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William Palmer: Drawing from Life

August 24, 2009 - January 3, 2010


William Palmer (1906-87) was the first member of the Hamilton College studio art faculty, and founding director of the Munson-Williams-Proctor School of Art. He studied at the Art Students League with Boardman Robinson, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Thomas Hart Benton, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau where he learned the art of fresco painting.

Before coming to Clinton in 1941, Palmer achieved national recognition as a WPA/FAP muralist. William Palmer: Drawing from Life features Depression- and WPA-era figure studies, landscapes, and mural studies from the William C. Palmer collection housed at the Emerson Gallery.

Wall Text from the exhibition

Artist William Charles Palmer was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1906. At eighteen he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where he studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Boardman Robinson, and Thomas Hart Benton. Palmer described Miller as his "great teacher" but it was Benton who instilled in him a sense of individualism and whose interest in mural painting led him to enroll at École des Beaux-Arts, Fontainebleau to study fresco painting.

Painted rooms were fashionable when Palmer returned from France in 1927, and the aspiring designer received several private commissions only to have them unravel when the market crashed two years later. Unable to find work, he went to live with his sister in Canada and brought with him sketches from his annual visits to Iowa. To keep busy he turned to them for inspiration and as a basis for exploring new mediums, which sparked his interest in landscape painting, a subject matter that until then he had not taken seriously but thereafter defined his career.

In 1932 Palmer was invited to participate in the New York division of the Public Works Art Project. He produced easel paintings and murals for the program with some success; President Franklin Roosevelt chose an oil, Manhattan from the Jersey Meadows, for the White House Collection, and a mural, Function of a Hospital, was selected for the elevator waiting room of the new Queens General Hospital. From 1935-40, Palmer received three more WPA mural commissions for post offices in Washington, D.C., Arlington, Massachusetts, and Monticello, Iowa.

Palmer's last years in New York were spent teaching at the Art Students League and as supervisor of the Mural Department of the City of New York, a WPA/FAP program that employed hundreds of artists, including Arshile Gorky, Edward Laning, Balcomb Greene, Philip Guston, and Ilya Bolotowsky. In 1941 he was invited to Utica to found the School of Art at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. During the Institute's fledgling years, he held a joint appointment as Hamilton College's first member of the art faculty and Artist-in-Residence. He left Hamilton in 1948 to devote himself full time to the Institute where he remained until his retirement in 1971.

Since his earliest days as an artist, Palmer made a daily sketch from memory. Time and again, he turned to these for new ideas. On view in this exhibition are a selection of his sketches and studies, ranging from quick compositional sketches to final studies for prints, paintings and murals from the late '20s to the early '40s. It was during this period that, through the circumstances of the times and a personal penchant for change, Palmer began to define himself as an artist. In these early works, echoes of his teachers, especially Miller and Benton, can be found in the faces of the men and women crowding streets and barn dances, and within his lyrical landscapes. One also sees experiments with different mediums, subject matter, and the picture plane that illustrate the beginnings of his unique voice as an artist.

William Palmer died in 1987. Nine years later, Hamilton College received the William C. Palmer Papers from the bequest of his widow, Catherine. The collection, which contains of a lifetime of sketches and sketchbooks, studies, photographs, letters, catalogs, and lecture notes, is jointly housed at the Emerson Gallery and the Burke Library where it is made available for study.



William Palmer: Drawing from Life is organized by Consulting Director Ian Berry and Associate Director and Curator Susanna White. It is made possible with funds from The Dietrich Foundation, The John B. Root '44 Exhibition Fund, and The Edward W. and Grace C. Root Endowment Fund.


Exhibit Labels

Proposal for Chapel in Northern New York, 1941
Gouache on paper mounted on board
(Sketches for Newark Courthouse Federal Arts Project), n.d.
Mixed media
Idea Sketches, Arlington, Massachusetts Post Office Mural, n.d.
Mixed media
Sketches for World's Fair, 1939
Pastel on paper
Asleep on the Prarie, 1931
Ink and sepia on paper
Drawing for Painting in White House
(Manhattan from the Jersey Meadows), n.d.
Ink and charcoal on tracing paper
Hog Run (Hog Wallow, Iowa), 1932
Watercolor on paper
(Figures with threshing machine), 1930
Ink and wash on paper
Picton, Ontario, 1930
Crayon on paper
(Pen and ink sketches), n.d.
Pen and ink on paper
Drought (Iowa 1930), 1930
Pen, ink, pencil on paper
(Horses and trees), 1930
Pencil on paper
(Study for Hoover City), n.d.
Pencil on tracing paper
Hickory Park, 1936-1941
Pencil and wash on paper
Main Street, Picton, Ontario, 1939
Pen, ink and wash on paper
(Sketch for Barn Dance), 1930
Pen and ink on paper
(Sand Dredge), 1932
Pen and ink on paper
(Drawings and sketches), ca. 1936
Ink and wash on paper
Sketchbook page, 1932
Ink and wash on paper
World's Fair, etc., 1934
Pen and pencil on paper
Locks at Leyden, etc., ca. 1941
Pencil on paper
(Telephone poles and cable spools), 1936
Pen, ink and wash on paper
Innumerable Shoppers, 1931
Pen and ink on paper
Shop Early for Christmas (Picton), 1931
Pencil on paper
(Square Dance, Picton, Ontario, Canada), n.d.
Pencil on paper
(Sketches for Washington, D.C. Mural), 1936
Pen and ink on paper


(above: William C. Palmer, Innumerable Shoppers, 1931, Pen and ink on paper. Collection of Emerson Gallery, Hamilton College. Bequest of Catherine W. Palmer)


(above: William C. Palmer, Asleep on the Prairie, 1931, Ink and sepia. Collection of Emerson Gallery, Hamilton College. Bequest of Catherine W. Palmer)


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