Orville Bulman, a self-taught mid-twentieth-century modern artist, was born in 1904 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While helping his father run the company, Bulman’s true artistic calling was too loud for him to ignore. After devoting himself to the corporation in the twenties and thirties, he exhibited at New York’s Society of Independent Artist in 1937 and for a short time around 1948 exhibited with Woodstock Art Colony. In the late 1940’s he was painting New York City social realist paintings as well as dark, haunting pictures of old barns and churches.
Bulman’s life in Palm Beach, Florida, began around 1946 when he, after sustaining recurring injuries to his neck, began to spend the winters in that small affluent town. Although he was in traction intermittently for eight years, he was still able to paint, and he took advantage of being away from the company to devote himself to his art. He adopted Palm Beach as his second home, exhibited frequent one-man shows at the renowned Worth Avenue Gallery, and traveled extensively throughout Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama to paint African American inspired genre scenes. These poignant parties of the segregated south (especially the Florida scenes) brought national attention to his art.
During the early 1950s, while painting regionalist scenes of American country and southern life, Bulman happened to see pictures of Haiti and admired the island’s style, verve and gracefully trimmed houses with lacy appliqué carved wood. Painting seven imaginative works inspired by photographs, he subsequently visited Haiti for the first time in March of 1952 and traveled to other Caribbean islands during the 1950s as well. Bulman loved Haiti and its people and felt that they were the best inspiration for further work. He lived with the islanders in the rustic hills for a time and felt like he was a part of their village, deeply experiencing their religion, humor, and lifestyle and respecting their way of life far better than other Americans. The Haitians loved his art and encouraged him to continue creating his whimsical scenes of elegant women and men and playful children.
Newsweek featured two Bulman paintings in 1952, one depicting a colorful Haitian open-air bus bursting at the seams with people, and the other a Florida inspired scene of a young African American man on the beach. That year Bulman was invited to show at the prestigious Madison Art Association, and in 1953 he was featured in Life Magazine.
Bulman continued to maintain a winter home in Palm Beach and a summer home in Grand Rapids until he died, and it was in these home studios where he was to create more and more colorful and fantastical paintings. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, his popularity burgeoned throughout Palm Beach, New York, California, and the Midwest and Europe. He became the darling of society and Hollywood, consistently selling out one-man shows in venues throughout the United States and Europe. The Duchess of Windsor and Marjorie Merewether Post became collectors of his works, as well as President Gerald Ford and Robert F. Kennedy, who also owned Bulman paintings.
The inspiration of Bulman’s “jungle paintings” of the 1960s and 1970s was the work of Henri Rousseau, old master paintings, along with the lush foliage and tropical scenery of his Manalapan, Florida home. The islanders in Bulman’s world became princesses and duchesses, kings and queens.
By 1977 Bulman had exhibited in 41 one-man shows and sold over 2,000 paintings. He died on January 4, 1978.
In his own words, Bulman’s art was created because, “When I first started to paint years ago, there was so much sadness, strife, and outright mayhem in work back then that I decided to bring, if I could, some laughter into painting.” In the present day, we remain sorely in need of Bulman’s fabulous art. Indeed, in today’s stressful and brutal world, his paintings raise our spirits and the true ambition of the artist remains whole realized: “To bring more color and happiness to more patrons than any artist before me.”