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In 1914, the renowned art critic Charles H. Caffin reviewed an exhibition of paintings by Edward Middleton Manigault, who was living and showing his work in New York at that time. Caffin noted the novelty and youthfulness that characterized Manigault’s paintings, writing that “the explanation of his originality is the secret of all originality. . . . How refreshing it is to come in touch with an artistic imagination which is teeming with ideas that are translatable into the pictorial medium!”

Middleton Manigault was born and raised in Canada, but his family had deep roots in the South Carolina Lowcountry. His father, Edward Manigault, Sr., was descended from a distinguished Huguenot family that had settled in Charleston in the seventeenth century. In 1905, eighteen-year-old Middleton enrolled at the New York School of Art. There, he was immersed in an atmosphere energized by avant-garde ideals and burgeoning modernism. He studied under Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller, and worked alongside classmates Edward Hopper, George Bellows, and Rockwell Kent. Having entered art school with the goal of becoming an illustrator, Manigault quickly abandoned his pen-and-ink drawings in favor of painting.

Manigault’s early efforts were influenced by the gritty realism of Ashcan artists like Henri, but he soon started investigating different modes of painting and a variety of subject matter that was often fanciful in nature, leading critics to describe his output as “symbolistic,” “imaginative,” and “unconventional.” Following European travels in 1912, Manigault found representation, in 1913, with the Charles Daniel Gallery, a venue dedicated to modern art, where his work received enthusiastic reviews and attracted the patronage of prominent collectors. He was also included in the groundbreaking New York Armory Show that same year.

Critical and commercial success aside, Manigault was an emotionally unstable, reclusive individual, a constant seeker who was prone to bouts of depression. In 1915, he married just days before volunteering as an ambulance driver for British forces in World War I. Deemed “incapacitated for service,” he was discharged only five months later. He later spent time in the utopian community of Oneida, New York. Manigault relocated to San Francisco in 1919 and began working in a Cubist style. Displeased with the results of that experimentation, he destroyed nearly two hundred of his own paintings.

It was around this time that Manigault undertook a practice of fasting, hoping that starvation and meditation would enable him “to approach the spiritual plane and see colors not perceptible to the physical eye.” Despite warnings from friends and family, in August 1922, Manigault fasted for two weeks before being admitted to the hospital; he died one week later, at the age of thirty-five.

Although his career was brief and few of his paintings survive today, Manigault was heralded during his own lifetime as a pioneer of American modernism. After his death, Manigault’s mentor Kenneth Hayes Miller wrote, “Nothing is more certain than that the time will come when the product of [Manigault’s] tragically short but intensely passionate artistic endeavor will be valued at its true worth.” Miller’s foresight proved correct. Manigault’s work continues to be included in exhibitions of vanguard art and is held by major institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston.