decorative panels; active in a number of Depression-era federal art programs, for which she executed mural paintings and created Skating in Central Park; selected to exhibit at the New York World's Fair (1939); later turned to printmaking and illustrating children's books.

Born in Greenwich Village around 1897, Agnes Tait studied with Charles Hinton, Francis Jones, and Leon Kroll at the National Academy of Design in New York City. She initially distinguished herself as a creator of decorative panels of intricate friezes depicting trees with animals or flowers. In 1930, the United Fruit Company provided her with a grant to paint tropical scenes and portraits of Jamaicans and Haitians. Two years later, Florenz Ziegfeld commissioned her to paint a series of portraits of the cast of the Ziegfeld Follies. She had frequent exhibitions in New York until the beginning of the Great Depression, when she became involved in many of the art programs funded by the federal government as part of the New Deal.

In 1933, she married journalist William Mc-Nulty and that winter worked as an easel painter for the New York Public Works Art Project, where she executed one of her most well-known paintings, Skating in Central Park (1934). The work reflects many of the trends in art of this time, note Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin. It has strong aspects of Tait's decorative style plus elements of the abstract. Bare tree limbs are silhouetted against the snow and sky while flattened figures circle the canvas. The strong patterns of the painting reflect what would become the American mural movement, which evolved out of the many relief projects for artists during the Depression and was made particularly famous by Thomas Hart Benton. According to Sutherland and Nochlin, the painting also reflects the new American primitive school of art in its inclusion of iconographic figures and its emphasis on placing American art and life in a historical context. The painting was eventually displayed in the Department of Labor building.

A member of the WPA's Federal Art Project, in 1937 Tait began to collaborate on the murals that decorate Bellevue Hospital. As well, Olive Grove, Mallorca, a decorative work of animals and figures in a landscape of trees, was selected for the Gallery of American Art Today at the New York World's Fair in 1939. In 1941, she received a commission to paint a mural frieze, Fruits of the Land, in the lobby of the U.S. Post Office in Laurinsburg, North Carolina.

After World War II, Tait moved to an artists' colony in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she became interested in printmaking and the illustration of children's books. She illustrated Peter and Penny of the Island (1941), Johanna Spyri 's Heidi (c. 1950) and Paco's Miracle (1961), among others. Tait died in Santa Fe in 1981.


Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts

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