This exhibition explores an important aspect of the career of the American artist Henry Cooke White (1861-1952) that has not received the attention it deserves. While his oil paintings of his native Connecticut landscape and shore are widely admired by collectors and museums, his accomplishments in pastel are less well known. And yet, as this exhibition demonstrates, they are breathtaking in their variety, intensity of color, and, at times, abstract boldness. Here is a new side of White’s art making, in which he experimented with color and texture while working out-of-doors.
Working in pastel was not merely a passing phase for Henry White but something that was central to his art. Over the course of a lengthy career he never wavered from his interest in the application of chalk on paper, producing literally hundreds of works. Pastels were a more private and spontaneous pleasure for the artist, one in which he was free to experiment, unencumbered by the expectation that such works would necessarily find their way into an exhibition or be sold. However, this is not to say White regarded his pastels as rough or prepatory sketches for his oils. While evidence suggests some were used that way, most have a level of execution, and, often, a signature, that show he regarded them as finished works of art.
The origin of this exhibition came from a meeting that the Museum’s curator Amy Kurtz Lansing and I had with the artist’s grandson, George C. White and his wife, Betsy, in their home in Waterford, Connecticut, a house that was once the home of the artist himself. During the course of the meeting, they began to show us a series of pastels on large sheets that had been carefully stored by Henry White in a series of oversize periodicals from years past. With few exceptions, these pastels had never been shown and, indeed, had not been seen, until recently, by anyone. We were dazzled by the freshness of color, by their use of toned art papers as an essential contribution to the compositions, and by the assuredness of the artists’ hand in chalk. Soon, the other living grandson, Nelson H. White, himself a painter, joined in the conversations Amy began to have about their grandfather’s work. In curating this exhibition, Amy has skillfully undertaken not only to select the works for this exhibition but to discern their meaning to the artist’s career. The Museum’s Catherine Fehrer Curatorial Fellow Amanda Burdan assisted her on this project, as did Connecticut College intern Laura Butkus. Together with other members of the Museum’s exhibition team, they have produced an exhibition and accompanying catalogue in which we take great pride.
This project is the continuation of a close association between the White family and the Museum that extends back over several generations. In the spring of 1903 Henry White and his wife, who were living in Hartford at the time, boarded at Miss Florence Griswold’s when it was just beginning to earn a reputation as a flourishing artist colony. Their youngest son, Nelson C. White (1900-1989), was three years old at the time and became the playful center of attention in the artistic household. Over the ensuing years, the Whites kept in touch with Miss Florence and with many of the artists once they were settled in their Waterford home.
Perhaps encouraged by his youthful exposure to art in Old Lyme, Nelson C. White went on to have a productive career as a painter and writer. He was also a natural raconteur whose memories of the artists and life in the boardinghouse are a cherished part of the colony’s oral tradition. Nelson and his wife, Aida, also a close friend of the Museum, had three sons — Henry (1931-1990), George (born 1935), and Nelson H. White (born 1932). George is the founding director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford and a prominent cultural leader. His brother, Nelson H. White, whose remembrance of his grandfather appears at the end of this catalogue, is an accomplished painter who divides his time between Florence, Italy, and Connecticut. They join me, and the Board of Trustees, in expressing our appreciation for the support of Bank of America as the lead corporate sponsor of Visions of Mood: Henry C. White Pastels.