“With any painting, I’ve got to make the eye work. It’s got to go in there and come back and keep going around and enjoying itself. And not get lost or bored, because then your reaction will be, ‘I’ve seen the painting and there’s nothing else in it to see’.”
Frederick McDuff was born in Birmingham, Alabama of Scots-Irish ancestry on October 20, 1931. Known as the “Heart of Dixie”, Alabama was traditionally rural and agricultural, a cotton producing state, and McDuff himself remembered it and his childhood fondly as a place where the people had a quiet appreciation for each other – peaceful and not dramatic. Although he had only one sister, his family was large and close-knit, his father being one of seventeen children
His father died suddenly when McDuff was only four, and as he grew, he began to paint and draw, finding in art an outlet for his feelings and observations. According to McDuff himself, his decision to become an artist goes back to a movie theater he visited in his youth. He was enthralled by the colors and impact of Walt Disney’s Snow White, and he began to develop paintings as the old-time animators did their cells: by layering the colors and elements of the composition.
Looking at his tranquil beach scenes, parks and landscapes, this “layering” becomes clear. His works are constructed along planes, beginning with large expanses of sky in the beach scenes, a middle ground populated with gracious, serene figures, and a foreground that seems to place the viewers at the edge of the composition as if we are passive participants. McDuff’s subjects are bathed in a soft light that obscures the hard lines their figures, and allows our imagination to feel the warmth of the sun and the touch of the gentle breezes that animate their cloaks.
A true contemporary American Impressionist, McDuff was largely self-taught. From 1952 to 1954 he was stationed with the U.S. Army near Heidelberg, Germany, an experience he felt was important to his artistic development not only because it “got [him] out of Birmingham and showed [him] what was going on,” but also because it gave him a taste for the beautiful countryside, and started his passion for regularly visiting art collections and museums. After his discharge he attended the Art Students League in New York briefly, but spent more hours – sometimes daily – exploring the works of 17th and 18th century French, English and Italian landscape painters, as well as impressionists including Corot, Pissaro, Monet and Boudin, hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Painting from memory, and even doing copy work in the museum, he absorbed the basics of painting and structure, analyzing all that he saw. He was also able to travel to France throughout his lifetime, sketching the beaches of the Brittany coast, parks in Paris, Monet’s house and garden in Giverny, all serving as inspiration for paintings he would later produce. According to McDuff, “Remembered reality is an endless source of inspiration.”
American Impressionism began to come into its own in the late 19th century, at a time when American collectors began to value the style of French Impressionists, and appreciate their depictions of every-day middle class life, through the use of natural light and flickering brushstrokes. As demand grew, American artists began to accept Impressionism as a valid style, and some of America’s greatest artists emerged, among them William Merritt Chase. McDuff’s trademark Victorian beach scenes of the Brittany coast decades later are deeply evocative of Chase’s sublime vignettes depicting Shinnecock Hills and Southampton on the south shore of Long Island, and embody a similar ethereal calmness and unity with nature.
In the early 1960s, McDuff moved from New York to Washington DC, where he remained until his death in 2011. While there, he became part of the “Art in Embassies” program, and the U.S. State Department purchased his works for American Embassies in Paris and La Paz, as well as for the State Department in Washington DC. He was also honored to have two of his paintings hanging in the White House, in the private living quarters of former-President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Today his works are in the private collections of Ethel Kennedy and Burt Reynolds, as well as in many private and corporate collections from the U.S. through England, France, Kuwait, Italy and Japan.
Throughout his career, from his simple beginnings as a sensitive child and self-taught artist, to his position as one of America’s foremost contemporary impressionists, Frederick McDuff has demonstrated his unmatched ability to evoke past eras and imbue sublimely calm moments with emotions that resonate with an honesty and humility that echo his own fondness for the tranquility he knew in Birmingham. He once avowed that his goal as an artist was “just to do something pleasant and make people happy.” It is clear that he has been successful in achieving this goal. His obituary, published in The Birmingham News on November 2, 2011 states in part, simply, “Mr. McDuff was a well-known impressionistic artist who left this world a more beautiful one.”
Since the 1970s, Frederick McDuff has been represented exclusively by the Wally Findlay Galleries in New York and Palm Beach.