Ralph Della-Volpe: "As Natural as Breath"

Capsule's upcoming holiday sale features nine works by New York artist Ralph Della-Volpe. His legacy is marked by constant evolution and a deep love for paint.

Words by
Published on
November 30, 2022
Lot 23 Ralph Della-Volpe Sunset Sail
Lot 23 | Ralph Della-Volpe, Sunset Sail

Ralph Della-Volpe once called painting “as natural as breath.” From a young age, he recalled art as constantly pouring out of him, being driven by an innate need to create. His most popular works, those that grace the covers of his exhibition catalogs and the local Hudson Valley publications that often featured him, only hint at his instincts for color and composition. It is not until one considers his body of work as a whole, which is remarkably varied, that one can understand his claims that art “comes out through osmosis, it’s part of you.”

Lot 20 Ralph Della-Volpe Interest Talk
Lot 20 | Ralph Della-Volpe, Interest Talk

During the six decades he spent painting, Della-Volpe’s style evolved significantly. In the years following the second world war, his work was solemn, imbued with a quiet darkness. Over time, this darkness faded: by the 1950s, influenced by his time at the Art Students League, his oeuvre was overtaken by the tenants of Abstract Expressionism. Paintings from this period boast bold brushwork, energetic compositions, and strong color. Although the next decade saw Della-Volpe trade abstraction for figuration, his love of color continued to shine through his work. “In painting, expression doesn’t come through the subject matter, it comes through the composition and structure of color,” he once said.

Lot 17 Ralph Della-Volpe The Valley
Lot 17 | Ralph Della-Volpe The Valley

He was said to have “spent the entire decade of the 1970s wandering the beaches of the east coast,” creating scenes of water and sand as he went. In these serene paintings, the artist prized light, carefully recording the way a beach landscape manipulates sun. Della-Volpe’s work from the 1980s was also heavily rooted in a sense of place: for these ten years, his interest lay with the scenery of Millbrook, New York, where he lived at the time. This work too had a quasi-impressionist preoccupation with observation, exploring light and mood at a single unique moment.

Lot 276 Ralph Della-Volpe Winter Farm
Lot 276 | Ralph Della-Volpe Winter Farm

He used the medium of oil paint in a manner more commonly associated with pastel and watercolor, creating beautiful portraits of stillness. In a sense, this stillness gives his art the appearance of being easily comprehensible and digestible. However, there is meaning– order— beneath the surface, complicating this simplicity. Seemingly straightforward structural elements are in reality carefully considered, chosen to evoke feelings of youth or ephemerality.

Through the 1990s, Della-Volpe experimented quite a bit, shifting away from landscapes and scenes of the everyday to a wider range of subject matter. While varied, a stability not often seen in the work of modern and contemporary artists acts as an anchor to his oeuvre. His work, characterized by some as “refined hedonism,” has been exhibited in shows at a number of prominent institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Della-Volpe’s paintings can also be found in the permanent collections of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. as well as the Art Students League of New York.

More from the Capsule Dispatch