Michael Kelly was born in 1897 in a rural Westchester, New York, and became interested in art as a young man. He graduated from Pratt Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in 1921. He attended the Beaux Arts Institute in New York City and worked on many commercial projects there, including the decoration of the Cunard Building as a studio assistant to the Prix de Rome artist Ezra Winters.
After working with Louis Comfort Tiffany, he traveled to Europe on a scholarship from the Pratt Alumni Association. Upon his return to the United States, he again worked in New York with Ezra Winters. In this period, from the mid 1920’s to 1939, Kelly focused on Depression Era life. It is here that we see the development of Kelly’s figures and the enjoyment he found in reflecting everyday life in his paintings.
From 1939 to 1941 Kelly spent most of his time in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Obviously inspired by this quaint fishing village, he produced a great body of work. At the time he was reviewed in a very positive way and gained further recognition for his accomplishments. In these pictures of fisherman and townspeople involved in their everyday life, Kelly perfected the style that would become the hallmark of his career.
The third quarter of the twentieth century is when Michael and his wife Rosa operated an antiques shop in Cold Spring, New York. During this time he grew as an artist, synthesizing all of his previous work into well-developed historic records of local scenes, activities and people. He often painted street scenes and Hudson River views, dotting his pictures with methods of transportation and communication that now reflect generations past. His inclusion of such themes as country auctions, moving days, and busy Hudson River side street activities are the fond favorites of many. They give us a glimpse into Cold Spring and the surrounding countryside that has since begun to change. An exhibit in 2003 at the Putnam Historical Society & Foundry School Museum in Cold Spring featured many works done during this period by the artist.
Later in this period, while still living in Cold Spring, Kelly began to express political sentiment in his paintings. At this point we see another synthesis of his previous works; the Depression Era themes of home, farm, workers, and architecture are fused together with expressions of a changing world. The Statue of Liberty, Kennedy, Castro, and Khrushchev play alongside historical figures, the devil, as well as Adam and Eve. These pictures may have early twentieth century roots, but their more “modern” backgrounds, lighting and angular relation of figures continue to demonstrate Kelly’s scope and growth as an artist.
Throughout his career Kelly also worked in other media. According to family members he loved to carve and make small boxes as well as sculptural portraits. Some of the most interesting are the self portraits in which he is dressed in political garb. It is our hope to continue to discover and learn more about these kinds of works.