Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal, the American artist, was born Elaine Hamilton in 1920 in Catonsville, Maryland, near Baltimore. Championed by the influential French critic Michel Tapié, she exhibited twice in the Venice Biennial, won first prize at the 1968 Biennale de Menton (France), and gave solo exhibitions in the United States, Mexico, Italy, Pakistan, Japan, and France. She is best known for the work of her final stylistic phase, a kind of action painting.
After graduating in 1945 from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Elaine Hamilton went on to study with Robert Brackman in New York as a member of the Art Students League. Thereafter she worked as an assistant muralist under Diego Rivera in Mexico and received a mural commission for Mexico's Instituto Allende in 1952. She mounted a solo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951 and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Italy in 1952; the Fulbright grant was then extended for another year. She spent most of the rest of her career abroad.
Elaine Hamilton was an invited exhibitor at the Venice Biennial in 1956 and again in 1958. During her extensive travels in the 1950s, she remained prominent in the Baltimore contemporary art scene, winning the Popular Prize in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Maryland Artists Exhibition in 1952 and again in 1959. During the 1950s and 1960s, she had solo exhibitions of her work in major galleries and museums all over the world, in cities including Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Mexico City, Osaka, Tokyo, and Karachi (Pakistan), and she was featured in numerous multi-artist exhibitions in these cites as well as in Paris, New York (the Whitney Museum), Washington, DC (Corcoran Gallery), Tokyo, and others. She won first prize in the Biennale de Menton, France, in 1968.
According to Partha Mitter in Indian Art (Oxford History of Art), Elaine Hamilton was an important influence on the young Pakistani artist Ismail Gulgee (or Guljee, as it is sometimes spelled): "Impressed by the visiting American painter Elaine Hamilton, Guljee enthusiastically plunged into action painting...." [p.214]. Similarly, Jane Turner writes in her Dictionary of Art: "In 1960, Ismail Gulgee, known for his portraiture, began experimenting with non-objective painting (in the manner of Jackson Pollock) after working with visiting American artist Elaine Hamilton" [page 799]. In fact, according to David Craven, Hamilton became something of an ambassador for abstract expressionism in South Asia: "[Abstract expressionism] was promoted as a 'universal style' in Pakistan during the 1950s by a U.S. artist named Elaine Hamilton" [p. 23].
It is ironic that (if Craven is correct) Elaine Hamilton apparently was received as a kind of representative American abstract expressionist abroad, because she appears to have gotten pushed in the direction of abstract painting not in America, but in Europe, perhaps partly through her association with a certain Frenchman by the name of Michel Tapié de Céleyran. Tapié was an early exponent of "tachisme", as well as the curator of Jackson Pollock's first solo exhibition in Paris, in 1952. It was while in Italy or France that HamiIton gained the admiration and support of Tapié, a highly influential French critic and respected painter who was also co-founder of the International Center of Aesthetic Research in Turin, Italy. But even Hamilton's association with Tapié did not immediately result in her taking up purely abstract painting. It must be noted that, according to marylandartsource.com, Hamilton did not create her first purely abstract painting, entitled "Burst Beyond the Image", until 1960, after an expedition to K-2 in Pakistan. This painting is not only purely abstract; it is a particular kind of abstract painting which dramatically records the gestural action of painting itself, i.e., "action painting". Hamilton sustained and developed this approach to painting for the rest of her life. Full of inspiration after her Himalayan adventures, she quickly created many more of these huge "action" canvases for her solo and group exhibitions in Japan, in association with Tapié and the Gutai group (a patronage noted by Shinichiro, 1990: "Patrocinio dell'esposizione personale di Elaine Hamilton, gallería Fujikawa, Osaka..." [page 184]).
In 1971, Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal purchased a chateau in France, where she lived and worked for the next 30 years (though from 1952 on, she and her husband, Bill O'Neal, always maintained a residence at the Old Mill in Mountain Brook, Alabama as well). She returned in 2001 to her native town of Catonsville in Baltimore County, Maryland (where she still resides). Today her work is in the collections of the Museum of the International Center of Aesthetic Research (Turin, Italy) and the Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama), as well as in many private collections throughout the world. Below, the reader can find external links to images of her work in a recent (May 2006) auction record from Paris, and in the bio at MarylandArtSource.com (the primary information source for this article). It appears that she is known exclusively as a painter of oil-on-canvas works (excepting the murals), there being no mention in the available sources of her having created other kinds of visual art (such as sculpture, for example).
Stylistically, Elaine Hamilton passed through a number of stages, generally tending toward greater abstraction as time went on. Having won the prize for portrait painting at MICA, it was natural that she went on to study in New York with Robert Brackman, a master of realistic portraiture and other figurative painting. In the late 1940s to early 1950s, the influence of her mentor Diego Rivera is evident in the earthy textures and colors as well as in the heavy, sculpted, quasi-cubist forms of her increasingly abstract paintings (see the above example). Meanwhile, the scale of her work increases, also as a result of her study with the Mexican muralist (according to the MarylandArtSource essay). In the early 1950s there are other canvases that show nightmarish, contorted, bloody-looking images suggestive of slaughtered but unidentifiable bodies or body parts, somewhat in the manner of Francis Bacon. In about 1960, as noted above, she took up a very personal approach to "action painting" (or "gestural abstraction", as it is sometimes called), and it is for her paintings in this later, abstract expressionist manner that she is probably best known. She is also sometimes classed as a "lyrical abstractionist".
The 2006 Benezit Dictionary of Artists is emphatic in its praise:
"A globetrotter who has scaled the heights of the Himalayas, Hamilton makes profoundly serious work. Clearly part of the movement known as 'lyrical gestural abstraction', her painting is full of verve and invention and manifests an extraordinary gift for colour and substance."
The sources do not say precisely when during her dizzying peregrinations Elaine Hamilton married, taking on the "O'Neal" surname, but it was certainly no later than 1952 (the year in which, according to marylandartsource.com, she and her husband began to maintain a residence in Alabama).
It is evident, judging from the fact that she purchased a French chateau in 1971, that at some point Elaine Hamilton became quite a wealthy woman; but as a child, she certainly got used to doing without creature comforts from time to time. According to a 2002 interview (quoted in the context of a paper at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on the history of the forest reserve), during the 1920s Elaine and her family (parents and two brothers) lived nearly half of each year in an "army-style wall tent" in Maryland's Patapsco state forest reserve (this interview can be found in the external link given below):
“ 'We had what we needed,' she later recalled. Her experience at the park was a blend of rugged outdoor living complemented with the trappings of the modern middle-class lifestyle. Her family, on the one hand, was forced to dig a privy, sleep on straw mattress cots, and make several trips a day down to the local spring for fresh water; however, on the other hand, they cooked on a modern oil stove, owned a piano, and had electric power wired in from Bloede’s Dam for lighting and a radio... O’Neal’s experience at the Patapsco was simultaneously rugged and refined." 
The Hamilton family apparently did not camp in the park out of economic necessity, but rather for enjoyment. The state park service encouraged middle class and working families to camp there for extended periods, "roughing it pleasantly" for their spiritual and physical refreshment. Nevertheless, these long stays in the forest were rather more rigorous than today's typical family camping adventure, which doesn't ordinarily last for months or include having to dig one's own privy. According to O'Neal, it was because of this experience of making a cultured life in the wilderness that she “learned to be creative and inventive.” This material is summarized in Robert F. Bailey's 2006 book, Maryland's Forests and Parks : a Century of Progress: "Growing up in the park contributed to Elaine's creativity and, by her own testimony as an adult, helped sharpen her skills as a professional artist." [p. 41]
For the researcher, this is a biography with many missing pieces, but it is clear that Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal — having resided in New York, Mexico City, Rome, Karachi, Tokyo, Alabama, and Paris before returning to her native Catonsville — has led quite an adventurous life. She began in a kind of picturesque, sylvan rusticity, progressed to high scholastic honors and artistic achievement, and at length arrived at a life of wealth, privilege, and complete artistic freedom. Along the way, she sojourned in the midst of fantastically varied peoples, cultures, and landscapes.
It is difficult to establish a clear chronology on many points in the life of this artist. For example, the reader may have noticed an apparent discrepancy above: Craven writes that Elaine Hamilton was promoting abstract expressionism as a "universal style" in Pakistan during the 1950s, yet Marylandartsource.com asserts that she did not paint her first purely abstract painting until 1960. This would appear to be a contradiction, yet it must be remembered that Willem De Kooning's paintings of women are not purely abstract either, yet they are considered quintessential examples of abstract expressionism. But it is also possible that one of these two sources is simply in error.
Here is another example of apparent discrepancy: not only does David Craven place Hamilton in Pakistan "during the 1950s", but also Rasheed Araeen (who is Pakistani ) explicitly asserts that Hamilton was in Pakistan "at the time of the CIA’s supported military coup in Pakistan in 1957". Yet Marylandartsource.com tells us that after she went to Italy on a Fulbright in 1952 "the award was extended through 1953 and she chose to remain in Italy until 1959." It's very confusing: did she fly off for a brief side trip to Pakistan during her stay in Italy? One can only guess at explanations.
Certainly the exact chronology of events in the life of someone who traveled, worked, and exhibited so widely and frequently as Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal is a daunting task. Even while technically in residence in some particular place - whether Baltimore, New York, Mexico City, Florence, Karachi, Paris, or Birmingham, Alabama - she appears frequently to have been away on far-flung junkets to other places. The Benezit Dictionary does not exaggerate when it calls her a "globetrotter". Moreover, it does not help matters that she was apparently not in the habit of dating her paintings when she signed them (with any of the several versions of her name). In terms of chronology, any future biographer will have quite a job sorting all of this out.
[Please note: where possible, these book sources have been externally linked to WorldCat's "Find in a library" service: simply follow the instructions there, using a zip code to find a copy of the book in a library within a given area.]
1. Bailey, Robert F. Maryland's forests and parks : a century of progress (Charleston, S.C. : Arcadia Pub., 2006) ISBN 0738543519; ISBN 9780738543512
3. Craven, David. Abstract expressionism as cultural critique : dissent during the McCarthy period (Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1999) (See page 23 on Elaine Hamilton.) ISBN 0-521-43415-7
5. Galeria "Arte moderno" (Mexico). Exposicion de Elaine Hamilton O'Neal, 18 ene.-6 feb. 1952. [solo exhibition catalogue] (Mexico : [s.n.], 1952) OCLC 78562603
6. Hamilton, Elaine. Elaine Hamilton "exhibition of paintings" (Karachi, Pakistan, 1960) [solo exhibition catalogue] OCLC 39556032. Worldcat also lists this with the title Elaine Hamilton : "exhibition of paintings" ... Arts Council Galleries ... Apr. 24 to May 5, 1960, with OCLC 78122245
9. Osaki, Shinichiro; Augusta Monferini; Marcella Cossu; Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna (Italy). Giappone all'avanguardia : il Gruppo Gutai negli anni Cinquanta (Japan in the vanguard: the Gutai group in the 1950s [Catalog of an exhibition held at the Galleria nazionale d'arte moderna, Rome, Dec. 6, 1990 - Feb. 28, 1991; text in Italian] (Milan, Italy : Electa, 1990) ISBN 8843534262; ISBN 9788843534265
10. Plenn, Virginia; and Jaime Harrysson Plenn. A guide to modern Mexican murals (Mexico, D.F. : Ediciones Tolteca, 1963) OCLC 5193584 (Please note: this source misspells the artist's name as "Elaine Hamilton O'Neil", as confirmed by a Google book search: .)
11. Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with the Institute of International Education. Fulbright painters (New York: Institute of International Education, 1958) [exhibition catalogue] OCLC 3226790
12. Tapié, Michel; Elaine Hamilton; International Center of Aesthetic Research. Michel Tapié presents Elaine Hamilton : [exhibition] International Center of Aesthetic Research, Torino (Italy), 1969. OCLC 78457310 (This listing may be redundant with that following: it is not clear from comparison between the Worldcat information and the marylandartsource information.)
13. Tapié, Michel. Elaine Hamilton: Edizione del Dioscuro (Torino, Italy: International Center of Aesthetic Research), 1969. [Journal article by Michel Tapié; this source and the one following are listed at Marylandartsource.com.]
14. Tapié, Michel. Elaine Hamilton: Exhibition of Paintings (Osaka, Japan: Fujikawa Gallery), April 12-18, 1961. OCLC 81011323 [solo exhibition catalogue with text by Michel Tapié; this source and the one immediately preceding are listed at Marylandartsource.com.]
15. Turner, Jane. Dictionary of Art (New York : Grove, 1996) ISBN 1884446000; ISBN 9781884446009; ISBN 0195170687; ISBN 9780195170689
16. U.S. Centre culturel américain, Paris. Trois américains : Art Brenner, Robert Colescott, Elaine Hamilton.- Exposition à Paris, Centre culturel américain, 26 février-26 mars 1969 Worldcat link [exhibition catalogue in French] (Paris, Centre culturel américain, 1969) OCLC 38695859