Manon Cleary

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Manon Catherine Cleary
Photo of Manon Cleary.jpg
Manon Cleary, 1982 by Paul Feinberg
BornNovember 14, 1942
DiedNovember 26, 2011(2011-11-26) (aged 69)
NationalityUnited States
EducationWashington University in St. Louis, Temple University
Known forFigurative painting, Photorealism
Spouse(s)F. Steven Kijek

Manon Cleary (November 14, 1942 November 26, 2011[1]) was an American artist active in Washington, D.C. who specialized in photo-realistic paintings and drawings. She often created works that studied the human form and light, and many of her works were inspired by events in her life.

Cleary studied and received her bachelor's at Washington University, in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri.[2] She then went to Temple University, where she received her master's degree from the Tyler School of Art. Shortly after, Cleary moved to Washington D.C in 1970 where she would work at the University of the District of Columbia as a professor for thirty years. Cleary also used her role as professor to support local artists.

Cleary's style of art is highly realistic (it is said that she would often win awards for her work in the photography category by mistake[2]) and unique. To create many of her images, she worked in a reductive fashion by using graphite powder, tissues, and erasers.[3] This style allowed her to create works that were softer and more personal, but still realistic.

Cleary passed away in 2011 at the age of 69. She suffered for many years from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was survived by her husband, F. Steven Kijek and her twin sister, Shirley Cleary-Cooper.[1] Her work is held by many museums all over the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum.[2] She has held numerous solo exhibitions and been a part of many exhibitions worldwide.


Manon Cleary was born on November 14, 1942 in St. Louis, Missouri with her identical twin sister, Shirley Cleary-Cooper.[4] Cleary and her twin were very similar growing up and Cleary stated in an interview that they were even dressed alike by their mother until adulthood. Cleary's father was a doctor and it was because of this that she and her sister drew an affinity towards art. Her father was a general practitioner in St. Louis, and thus brought home almost every disease and epidemic that hit the city. This meant that Cleary and her sister were at home sick for a lot of their childhood, away from other children. It was during this time at home that they both turned to art. They fed this love of art by associating with the art museum and majoring in art in high school.[5]

Cleary went to undergraduate school at Washington University in St. Louis and received her degree in 1964. Cleary's education there was very mechanical and traditional, as she was only taught about technique, not content. Cleary struggled at first with the teaching style and she was one of the few artists drawing figures regularly. Cleary took to drawing highly erotic images; the images gave her confidence and left her professors struggling to critique. After graduating Cleary applied late to graduate programs and happened upon an opportunity to spend her first year of graduate school in Rome, for the Tyler School of Art.[5] While in Rome, Cleary studied the work of Caravaggio and was remained inspired by his work for much of her career.[1] After a year in Rome, Cleary finished her graduate studies and received her MFA in 1968, at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cleary moved to upstate New York, where she briefly taught at a state university in Oswego.[5] The experience there was not one to remember, so she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1970, where she would remain for the rest of her life.

Cleary taught at the University of the District of Columbia for 30 years. She was beloved by her students and by many of the local artists in Washington, D.C. She was a collector of local art and supporter of local artists. After a couple years in Washington, D.C., she moved into Beverly Court Apartments—now Beverly Court Cooperative. It was the epicenter of art in the 70's for Washington, D.C. and Cleary was the star. Beverly Court housed artists such as Allan Bridge, Yuri Schwebler, Jonathan Meader, and Angelo Hodick. Cleary would host dinner parties for the building and a communal living of sorts took place. The doors to apartments were often open and artists collaborated on art together. Beverly Court was bought by its residents in 1979, after most of the artists had left, and it became the first cooperative in Washington, D.C. It was during this time, in 1981, that Cleary was briefly married to a man named Tommy, who was an young art student from Denmark. They were divorced about a year later.[6]

In 1996, Cleary experience a traumatic event while traveling abroad. Cleary visited Kazakhstan that year on a good-will art trip and was there to lecture about art. Cleary was attacked by a Kazakh artist, with whom she had only a brief meeting. The attack shook Cleary and she left the country quickly in a state of denial. It took Cleary several months to start to examine her feelings and work through them. She ended up creating an evocative series titled, "The Rape Series" after the event. The series features paintings of Cleary's face, shaped in horror and pain, with red paint splatterd over the canvas. The paintings are the most physical of Cleary's portfolio, with some of the canvases burned or slashed. Cleary's attacker was invited to Washington, D.C. for a show on Kazakhstan art in 1998, but was luckily denied entry into the United States. The news was hard to take for Cleary, but she believes because of an affidavit she signed with the State Department upon returning from Kazakhstan, he was turned away.[7]

Cleary met her second husband, F. Steven Kijek, a dancer, in Baltimore at a party after a gallery opening. When they met, he supposedly stripped naked in the middle of a crowd and asked if she would like to paint him; they were married in 2001.[1] Cleary was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 1999 and was experiencing pulmonary failure. This was brought on by a smoking habit and inhaling toxic fumes from her paint. Her doctor gave her just two years to live in 2001. The disease forced Cleary to retire and her weight dropped to just 80 pounds. She would need to use an oxygen tank and breathing tube for the remainder of her life. Even with all of these challenges, Cleary still found a way to create new art; she created a series titled "Breathless" that featured her face, with breathing tubes, pressed up against the glass of a copy machine.[1] Cleary passed away in 2011, shortly after her 69th birthday. She died her apartment at Beverly Court, where she had lived for 40 years.


Cleary mastered many different mediums throughout her career. She is most known for her paintings and her drawings. Cleary also went through some notable phases with her subject matter, but her figures are what set her apart from other artists.


Cleary is known for her photo-realism; The Washington Post called her the best figure painter of her generation.[1] Cleary's style developed during her undergraduate days. Her watercolor professor taught her how to mix graphite powder and alcohol to create a more painterly style of drawing. Cleary didn't like the painterly style, and said the graphite tended to "chalk up."[5] When she went back to drawing a few years later, it was leftover graphite from that period she turned to, not charcoal.[3] Cleary was drawn to the glow that only graphite can provide. This time though, Cleary developed her own style. Cleary worked in a reductive, layered fashion, covering the whole paper in graphite and then using erasers to flesh out the image. This allowed the image to come into focus slowly, as then Cleary would layer the graphite with the aid of tissues and blending stomps. Cleary created her images from multiple photos, taken from different angles, a habit she developed during college when models weren't readily available. This is partly why she is identified as a photo-realist.[3]

This process was a challenge for Cleary, as there was no precedent or guide to help her with her style. There was a lot of trial and error to figure out not only what erasers worked best, but also how much stress the paper could take. Cleary developed this style out of a fear of white paper; she also found it easier to cover a mistake by working this way, as it was easier to add more graphite instead of erase a line.[5] By working in this reductive fashion, Cleary created an image that was original and unique. Without the harsh pencil lines, her drawings had a softness and ethereal quality. While her work is considered photo-realism, it stands out from other artists of the time. Cleary's mastery of drawing flowed over into other mediums as well, such as pastels.

Cleary was also known as a painter. Cleary was drawn to the wide range of colors that were available in painting compared to the rather limited number of colors available in pastels.[5] Her painting style has been described as "not painterly." This is because Cleary tries to hide her brush strokes and remove any evidence of her technique.[8]

Themes and subjects[edit]

Cleary was best known for her nude figure drawings and her most common subject was herself. Cleary was considered by many to be the best figure painter in Washington, D.C. and maybe in the country.[9] Early in her career Cleary painted idealized images of her subjects, including herself. Cleary acknowledged in her mid-thirties that she hadn't accepted her aging and was removing blemishes from her paintings. Cleary explained that she doesn't "paint the grotesque" and that is why she paints the ideal.[5] As her career and portfolio developed, Cleary's nudes would become more honest and frank. Her self-portraits would become a study of aging and reflect Cleary more openly.

If nudes were Cleary's most common subject, her most beloved subject would be rats. Cleary was given a rat as a gift in the 1970s and from that point on they became a recurring subject for her (she would also keep rats as pets for the rest of her life).[1][9][10] The rats were often drawn in pastels, and Cleary had truly mastered their likeness. In one memorable piece Untitled, Cleary painted two life-size rats (green and soft pink) serving her as she reclined nude on a divan, smoking.[11]

Another theme that is very apparent in Cleary's work is sexuality. Cleary had been studying nudes since college and she found a subject that captivated her. Her exploration of sexuality has varied over her career. In some of her art it is frank and bold, like her series of large oil paintings from the early 90's that studied male genitalia.[8] (In 1997, one of her paintings at an erotic art auction was featured on an episode of HBO's Real Sex.[1]) Other studies of sexuality are more subtle and abstract. Cleary painted many flowers that were said to be in the vein of Georgia O'Keeffe. Cleary's open exploration of sexuality creates a distraction for the viewer. The more flagrant the sexuality, the more Cleary conceals herself in her work.[12]


Solo exhibitions[5][13][edit]

  • 2009-Addison/Ripley Gallery, DC
  • 2007-DC Arts Center
  • 2006-Emerson Gallery, DC
  • 2006-Washington Art Museum
  • 2005-Waddle Gallery, Louden Campus, Sterling, Virginia
  • 2002-Pass Gallery, DC
  • 1997-"Manon Cleary, Body in the Question," Maryland Art Place
  • 1985-"Pintura e Desenho De Manon Cleary," Centro de Arte de Arte Moderna, Gulbekian Found, Lisbon, Portugal
  • *1977-Pyramid Galleries, Ltd., DC
  • 1974-Pyramid Galleries, Ltd., DC
  • *1972-Arena Stage, DC
  • 1972-Franz Bader Gallery, DC
  • 1968-Tyler Gallery, Philadelphia

Group exhibitions[5][13][edit]

  • 2009-"60 Artist", Bethesda, Maryland
  • 2008-"31 Contemporary Women from the Washington Area," Bethesda, Maryland
  • 2008-"The Figured Revealed: Contemporary America Figurative Painting & Drawing," Kalamazoo Inst Art, Kalamazoo, Michigan
  • 2007-Martin Luther King Collection, "A Mint Menagerie: Critters From the Collection," Mint Museum, Charlotte, Virginia, Warehouse Gallery
  • 2004-"Art/Silver: 25 Years of Art from the University of the District of Columbia"
  • 2002-"Violence against Women," Greenbelt Community Art Center, DC
  • 1999-2000-"Contemporary America: Realist Drawings" The Jalone & Rich Collection, Art Institute of Chicago
  • 2000-"Gardner's Delight", National Museum Women in the Arts, Washington
  • 1996-"The Female Gaze: 4 Washington Women Draw Men," Montgomery Coll, Rockville, Maryland
  • 1996-Kasteev State Museum, Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • 1996-"National Showcase Exhibit," Alternative Museum New York
  • 1993-"Drawing on the figure," Edna Carlsten Gallery, University Wisconsin - Madison
  • 1991-"16th Annual National Drawing Exhibit," Norman Eppink Art Gallery, Emporia State University
  • 1990-"Art Exchange," Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • 1984-85-"Twentieth Century America Drawings: The Figure in Context," traveling exhib, Int Exhib Found, Terra Mus America Art, Oklahoma Mus Art, Nat Acad Deisng
  • 1982-83-"Perspectives on Contemporary America Realism: Works of Art on Paper" from the Collection of Jalane & Richard Davidson, Pennsylvania Acad Fine Art & Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1981-"America Drawings in Black & White," Brooklyn Museum, New York
  • 1981-"An America Bestiary, Institute of Contemporary Art," Richmond, Virginia
  • 1981-"Taft Menagerie," Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • 1980-"Group exhibit, Images of the 70's: 9 Washington Realists," Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC
  • 1979-"Small Works," Middendorf/Lane, DC
  • 1979-"Summer at Osuna," Osuna Galleries, DC
  • 1979-"Manon Cleary and Lowell Nesbitt," A. J. Wood Galleries, DC
  • 1979-"Fifteen Artists," Osuna Gallery, DC
  • 1978-"Works on Paper," Chuck Levitan Gallery, New York City
  • 1978-"Towards a New Portraiture," White Flint Mall, government Services S & L, Bethesda, Maryland
  • 1978-"Washington Realists," Middendorf/Lane, DC
  • 1978-"Selected 20th Century Nudes," Harold Reed Gallery, New York City
  • 1977-"Invitational American Drawing Exhibition," Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, San Diego
  • 1976-"77-The Liberation: 14 American Artists," Traveling (in Europe)
  • 1976-"American Drawings from the Private Collections of Friends of the Corcoran," Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC
  • 1976-"Contemporary American Painters," Miami Art Center, Inc., Miami, Florida
  • 1976-"Washington in Philadelphia," Marian Locks Gallery, Philadelphia
  • 1976-"North, East, West, South, and Middle," Traveling
  • 1975-"Recent Works by 12 Women Artists," Pyramid Galleries, Ltd., DC
  • 1974-"Living American Artists and the Figure," Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania
  • 1973-"Appel, Cleary, Moeller," Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC
  • 1973-"Beverly Court Show," Pyramid Galleries, Ltd., DC
  • 1972-1978-"Summer at Pyramid," Pyramid Galleries, Ltd., DC
  • 1972-"Dibujos, Washington: 1972," Instituto Guatemaltera Americano, Guatemala City, Guatemala
  • 1971-"New Directions in Painting," Goldman Fine Arts Gallery, Rockville, Maryland


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Schudel, Matt (2011-12-03). "Manon Cleary, alluring D.C. artist and free spirit, dies at 69". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  2. ^ a b c "Manon Cleary, 1942-2011". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2018-04-11.
  3. ^ a b c Campello, F. Lennox (2011). 100 Artists of Washington, D.C. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd. pp. 52–53. ISBN 978-0-7643-3778-9.
  4. ^ "Manon Cleary, 1942-2011". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2018-04-11.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Images of the 70's:9 Washington Artists. Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art. 1979. pp. 19–25.
  6. ^ "Queen of Beverly Court". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  7. ^ "Manon Cleary's Art of Pain". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2018-04-14.
  8. ^ a b Shannon, Joe (February 2000). "Manon Cleary at Addison/Ripley". Art in America. 88 (2): 134–135.
  9. ^ a b "Manon Cleary Dies at 69 - The Georgetowner". The Georgetowner. 2012-05-03. Retrieved 2018-04-20.
  10. ^ "Manon Cleary, 1942-2011". Washington City Paper. Retrieved 2018-04-11.
  11. ^ Henry, G. (June 1982). "Manon Cleary at Iolas/Jackson". Art in America. 70: 146–147.
  12. ^ Wright, M.M. (April 1979). "Washington Letter". Art International. 23 (1): 40.
  13. ^ a b "Manon Cleary". Marquis Biographies Online. Retrieved 2018-04-16.

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