Acquisitions: Roy De Forest Papers

By Liza Kirwin
June 13, 2017
Photograph of Roy De Forest in the studio with his dog

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new acquisitions. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the spring 2017 issue (vol. 56, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Page from Dog Lecture by Roy De Forest
Dog lecture, circa 1980. Roy De Forest papers, 1926-2008. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The papers of Roy De Forest (1930–2007), donated by Gloria Marchant, the artist’s wife of thirty-two years, include a family tree compiled in the late 1970s. A three-by-nineteen-foot blueprint, it is perhaps the largest document in the Archives. The chart begins in France and England, with the De Forests settling in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century. An individual of pioneer spirit, Roy was born in North Platte, Nebraska, once home to William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Under Roy’s name, the family genealogist proudly recorded his occupation as “one of the top 10 best artists of the US.” Spanning the late 1940s to 2007, the collection of letters, writings, photographs, video recordings, sketches, inventories, and financial records that form Marchant’s gift to the Archives give weight to this claim.

While critics across the US praised De Forest’s unique vision, they often struggled to define his eccentric world of cowboys and Indians, anthropomorphic animals, and sly art-historical references. Not quite adhering to California Funk, De Forest preferred the term “Nut” art for his work. His papers include his 1972 “Nut Art Manifesto” and an outline of his famous dog lecture, which used dog tails to represent art movements through the ages. The latter document speaks to the fact that dogs were ever-present in the artist’s life. Snapshots in his papers reveal a canine chronology, from King in the 1960s to Cato, De Forest’s last dog. These beloved animals are shown lounging in the studio, napping with the artist, and leading him on outdoor adventures. They also figure in his work, often as wide-eyed spirit guides to imaginary worlds.

Photograph of Roy De Forest in his studio with his dog Cato
Roy De Forest working on A country life, 2005 / unidentified photographer. Roy De Forest papers, 1926-2008. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The papers will be useful to anyone investigating the social and aesthetic circle around the University of California, Davis, where De Forest taught from 1965 to 1992, and particularly his close friendships with students John Buck and Deborah Butterfield, colleagues Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley, and artist neighbors Betty and Clayton Bailey. De Forest taught a recurring course on art materials, and his financial records document his love of art supplies and invention. Studio receipts chronicle purchases of airbrushes and assorted nozzles, luster pigment, impasto gel, oil pastels, metallic crayons, linen, and lumber for frames. From taxidermy suppliers he ordered modeling compound and glass eyes in yellow, red, hazel, light brown, straw, and blue. He favored Golden and Rembrandt acrylics, but would also mix his own water-based paints, adding polyvinyl acetate for extra stickiness. As De Forest noted in his 2004 interview for the Archives, “It’s a wonderful adhesive, so you can stick all kinds of junk in there: gravel, fillers of various kinds, and create all kinds of textures.”

After De Forest’s death in 2007, hundreds of condolence letters to Marchant show a groundswell of regard for the artist. Wiley wrote: “A good father, husband, teacher, artist, friend, who will be greatly missed and remembered. . . . Roy doggedly pursued his vision and never sent a Cocker Spaniel if a Terrier was called for, and near as I can tell never barked up the wrong tree.” His papers will allow a new generation of visitors to the Archives to experience his legacy as a top dog in American art.

Liza Kirwin is the deputy director of the Archives of American Art.

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