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Donald E. Lee, a self-trained Irvington artist who brought detailed realism to his portraits, maritime and still-life paintings, dies

Donald E. Lee obituary photo.
Donald E. Lee obituary photo.

Donald E. Lee, a retired postal worker and self-taught Irvington artist who brought realism to his portraits, maritime and still-life paintings, died of a heart attack Oct. 10 at his Irvington home. He was 93.

“Donald was absolutely ageless and was one of our longest running students who studied evenings and summers,” said Francesca Schuler Guerin, a Baltimore sculptor who is director of the Schuler School of Fine Arts, where Mr. Lee studied. “He would model for us and he was more than a family friend, he was part of the Schuler family.”

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Jennifer M. Littleton is a noted Baltimore watercolorist, teacher and a longtime friend.

“He was a fantastic person who was incredibly dedicated to his artwork and always had something on the easel,” Ms. Littleton said. “He wanted things to look like the way they actually were. He liked realism.”

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Diana Duda, a Baltimore artist, remembered her friend for his kindness.

“I have never met a more sweet and gentle soul. Donald was a true gentleman and enormously kind-hearted,” Ms. Duda wrote in an email. “His paintings are a visual delight. What I remember most about Donald is what a perfect master he was, grilling during many parties.”

Donald Earl Lee, son of John Lee Sr., a laborer, and Beatrice White, was born in Baltimore and raised on Wakefield Road and Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore.

He was a 1945 graduate of Carver Vocational-Technical High School, where he received a diploma in drafting. From 1948 to 1952, he served in the Army as a draftsman and painter, and attained the rank of sergeant.

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After being discharged from the service, he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service as a draftsman and at the time of his retirement in 1982 was working at the main post office on East Fayette Street.

“Of all of Donald’s career choices, none was as meaningful and important to him as being a professional artist,” according to a family biographical profile of Mr. Lee. “He was a self-taught, naturally gifted artist who went on to hone his skills at the prestigious Schuler School of Fine Arts. He became an ardent student in the methods and techniques of the Old Masters. His forte was realism and he specialized in oil paintings depicting marine and still-life art.”

“He also did some work in charcoal and water colors,” said a daughter, Charloetta Massey of Rosedale.

Donald E. Lee obituary photo.
Donald E. Lee obituary photo.

Mr. Lee’s pursuit of art began at an early age.As a kid, he used the Sears Roebuck catalog for artistic inspiration, his daughter said.

But it was his love and mastery of realism that he poured into his detailed portraits, maritime and still-life paintings.

In addition to studying at the Schuler School of Fine Arts, Mr. Lee studied with and was influenced by the late Melvin O. Miller, a realist painter, who was a member of the Baltimore Realists.

He was also influenced by Jacques Maroger, an art restorer and Maryland Institute of Art instructor, who had emigrated from France in 1939, and believed in the materials and techniques of the Old Masters’ classical-realist style, Ms. Guerin said.

“He mixed his own paints and stretched his canvases just like the Old Masters,” Ms. Massey said.

From his jammed studio apartment that was filled with art books, his personal art collection and his models he used for his still-lifes, a seemingly endless procession of paintings flowed from the easel of a meticulous and detailed-oriented craftsman.

He was captivated by the sea and ships and of the harbor tugs that plied their trade as they scurried across the Baltimore harbor; or that of a windjammer rolling up the bay; or his finely detailed still-lifes that combined grapes, oranges and flowers; or that of a red lobster resting on a stone surrounded by a wedge of cheese, grapes, oranges and pears.

In 2011, the Navy laid down the USS Zumwalt in Maine. The guided missile destroyer, which was the first of its class, was named for Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, and was commissioned in Baltimore on Oct. 15, 2016.

The Navy commissioned Mr. Lee to render the destroyer’s official portrait, which hangs at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis.

Mr. Lee portrays the USS Zumwalt underway steaming past Fort McHenry as a formation of six vigilant Blue Angels F/A Boeing Super Hornets fly overhead.

“One day during the summer of 2016, I stopped by Donald’s apartment-studio when he was working on the painting of the USS Zumwalt that the Navy had requested,” wrote his half-brother, Vincent Gordon of Woodmoor, in an email.

“I complimented him on what I thought was the ‘finished product.’ Later that week, I stopped by again, only to find him still working on the project. When I asked why, he said that in his original rendition, the light reflecting off of the Blue Angel planes was incorrect, given the skies were quite grayish.”

Donald E. Lee obituary photo.
Donald E. Lee obituary photo.

On the morning of the commissioning, Mr. Lee’s family was in attendance along with his brother.

“When the real Blue Angels had an ear-numbing flyover, I couldn’t help but think about the artist and his accuracy,” Mr. Gordon wrote.

Mr. Lee was not fearful when it came to embracing computer technology for artistic purposes.

“In his mind, there should be no age constraints on the learning process,” his brother wrote. “Though in his mid-80s at the time, he made significant progress in developing user skills, and earlier this year, he was using Skype to communicate with an artist friend in Japan.”

A sociable person, Mr. Lee was a longtime member of the Charcoal Club, an art club that was founded in Baltimore in 1883.

“He was so friendly and gregarious and never missed a party and we would often bartend together,” said Ms. Guerin, a fellow club member. “He also loved to gamble, and if we had a raffle, he’d always win. We had a saying, there’s no point in gambling if Donald’s name is in the hat.”

Mr. Lee also relished his role of mentoring young artists.

“I also got to know him through the Charcoal Club, and as a person, he was just fantastic,” said Ms. Littleton who also owns the Littleton School for Art in Mays Chapel.

“He was my mentor and he pressed me on with my work and encouraged me to enter the American Watercolor Society Show in New York in 2014 that was held at the Salmagundi Club and he was so proud of me,” Ms. Littleton said.

He also studied watercolors with Ms. Littleton at her art school.

“At that point in his life, I think he sold more watercolors than oils,” she said. “His death is such a huge, huge loss for me. He was not only a dear friend but also my mentor,” she said.

Mr. Lee, who enjoyed crabbing and fishing, was also a Ravens fan.

“We loved watching the games together and screaming at the TV,” Ms. Littleton said, laughing.

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Mr. Lee continued painting until six months before his death, his daughter said.

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“Bye Donald, we will all miss you and hold fond memories forever,” Ms. Duda wrote.

Funeral services were held Oct. 20 at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium.

In addition to his daughter and brother, Mr. Lee is survived by three sons, Ralphael Massey of Randallstown, Victor Massey of Irvington and Francisco Massey of Catonsville; another daughter, Ingrid Massey of Parkville; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

He was predeceased by two other sons, Donald E. Lee Jr. who died in 1987, and Cornell Barnes, who died in 2020. Marriages to the former Dorothy Stevens and Dr. Elsa Merasi ended in divorce.

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