Kay Sage found love in Europe. So why does death haunt her paintings?

The immaculately enigmatic “Quote-Unquote,” at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, is one of the painter’s final works.

In Europe you learn that there is no such thing as innocence (“Nothing so often betrayed could retain a shred of illusion,” wrote James Salter of Rome.) Confusingly, you may also fall in love.

That, anyway, is what happened to Kay Sage.

“Quote-Unquote,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., is one of the last paintings she made. Set in a gray no man’s land, made oppressive by distant haze, it has the austere beauty of an oracular riddle.

It shows … Well, what does it show? A kind of improvised screen made from panels set between tall posts. The structure resembles scaffolding and rises from a floor paved with gray slabs. Some of the panels are as flat and opaque as the slate-colored floor; others ripple with subtly colored fabrics. Over on the right, an obscured walkway leads back toward nothing (nothing visible, anyway).

It’s all intentionally enigmatic. But also terrifyingly vacant. To her great credit, Sage resisted the silliness to which her fellow surrealists succumbed. She had too much taste to populate her ashen landscapes with biomorphic blobs, phallic formations or mythical creatures. Her taste was connected (as good taste often is) to a form of existential dread. And dread is what her painting almost casually communicates.

Born in Albany, N.Y., in 1898, Sage turned 20 the year World War I ended. After studying art in Washington, she decided to continue her studies in Rome. In a letter to a friend, Sage innocently enthused from Europe that she had spent her life looking for “someone who was just as mad as I was, who could understand my fantastic imaginings.” And at last, she announced, she had found him: In 1925 (the year Benito Mussolini became Italy’s dictator) she married a minor aristocrat — a prince, no less — named Ranieri di San Faustino.

Alas, Sage parted ways with the prince 10 years later. She moved to Paris in 1937, where she entered the surrealist circle of Andre Breton. She painted in a style influenced by the haunted vacancy and broken symbolism of Giorgio de Chirico and by the grotesque dreamscapes of Yves Tanguy. Tanguy, who had previously been Peggy Guggenheim’s lover, saw her work. They fell in love. And as Europe descended into madness, the couple escaped to New York, where in 1940 they married.

They moved to Woodbury, Conn., the following year. In summer, Woodbury is bewitchingly green. So it’s safe to say that the desert-like mirages Sage depicted in her paintings were not inspired by the local landscape. They come from somewhere deeper — somewhere silent and death-haunted.

“Innocence ends,” wrote Joan Didion, “when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” Whether Sage had ceased to like herself, it’s safe to say that by the late 1950s, she no longer believed in innocence. Or in Europe.

She had once been an innocent abroad (in Mark Twain’s phrase), an American who had fallen in love first with an Italian prince and then a French surrealist. Europe had proceeded to implode. Sage made “Quote-Unquote” three years after Tanguy died, at 55, of a stroke. His disappearance from her life plunged her into a melancholy made worse by the fact that her eyesight was failing.

Soon after finishing “Quote-Unquote,” in her 60th year, she realized she could paint no more. Instead, she made collages and wrote poetry (she published four volumes between 1957 and 1962), all while undergoing a series of eye operations. And in 1963 — that seemingly innocent year when the Beatles released “Love Me Do,” “All My Loving” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” — she shot herself in the heart.

Quote-Unquote, 1958
Kay Sage (b.1898). At Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.