Then Again: An artist from Montpellier has become one of the best in the country

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“The Quack Doctor,” by Vermonter Thomas Waterman Wood, shows a man peddling his patented medicine to a crowd. Wood added a visual pun, a group of ducks walking and seemingly charlatan under the cart, and added the dubious doctor’s name, “IM Cheatham,” to the side of the cart. The rear wheel partially obscures the last three letters of the name. For this painting, Wood used his native Montpelier as a backdrop, including the arch that once spanned East State Street. TW Wood Gallery, Montpellier

If you don’t live in Montpellier, you’ve probably never heard of Thomas Waterman Wood. Frankly, even though you live there you still might not have heard of him. And even if it does, you might not know who he was.

But during his life, the native of Montpellier was among the most respected painters in America.

Since his death in 1903, however, he has largely slipped into obscurity. In fact, that would be relapsing into oblivion. Wood did not come from a wealthy family or an artistic family – his father was a cabinetmaker – and little suggested that he would become a prominent chronicler of 19th century life.

Local history, or perhaps legend, goes that as a child he was inspired to try painting by a traveling artist passing through Montpellier. It was in the 1830s. The painter did not offer lumber lessons. His contribution to history left behind a few cans of paint that Wood decided to have fun with.

The bond that the young boy established with painting that day would eventually lead him to study art, to go into business as a portrait painter, to embark on the production of genre paintings (representations of everyday life ) and to be elected president of the prestigious National Academy of Design. At New York.

As a young man, Thomas Waterman Wood painted a portrait of Vermont lawyer and writer Daniel Thompson. Vermont Historical Society

After trying to paint landscapes, he quickly turned to character painting. His friend Charles Paine, son of a Vermont governor, wrote that in 1844 Wood, then 21, “first exhibited his shingle as a portrait painter” in a room at the hotel de la Paine family in Northfield.

His father, John, objected to Thomas’ career choice, presumably fearing that his son would never make a decent living. Perhaps this is why Wood started painting portraits. Unlike landscape painting, as a portrait painter his works were usually sold before he began them.

The first known oil portrait of Wood is that of his compatriot from Montpellier, Daniel Thompson. Lawyer and journalist, Thompson wrote the classic adventure novel “The Green Mountain Boys” in 1839. Wood portrays Thompson as a stern and imposing face, as sharp as Camel’s Hump, which appears in the background. The painting, probably dating from the mid-1840s, is an excellent effort by an untrained artist. The work hangs in the library of the Vermont Historical Society in Barre.

Athenwood, a summer house

Around this time, Wood decided to travel to Boston to train with a prominent portrait painter named Chester Harding. Although Wood spent many winters in Boston, most of his early portrait commissions came from Vermont. Maybe it was because his skills were scarce in his home country, or friends wanted to help him get started. He painted portraits of family friends, including the father of his friend, Governor Charles Paine.

But to get by, he also gives singing lessons and borrows money from his uncles. With the help of his family, Wood bought land along Northfield Road (now Route 12) and began building a house for himself and his future wife, Minerva Robinson, in 1850.

Wood was clearly in love; he described Minerva as “a more beautiful soul in a more beautiful face; filled with knowledge of all philosophy, history and romance, which had been distilled by his reflections to adorn his conversation and educate his listeners.

Wood named their home Athenwood. It was a play on his wife’s new name, being a combination of their last name and Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, known to the Romans as Minerva. Tellingly, Athenwood, which still stands, was built as a summer house. Wood knew he couldn’t achieve his ambitions in his small hometown.

Remarkable for the time

Despite its mundane subject matter, Thomas Waterman Wood’s 1858 painting “Market Woman” was a sweeping statement. Other painters in America did not depict everyday scenes involving black people. With paintings like this, Wood emphasized their humanity, which many whites ignored at a time when slavery was still legal. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco

The couple made the first of many career moves for Wood, this one to the New York City area. In 1858 they were living in Baltimore, where Wood made a pair of unusual genre paintings of a newspaper peddler and a woman holding a basket of food.

What made the paintings remarkable, besides Wood’s magnificent rendering, was that he chose black Americans as his role models and portrayed them with sympathy. At a time when slavery was still legal, this simple act of recognizing blacks as fully human bordered on revolutionary.

People were used to seeing black people in art reduced to racist stereotypes, in part in an attempt to justify slavery. As such, some people found the paintings shocking. Wood got rid of criticism and regularly painted free and slave blacks.

The paintings of the peddler and the woman with the basket made Wood his first patron of his genre paintings. John Christian Brune, a wealthy sugar refiner, bought the pair. Encouraged, Wood submitted one of the works, “Moses, the Baltimore News Vendor,” to the National Academy in New York for its major annual exhibition. To his relief, the academy accepted the painting.

After the exhibition, the academy failed to return the painting to Baltimore. It had been sold to Robert Stuart, a great art collector. The problem was, Brune had already bought it. Perhaps academy officials hadn’t realized that the painting was already mentioned. Or maybe Wood got greedy and took the second offer because it was higher than what Brune paid.

Wood returned Brune’s money, but Brune sued Stuart for the painting and ultimately got it back.

As the row raged, Wood made a timely overseas trip to immerse himself in the European art scene. After their return, the Woods lived for a time in Tennessee, although they returned to Vermont on a regular basis. Wood divided his efforts between portraits and genre pieces, as he would for the rest of his life.

Honor everyday life

In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, he painted a scene of blacks, probably slaves, working in a cornfield. Some workers stop to look at a boy who offers them water. The boy, kneeling, seems to honor the workers with his gesture.

In his 1866 painting “The Veteran,” Thomas Waterman Wood outlined the service and sacrifices of black men in the United States Army during the Civil War. To make the point clear, Wood added an American flag in the background. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And in 1867, Wood celebrated the outcome of the war in his painting “American Citizens (at the Ballot Box)”. The artwork shows a cross section of American society standing in front of a polling station, featuring a Yankee alongside more recent immigrants, an Irishman, a Dutchman, and, representing full new members of society, a black man. .

Wood was a decidedly modern painter, portraying his time as it changed. He also painted less politically charged works of daily life in rural America, such vignettes of a girl preparing to jump off a hay mow or a boy collecting eggs. The scenes may seem too sentimental today, but they correspond to the sentiment of the time.

By honoring everyday life, Wood was a precursor to another Vermont painter, Norman Rockwell.

One of Wood’s most famous works is “The Village Post Office,” which he painted in 1873. The painting depicts a post office in Williamstown, Vermont. As he did with many of his genre paintings, Wood used friends as his models. He painted one of his uncles as a postmaster, while an assortment of Montpellier residents replaced clients. He even modeled the dog in the painting after a local dog.

By the time he reached middle age, Wood had gained a national reputation. In 1878, members of the National Academy of Design honored him by voting to allow Wood to join their ranks. He would surpass that 12 years later by becoming president of the academy.

Despite his national success, Wood has never forgotten his hometown. In 1895, it hosted the official opening of the TW Wood Gallery, which still exists in Montpellier, but in a different location. He donated a large assortment of his paintings, along with the works of other artists, to form the basis of a cultural institution for the state capital.

Dignitaries such as the venerable United States Senator from Vermont Justin Smith Morrill, a United States Supreme Court justice and the president of the University of Vermont attended the event.

When it was his turn to speak, Wood said, “This is my hometown, and although I am in a sense a passing person here, I have still resided with you more years than the majority of your inhabitants. all year round, and when I was absent from my body, my heart lived in this beautiful valley by the fireside of my friends of yesteryear.

Thomas Waterman Wood painted this self-portrait in 1884. TW Wood Gallery, Montpellier

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