Philip Evergood attributed his deep-seated rebelliousness and his bottomless sympathy for the downtrodden to the legacy of his parents. The artist’s father, Meyer Evergood Blashki, later Miles Evergood (1871–1939) was born in Melbourne, Australia, into a striving and respected Jewish Orthodox family. Evergood’s mother, Flora Jane Perry (1872–1927), a well-educated, cultured daughter of a wealthy London merchant with significant Australian business interests, was the granddaughter of a Church of English clergyman. Prior to her marriage, she had studied art, music, and Eastern Philosophy.
The result of this union, Philip Howard Francis Dixon Blashki, who became the artist Philip Evergood was, intentionally, a hard man to pin down and an outsider in every aspect of his life. There is no defining Evergood style, and while many adjectives are applicable to the man, the two that most consistently fit are passionate and compassionate. Shortly after their marriage, the Blashkis moved to New York City where Meyer intended to pursue his career as a painter. The newlyweds had a small regular income, settled on Flora Blashki by her father who (quite accurately) never expected his artist son-in-law to earn a decent living. Philip, the couple’s first and only child, was born in New York in 1901. He began his formal education in 1907 at the progressive Ethical Culture School on Central Park West. In 1909, after a vacation in England with his mother and her family, the Blashkis agreed to accept the Perrys’ offer to finance a proper English education for the boy. Philip spent an unhappy few years at boarding schools. In 1914, Miles Blashki, back in England, legally changed the family name to Evergood.
Upon his return to the United States Evergood enrolled at the Art Students League, where he took classes with George Luks. In 1924, he went back in Europe, this time to Paris where he enrolled briefly at the Académie Julian and then studied with André Lhote. In 1926, Evergood learned that his mother was seriously ill in New York. Though he had been traveling on a British passport, he contacted the U.S. State Department and arranged to claim his birthright American citizenship. Evergood’s relationship with his father had been stormy, the meeting of two volatile personalities. He was devoted to his mother and was with her in New York when she died in 1927.
In 1927, shortly after his mother’s death, Evergood had a well-reviewed show of paintings and etchings and, in 1929, a second one-man show at the Montross Gallery. That same year, leaving behind a failed romance, he sailed for Paris where he took a studio and studied engraving at Atelier 17 with Stanleyu William Hayter. He also resumed a relationship with Julia Cross, an American dancer whom he had first met in Paris in 1925. In 1931 the two of them went to Spain where Evergood studied the work of El Greco, Velasquez, and Goya. Cross returned to America and Evergood followed. In August 1931, they were married at the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village.
In the 1930s Evergood made a place for himself in the artists’ community of downtown Manhattan, assembling a wide circle of friends and acquaintances including John and Dolly Sloan, Ben Shahn, Hugo Gellert, Reginald Marsh, Chaim Gross, Yasuo Kinuyoshi, and Moses Soyer. In 1932, he had an experience which affected him deeply.
On a cold winter night ... I went out for a walk down Christopher Street towards the North [Hudson] River. It was about ten o’clock. I passed the post office and the government building at the end of the street and came to a big empty lot with about fifty little shacks on it, all made out of old tin cans, crates, orange boxes, mattresses for roofs. Most of them were not even as tall as a man, you would have to crawl in on hands and knees. Snow was on the ground, a fire was lit, and a group of Negroes and white men were huddled around the fire. These were the outcasts of New York, the outcasts of civilization. The only food they had was from garbage cans, the only fire they had was from sticks they picked up around the wharves.
I went over to the fire and talked to them. They didn’t seem to resent me and I felt that they were all very cold so I went through my pockets and brought out two or three dollars and told them to go and get some [illegal] gin. They bought a big bottle and all had a drink and warmed themselves up. We sat around the fire and talked. They couldn’t call themselves by ordinary names—Old Foot was one. Terrapin was another. They were interesting people, but their tragedy hit me between the eyes because I had never been as close to anything like that before. Then I got a brain wave. It seemed to me that I should be involved in my work with this kind of thing. So I walked to 49 Seventh Avenue where we lived then and got some drawing materials and came back and sat with them all night until dawn. I used some of those drawings later for paintings I did on the WPA.
Forever after, Evergood understood painting as his means of engaging the world around him. The 1930s were a decade of activism, and activism suited Evergood’s temperament. He took a prominent role in artists’ organizations as an advocate and as a demonstrator. The 1930s also saw Evergood begin to achieve critical recognition for his art. In 1931, he had a small one-man show at the Balzac Galleries in New York. In 1932, he was among a group of artists invited to participate in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Murals by American Painters and Photographers. The other artists in the show, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Charles Sheeler, and Ben Shahn, among others, were largely a circle of friends and acquaintances from the downtown artists’ community. In 1934, Evergood exhibited Art on the Beach at the Second Biennial of the Whitney Museum of Art, beginning a long association with the museum. The Whitney has eleven works by Evergood in its permanent collection, including American Tragedy (1937). Evergood’s initial relationship with the Whitney was brokered by John Sloan. The Sloans and the Evergoods became close friends when Dolly Sloan and Julia Evergood both worked in the early 1930s for the Gallery of American Indian Art.
In 1936 Evergood won a commission from the mural section of the Works Progress Association (WPA) to paint a mural for the U.S. Post Office in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York. In 1937, Evergood was elected a member of the National Society of Mural Painters. The Post Office mural in Queens was followed by a second commission for the Post Office in Jackson, Georgia. When Evergood completed Cotton from Field to Mill in 1938, he and Julia drove 900 miles to Jackson to oversee its installation.
In 1940 Evergood accepted an artist in residence position at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, funded as an artist’s grant by the Carnegie Foundation in Pittsburgh. Kalamazoo proved an uncongenial fit for both Evergood and his dancer wife. They spent the Fall and Spring semesters of 1940–41 in Kalamazoo before returning to Cape Cod for summer vacation in 1941. Evergood continued to be active through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Though he had never been a member of the Communist Party, he predictably refused to answer questions when called before a Congressional Committee in 1952. While Evergood never gave up his political concerns, his later work incorporated some of the techniques of surrealism. He was by nature a contrarian, approaching a marketable style and then reliably drawing back to never give the purchasing public what it might want.