Montpelier was a most unlikely birthplace for Thomas Waterman Wood, an artist who was to head both the National Academy and the American Watercolor Society - twin pillars of the traditional art establishment. At the time of Wood's birth in 1823, the capital boasted only about 2,400 souls and exposure to prevailing art and culture was scanty indeed.
Yet Wood, the son of a local cabinetmaker and largely self-taught save for a few months instruction in the studios of Boston artist Chester Harding, would steadily rise in both public approval and the respect of his fellow artists.
His capable work in portraiture was his bread and butter, but it was his shift into genre art, skillfully capturing everyday scenes of rural New England, that brought him a more enduring reputation. And it is these works that still enthrall modern viewers.
Artists such as Norman Rockwell (once labeled "the Rembrandt of Punkin Crick") built upon the foundations laid down by practitioners such as Wood, Winslow Homer, J. G. Brown and Eastman Johnson.
Wood insisted upon drawing the specifics of his subject matter, rather than resorting to idealized types. The Art Journal of April 1876 declared: "As a colorist Wood is forcible, and as a delineator of character he never accepts the ideal, but goes direct to nature for his models. In the Composition of a picture, every object is clearly drawn, and he secures attention by the directness of his story."
Working from a profusion of preliminary, unsigned sketches and studies, Wood meticulously assembled his larger story-telling paintings such as 'The Village Post Office," "The Quack Doctor" and the "Yankee Peddler" piece by piece from individual portraits, drawings of animals and architectural features.
The complete whole became far more than the sum of the individual parts. Wood's pictures captured events in the life of his Montpelier village or related compelling moral tableaux such as the accusing spouse imploring the saloon-keeper in "The Drunkard's Wife."
Wood also enjoyed delightful visual puns to accentuate the moral messages of his stories: a bevy of quacking ducks emerges from underneath the wagon of "The Quack doctor," and the final three letters in the name on the vehicle's side, I. M. Cheatham, are obscured by a wagon wheel.
It would be impossible to understand Wood's life and work without underlining he and his wife Minerva's affectionate relationship to his hometown of Montpelier. Although Wood traveled widely around the country and Europe to execute his art projects, he returned regularly to Montpelier.
While established either in the Pavilion Hotel or his Gothic cottage "Athenwood," Wood painted scores of Montpelier locals who would later inhabit his hugely successful paintings such as "Crossing the Ferry," "Arguing the Question," or "Jump." His relentless Yankee ethic resulted in an outpouring of artistic works in oils, watercolors and skilled etchings. In his frequent portrayals of African-Americans, as in "Cornfield" and "The Faithful Nurse," Wood avoided the racial stereotyping, treating each figure individually.
He also took time to banter with his neighbors, or to toss surplus apples from his orchard to neighborhood children from the top of his retaining wall at Athenwood. (After his death in 1903, one of the floral tributes at his service bore the legend "Given by the children of Northfield Street.")
The death of his wife in 1889, after decades of disability, ended a remarkably intimate relationship. In his later years, Wood determined with the cooperation of his longtime friend, Columbia University professor John W. Burgess, to give his hometown an art gallery. It would include representative works of his own, as well as examples from artists such as William Beard, Asher B. Durand, J. G. Brown, F. S. Church and Alexander Wyant.
Wood also traveled to the great museums of Europe to copy splendid works of Rembrandt, Raphael, Murillo, Titian, Turner and others. The results of these gifts persists today in the Wood Art Gallery on the Vermont College Campus.
Wood represented the conservative wing of the American art establishment during his many years as the president of the National Academy. Artist James Smillie termed Wood's faction the "old fogy element" because Wood and his colleagues were less enamored of the impressionists and "French Tendencies".
In vigorously portraying everyday characters, and creating vibrant story-telling pictures, few matched the sheer vitality and wonderful specificity of Wood. Each carefully rendered detail contributed to the resonance of the whole. His images of rural Vermont and the diverse natives of Montpelier continue to speak to audiences a century after Wood first drew these visions on canvas and paper.
Perhaps he failed to meet Bertolt Brecht's dictum that art should be a hammer that shapes society. But his evocative work nevertheless holds a mirror to the past, allowing us, albeit imperfectly, to enter into its culture to recapture precious moments of everyday life.
The late Richard Hathaway was a professor of Liberal Studies in the Adult Degree Program at Vermont College and was a trustee to the T. W. Wood Art Gallery.
Location CENTER FOR ARTS AND LEARNING 46 Barre Street, Montpelier, VT 05602
The T.W. Wood Gallery mission is to preserve our artistic heritage and to bring the best of today's art to Central Vermont.
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Elliott Bent, Glen Coburn-Hutcheson, John Landy, Therese Mageau, Miccal McMullan, Linda Paradee, Phillip Robertson, Suzi Swanson