James Hilleary, noted Washington artist, dies at 90


A work from James Hilleary's Striae series, No. 242. (Courtesy of Hilleary family)

James Hilleary, a noted artist who was an early exponent of Washington Color Painting, the abstract style of the mid-20th century that became a signature movement in the city’s artistic history, died April 10 at a hospital in the District. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son, Keirn Hilleary. Mr. Hilleary was a longtime resident of Bethesda, Md.

Mr. Hilleary produced works that embodied the most salient aspects of the Washington Color School of painting, although he said he developed his style independently and did not consider himself a member of the group as it was most strictly defined, according to his son.

The school — whose most prominent artists included Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis — flourished in the 1960s. With clean lines, precise shapes and vibrant hues, it offered an alternative to the seemingly unruly abstract expressionism that had dominated the art work in previous decades.

Mr. Hilleary, who trained as an architect, embraced color painting’s geometric purity. He was able to “distill lyricism out of pure line and color,” Washington Post arts writer Michael O’Sullivan once noted.


James Hilleary, a noted Washington artist, died April 10 at a hospital in the District. He was 90. (Family Photo/Family Photo)

“The ‘Striae’ paintings,” O’Sullivan wrote, “all of which feature strands of vertical color that alternately clump together and separate, forming a forest-like energy field, have a brooding electricity. They almost literally hum. Staring into their dark, mysterious depths, one might get a sense of something both spiritual and deeply, muscularly sensual.”

Mr. Hilleary’s work was exhibited around the country and at numerous galleries locally, including the Strathmore Hall Arts Center and the University of Maryland. In 2003, there was a four-decade retrospective exhibit of his work at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in the District.

James Francis Hilleary was born in the District on Jan. 29, 1924, and often went to the Phillips Collection as a child.

After graduating from Gonzaga College High School, he served in the Army in Europe during World War II and received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Catholic University in 1951. He turned to creating his own art by admiring the works of others.

“I could have become a contented art collector,” he wrote, “had I been able to afford the work of artists I admired. Lacking funds, I began painting in the manner of all the artists I coveted.”

Mr. Hilleary worked for boutique architecture firms in the Washington area, designing or renovating private homes, office buildings and public spaces, his son said. As a painter, former Washington Post art critic Paul Richard said in an interview, Mr. Hilleary was “admired enthusiastically by some of the smartest art minds in town.”

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Peggy Moore Hilleary of Bethesda; four children, Cecily Hilleary of Rockville, Md., Leslie Hilleary of Silver Spring, Md., Sidonie Sedon of Buckeystown, Md., and Keirn Hilleary of Bethesda; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.