George Ault was born in Cleveland, Ohio, into prosperous circumstances. His father, Charles Henry Ault, worked for the family firm of Ault and Wiborg, manufacturers of printer’s ink for the art lithography trade. In 1899, the Ault family moved to London where Charles Ault represented Ault & Wiborg. George Ault’s formal art education began in London. He studied at the University College School, at the Slade School of Fine Art, and at St. John’s Wood School of Art. In 1911, the family returned to the United States, where Charles Ault appears to have purchased a majority interest in the Jaenecke Printing Ink Company, later Jaenecke Ault, manufacturers of colored lithography inks with a factory in Newark, New Jersey. The Aults lived in nearby Hillside. In 1914, George Ault married Beatrice Hoffman and established a studio in Hillside.
Ault’s art training was academic and conservative, reflecting his father’s tastes and friendships. The senior Ault pressed his son George, unsuccessfully, to join the family manufacturing firm. By the time Ault first exhibited his work in America, in the 1920 exhibit of the Society of American Artists in New York, he was already twenty-nine years old. When Ault left Hillside in 1922, his marriage was foundering, and his early artistic impulses had given way to experiments in modernism that allied him with the avant-garde elements in American art. Charles Ault minimally supported his son with a small allowance, sympathetic to a life as an artist, but strongly disapproving of the modernist strategies that George Ault increasingly embraced. The decade of the 1920s saw Ault shed the last of his impressionist-inflected painting habits and develop into a full-fledged American modernist.
Ault remained active in New York through the 1920s, and was regularly included in group shows featuring the new art. He continued to show with the Society of American Artists, as well as at the Whitney Studio Club, and at sympathetic galleries—Stephan Bourgeois, F. Valentine Dudensing, J. B. Neumann’s New Art Circle, and Edith Halpert’s The Downtown Gallery. His canvases, hanging side by side with works of such artists as Stefan Hirsch, Oscar Bluemner, and Georgia O’Keeffe, attracted favorable press notice. He found a congenial social circle as well as an exhibition venue at the Whitney Studio Club.
While Ault was an active participant in the avant-garde New York art scene, by the end of the 1920s he had begun to sink into depression, drinking more heavily, breaking with Edith Halpert at The Downtown Gallery in 1934, and alienating his group of friends at the Whitney. His father died of cancer in 1929, leaving behind a young second family and a greatly diminished estate. His two remaining brothers killed themselves in 1930 and 1931 (an older and favorite brother had committed suicide in 1915). Ault began to spend summers in Woodstock, New York, partially funded by his remaining sibling, Esther, a schoolteacher. In 1937, after his physician suggested psychotherapy, he resolved, instead, to move to Woodstock together with Louise. The Woodstock vicinity provided inspiration for a new burst of creativity, with a notable body of work dating to this later phase of his career. But Ault himself remained reclusive, declining to participate in the active artistic community in the rural Catskill Mountain town, and living in poverty and isolation with Louise. The work of this period reflects a flowering of the surrealist, primitive, and romantic influences that had earlier distinguished Ault from the more straightforward Precisionists. During the Woodstock period Ault occasionally attempted, without success, to establish a relationship with a New York gallery. Nonetheless, he was not forgotten. He was invited to participate in prestigious national exhibitions, including, among others, the 1942 “Artists for Victory” show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; as well as exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia (1944); The Newark Museum, New Jersey (1944); The National Academy of Design, New York (1945); the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1946 and 1947); and the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh (1946, 1947, and 1948).
George Ault’s cityscapes and landscapes are visions reduced to their structural elements, expressed in a style that commingled Precisionism with Surrealism. George Ault was a painter of enormous talent, but only sporadic recognition. When he died in 1948 in Woodstock, where he had lived for eleven years, he was impoverished and relatively obscure. Ault has been more appreciated in death than he ever was in life. Largely due to the efforts of his widow, Louise Ault, his posthumous reputation has continued to grow as his works have made their way into major public and private collections including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; the Brooklyn Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.