It is far from unusual for an artist to relate, even if sub-consciously, dramatic events which take place in his life. Those events may take shape in something so obvious as imagery or angry brush strokes or subtle changes in the use of color which aren’t recognized as anything more than a slight variation in style. Art historians have spent years dissecting the lives of artists searching for causes and effects.
In the case of Harold (Hal) McIntosh, a small series of paintings have been found which highlight an artist who early on made a distinguished career in illustration and later on found success as a New England painter of birds and barns. These paintings came from the period of his life which lay in between.
McIntosh was a son of immigrants who, like so many other Scots, made their way to Canada in the early portion of the last century. He grew up in Winnipeg and was gifted enough that he studied at the Winnipeg School of Art with L.L. Fitzgerald, one of the famous Group of Seven known for their paintings of the prairies. But like many other young men, McIntosh was called to serve in the war, and later came home and got a job while he still pursued art. He made his way to New York where he found work as an illustrator. During the early 1950s, McIntosh became known as a master of scratchboard technique and was a mainstay of Norman Cousin’s Saturday Review of Books. His cover art was well known, he was successful and he married.
His success as an illustrator continued but McIntosh always yearned to go back to painting and in 1956, he gave up Manhattan and moved to the Northwest corner of Connecticut where it was his intention to supplement the art he really wanted to do with just enough freelance illustration jobs to make ends meet. He and his wife, Ruth, bought an old home near Sharon, Connecticut and they happily settled into his days in the studio and the country life in general. Even happier, Ruth soon became pregnant and McIntosh was thrilled since neither of his brothers married and had children, so his and Ruth’s would carry forth the McIntosh lineage.
McIntosh followed an unsurprising path in his painting. Moving away from Fitzgerald’s and the famous traditional work of the Winnipeg Seven, he pursued freer more abstract figurative painting. Cubism played a part in his leap from illustrator to what he felt was his own expression but whatever progress McIntosh made was suddenly yanked when Ruth miscarried their child.. Tragedy struck even deeper when it was discovered during treatment for the miscarriage that Ruth was dying from cancer. It is not known how much work McIntosh did during this period aside from his freelance work. Ruth died not long after in 1961.
After Ruth’s death McIntosh seemed to find his solace in the country life. He frequented the nearby Audubon Society sanctuary in Sharon, where he took great interest in all the birds. His paintings started to reflect this along with a fascination with traditional New England barns. He as much as gave up his freelance work in Manhattan when his bird and barn paintings began to be sought out. He joined shows and galleries and in time met his second wife, Beverly. Beverly turned out to be quite a partner for his work, and she quickly established a gallery in Sharon primarily to show McIntosh’s work. Until his death at his easel in 1981, McIntosh was known for his traditional, well-painted slices of nature and New England.
After Beverly’s death a decade later, perhaps the most interesting of all of McIntosh’s work was discovered secreted away in the attic of his studio. Paintings that had once been stretched were found rolled up and placed in the rafters when workers cleaned out the house for an estate sale. The paintings ended up collecting dust in the corner of a local antique shop until recent years. They just weren’t McIntoshs.
While McIntosh’s distinguished career as an illustrator is documented by numerous covers of magazines, and his later Connecticut paintings can still be seen in museums and homes throughout New England, this small group of painting accounts for a period of his life which was, perhaps, the most creative and expressive.
The first two paintings, chronologically, show that McIntosh was trying to break away from both the constraints of designated illustration jobs, and from his traditional painting basis learned at the Winnipeg School of Art along with being influenced by abstract expressionism.
The earliest of the paintings combines his figural knowledge with transparent aspects of cubism. A common movement of a mother holding a child’s arm while he wades into water turns mystical with McIntosh’s use of color. Upon examination, one is staggered by the tenderness which transcends boldness of shape.
The second of the series is much more abstract. One can only assume that it’s a beach full of movement through McIntosh’s interesting use of the figures and the band of strokes indicating repetitive motion. It isn’t known if McIntosh and his wife summered at a beach but one thinks of Coney Island before thinking of Cape Cod when lo
It’s the third painting which is easily McIntosh’s masterpiece, and it is also, after research, the saddest. It is a family portrait of McIntosh’s mother and father, his two brothers, the family dog, his wife and his portrayal of his unborn child. In his painterly treatment the faces are blurred yet there is such strong symbolism in his use of his child as a prediction of the future, but he places his wife in red and his child in blue in the midst of formal black. The painting was done prior to the miscarriage and Ruth’s death.
It is also the only painting in the group that doesn’t have cubist roots.
The fourth painting is a portrait of Ruth done shortly after her death. She sits becoming encompassed by a tile floor while holding a bird. The family dog dances behind her, other birds fly, one sits on the head of their child yet death dances next to her. McIntosh has returned to his earlier color palette but with darker imagery.
Not only are these amazing paintings but that they were found by someone who cared enough to go in search of their chronology and importance is also a good story. The young collector who owns them all now bought them one at a time from that dusty antique shop because he loved the images. One by one, they consumed his curiosity and he sat about researching them. Only by tracking down McIntosh’s elderly brother in Canada did many of the answers become known. While the brother had never seen the paintings, he was provided photographs of them, and these enabled him to answer some of the questions. Collector and brother have become friends and McIntosh’s secret years are not so secret anymore.