Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Narrows 1942, New Version

Note: The story below is based on research currently being conducted by Thomas and Margaret West for a future book on Charles Massey West, Jr., and Anne Warner West, their lives and their art.

The Narrows, 1942

by Thomas G. West

It wasn’t the top prize. But it was major recognition in a major show.

In the fall of 1942, it was a show and catalogue that mainly honored Grant Wood, who had died earlier that same year. Wood had already become an icon of American painting. With images such as “American Gothic,”  “Daughters of Revolution” and “Good Influence” he had linked humor and satire with pride in the simplicity of middle America, using a flat, almost plastic palate, with smooth forms, high contrast and deep shadows -- not commonly seen again until the Pixar computer animation films some 70 years later.

The top prize at the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago had gone to Edward Hopper for “Nighthawks,” a canvas that was to become itself another icon of American painting. Lonely people in a bright diner in a dark cityscape -- familiar in numerous magazine articles, satirical imitations and young persons’ wall posters -- culminating as the central focus of the major show on Hopper in the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, DC, that closed January 21, 2008.

Art historian and commentator Robert Hughes called Hopper the most important painter of the period and it is noteworthy that “Nighthawks” is the lone image that spans the backs of his multi-tape video history of American painting.

It is also notable how pivotal  “Nighthawks” was in Hopper’s professional life. One writer notes in the National Gallery show catalogue: “In May 1945, having become famous and successful after his triumph with ‘Nighthawks,’ Hopper was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.” (Barter, 2007, p. 211.)

For West in 1942, it was not the top prize, but there he was, shoulder to shoulder with the top prizewinners -- prizewinners who have come to represent, over time, the very best of distinctly American art.

West’s short biographical sketch was listed in facing pages with other short sketches of the top prizewinners. Hopper’s bio noted that his “early work aroused so little interest that he gave up painting for several years.”  In West’s bio, his hometown is spelled incorrectly but his study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA, attended 1931-1934; the oldest and most prestigious art school in America) is noted along with his then current teaching position and his award in 1934 of the Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship for 4 to 6 months of study in Europe.

It is true that the year before the “The Narrows” had already been shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and published in Art Magazine. But this was somehow different.

In the Chicago show catalogue, there are black and white photographs of the winning paintings. Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is in the middle of the booklet, Plate VII, “Awarded the Ada S. Garrett Prize.”  One page leaf away is “The Narrows” by Charles M. West, Jr., Plate IX, “Awarded the Honorable Mention for Landscape.”

Also listed in the show catalogue were paintings by well-known and not so well known artists of the period whose work was shown but did not win any prize at that exhibition. (The full catalogue listing is quoted below, indented (without quotation marks); comments from this writer are in brackets.) Some of those listed were associated with the Pennsylvania Academy (many now known as Pennsylvania Impressionists) or with the Brandywine School of painters near Wilmington, Delaware. 

Henriette Wyeth, born Wilmington, Delaware, 1907; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 233 [ref. number for paintings exhibited in this show], Portrait of N.C. Wyeth. [Daughter of N.C. Wyeth, sister of Andrew Wyeth.]

Peter Hurd, born Roswell, New Mexico, 1904; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 133, Prairie Shower. [Husband of Henriette Wyeth; much later famously commissioned to do portrait of LBJ.]

Walter Stuempfig, Jr., born Philadelphia, 1914; lives in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, 218, Family Reunion. [West’s classmate at the PAFA]

Francis Speight, born Windsor, North Carolina, 1896; lives in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, 217, Scene in West Manayunk. [West’s teacher at the PAFA; both were students of Daniel Garber. Speight and his wife Sarah were long time close friends of Charles and Anne West (Sarah was their classmate). Sarah Speight painted a portrait of the young Charles West (at art school) that now hangs in the West Gallery in Centreville. The West family also owns a painting of a Manayunk scene by Francis Speight. ]

Donald M. Mattison, born Beloit, Wisconsin, 1905; lives in Indianapolis, 167, Good-by. [West’s boss at the time. As director of the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mattison had recruited West, at the University of Iowa, as raising young star teacher.]

Thomas [Hart] Benton, born Neosho, Missouri, 1889; lives in Kansas City, 59, Negro Soldier.

Georgia O’Keefe, born Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, 1887; lives in New York, 180, Red Hills and Bones.

It was not the top prize. But it was a long way to have traveled for the boy from Centreville -- a small river town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had been in many ways unchanged for more than a century. The town of 2000 on the Corsica River in a timeless rural area of farmers and watermen on the Delmarva Peninsula, had long been a virtual island between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean (reachable from Baltimore or Annapolis on the Western Shore only by slow ferry boat or ancient steamer; the two bridges across the bay were not built until the 1950s and the 1970s).

Born in 1907, the young Charlie West had spent his boyhood mostly in the town’s nearby wharf area (not far from the family home on Chesterfield Avenue) -- not unlike Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- following the river traffic, absorbing outrageous local superstitions from the cooks, deck hands and travelers, seeing melodramas at Ford’s Floating Theater -- escaping his four older sisters and his no-nonsense, small-town businessman father.

(Ford’s Floating Theater was a tiny theater on a barge towed from river town to river town around the Chesapeake Bay. It is said to be the actual basis for the stories later used in the musical “Showboat.” Charles did several watercolors and paintings of this floating theater.)

(Among Charlie’s close boyhood friends in Centreville was the African American Bush Gaines. They remained good friends throughout their adult years. On at least one occasion, Bush took Charlie to the “Colored-Only” dance hall in Centreville’s “Sandy Bottom” area (the location, near the intersection of South Commerce and Little Kidwell, is now empty). Long gone, the dance hall, called the “Paladoria Inn,” became the subject of one of West’s most loved but least-seen paintings (of the same name). The painting is clearly patterned (in many respects) on the painting “La Danse Au Moulin-Rouge” and especially the “Moulin Rouge -- La Goulue” poster both by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec -- the latter with distant audience, lively dancer in the middle ground and cartoon-like characterization of a man in the near foreground.)

It wasn’t the top prize. But in the fall of 1942, at the age of 35, the recognition received at the Chicago show was special indeed -- a kind of watershed, a balance point in his life as a painter and artist, one generation off the farm.

It was only 11 years before that he had won a full scholarship to attend art school in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy Country School at Chester Springs, PA.

It was only 8 years before that he had been awarded the top art school prize to travel and study and paint in Europe -- almost losing his life from appendicitis as the grand ship steamed toward France.

At the hospital in Paris, after his operation, he was befriended by a Hungarian Countess and her rich American husband -- and was invited to recuperate at their grand chateau near Paris. In so doing, he saw, first hand, the last days of a style of life -- with lush gardens, expensive cars, grand estates and grander parties -- that was to end forever only five years later.

In his painting, West loved the dash and freshness and vitality of the French Impressionists of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. He saw it as a style well suited to the rural landscapes and river scenes that he had known all of his life.

Two years before he had married a fellow art school student, Anne Dickie Warner. Their first son had been born in March of 1941. A second would follow in August of 1943.

The man who later became the head of the Pennsylvania Academy sent a note to the former student: “Dear Charlie: I can only take time for the merest word this morning, but the Chicago Art Institute catalogue has just come to my desk and I see that you have crashed through again. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for all the Wests! Sincerely Yours, Joseph T. Fraser, November 11, 1942.”

When the Chicago show closed December 10, 1942, America had been at war for its first full year. The art school closed. West was retrained to become a draftsman in the local war industries in Indianapolis.

Thirty years later -- after teaching painting, sculpture and history of art at several schools and colleges, eventually resettling his young family in his own hometown -- at the end of December 1972, at the age of 65, West’s life was at an end. He was buried, with a small family service, along side his parents in the family plot in Centreville, as geese flew overhead in the cold of early January.

His wife Anne turned a small building, former law offices on Lawyer’s Row in the center of the town, into a gallery to honor her husband's paintings and those of others.

West’s father’s dream was that his son would become a lawyer, the top of the social scale of the small agricultural town and county, a northern-most outpost of very Southern rural attitudes and traditions.

It is no small irony that West’s paintings -- his art and his career so much a puzzle to his father and virtually everyone else in this essentially provincial town and rural county -- finally ended up at the center of the law offices that face the old Queen Anne’s County Courthouse. There, property deeds had been exchanged and fought over for hundreds of years  -- land ownership long having been in the area the main path to wealth and social position.

Anne Dickie Warner West -- descended from an old Quaker family of artists and engineers from Wilmington, Delaware, and, previously, Philadelphia (years before the arrival of William Penn) -- lived on for another 34 years of painting and travel and grandchildren and family visits in Centreville and then Chestertown -- passing away in her sleep in the afternoon of November 10, 2006, at the age of 97, just a month short of her 98th birthday.


Art Institute of Chicago, 1942. Catalogue of the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Barter, Judith A., 2007. “Travels and Travails: Hopper’s Late Pictures” in Edward Hopper, Boston, MA: MFA Publications, pp. 211-225. The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “Edward Hopper,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Other sections of this book were written by Carol Troyen, Janet L. Comey, Elliot Bostwick Davis and Ellen E. Roberts.

Huisman, P., and M.G. Dortu, 1964. Lautrec by Lautrec. A Studio Book, The Viking Press. New York, NY. (The Moulin Rouge poster and paintings are reproduced on p.  67 and pp. 80-81.)

Note: A series of photographs of paintings by Anne and Charles West, Jr., is available on the web. Instructions: Go to Google, click on images, picasa, request “Charles M. West, Jr.,” then click on this image to bring up the full set of 38 images, request slide show with full screen and commentary text below.

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New version, revised, August  2011.

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