Paul Humphrey

1931 - 1999

  • Elaine Marie Asleep, mixed media on paper, 28 x 21,5 cm
  • Christine Asleep, mixed media on paper, 27,9 x 21,7 cm
  • untitled, mixed media on paper, 28 x 21,7 cm
  • untitled, mixed media on paper, 28 x 21,7 cm
  • Natalie Asleep, mixed media on paper, 27,9 x 21,7 cm

Paul Humphrey’s work as an artist began late. The series, “sleeping beauties” drawings of sleeping women, were his main motif until his death in 1999. He created at least one new work almost daily, which meant that the universe of his sleeping beauties eventually amounted to several hundred portraits.

Humphrey was born in 1931 in Poultney, Vermont. After completing high school and military service in the navy, he worked for a couple of years in the Office of Road Construction. In 1971, he moved to Brattleboro, where he worked as a taxi driver and house painter. At the age of 57, he suffered a severe heart attack, which forced him to quit these occupations. His financial situation became increasingly more precarious when a short time later his social security was revoked; Humphrey survived on a modest veteran’s pension and through the collecting of returnable bottles and empty tin cans. It is around this time that he began drawing. According to his own statement, a copy of his daughter’s high-school yearbook photo became the point of departure for his artistic work. Henceforth, Humphrey painted over innumerous copies of photographs, newspaper excerpts, and images of women from mail-order catalogs for his re-works, each image served as a template. His reservoir of images ranged from “Playboy” images, to portraits of such film stars as Marilyn Monroe and Goldie Hawn, public figures like Monica Lewinsky, and purported photographs of his daughter and her girlfriends.

In a complicated process – photocopies of the original templates were painted over with various materials – this was the basis of the evolution of his consistently similar portraits on typing paper. For the most part, only the head and the shoulders of the women are visible; almost always they are lying dressed, their heads resting on a pillow. In some rare instances the women’s eyes are open, but these “awake beauties” are an exception within his œuvre. “Perhaps I am crazy (it helps to be crazy in this world), but I prefer the ‘sleeping beauties.’ To me a sleeping face looks very innocent,” said Humphrey about his work.

During his lifetime, Humphrey primarily exhibited in small galleries, several artists including the Vermont artist Gregg Blasdel who had an especial interest in self-taught artists valued the work of which Humphrey remarked, “It is my entire life, it is everything I have.” In 1992 he suffered another stroke, which resulted in the complete paralysis of the left side of his body and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Paul Humphrey died in June of 1999 at which time his self-constructed life story came apart: On the occasion of his funeral his self-constructed life story abruptly fell apart: in reality he neither had a daughter nor was he ever married. The detailed descriptions of his family life provided to Blasdel and his other friends had been pure imagination.