The American painter Milton Avery was born the youngest of four children in 1885 in Sand Bank, New York, a small town near Lake Ontario. When he was fourteen years old, the family moved to the suburbs of East Hartford, Connecticut. As a young man, Avery worked a variety of factory jobs, and, in the evenings after work, he studied art at the Connecticut League of Artists in Hartford, although he remained largely a self-taught artist. By 1915, he was committed to a career as an artist. Avery's early work consisted of mostly portraits and landscapes with special attention paid to the different effects achieved through color and layered pigment.
In the early 1920s, Avery spent his summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, home to an art colony, where he met his wife, Sally Michel, also a painter. In 1925, he moved to New York City where the art scene was far more diverse. Although still based in a traditional realist mode, he began to use more somber tones and thinner layers of pigment. Avery's subjects expanded to include depictions of his wife, daughter, and fellow artists; inspired by his new surroundings, he painted sports events, the circus, vaudeville, Coney Island, and Central Park as well. Exaggerated color and distortions of scale were also introduced into his work at this time, reflecting his interest in the work of the European modernists, especially Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
"The Steeplechase, Coney Island," serves as an example of his artistic development soon after moving to New York. Weekend excursions to Coney Island, a popular, recreational ocean-side site in Brooklyn, were a favorite summer pastime for the Averys. Years later, Sally Avery reminisced: "The subway fare to Coney Island was five cents; with…our sketchbooks in our knapsacks, we could spend a fascinating holiday at the beach. We reveled in the crowds…the wonderful smells of hot dogs and knishes…we listened to the barkers extolling the virtues of the bearded lady, the snake charmer, and the sword swallower—our free mini show." In Avery's painting a bustling scene of Coney Island is presented, replete with sunbathers, crowds, tent, rifle range, and roller coaster. Humor is particularly apparent in the oddly shaped figures, posed awkwardly on the beach. Avery has achieved subtleties of tone with a limited range of color and a scumbled texture with his brushwork, in which thin layers of pigment were rubbed onto the canvas with a stiff brush, producing a swirl of marks. The composition achieves a sense of spatial depth through the arrangement of elements along successively receding horizontal layers.
Following such early urban genre scenes, Avery turned his full attention to painting bucolic landscapes in vibrant color. Such mature works, several of which are in the Museum's collection, brought the artist critical attention in the 1940s and 1950s and recognition as one of America's greatest colorists.