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William Bailey enjoyed a highly successful career as a painter of dream-like, meticulously rendered still lifes. His ability to elevate a simple arrangement of everyday objects to a mystical level––through minimalist designs, structured forms, appealing color harmonies, and of course, his virtuoso draftsmanship––took his work beyond mere representationalism. While still life subjects remained Bailey’s primary creative endeavor, he also applied his brush to enigmatic depictions of the female figure. Bailey was also an influential teacher: during his lengthy tenure at Yale University’s School of Art, he set an important example for a younger generation of painters that included John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage.

Bailey was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the son of Willard Bailey, an ad salesman for radio stations, and his wife Marjorie. While growing up in various cities throughout the Midwest, he developed a love of drawing. Bailey went on to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Kansas from 1948 to 1951, after which he joined the United States Army, serving as a platoon sergeant in Korea and Japan until 1953. Returning to the United States, he enrolled at the Yale University School of Art, receiving his B.F.A. in 1955 and an M.F.A. two years later. During his years at Yale, Bailey studied painting with Joseph Albers, whose philosophy, outlook, and his exploration of the interaction of color influenced his own developing aesthetic. 

While Bailey was very much aware of popularity of Abstract Expressionism, as well as the rise of Pop Art, Minimalism, and other movements of the day, he ultimately decided to pursue a different artistic path. Inspired by the classicism of European masters such as Piero della Francesca and Jean-Dominique Ingres and the architectonic qualities of Greek sculpture. Bailey went on to evolve a precise representational style which he applied to groupings of humble everyday objects, ranging from teacups, bowls, and pitchers to candlesticks, vases, and eggs, resting on plain wooden tables and set against an unadorned backdrop, as in works such as Still Life––Table with Ochre Wall (1972: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut). Lauded for their timeless quality, their aura of quietude, and their artful manipulation of light and shadow, Bailey’s still lifes have often been compared to those of Giorgio Morandi, who likewise portrayed domestic utensils against empty backgrounds. However, unlike Morandi, Bailey adhered to a hard-edged style, treating form and color in an entirely different way. Most importantly, his arrangements were never “composed” in the traditional sense; rather, they originated from within.

Bailey painted his contemplative still lifes in his studios in New Haven and in Umbertide, Italy, where he spent his summers. His first one-man show, held at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont in 1956 was followed by a multitude of solo exhibitions at museums and galleries throughout the United States, as well as in Rome, Milan, and Paris. In 1968, Bailey joined the stable of artists associated with the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery in New York, where he had one-man shows in 1968, 1971, 1974, 1979, 1982, 1986, and 1991. After 2005, he was represented by the Betty Cunningham Gallery. Bailey’s work has also been included in important group shows devoted to American realism, figurative art, still-life painting, and contemporary drawing. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, including several honorary doctorates, Bailey taught drawing and painting classes at Yale from 1957 until 1962, when he took up teaching duties at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1969, he returned to Yale, going on to serve as the Dean of the School of Art (1975–76), the Kingman Brewster Professor of Art (1979–95), and the Kingman Brewster Professor of Art Emeritus (1995–2020). One of the most celebrated artists affiliated with Yale’s studio art program, a major retrospective exhibition of his oeuvre, William Bailey: Looking Through Time, was held at the Yale University Art Gallery during 2019–20. Bailey passed away shortly thereafter at his residence in Branford, Connecticut.

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