Born in Malvern, Ohio, forty miles south of Akron, Clyde Singer became known for his regionalist paintings in oil and watercolor of people at carnivals, standing in bars, on windy street corners, celebrating holidays, or looking at pictures in a gallery. His style is reminiscent of Robert Henri and John Sloan, continuing through the well-known regionalists, John Steuert Curry and Grant Wood. Today Clyde Singer’s paintings are universally held up as some of the most singular expressions of American Scene painting in mid-century American art.
In high school, he made signs for local farmers, and in his 20s, working for a sign company, he was assigned special displays such as the Christmas display on the Stark County Courthouse. Enrollment in the art school of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (later the Columbus Museum of Art) directed him to a fine art career. In 1932 he returned to Malvern and created paintings that brought him much attention.
Shortly after, in 1933, he was awarded a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York. It was during the Depression, and he lived a Spartan existence. His teachers included John Steuert Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Ivan Olinsky. Alexander Brook, also one of his instructors, got him a job painting a sign for a wine shop in Connecticut for twenty-five dollars, and Brook and his wife Peggy Bacon offered to help him financially, but he remained independent.
Adopting the Social Realist style, he tried to paint in the same locations as George Bellows and John Sloan, and he painted many scenes of the interior of McSorley's famous saloon that Sloan had depicted. As summer approached, Singer decided to return to his home state. Confiding this to Curry, the teacher said: “Oh, you're going home to paint the American scene! Good!”
He returned to Ohio with $1.10 in his pocket and soon was painting signs again to make money, but in 1935, he sent a large canvas to the Chicago Art Institute and earned $500.00 and the Harris silver medal. From that time, he entered major exhibitions including the Whitney Museum annual, the Corcoran Biennial, and the exhibitions at the National Academy of Design.
Organ grinder, Hester Street 1933.
In 1940, he accepted a job from Joseph Butler III, director of the Butler Institute and a close friend. Butler, a steel magnate with a voracious appetite for American Art, had created the Butler Institute of American Art as a gift to the city of Youngstown. While working for Butler, Singer continued his fine art painting, finishing over 3000 paintings during his career. At Butler's insistence, he also wrote the exhibition reviews for the local newspaper. In 1941, he married Bernice Shimp, a former student of his from a class in the Art School he established in Marietta, Ohio; from 1942 to 1945, he served in the Army in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Japan where he did a lot of sketching. After the war, he returned to employment with Butler, and they worked together until Butler's death in 1981.
Singer shared an office with Butler, taught classes, conducted tours of the exhibitions, acted as curator and co-director, and ran the museum when Butler took his long trips. He also continued painting daily and returned to New York at least once a year, so his paintings of New York are about as numerous as his paintings of Ohio. In 1981, Butler died, but Singer continued at the Institute.
Of his work Clyde Singer said: "Painting to me is the most fun there is."
Elisabeth McClelland, Clyde J. Singer: American Scene Painter (1966)