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Harry Watrous (1857-1940)

Harry Willson Watrous was an American artist who received an academic education in France.
His paintings included genre scenes, stylized figural works, landscapes, nocturnes, portraits, and still lifes.
His 1913 painting The Drop Sinister has been called the first known portrait of an American interracial family.
He is perhaps best known for his enigmatic paintings of sophisticated women, often darkly dressed and seen in profile.
Harry Watrous was born in San Francisco in 1857, the son of Charles and Ruth Willson Watrous.
He had two brothers, Charles 1854-56 and Walter 1860-1903. Harrys father had been a whaler in his youth and made his fortune during the California Gold Rush.



Education and career

The family moved to New York City in 1864, where his fathers wealth allowed the young Watrous to be educated in private schools and to pursue an artistic career at his own pace, without having to worry about making a living.
He traveled to Spain with the deaf American artist Henry Humphrey Moore in 1881, and then to Paris, where he studied under Boulanger and Lefebvre at the Academie Julian, and in Leon Bonnats atelier.
He had paintings accepted at the Paris Salons of 1884 and 1885.
He was strongly influenced first by Marià Fortuny and then by Jean Louis Meissonier, who predicted that "someday this young man will be the American Meissonier".
Watrous would later contribute a chapter about Meissonier to the book Modern French Masters. He returned to the United States in 1886. Beginning in 1883, Watrous painted small genre pictures, "amazing in their almost microscopic detail".
These works "of cabinet size…descended directly from such seventeenth-century masters as Metsu, Terborch and Vermeer", and later, Vibert and Meissonier.


It is not a simple matter to reproduce with oil paint the sheen of satins and silks, the softness of furs and the richness of velvets, especially when it comes to doing it on a small canvas with the minute precision required in a picture that is intended to be seen at close range.… The strain upon an artists eyes in doing such miniature-like work is very great and in the case of Mr. Watrous effectually prevented his continuing it, having seriously affected his sight.

This impairment of his vision began in 1905 and was temporary, but did prompt Watrous to stop painting tiny, minutely detailed genre scenes, and to work on a larger scale and in a broader manner, producing from 1905-1918 the idealized female figures for which he is best known. "Perhaps the most original of all his works, these paintings are very enigmatic, suggesting a symbolic intent or at least a psychological strangeness". The paintings often convey a sense of whimsy or quiet melancholy.


When the Metropolitan Museum acquired this painting [The Passing of Summer] just after it was completed, the artist explained that in the autumn of 1911 he had observed a woman seated alone at a table in a French restaurant. Watrous asked her, "Well, has Prince Charming appeared?". Her melancholy answer was "No, and this is the passing of summer". This work thus alludes to the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and the loss of opportunity.

A profile of Watrous from 1923 noted that in these paintings

he displayed a note of humor or of tragedy wholly unknown to his earlier canvases and panels. His humor finds expression in demure revelations of feminine moods and modes, while his recognition of tragic consequences resulting from conscious or unconscious causes is revealed in the two best known of his "problem pictures", called The Dregs and The Drop Sinister… There is a commonly held viewpoint that these particular paintings are of trifling consequence, but those who hold it completely overlook their importance as social records and their rare technique.


Throughout this period, Watrous also painted images of a woman kneeling at prayer.
On the first of these, in 1908, American Art News commented, "Harry Watrous' Fair Penitent [aka Devotion] is…well thought out and well painted. There is a decided contrast in this canvas to the risqué Cup of Tea, Cigarette, and She, which Mr. Watrous showed last spring".
The Sun denounced a later example: "The succès de scandale of the Academy [exhibit of 1916]…is called Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a prayer that Mr. Watrous himself should utter each time he feels inclined to paint. It shows a profane young woman in shockingly frivolous gauzes and flamboyant morning cap, kneeling upon a garish prie-dieu for prayers, but judging by the simper upon her foolish face her 'words fly up' while her 'thoughts remain below.' In every way the picture is an offense against good taste".The Art World found the same painting "a work of delicate wit and genial satire…intellectually stimulating art".

In 1918, The Moon Path, his "first landscape", marked a "new departure for Harry Watrous, a moonlit landscape in the manner of [Ralph] Blakelock", and until 1923 he painted mainly landscapes and nocturnes. "In their evocative mood, boldly designed compositions, and use of light and dark contrasts, these paintings resemble the work of his friend Blakelock, although Watrous retained the sharp outlines and smooth paint surfaces characteristic of his own early work".

Long bedeviled by mental illness, Blakelock died in 1919. Watrous's nocturnes and landscapes in the style of Blakelock may be seen as elegiac and posthumous tributes.

The Passing of Summer, 1912 | Metropolitan Museum

"Around 1923 he began to paint still lifes, usually arrangements of the antique decorative objects he eagerly collected", including a number of Buddhist images. Several objects, tapestries, and pieces of furniture appear in more than one painting, as Watrous recombined them for different effects over the years.
In the 1930s, employing devices that recall "works by earlier American trompe-l'œil ("deceive the eye") painters", he created images of weathered religious icons. The Celebration of the Mass (1930-1935), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was included in the 1943 exhibit "American Realists and Magic Realists" at MOMA.


He also painted a number of Madonna and Child polychromatic statues. "Exploring a new vein, he exercised a new power and in spite of advancing years made these religious pictures the best of his career".
It was not until he was 80, in 1937, that Watrous had a one-man show, at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. A reviewer in the New York Times wrote: "Irradiating all that he does is the strong and progressive spirit of the painter himself; a painter who has held fast to the principles in which he believes, yet who has never seemed to fall into inelastic, ossified rote; never, really, to have grown old".

Another piece on the exhibit in the New York Times declared, "No American artist is more deeply respected or widely loved than he.…One need not hesitate for a moment to decide that Harry Watrous is doing the best work of his career right now".
Watrous was known to have painted only three portraits - one of his brother-in-law, William Gilman Nichols (now in a private collection); Portrait of Mrs. Harry W. Watrous, given by Watrous to the Sweat Museum (now the Portland Museum of Art) along with The Drop Sinister in 1919; Portrait of My Mother ("a beautiful piece of work technically and having so gracious and tender a spirit that it becomes the one portrait in a thousand that really records the individual"), given by Watrous to the Corcoran Gallery in 1926. | © Wikipedia


Academic offices and awards

In 1894 Watrous won the Thomas B. Clarke prize for figure painting for his work Bills and was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design, becoming a full academician in 1895.
He was active in the organization for the rest of his life. He served as secretary from 1898-1920, as vice president in 1922 and 1932-33, and as president 1933-34.
Watrous received the Academys Carnegie Prize for Madonna and Child aka Still Life in 1931, and the Academys Saltus Gold Medal in 1934 for Rose Madonna.
Celebration of the Mass was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1935, where it was awarded the Walter Lippincott Prize.



The Drop Sinister, What Shall We Do with It?, 1913 | Portland Museum of Art (gift of the artist, 1919)

The Drop Sinister

Around 1913, Watrous painted The Drop Sinister, What Shall We Do with It?, which was visually similar to his other works at the time, but, by addressing an issue of social and moral concern, was unique among his paintings. It is said to be the first known portrait of an American interracial family. The father wears a clerical collar and holds a Christian newspaper in his hand; on the wall is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a quotation, "And God said, Let us make man in our own image after our likeness".

The painting caused a stir when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design and at the Century Club in New York. "Harry W. Watrous preaches and paints well an interesting sermon on the negro question in The Drop Sinister," commented American Art News, which also called it "one of his best canvases". This "study in the fruits of miscegenation…caused an extraordinary amount of discussion, residents of one typically Southern city threatening to wreck the art museum if it was shown there".
The painting appears to depict a mixed marriage, which was illegal in many states at the time. The Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P. journal edited by W.E.B. DuBois, had a different idea about what was going on in the picture:

The people in this picture are all "colored"; that is to say the ancestors of all of them two or three generations ago numbered among them full-blooded Negroes. These "colored" folk married and brought to the world a little golden-haired child; today they pause for a moment and sit aghast when they think of this child’s future.
What is she? A Negro? No, she is "white." But is she white? The United States Census says she is a "Negro." What earthly difference does it make what she is, so long as she grows up a good, true, capable woman? But her chances for doing this are small! Why?
Because 90,000,000 of her neighbors, good Christian, noble, civilized people are going to insult her, seek to ruin her and slam the door of opportunity in her face the moment they discover "The Drop Sinister".



Harry Willson Watrous (17 settembre 1857-10 maggio 1940) è stato un artista Americano che ha ricevuto una formazione accademica in Francia.
I suoi dipinti includevano scene di genere, opere figurative stilizzate, paesaggi, notturni, ritratti e nature morte.
Il suo dipinto del 1913 The Drop Sinister è stato definito il primo ritratto conosciuto di una famiglia interrazziale americana.
È forse meglio conosciuto per i suoi dipinti enigmatici di donne sofisticate, spesso vestite in modo scuro e viste di profilo.
Watrous è nato a San Francisco e ha trascorso la sua infanzia a New York, dove ha ricevuto le sue prime lezioni di disegno. Dopo un soggiorno in California nel 1881, si recò all'estero per cinque anni. Ha viaggiato attraverso il Marocco ed il sud della Spagna, dove ha soggiornato per qualche tempo a Malaga.
Andò poi a Parigi e lì studiò all'Académie Julian sotto Léon Bonnat, Gustave Boulanger e Jules Joseph Lefebvre. I suoi primi lavori furono fortemente influenzati da Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Watrous dipinse in un raffinato stile accademico; inizialmente lavorò scene di genere - con molta attenzione per i costumi e gli interni.


Nel 1904 vinse una medaglia d'oro all'Esposizione Universale di Saint Louis.
Dal 1905-1918 si specializzò nei ritratti femminili eleganti, modernisti, quasi semplicistici che lo avrebbero reso famoso, spesso intervallati da uccelli, insetti od altri elementi simbolici.
Tra il 1918-1923 spostò la sua attenzione e realizzò principalmente paesaggi, con molta attenzione ai contrasti di luce e alla composizione.
Dopo il 1923 si concentrò principalmente sulla pittura di nature morte con oggetti decorativi, spesso dell'antichità.
Tuttavia, per la varietà delle sue scelte tematiche, rimase fedele al suo stile preciso, raffinato, accademico, con una forte enfasi sulla semplicità austera e classica.
Watrous era sposato con la pittrice e scrittrice Elizabeth Snowden Nichols. Nel 1933 divenne presidente dell'Accademia Nazionale del Design.
Morì nel 1940 a New York, all'età di 82 anni.
Dopo la sua morte, Watrous fu a lungo ignorato dai critici d'arte, ma alla fine del ventesimo secolo, l'interesse per il suo lavoro conobbe un risveglio. In parte a causa della sua produzione limitata, attualmente vengono richiesti prezzi elevati per i suoi dipinti alle aste.
Il suo lavoro può essere visto al Brooklyn Museum, al Museum of the National Academy of Design e al Metropolitan Museum of Art di New York.