James A. Michener Art Museum

Doylestown, PA



photo by Jeff Hurwitz


Intimate Vistas: The Poetic Landscapes of William Langson Lathrop

October 16, 1999 - January 9, 2000


In a letter to his father, the 23-year-old William L. Lathrop expressed what he most wanted to accomplish as an artist by saying, "I am only trying to give more and more complete expression to what was in me as a child, and I shall value fame and money only as a sign that I am succeeding." As a boy growing up on a farm, Will Lathrop came to know the beauty and mystery of nature firsthand, and the innocent reverence that he felt in those early years never left him. Lathrop was, above all else, a poet. Perhaps what his best paintings convey is the child's sense of wonder at the divine poetry of the natural world, as well as the intuitive insight that the heart of man and the heart of nature are deeply connected.

This Ohio farm boy, who made one of his first etchings on his father's favorite saw blade, grew up to be one of America's premier landscape painters between the late 1890s and the late 1920s. Remarkably, he was almost completely self-taught; as an admiring critic put it in 1927, Lathrop "studied art behind the plow." His name was prominently associated with Tonalism, a movement that roughly coincided with American Impressionism but did not share the Impressionists' love of sunny colors and outdoor or "plein air" painting. The Tonalists were more preoccupied with conveying the many and varied moods of nature, often employing a darker palette and doing most of their work in the studio. (left: Daniel Garber (1880-1958), Lathrop, 1935, oil on canvas, 50 x 41 inches, Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Joseph E. Temple Fund)

Lathrop was particularly important in the birth and development of the artists colony that formed along the Delaware River in Bucks County and came to be known as the Pennsylvania Impressionists or the New Hope School of American Impressionism. His reputation, along with his wife Annie's hospitality, were responsible for attracting many artists to the area, and without the Lathrops it's unlikely that a cohesive artists colony would have formed. So the Michener Art Museum is pleased to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Lathrop family's arrival in Bucks County with this retrospective exhibition, honoring both the life and the work of an artist whose poetic landscapes continue to delight the eye and nourish the soul.

Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator, James A. Michener Art Museum


William L. Lathrop: A Brief Biography

William Lathrop was equally at home in a sailboat, behind a plow, or standing in front of a canvas with palette and brush in hand. But it was as a painter, rather than as a farmer or a sailor, that he made his mark in life.

Born in Warren, Illinois on March 29, 1859, Lathrop was raised on a family farm in Painesville, Ohio (located just beyond the present-day border of Cleveland, near Lake Erie). The creative impulse blossomed early for young Will. He bought his first tube of paint at age twelve, using the profits (75 cents) from the sale of fallen apples in the family orchard. He proceeded to squeeze out tiny blobs of red paint onto fence rails and rocks, then stood back to admire the contrasting colors.

In early 1880 he began to send drawings and sketches to editors in New York City, in an attempt to somehow obtain employment as a magazine illustrator. Eventually he moved to New York where he learned to survive as a printmaker, selling his etchings through a prominent art dealer. He journeyed to England in 1888, and in the same year met and married an English woman named Annie Burt. After several years of struggle and failure, Lathrop finally found fame as a painter when he won the prestigious Evans Prize at the American Watercolor Society's annual exhibition in 1896. He moved his family to Bucks County in 1899, where he lived for the rest of his life. (left: William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938), Untitled (Landscape with Figure), c. 1897, oil on canvas, 19 x 25 inches, Gift of Malcom and Eleanor Polis, James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA)

In 1927 Lathrop began building a small sailboat that came to dominate his creative life in his later years. Launched in 1930, the Widge became his floating painting studio, and he sailed the beloved boat up and down the Eastern seaboard for the better part of nine summers. He died in 1938 while sailing the Widge at Montauk, Long Island, the victim of one of the greatest Atlantic hurricanes of the twentieth century. in a moving tribute, his friend and fellow Bucks County painter Henry B. Snell wrote: "He had no fear of meeting death as he did -- facing one of nature's greatest manifestations. I know he died as he would have wanted to."

Read more in Resource Library about the Michener Art Museum.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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