Stephen Greene

The Return


Not on display

Stephen Greene 1918–1999
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1318 × 838 mm
frame: 1488 × 1001 × 81 mm
Presented by R. Kirk Askew, Jnr through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962


The Return is a painting depicting three figures set against a pale background in a triangular composition, rendered as if cast in a strong but diffuse light. The central figure, a young man, rests on a ladder which stretches upwards, dividing the composition symmetrically. Wrapped around his lower torso and partly continuing down his legs are loose bandages, one end of which he holds limply in his left hand while clasping the ladder with his right. The man’s right leg is disfigured, ending at the knee, and his facial expression is one of despondency. To the left of him is an older man who leans on a rod or staff, while the woman on the right holds an upright stick that resembles a candle. The figures do not interact with each other and their expressions suggest that each is caught in his or her own moment of detached emotion. Two white doors are just visible at the outer edges of the canvas as if they have been opened to reveal the scene. The overall composition is reminiscent of religious paintings of the Italian Renaissance, such as scenes of Christ’s crucifixion or deposition in which the figure of Christ on the cross is flanked by John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene.

This painting was made by the American artist Stephen Greene in 1950. He created it using light, chalky-coloured oils in predominantly cool, greyish-blue tones which resemble the appearance of Italian frescoes. In a 1968 interview with the art historian Dorothy Seckler the artist discussed his dislike of the ‘greasiness’ of oils and described his search for a method that would produce a ‘very quiet, very matte, dry’ finish (Greene in Seckler 1968, accessed 17 February 2017). The artist achieved this by mixing white casein, a milk protein-based paint, with his oils and turpentine. Greene recalled that his initial experiments resulted in the paint curdling, and that although certain combinations achieved the desired effect, the paint began to behave in unusual ways:

So then I made a mixture of 4 parts Demar, 2 parts unthickened linseed oil glazing medium, 2 to 4 parts turpentine. And I found you could do that. It gave a certain kind of clarity. It wasn’t as dry as fresco, but it was dry. Then I finally gave that up because it was only good for a predetermined image and it was hell to try to wash out because the paint physically started opening up.
(Greene in Seckler 1968, accessed 17 February 2017.)

In 1949 Greene produced Family Portrait (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit), a sombre and symbolic image of himself with his parents. It is these three figures who appear in the painting The Return, rendering the painting semi-autobiographical. Having been awarded a Prix de Rome in 1949, which allowed him to study in Europe, Greene became extremely ill, and on returning to New York later that year the artist felt himself to be a failure. Greene described himself as being ‘like an invalid almost’ when he returned to painting (Seckler 1968, accessed 17 February 2017). Writing to the Tate Gallery in 1976 the artist explained that he depicted himself with maimed limbs and his body wrapped in bandages in The Return in order to represent ‘a psychological state rather than a physical one’. (Quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981,, accessed 17 February 2017.)

From 1957 Greene started to move away from figurative painting to more abstract work, as can be seen in paintings such as Vigil 1962 and The Ladder 1963 (both Jason McCoy Gallery, New York). While the titles of both of these are evocative of the spiritual themes which appeared in his earlier work, Greene wrote in 1973 that he was no longer interested in producing a ‘psychological interpretation’ of the ‘visible world’, but was looking to explore ways in which to capture ‘a personal mythology’ (Greene 1973, pp.239–40).

Further reading
Dorothy Seckler, ‘Oral History Interview with Stephen Greene, 1968 June 8’, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC 1968,, accessed 17 February 2017.
Stephen Greene, ‘Aspects of Reality in My Paintings’, Leonardo, vol.6, no.3, Summer 1973, pp.239–40.
Stephen Greene and Dore Ashton, Stephen Greene: A Decade of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Akron Art Institute, Akron 1978.

Lucinda Towler
February 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Stephen Greene born 1918

T00526 The Return 1950

Inscribed 'Greene' b.r.
Oil on canvas, 51 7/8 x 33 (132 x 83.5)
Presented by R. Kirk Askew, Jr., through the American Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962
Prov: R. Kirk Askew, Jr., New York, Director of Durlacher Bros. (purchased from the artist)
Exh: American Painting Today - 1950, Metropolitan Museum, New York, December 1950-February 1951 (works not numbered); 1951 Annual Exhibition: Contemporary Painting in the United States, Los Angeles County Museum, June-July 1951 (57, repr.); Stephen Greene, Durlacher Bros., New York, February-March 1952 (3); Stephen Greene, de Cordova and Dana Museum, Lincoln, Mass., May-June 1953 (13)
Repr: The Friends of the Tate Gallery: Annual Report 1st May 1962-30th April 1963 (London 1963), facing p.13

Stephen Greene writes of this work (7 September 1976): 'It is an autobiographical painting and that is rare for me, I usually hope to use autobiographical information to make something else, something more public. I called the painting THE RETURN as it had to do with my return from Rome the fall of 1949 where I had been close to death due to a serious illness and as a result had to be flown back to the States. The man in the painting is my father, the woman, my mother. The bandages, I had hoped, as well as the maimed limbs, signify a psychological state rather than a physical one. The two forms, one on the left, the other on the right are not "doors". They were forms I used from screens I had in my studio but more to the fact is that they are uprights and the picture is put together somewhat like a crucifixion, which often has the three uprights (crosses). As much as have been the formal changes in my work, my basic subject matter is always the crucifixion, not so much in the Christian sense but in the humanistic one divorced from religion. ... The upright, the "stick", is actually meant to be a candle. I do recall that when my mother came to Rome where I was hospitalized, the priests were outside my door, candles in hand, praying for me. I do think of candles, however, in this respect, as symbolizing "mourning". The realism of the parental figures was rare for me, except for that short period around the year 1950. It coexists with a family portrait of the same period which is in the Detroit Institute of Arts.'

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.338-9, reproduced p.338

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