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Through experimentation, self-taught techniques, and the profound inspiration taken from his surroundings, William Thon produced a unique oeuvre of land and seascapes. Born in Manhattan in 1906, his family moved throughout New York City during his childhood. April through October of each year were spent in Staten Island, where the family lived in a tent by the water. Thon developed his love for the sea as he learned swimming, fishing, and boating. His aptitude for drawing was discovered early in life as teachers made use of his talents during art periods and school projects.
At the age of fifteen Thon left school to become a carpenter’s apprentice, but moved on to janitorial work and enlarging drawings in a commercial art studio. Four years later he spent a month enrolled in night classes at Manhattan’s Art Students League, but drawing from casts proved all too inferior to sketching from everyday life. While working as a bricklayer’s assistant, Thon made his first attempts at painting despite lacking the knowledge to even prime his canvas. He continued to paint at night while going through jobs as a sign painter, floor sweeper, and window-display designer. While working a clerical job at a utility company he met his wife Helen Walters, marrying her that same year at the age of twenty-three.
Out of his love for the sea and interest in painting oceanic subjects, Thon ambitiously set sail for the Costa Rican Cocos Island with writer Edward U. Valentine and four others on a treasure-hunting expedition in 1933. Harsh weather and engine troubles forced them to redirect their fishing schooner to Jamaica before enduring the sixty-four day voyage to Cocos. After dodging the local authorities, unsuccessfully hunting the famed treasure, and resorting to sea gulls for food, the group sold their boat in Balboa and traveled back to New York by passenger ship. Invigorated by his travels, Thon returned home to Brooklyn Heights and was supported by his wife’s office job as he pursued a career as an artist. He exhibited in neighborhood art shows and in the annual Brooklyn Society of Artists exhibition. On summer vacations, Thon and his wife traveled to the art colonies of Providence and Rockport, Massachusetts, and Beach Haven, New Jersey.
Thon’s work began to mature, forgoing the theoretical discourse of European modernism in favor of personal experimentation. His paintings evoked the loose, expressionist qualities of early modernists, but showed an exceptional interest in the depiction of light and texture. His use of putty knifes, razor blades, sandpaper, and the addition of sand and clay to pigment developed evocative renditions of the environment. A successful showing at the 1939 Corcoran Biennial Exhibition earned high praise from senior New York Times critic Edward Alden Jewell, and was followed by participation in the Pennsylvania Academy Annual Exhibition and Toledo Museum Annual Summer Exhibition. Another major advancement in Thon’s career came through the Artists for Victory show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1942, when he came to the attention of dealer Alan Gruskin and entered an exclusive partnership with Gruskin’s Midtown Galleries. During World War II Thon was positioned at the navy’s Staten Island base, listening for nearby underwater activity and going out at sea on a submarine chaser. He was afterwards appointed as an instructor in visual training, allowing him to commute from Brooklyn to Staten Island until his discharge in 1946. Thon was later employed by the government to paint the Apollo Space Program as part of the NASA Fine Arts Program, and completed three watercolors for the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.
With the end of World War II, Thon and Helen retreated to their four-acre property in Port Clyde, Maine, and built a home and studio with little outside assistance. The coastal area remained a primary source of inspiration for Thon, who exercised his passions for sailing and sketching regardless of poor weather. His paintings, however, were completed away in his studio based on memory. Now able to support the couple on the income of his paintings, Thon’s fame earned a feature in Life magazine in April 1946. The next year, Thon unexpectedly Thon received a year of residency at the American Academy in Rome. In Italy, Thon discovered his full potential in watercolors after years of relying on the medium for sketching purposes. He had a noted ability to rework his paintings many times using an unusual amount of water, producing texture by sponging and scraping through layers of watercolor and India ink. The January 1949 exhibition of his Italian works at the Midtown Galleries earned an enthusiastic reception, and his 1952 Quarry works entered the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and a major American exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After several years of teaching in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and Utica, Thon returned to the American Academy in Rome in 1955 with an Artist-in-Residence position, and in 1966 was made a trustee. Among his many awards and memberships, Thon was honored with a grant and membership from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1951, and received an honorary doctorate from Bates College in 1957.
Thon was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1991, but continued to paint with carefully arranged materials and in a monochromatic palette. He took up playing clarinet, and shared his love of art and music to those with disabilities. A year after the death of his wife Helen, Thon passed away on December 6, 2000, and was buried in the South Parish Cemetery in the nearby town of Martinsville, where he often sketched. The final exhibition of his lifetime was held only months before at the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland. The artist’s estate yielded the largest cash gift ever received by the Portland Museum of Art, Maine, with an additional contribution to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Throughout his career, the expressive painter encapsulated the beauty of the environment through an imaginative handling of art as form.
Written and compiled by Zenobia Grant Wingate
1906 Born in Manhattan
1925 Attended life drawing night class at the Art Students League, but left after four weeks out of dissatisfaction
1929 Job as clerk at utility company introduced him to Helen Walters, who became his wife of seventy years
1933 Went on treasure-hunting exhibition to Cocos Island in Costa Rica but returned home empty-handed on a passenger ship after complications
1939-40 Showing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art biennial exhibition in Washington D.C. drew attention of prominent critic and champion of American style modernism, Edward Alden Jewell
1944 First solo show at the Midtown Galleries, where he is exclusively represented through Alan Gruskin
1946 Discharged from the Navy, built home and studio in Port Clyde, Maine. Featured in Life magazine with reproduced artworks. Applied for Prix de Rome on advice of Alan Gruskin and received a year of residency
1947 Lived with wife in Rome, took studio in American Academy
1949 Exhibited past year of work as Watercolors of Italy at Midtown Galleries
1951 Taught in Atlanta; made member of the Academy of Arts and Letters; received grant
1952 Teaching position in Indianapolis at the John Herron Art Institute and at Utica
1954 Featured in Time magazine. Taught in West Palm Beach at the Norton Gallery
1955 Returned to American Academy in Rome as Artist-in-Residence
1957 Received honorary doctorate from Bates College
1959 Trip abroad to Greece and Italy
1966 Made trustee of American Academy in Rome
1969 Participated in NASA’s art program with Robert Rauschenberg & John Meigs
1991 Diagnosed with macular degeneration but continued to paint; took up clarinet
1999 Wife Helen died November 20
2000 Exhibited in the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, late summer; died December 6, leaving estate to Portland Museum of Art
1944 Edwin Palmer Memorial Prize
1949 Anonymous Prize
1951 Benjamin Altman Prize (’54,’61,’67,’69)
1955 National Academy of Deisgn Prize
1956 Morse Gold Medal
1965 Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize
1980 William A. Paton Prize
1988 Ogden Pleissner Memorial Prize
1934 Salons of America
1939-53 Corcoran Gallery biennials
1939-46 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
1940-46 Art Institute of Chicago
1941-58 Whitney Museum of American Art
1941-66 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Annual
1942-46 Kansas City Art Institute, 1942-46
1942 & 45 Brooklyn Museum
1944 & 69 National Academy of Design
1942 Salmagundi Club
1957 Farnsworth Gallery, Rockland
1968 Philadelphia Watercolor Club
1970 American Watercolor Society
1970 Midtown Galleries, NYC
2000 Caldbeck Gallery, Rockland
National Academy of Design, associate member
Brooklyn Society of Artists
Brooklyn Painters and Sculptors
Allied Artists of America
National Institute of Arts and Letters
American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellow
1957 Honorary doctorate of fine arts degree, Bates College
Works by the artist may be found at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Canton Museum of Art in Ohio.
Oral history interview with William Thon, 1992 Dec. 15-16, Archives of American Art,Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/thon92.htm
Alan D. Gruskin and William Thon. The Painter and His Techniques: Wiliam Thon. New York, New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1964.
Susan C. Larsen. “William Thon (1906-2000)”. Traditional Fine Arts Online, Inc., 2002. http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/3aa/3aa169.htm
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor-in-Chief. Who was Who in American Art 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America, Vol. 3. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design/ David Bernard Dearinger, National Academy of Deisgn (U.S.). Page 198.
“William Thon (1906-2000),” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.
“Art: Maine Through a Flawed Crystal.” Time Magazine, Dec. 13, 1954.
Space Age Landscape, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. http://www.nasm.si.edu/collections/artifact.cfm?id=A19750902000