The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Portland Museum of Art. PMA is presenting the exhibition William Thon: A Retrospective, which will be on view February 9 through May 27, 2002. An illustrated catalogue containing this essay may be purchased through the museum's bookshop. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Portland Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

William Thon (1906-2000)

by Susan C. Larsen, Ph.D.

 

I.

 

The nation may topple,

But the mountains and rivers remain.

Tu Fu (712770 A.D.)

Chinese poet

 

William Thon led a life so completely at one and at peace with his artistic mission that we must understand him as a philosopher as well as a visual poet. His engagement with a world of wind and water and changing seasons became a search for the very essence of nature's vital force. William Thon (1906-2000) was a dignified, self-evolved, somewhat quiet man whose calm and friendly demeanor put one quickly at ease. His was not a grandiose personality but one projecting a deep, steady confidence. Thon had many friends among his neighbors in Port Clyde, Maine, as he spent a long life on the docks, along the shore, and in the forests where people made their living from the land and sea.

Essentially self-taught as an artist, Thon mastered the difficult visual language of modern art and then went on to create a distinctly personal and intensely expressive style all his own. Thon's 60-year career as a painter led him to some surprising discoveries, culminating in the visionary works of his old age. Dwelling in near-blindness, he achieved a wondrous sense of light and space, a revelation in ink and paint for us to share and to see.

William Thon made his professional mark in the 1950s when he shared national prominence with a generation of Americans working in an abstract expressionist style. His abstracted landscapes of Maine quarries, boats and shorelines, and ships at sea are familiar to anyone who has studied American art of this period. He won many national and international prizes and his work entered the permanent collections of our nation's greatest art museums. Artistic prizes and national attention did not motivate William Thon, although he accepted them with grace and modesty. He did not gain his enduring place in American art by participating in the lively critical discourse of his day. His art came from another source both physically and spiritually. Thon chose to live in the relative isolation of Maine on a peninsula overlooking the sea, a quiet place, especially in winter. He chose the company of sailors, craftsmen, lobstermen, a few fellow artists, and his beloved wife Helen.

Each season, William Thon would send his paintings off to the prestigious Midtown Galleries in New York City as though sending them on a journey to a strange and distant land. Each bore the imprint of his intense connection to raw and wild things, beautifully contained within the artist's capable and generous temperament. Thon's paintings of Maine had little to do with rural nostalgia or American historical values or the pathos of human relationships. His was a living Maine, a timeless and vital place reflecting his own passion for its rough, beautiful forests, intemperate seas, and the scatter of wooden buildings along its rugged shoreline.

William Thon took a long view of man's time on earth. He often painted small boats on vast and turbulent waters. He lingered over the smallest details of indecipherable human and animal tracks on a snowy forest floor. He depicted sailors struggling to survive in an Atlantic gale and made his viewers wonder about the outcome. In Thon's pictorial universe, man is not the measure of all things. Thon valued and respected man's ability to see and understand the natural world, but he regarded its mysteries as beyond human reckoning. Marveling at the revelations of each hour, each turn of tide, each season of the year, Thon created an art that achieves equilibrium and joy by dwelling within the tumult of nature.William Thon's sweeping views of Maine, admitting all kinds of weather, every time of the year, and every lovely and unlovely aspect, reveal his deep trust in nature as an ultimately benign force. He believed in the inherently spiritual nature of the universe.

 

II.

 

Space and Time! Now I see it is true, what I guess'd at,

What I guess'd when I loaf'd on the grass,

What I guess'd while I lay alone in my bed,

And again as I walk'd the beach under the paling stars of the morning.

 

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855

 

William Thon, whose entire adult life is associated with coastal Maine, was in fact a native New Yorker. Born in 1906 in Manhattan, he was the son and grandson of pharmacists. Thon's father, Felix Thon, worked in a busy pharmacy on Sixth Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets in New York City. William Thon's grandfather emigrated from Germany in the mid-1870s, just after the American Civil War, and established his household in Brooklyn. The orderliness and routine apparent in the first generation of Thons in America gave way to a slightly more unorthodox way of life by the next generation.

William Thon grew up as the second of four children, two boys and two girls. He had by his own account a happy but oddly peripatetic upbringing. Perhaps as a bid for a healthier way of life in search of clean air and outdoor living, the elder Thon decamped his entire family to Staten Island each year from April to October. There they lived in a tent for almost six months every year. The previous year's lodging having been given up, they moved into new quarters almost every autumn. The four Thon children spent several months in the Staten Island school system then returned to New York for the fall and winter term. Frequent moves meant changes in school districts and exposure to a variety of ethnic communities in their young years.

William Thon spoke with great fondness of his unusual childhood. He enjoyed access to waterfront sports such as boating, swimming, and fishing. Staten Island offered more than just a summertime idyll. Thon was fascinated by the marine environment as he observed ferry boats, tankers, tug boats, fishing vessels, lighthouses, Navy cruisers, pleasure boats and Coast Guard vessels. If his mother, Jennie Upham Thon, ever complained of the challenges she faced to keep house for four children and two adults in a tent for half the year, William Thon did not seem to recall it. He counted the months on Staten Island as the best part of his childhood and vowed to live by the seashore when he became an adult.

As Thon's early years sped by, he did not have a definite plan for his future apart from his love of the sea. Felix Thon did not force any of his children into the profession of pharmacy because it had, in fact, been forced upon him by his own father. William showed an early interest in drawing and painting. Several grade school teachers enlisted him to paint murals and to do illustrations for school projects. His gifts, however, did not seem to offer much in the way of potential employment when Thon left school in his early teens. He found a variety of jobs doing construction work, bricklaying, sweeping up in a commercial art studio, and lettering signs.

In 1925, at the age of 19, Thon met a friend who was enjoying his studies at Manhattan's famous Art Students League. This friend had steady employment as a commercial artist and credited some of his success to the League and its programs. Thon decided to follow a similar path; however, he did not quit his day job when he enrolled in a night class for life drawing at the Art Students League. His studies, as he later explained, lasted only four weeks: "I thought it was boring. I spent most of my time up in the coffee shop drinking coffee and doing sketches of some of the other students in my sketchbook. Then after 30 days, I thought, 'I need to pay to do this?' I can look at models in the subway. So that's all the education I've had in school."

Nevertheless, Thon's experience at the Art Students League brought him into contact with the broader world of art in New York City, and that did make a lasting difference in his life. He began to visit art galleries and museums and started to investigate art materials and supplies from a more serious point of view. His early efforts were halting and sometimes awkward, but he already had a preference for landscape and a desire to live in a rural environment along the Atlantic coast. Some of his earliest paintings featured a single ship sailing at night on a moonlit sea. Although Thon later described these early efforts as "terrible," they do suggest that the imagery of his lifetime was already haunting this young artist.

In the fateful year of 1929, when the nation was about to plunge into the Great Depression, great good fortune came to William Thon. While working as a clerk in a utility company, he met fellow worker Helen Walters. Petite, high-spirited, strong-willed and wonderfully supportive of Thon's desire to become an artist, she provided all of the help and encouragement he needed to steer his course into the future. They married within the year and embarked upon a fulfilling life together that would last 70 years.

Almost immediately, William Thon found more satisfying and suitable employment. Memories of his grandfather's pharmacy with the "big red and green glass vessels in both sides of the windows," served him well when he joined a window display company specializing in pharmaceutical shows and drug store displays. As the son and grandson of pharmacists, Thon knew the business quite well, and his artistic imagination helped to make the firm a success. He reserved evenings and weekends for his painting and for spending time with Helen. She kept her job at the utility company, providing a steady small income that would help to see the couple through the Great Depression and the coming crisis of World War II.

In a move perhaps reminiscent of his father's eccentric annual family migrations, William Thon signed on in 1933 with a clandestine treasure-hunting expedition to travel by ship from New York to Cocos Island in Costa Rica. The expedition, led by writer Edward U. Valentine followed a map supposedly describing the location of $60 million worth of Peruvian gold buried by noblemen fleeing the advancing armies of Simon Bolivar. With a crew of five, Valentine set out from New York in early 1933. They soon suffered mechanical breakdowns and bad weather and eventually foundered in Jamaica. Valentine had the ship repaired and made it to Cocos Island, which is located a little more than 300 southwest of Costa Rica. Uninhabited and near-desolate, it offered little in the way of water and food. Edward Valentine had to dodge the local authorities because he had never applied for permission to search for their legendary treasure. Thon described their privations and dangers in colorful terms for the rest of his life, but he admitted that he never felt in mortal danger. He returned home to Helen on a passenger ship, his pockets empty but his mind full of colorful images and enough adventure to last him for a while.

William and Helen Thon lived in Brooklyn Heights during the 1930s and early 1940s. Slowly but steadily, Thon's oil paintings began to appear in local exhibitions of the Brooklyn Society of Artists and the Salmagundi Club. He learned a great deal from fellow exhibitors and appreciated the guidance of artist friends, always mindful of his own scanty formal education in art. Thon had a growing number of successes as his art found steady acceptance in juried exhibitions. Several sales fueled the hope that he could eventually make a living and a career as a painter.

Thon's contemporaries such as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko nurtured lofty ideals and based their art upon locally available examples by the great innovators of early 20th-century European modernism. During the mid-1930s, artists in New York gathered to discuss and debate the merits of Picasso, Miró, the entire Surrealist movement, and the non-objective art of Mondrian and members of the DeStijl group. War was raging in Europe, and there was financial devastation at home. Important modern paintings by major European artists could be acquired at bargain prices. New York's landmark collections of modern art grew rapidly in the 1930s as The Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum (then the Museum of Non-Objective Painting), and the Museum of Living Art (now part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) built definitive collections for artists and the public to see and study on a daily basis. In many respects, the achievements of the postwar New York School rest upon the long, gradual growth of a sophisticated generation of artists and an informed public in America during the 1930s.

William Thon was swept along with artistic developments in New York. Unlike his more famous contemporaries, he did not seek to master the theoretical literature of European modernism and its full range of formal innovation. He experimented but little with the intricacies of cubist form. Art critics Gordon Brown, Alan Gruskin, and others have compared William Thon to the celebrated turn-of-the-century American eccentric Albert Pinkham Ryder, who lived at the edges of a volatile and prosperous art world, following his own idiosyncratic but compelling vision. Ryder was fascinated by the technical aspects of painting and evolved mysterious recipes of homemade compounds involving oils and varnishes and other materials. These gave his work the distinctively rough, murky surface that has confounded analysis for more than 100 years. Ryder also took odd parts of Impressionism, literary Symbolism and American naturalism and distilled these into his darkly mysterious brew that continues to move the souls of his viewers. As his career unfolded, William Thon would discover new and expressive combinations of pigment and textured salts and sand to enhance the surfaces of his watercolors and give a distinctive personal style to his oil paintings. He shared some aspects of his technical repertoire quite openly but maintained a mysterious silence about others.

For many artists of Thon's generation, the art season of 1939-40 offered new hope and opportunity. New York modernists participated in the decorative mural programs of the vastly popular 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Thon's success of that year occurred at the Corcoran Gallery of Art biennial exhibition in Washington, D.C. His oil painting The Creek (circa 1939) was singled out for special praise. A snowy landscape in moody tonalities, it possessed a dark poetry that captured the attention of venerable New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell. It is not surprising that Jewell would be drawn to Thon's evocative landscape. A great debate was raging in the nation's art press and Edward Alden Jewell played a leading role. A growing number of younger American artists allied themselves with the modern artistic movements of Europe, Cubism, and especially abstract Surrealism. American modernists enjoyed the support of a new generation of art critics who argued for an international world of art with a strong American presence. Critics such as Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg urged Americans to engage with the art of Europe and to reject the isolationist arguments of the Regionalists and other nationalist points of view. Edward Alden Jewell often took the other side in this growing controversy. He cherished the hope for a distinctly American modernism based upon ideal views of nature and a strong commitment to native subject matter.

Thon expressed his own admiration for the first generation of American modernists active in the 1910s and 1920s, especially Yasuo Kuniyoshi and John Marin. These painters were able to interpret the American scene in a modernist idiom and did so quite early in the century. Edward Alden Jewell and fellow New York Times critic Howard Devree welcomed the work of William Thon, perhaps seeing it as the hoped-for continuation of earlier 20th-century developments in American modernism. In this hope, they were joined by other nativists such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Juliana Force who together created the Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened in 1930 dedicated to contemporary American artistic developments and expressions.

Thon maintained a wide range of friendships among the artists of New York, ranging across stylistic and geographical boundaries. One of the closest of his companions was Stow Wengenroth, a much more conservative artist than Thon but a person of great technical ability as a draftsman and printmaker. He was also a friendly and engaging personality who shared Thon's love of the sea. Thon admired Wengenroth's ability to solve practical problems, his understanding of building and architecture, and his knowledge of geography.

In 1940, Thon told his friend Wengenroth that a tour of then-popular art colonies such as Provincetown and Rockport in Massachusetts had left him puzzled and disappointed. Helen and William Thon had hoped to find a quiet place by the sea. Popular artists' retreats offered noisy parties, community politics, and little time for the peaceful pursuit of one's own work. It was Stow Wengenroth who directed William and Helen Thon to the quiet village of Port Clyde on the tip of the St. George peninsula in coastal Maine. Thon hoped to find a place where forests met the sea. He needed an affordable, out-of-the-way location in which to build a home and studio. It was a dream he had nurtured with Helen since they met in 1929. A series of events then happened with great rapidity. When America entered the war, William Thon volunteered for the Coast Guard but was rejected because of his age; he was then 35 years old. The Navy accepted Thon and put to him to work on a submarine chaser based in Staten Island listening for submarine activity along the Atlantic coast. In that uncertain moment, when all the world seemed at risk, William and Helen Thon reached out for a permanent home. They bought a piece of property in Port Clyde and built a makeshift dwelling so that they could visit the property during Thon's brief periods of shore leave.

After several months of training, Thon took to sea on a submarine chaser commissioned to drop explosive charges on suspected enemy targets. During much of the war, he had time to sketch and paint either on shipboard or during his time at the Staten Island base. Toward the end of World War II, Thon took a new assignment as an instructor in visual training for new recruits, which allowed him to live at home with Helen. William Thon was always proud of his service to the country, and this period in his life proved to be an unusually productive time for him as an artist.

While in the Navy, Thon painted a dark, moody landscape of Maine with apple trees in a windstorm. East Wind (1942) as it was titled, was entered and accepted into the highly visible Artists for Victory exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Veteran art critic Henry McBride of the New York Sun liked the painting so much that he suggested The Metropolitan would be wise to purchase it. The Swope Art Gallery of Terre Haute, Indiana stepped forward to claim the painting as its own from among more than 1,000 works in the show. Thon's entry in Artists for Victory proved to be important in one more respect. His work lingered in the mind of Alan Gruskin, owner of New York's Midtown Galleries, a man whose powerful stable of contemporary American modernists occupied a prominent place in the artistic life of the country.

Gruskin determined to bring the work of William Thon into his gallery. He sent a letter expressing interest in Thon's career and asked to meet the artist. Gruskin was very concerned and surprised when he received no response for several weeks. At last, William Thon telephoned to say that he had been out at sea on the submarine chaser. He had just read Gruskin's letter and was, of course, glad to have him visit his studio in Brooklyn Heights. Alan and Mary Gruskin came to the studio, and the meeting was a great success. All agreed that Midtown Galleries would become the exclusive representative for the artist's work. Thus began an enduring and fruitful relationship which would sustain and support Thon's life as an artist and develop his burgeoning career. The very next New York season, in February 1944, William Thon had a one-man show at Midtown Galleries. It was a critical and economic success, paving the way for his postwar period of intensive growth and development.

 

III.

 

A human life, so often likened to a spectacle upon a stage, is more justly a ritual. The

ancient values of dignity, beauty, and poetry which sustain it are of Nature's

inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world. . . Touch the earth,

love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her Hills, and her seas; rest

your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life Are the earth's and they are given

to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak. Orion and the Bear, and dawn seen

over ocean from the beach.

 

Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)

 

William Thon received his discharge papers from the Navy on January 18, 1946, and the couple moved permanently to Port Clyde, Maine. Helen gave up her job of 20 years, now confident that the couple could make a life in Maine supported by William's career. They found peace in their wooded coastal property with its lovely views of the ocean. The Thons enlisted the help of Sherwood Cook, an engineer and lobsterman, who worked alongside the artist and his wife to build the home and studio.

William Thon had a very tactile sensibility, and he gave it free reign in his art. Thon walked the woods every day, taking in subtle differences in foliage, textures of the earth, movements of the water, conditions of the wind, sun, snow, and ice. He loved the winter. Few people "from away" adapted to the Maine winters with such enthusiasm and delight. Many artists maintained a seasonal affair with Maine, coming every summer and departing with the autumn chill. William Thon reveled in Maine's silver gray tonalities and studied the patterns of snow on pines and spruces along the coast. He was a romantic spirit in the dark depths of each Maine winter.

An inveterate sketcher who traveled along the Maine shore on foot in every kind of weather or sailed his small boat in choppy seas, Thon carried many kinds and sizes of notebooks. He often stopped to put down his observations in ink, watercolor, or pencil. His sketchbooks seem quite complete as diaristic tools, notes to himself. They are the record of a lifetime of experience living close to nature and observing it with exceptional intensity. A few contain lists of things to remember or things to do. They are full of boats, tree-lined shores, small villages, and rocky ledges. They are not, however, studies for eventual paintings, even though they often resemble Thon's typical works from each period. Thon liked to work in his studio and from his prodigious memory. His daily outdoor rambles were a great source of ideas and spiritual renewal, but he was seldom tempted to set himself up out-of-doors to record a specific scene. Thus his paintings became new poetic utterances of the artist himself, works derived from the mind and his typical range of emotions. In this, his working method was very much like the New York artists of his own generation. It is quite a sophisticated outlook for an artist who continued to describe himself as self-taught. By the late 1940s, however, William Thon had lost any tentativeness in his life and in his art. He had found in Helen the right companion for life, in Port Clyde the right place offering a lifetime of exploration, and a style and approach to his art that would guarantee an enduring place in American art. He was not a restless or an especially ambitious person, but a man seeking quiet fulfillment.

Thon was not destined, however, to live in peaceful obscurity. The April 29, 1946 issue of Life magazine carried a feature article, "William Thon: U.S. Artist Who Has Been a Sailor Paints Moody Pictures of the Sea." It included a handsome photograph of Thon at work in his former studio in Brooklyn. In the photograph he is surrounded by a ship model he crafted with his own hands, a spring landscape of apple trees on an easel, and a palette hanging by a nail on the wall The article featured illustrations of Thon's 1945 painting, Owl's Head, a winter landscape with the famous lighthouse, and Reverie of 1942, a Hopper-like scene of a young woman sitting on the edge of a bed in a empty room. Especially evocative was Convoy (1944), showing a tanker sailing on dark stormy waters, accompanied by a distant Navy escort ship.

The wintry grandeur of The Painter, Port Clyde (circa 1948) is typical of the work William Thon exhibited in New York during the later 1940s. He would favor this kind of elliptical composition throughout his career. Thon's project as an artist was to explore his own craving for union with nature in all its moods and conditions. Few of his early works involve urban architecture, portraiture, or scenes of warm fireside communion with human companions. He strode out into the Maine landscape as a solitary pilgrim, eager to see and touch and smell and feel all of the lights, textures, and sounds of his new resplendent world.

His life in Maine had barely begun when Alan Gruskin suggested that Thon apply for a Prix de Rome, offering a year's residency in the ancient city. Without really thinking about the implications, Thon filled out the forms and later sent paintings requested by the jury. In the summer of 1947, he received the surprising news that he had won a Prix de Rome, offering him and his wife Helen a year of residency with financial support for living and a stipend for art supplies. The fellowship also included a studio within the precincts of the newly renovated American Academy. Life in Port Clyde was just taking shape, and the Thon home needed further work before the winter set in. The Thons' first inclination was to refuse the fellowship, but they soon grasped its importance and wrote to accept the offer. In October of 1947, William and Helen Thon set off for Rome. They found it wonderfully stimulating and were cheered by the warm welcome and beautiful accommodations they had at the American Academy. Thon had a vast studio overlooking the Janiculum Hill. They also enjoyed the company of many learned and lively people.

Thon's taste for the rough and mysterious drew him to Roman ruins throughout the city. As he had in Maine, he set off on foot with his sketchbooks but began to see the virtues of watercolor, as he recorded important details of art and architecture. His work changed radically in Rome. It grew brighter in color, more detailed, his touch lighter and more fluent. Thon went to school on the great works of classical art, the paintings and sculpture of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and the wonderfully complete and varied architecture of the city. Walking through the city streets and villages of Italy as he had journeyed through the landscape of Maine, he painted Roman ruins and intricately decorated churches, alleyways, bridges, and busy city squares.

Many American artists went to Europe after World War II on the G.I. Bill, which offered financial support to veterans wanting to return to their studies. William Thon enjoyed an even more prestigious and comfortable situation as an already recognized American artistic ambassador for his country. His experiences as a recipient of the Prix de Rome gave Thon a taste for travel which would transform his art and also add to his enjoyment of life with Helen. He would return to the American Academy again in 1955 for another period of residency, and he became a trustee of the Academy in 1966.

William and Helen Thon returned to Maine in 1948 with a new appreciation for the beauties of Europe and greater understanding of the artist's potential for growth and change. Thon also brought back a new group of works, almost all of them in the medium of watercolor. It was a turning point in his art, and he wondered if Alan Gruskin would like the new watercolors. He need not have worried. Gruskin saw the light and grace and vitality Thon achieved in watercolor. When the exhibition Watercolors of Italy opened in January of 1949 at Midtown Galleries, it found favor with critics and collectors alike.

In a curious way, William Thon set himself apart from many of the American painters of his generation. Painters of the New York School who were Thon's contemporaries evidenced a restless and even combative spirit concerning the apparent conservatism of New York museums, especially The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and even The Museum of Modern Art. American artists gave speeches, called meetings, and even organized demonstrations in the 1940s to protest the neglect of progressive contemporary American art in the city's important artistic institutions. In May 1950, a group of New York artists wrote to The Metropolitan to protest the anti-abstract bias in the museum's survey exhibition, American Painting Today 1950. Their letter was published in the influential magazine Art News in the summer of 1950, when Time magazine also ran a story on the protest. Life magazine put together a landmark article, "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Led Fight Against Show," in 1951 with the famous photograph by Nina Leen that included artists like William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and virtually the entire generation of painters who would be identified as the New York School.

Living in Maine and content with the progress of his career, William Thon was not among these protesters. Indeed, he had shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art several times in his young career, and he had just won the Altman Prize for painting and had been honored in 1951 by election to the Academy of Arts and Letters. Thon did not frequent the Cedar Bar in New York City nor did he attend lectures at The Club where the community of artists and critics exchanged ideas and solidified their relationships. On his regular trips to New York to bring new paintings to Alan Gruskin at the Midtown Galleries, Thon attended museum shows and some art galleries but also spent considerable time with members of his family. He counted the time spent with family and friends to be the most important attraction offered by New York City. Thon's artistic evolution, although covered in the art press of his time, ran parallel and apart from the rapid changes going on in the art of his own generation of Americans. Thon's modernism was not as radical as that of his contemporaries; however, his calligraphic, abstract style supported his poetic imagery and his desire to focus upon a living landscape. The force and immediacy of his brushstroke spoke of real experiences in the physical world.

William Thon's romantic attachment to the depiction of the American landscape made his art accessible to a wide range of people. Sophisticated viewers understood his kinship to historic painters like Ryder and Marin. Others appreciated the brusque directness of his hand and his evident feeling for nature in its largest physical and emotional dimensions. Conservative painters in Maine counted William Thon as a radical modernist whose art was best understood by sophisticates in New York City. Certainly William Thon's painting techniques were a subject of controversy. When working in oil, he favored the use of a palette knife and mastered it as a tool for rendering large passages of color and space. It gave his work a distinctive surface, created a degree of rough abstract geometry, and served as a descriptive tool in the rendering of landscape. Thon experimented extensively with watercolor pigments and added various salts and other chemicals to achieve the dispersion of pigment and ethereal floating areas of color. A typical work has many layers of textured pigment defining buildings, trees, and changing skies. These suggest an art based upon memories of the natural world, and indeed, this was true. Thon painted in his studio to achieve maximum control and focus upon the process of painting. He referred to sketches and ink drawings from time to time, but he drew mostly from his memories of ramblings in the forests and his adventures at sea.

In the early 1950s, William Thon found some abandoned quarries on the St. George peninsula not far from his home and studio. He became enraptured by their sheer verticality, the traces of human industry on their rugged surfaces, and a wide-ranging palette of tones and textures which exactly suited his sensibility. Quarry (circa 1952) was purchased by The Brooklyn Museum (now the Brooklyn Museum of Art), and Midnight Quarry (1952) entered the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Many other prominent museums and private collectors vied for the opportunity to acquire a work from this series, which was widely reproduced in art magazines, catalogues and books. It is also probable that William Thon's quarry paintings were among the most widely imitated works of art of his time. Landscape painters across America adapted his faceted style, and amateurs studied elements of his palette knife technique in oil. Thon was friendly and gracious in granting several interviews focusing upon his techniques. These turned up as magazine articles in popular art publications such as the 1953 interview with Ernest W. Watson in American Artist. So familiar are we with the legions of imitators that for many years it has been difficult to correctly esteem the art and the contribution made by William Thon in the 1950s.

In December of 1954, a photograph of William Thon appeared in Time magazine with the article "Maine Through a Flawed Crystal," profiling the artist's life and his highly successful career. Thon sent some of his paintings to the State Department's "Art in Embassies" program and spent most of 1955-56 enjoying another period in residence at the American Academy in Rome. He was one of Maine's most famous cultural ambassadors and a distinguished citizen of Port Clyde, where William and Helen Thon held a place of affection and esteem among their neighbors. To some extent, however, Thon's career would begin to turn back toward Maine by the 1960s and certainly in the later decades of his life. He received an honorary doctorate from Bates College in 1957, which amused this self-taught painter who had little patience for formal instruction. He did enjoy brief periods of teaching at the High Museum in Atlanta, Ohio University, and the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, Florida. Teaching, however, was not natural to him, and he declined future invitations because it interfered with his painting.

In Maine, William Thon took part in the creation of Maine Coast Artists, an artists' cooperative gallery founded in 1950 by many of his closest artist friends. Among the other founders, Denny Winters and Bernard Langlais were particularly close to William Thon. Maine Coast Artists (now the Center for Maine Contemporary Art) fulfilled the community's pressing need to find a place to show new work to one another and to develop a more sophisticated audience within Maine. Thon also spent time building, sailing, and enjoying boats. He owned a Friendship sloop and several rowing boats, some built by his own hand. He continued to create boat models which undoubtedly served as models in his paintings, particularly during the winter months. Thon maintained a charming tradition of sending out small original works on paper, each one entirely different, to a long list of friends at Christmas in lieu of ordinary printed cards. In every way, William Thon radiated an unpretentiousness and a spirit of egalitarianism that suited the Maine way of life.

 

IV.

 

On a warm day by a bright window,

I hold my brush,

How my quiet thoughts wander

Beyond the boundless shores.

Tao Chi (Chinese painter), circa 1695

 

 

Among art historians, one of the most intriguing discussions is that of the legitimacy and potential importance of an artist's "old age style." Certainly the scholar-painters of China believed in it. In fact, Asian painters and connoisseurs distrust the art of anyone who has not attained an age sufficient to acquire a degree of experience and wisdom. The paintings of William Thon's mature years are among his very best. Beginning in the 1970s, Thon loosened the geometric armature that had been the hallmark of his style for many decades. His brush moved more freely and his paintings gained a joyous energy that spoke of a renewal of his spirit. Thon had always painted from inner memory. In his later years, he devoted his attention to parts of the landscape: a grove of trees, a single boat, the snow on a patch of rugged ground. Paradoxically, his work became grander and more inclusive. William Thon found a way to share his daily ramblings in friendly communion with the viewer. This intuitive painter now trusted his intuition completely.

Watercolors such as The Seiners (circa 1975) unleash Thon's vast knowledge of the sea, its dizzying swells and its ability to cause a disorienting awe in the human heart. Thon's ships at sea seem to press down upon the ocean's surface. The passage of his boat through the water depends upon its weighty substructure that shapes and defines the interaction of wood and water. As a sailor and a boatbuilder, Thon wanted to impress this truth upon the viewer. Northern Fishing Village (circa 1989-90) offers a more friendly view of land and sea with a wonderful range of color and a lively rhythmic structure. Out of Friendship (circa 1985) is like an invitation to come along for a sail on Thon's own Friendship sloop. Thon continued to sail in Port Clyde harbor even as his eyesight began to fail and his body to wither. The paintings of Thon's old age prove that his mind and his heart remained strong.

Turbulent Sea (circa 1990) is one of his last works in color and also among the most emotionally powerful of his life. Alone, adrift, unable to find a fixed horizon, the viewer must trust in the inherent cohesion of the universe to navigate through this darkly profound painting. Indeed, the waters of life had grown turbulent. William and Helen Thon were in their late 80s, still maintaining their home and their loving 70-year-old marriage. Many people considered it a cruel blow when William Thon was diagnosed with macular degeration in 1991, a disease that progressively robs a person of sight. It begins to fade at the center of one's field of vision and eventually takes away even the glimmer of light at the periphery. William Thon's response to the situation was heroic and inspiring to those who encountered him during these years. He continued to paint, switching almost entirely to a monochromatic range of black, white, and gray as his color vision faded into nothingness. With Helen's help, he organized his brushes, inks and fixed his watercolor paper to the familiar flat surface of a table as he had always done. He took up playing the clarinet because he wanted to enjoy the pleasures of sound and touch as though to compensate a bit for the lost pleasures of vision. William Thon also spent time as a volunteer, demonstrating his painting and his music to people suffering from a variety of disabilities.

Perhaps he was buoyed up in these last years by the extraordinary achievement of his black-and-white paintings. They are wonderful by any measure. Flying Upward (circa 1990s) is a penetrating vision of the breath of life as the wind stirs a field of flying leaves soaring up to animate the sky. Sloop Alice (circa 1990s) is worthy of the comparisons made so early in Thon's career to the mysterious imagery of Albert Pinkham Ryder. It is a painting of the spirit of the sea and the presence of man as a spiritual force in the universe. Like the paintings of Ryder and the poetry of Whitman, Sloop Alice penetrates the unseen force of man and nature, finding it to be an electric presence at once familiar and unknowable.

It is with such noble works of his old age that William Thon made a triumphant exit from a field of activity that had engaged him for eight decades. He was a true painter of the Maine landscape who earned his knowledge by walking the land, sailing the ocean, knowing the people, and loving the sweeping natural beauty of the Maine coast. When his wife Helen died November 20, 1999, William Thon managed to carry on with the help and kindness of Heidi Stevens, who came in to oversee his daily needs. He would follow Helen in death on December 6, 2000. William Thon is buried beside her in South Parish Cemetery in Martinsville, where he often went to sketch and to watch the tides from its beautiful cove.

An exhibition at the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland in the late summer of 2000 provided a last brief glimpse of William Thon for those who attended his opening party. In the absence of Helen, he was almost silent and looked at the exhibition as though seeing the pictures with his mind. Certainly he knew that they would speak for him as long as people come to Maine to sail its rough waters, to walk through its beautiful forests, and to share some of the joy that he took in its company.

 

Notes

1. David Hawkes, "A Little Primer of Tu Fu," quoted in Wen Fong, Returning Home: Tao-Chi's Album of Landscapes and Flowers (New York: George Braziller, 1976), p. 13.

2. Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" (1855) in American Literature: The Makers and the Making, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974), p. 965.

3. Taped interview with William Thon by Robert Brown for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, December 15-16, 1992.

4. Ibid.

5. See Alan D. Gruskin, The Painter and his Techniques: William Thon (New York: The Viking Press, 1964) and Gordon Brown, "William Thon, Modern Realist," in Art Voices 3, No. 3 (March, 1964).

6. Henry Beston, The Outermost House (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), p. 174.

7. [Author Authorson], "William Thon: U.S. Artist Who Became a Sailor Paints

Moody Pictures of the Sea," Life (April 29, 1944), pp. 9698.

8. [Author Authorson], "Irascible Group of Advanced Artists led Fight Against Show," Life (January 15, 1951), [p. #?]

9. Ernest W. Watson,"William Thon: An Interview," American Artist (February 1953), pp. 20-25. See also: [Author Authorson], "William Thon on Composition," Famous Artists Magazine 13, no. 1 (Autumn 1964), pp. 22-26.

10. [Author Authorson], "Maine Through a Flawed Crystal," Time (December 13, 1954), pp. 78-80.

11. Tao Chi, "Narcissus," quoted in Wen Fong (op. cit.), p. 80.

 

About the author

Susan C. Larsen is a Collector for the New England Regional Area for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

 

Please see our earlier article concerning William Thon: A Retrospective (12/7/01)

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Portland Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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