Ann Vaughan Leggett’s classical works in new exhibit

"Chili Pepper Still Life Painting," oil on masonite board. — Ann Vaughan Leggett

Ann Vaughan Leggett, who passed away in 2014, left behind a legacy of hundreds of paintings capturing subject matter ranging from Islanders at work to Libyans at prayer to scenes from Japan. She traveled all over the world from her home in Long Island City, New York, and immersed herself in various cultures. Having spent childhood summers on the Vineyard, Leggett returned often and painted scenes around the Island, with a focus on still life and figurative work. The artist was represented on-Island variously by Hermine Merrel Smith Fine Art and the Granary Gallery.

To honor his longtime friend (and sometime employee), Trip Barnes has provided dozens of Leggett’s paintings for an exhibit at the MVTV studios that will hang throughout the month of September. A prodigious artist, Leggett painted in a traditional, classical style with remarkable skill, and a talent for capturing a moment with a sense of immediacy and intimacy. Among the work currently on display are a number of paintings of Barnes, his moving trucks, and his work crew.

“The reason she wasn’t more successful is that she painted stuff that doesn’t sell,” says Barnes. “Workmen moving a mattress, Iranian children smoking cigarettes in front of a tenement. She was a Renoir — a brilliant artist doing crazy stuff.”

Leggett’s interests were diverse. Whatever she chose as a subject, the artist’s passion is clearly in evidence. In some of the paintings from exotic locales, one might imagine that they were done by a master painter from the past.

Leggett was born in New York in 1941, and began a serious study of painting and drawing at an early age. Her first teacher was her mother, Barbara Vaughan Leggett, an accomplished illustrator and sculptor. Leggett was trained at the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied with Frank Mason, a classical realist painter of international repute.

Leggett forged a reputation as an artist both nationally and abroad. The Dougherty Gallery in Long Island City hosted a tribute to the artist in 2015. Daniel James Dougherty wrote about his friend, “Just as Leggett’s subjects present themselves with a singular vivacity, they also evoke the artist’s own enthusiastic life.”

Remembering Ann Vaughan Leggett
By Hermine Hull 

I was so glad to hear about the exhibition of Ann Leggett’s paintings at MVTV. Ann was a dear and longtime friend. She exhibited in my gallery for many years. Her parents, Stan and Barbara, were creative, inspiring, and good friends, too. They were all true Island elite in the art and intellectual world, back when West Tisbury was “the Athens of the Island,” as Polly Murphy memorialized it, all very 1950s-1960s Greenwich Village hip. The Leggetts gave barn parties every summer that were legendary. Rez Williams and Lucy Mitchell live in the house now, and share the barn as their studios.

Ann threw herself completely into whatever attracted her attention, be it social, political, scientific, human in all ways. She would have been at the forefront of the climate change debate. She didn’t merely travel to Mexico or Italy or Libya or Japan; she immersed herself in the culture, became fluent in the language, met and drew and studied and socialized with as many people as she could. She actually lived in Mexico, spent months in other places she traveled to, and was planning to move to Japan before she died. She worked or volunteered at the U.N. for many years. 

Ann was practically an adopted daughter to the family who owned the best Italian restaurant I ever ate at, Manducati’s. They loved her, invited her to visit their family in Italy, had her paintings on the restaurant’s walls, and sent her customers, as they were right across the street from her house.

Her house in Long Island City was a marvel of if-you-need-it-learn-to-do-it-yourself ingenuity. She made and laid parquet floors from whatever scraps of wood she salvaged on her meanderings. When I began visiting Ann, she was in her Libyan phase, and her house was like a Middle Eastern souk, painted in strong yellows and reds, filled with exotic treasures that ended up as props in her still life paintings. There were paintings everywhere. They were hung one over the other, close together, what was called “gallery style.” She welcomed everyone in. There was the offer of a bed if you were staying overnight in the city, or a delicious meal. She was a gracious hostess, and excellent company.

Ann always arrived on the Island in time for the fair. She drove around in whatever old wreck Trippy had available at the moment, spending long days examining every inch of the fairgrounds, every animal, every flower and vegetable in the hall, every ride, every stall, every passerby. She had a photographic memory, and never used a camera — I’m not sure that she even owned one — relying on sketches she made onsite, and her wonderful memory for detail.

She loved Trippy. He was one of her oldest friends, and Barnes Trucking was her home away from home. I think Ann even drove for Trip for awhile. She always had room in Long Island City for Trip or any of his drivers who needed a place to crash. Trip was often portrayed in her work, as himself moving a mattress, a big painting I sold years ago, or as a figure in some tableau of Ann’s imagining. Other Island friends appeared, too, as models in many of her paintings.

Most of Ann’s work was figurative or still life, something different on an Island of landscapes that most of the galleries showed. She did paint landscapes, too, but that was not her artistic focus. She painted in a classical style when most Island art was bright watercolor. Ann had studied at the Art Students League in New York City. Her favorite teacher was Frank Mason, who promoted the use of the dark and viscous Maroger medium that Ann continued to use throughout her painting career. She strongly lit her subjects, giving many of her paintings the look of the Renaissance and later Dutch masters she admired. It was that combination of contemporary subject rendered in a classical way that gave her work a sense of permanence and a contrasting, almost incongruous, quality all mixed into one. 

I have a lasting image of Ann working inside on a rainy day. She would find a box and borrow one of my husband’s work lamps, set it up on our dining room table, put objects in for her still life. Then she would spend the day in intense concentration. A cigarette would droop from her lips. Her eyes never wavered, only moved back and forth between setup and canvas. At the end of the day, she would have a gem of a painting for me to admire.