Harold Ambellan was born on May 24, 1912 in Buffalo, New York. While studying sculpture and fine arts in Buffalo, he was awarded a scholarship to the Art Student League in 1930, where he spent the following two years. From 1935-1939, as one of the many American artists who benefited from Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, Ambellan created a series of mural sculptures entitled Family and Learning, for the Willert Park Courts (a public housing project in Buffalo), as well as a sculpture for Brooklyn College in New York. He was also one of the artists featured in the 1938 group show, Subway Art, at the Museum of Modern Art. Ambellan was elected President of the Sculptors Guild of America in 1941, the same year that his work was exhibited in group shows at both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
In 1942, as a member of the U.S. Navy, Ambellan participated in the liberation of Normandy. Upon his return to New York, he spent two years teaching three-dimensional art at the Workshop School. During this time, he traveled extensively throughout Europe. Although the artists who became known as the Abstract Expressionists were among his friends in New York, Ambellan remained committed to the figurative in both his sculpture and painting. Due to his broad humanist approach to art – and his belief that art was tied to every man (or everyman) – he became a victim of the tide of McCarthyism sweeping the country, which culminated in his decision to exile to France in 1954. He intended to stay in France for one year, but later decided to make his home there. After living several years in Montparnasse, one of the principal artistic communities of Paris, Ambellan decided to settle in the Greek-Roman enclave town of Antibes on the Côte d'Azur. In 1980, he settled in the Provencal town of Arles, where he lived until the end of his life (April 2006). In France, he continued his exploration of the human figure in art, with the emphasis shifting over time from sculpture to painting. While exhibiting throughout Europe (culminating in two retrospectives: in1976, at the Museum Baden in Solingen, Germany; and in 2001, at the Espace Van Gogh in Arles), he created, most notably, a collection of medals for the Monnaie de Paris, as well as a monumental sculpture and several smaller pieces for the Nathan Cummings Collection. Calling himself an artisan, Ambellan worked everyday, often drawing on the scraps of paper and correspondence that happen to be scattered on the table in his studio. He pointed to sources as varied as German expressionism and cubism to Greek, Indian and African art as the primary guideposts for, and inspirational sources of, his art.
As an artist of the common man, Ambellan reveled in the fact that his oeuvre is as present in homes and apartments throughout Europe as it is in the galleries of that region. From his most grandiose sculptures to his smallest studies on paper, Ambellan devoted his life to the study of the human form: its lines and curves; its movements; its singular, as well as coupled, sensuality. The beauty of his work touches the viewer on a visceral level and its purity speaks directly to the spirit.
Surrounded by family and friends, Harold Ambellan died in Arles on April 21, 2006.