Jerry Farnsworth (1895-1982)
Essay by Rachel Beaupre
Jerry Farnsworth (1895-1982)
Raised by his widowed mother in the northwestern-most corner of Georgia, Jerry Farnsworth was not exposed to the great wonders of art and culture until he strayed from his sheltered home as a young man. At twenty years old, he viewed a fine art exhibition for the first time while visiting a friend at the National Academy. Until then uninspired by a future career and unmotivated to find direction, Farnsworth was struck by a resounding eureka moment when he reflected: “Well, it might be nice to try something like that.”[i] He went on to enroll in a painting course for the steep cost of $12.50. His mother kindly paid for the class from her meager wages, but regrettably told her son that she could offer no further assistance.
[i] The Painting Life, Highland House Museum, Truro Historical Society exhibition catalog, 2004
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Inspired by his new raison d’etre, Farnsworth recounted in a 1956 Sarasota Herald Tribune interview that his family never paid more than this $12.50; he paid his way by working diligently as a studio assistant for the rest of his education. His painting ethic held a similar determination, and Farnsworth lived by the self-proven credo that “anyone can learn to paint,”[i] believing that it was his fine art education and not an innate talent that made him a successful artist. While serving in the Navy during World War I, he was fortunate to be stationed in Washington, D.C. and was able to take night courses at the Corcoran School of Art. During the nineteen-teens, Farnsworth then studied under the New England figure painter Charles Hawthorne, who was immense in shaping his career. Farnsworth worked with this great role model at his Cape Cod School of Art and was even a monitor for his classes. Faced by his instructor’s often bighting, frank criticism and the challenge of painting the figure out-of-doors, Farnsworth learned to find the homely beauty in everyday things and to rely upon his observations of color rather than on preconceived notions of shape. Just over ten years later, Farnsworth would open his own school of painting on Cape Cod and Sarasota, adding his name to the South Shore colony’s heritage of fine instructors.
Farnsworth not only advanced his painting skills during Hawthorne’s summer course, but met his future wife, his classmate Helen Sawyer. The two painters taught together for over 30 years, first at the Farnsworth Summer School in Wellfleet (1933-1937), then at a brief Provincetown location (1938-1939) and ultimately in Truro, beginning in 1940. The couple also established a winter sister school in Sarasota, Florida, operating at this location from 1943-1963. Instructing nearly 2,000 students over the course of his career, Farnworth’s edification of painters and fine art enthusiasts reached even further abroad with the publication of his three instructional painting texts. He also regularly published articles for American Artist and taught figure painting privately as well as formally at the Art Students League (1926, 1927) and at the Grand Central School of Art (1936). A frequent national exhibitor at such prestigious venues as the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Corcoran Galleries and the Art Institute of Chicago, Farnsworth was made a full member of the National Academy in 1935. By 1970, his works were so highly regarded that they were housed in over thirty museums throughout the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts.
Farnsworth instructed his students to look to great painters of both the past and present, believing that even the most modern movements had made valid contributions to the art of painting. With little formal background in art history himself, his own works were strongly situated in the modern day; Farnsworth’s paintings meld fluidly with the styles and subject matters of the leading American Scene painters of his lifetime. His portraits capture his neighbors on Cape Cod, his still lifes just common, household possessions. While he believed that still life was the purest form of painting and the most worthy of study, it was his success at portraying Provincetown children and fishing folk that lead to national recognition and such important commissions as portraits of presidents Truman, Roosevelt and Harding. Farnsworth had grown from an uninspired youth to a passionate painter of world renown.
References: Falk, Peter Hastings, ed., Who’s Who in American Art (1999); Falk, Peter Hastings, ed., The Annual Exhibition Record of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Vol. III (1914-1968) (1989); Falk, Peter Hastings, ed., The Annual Exhibition Record of the National Academy of Design, 1901-1950 (1990); The Painting Life, Highland House Museum, Truro Historical Society exhibition catalog, 2004; Lawrence Dame, “Jerry Farnsworth Talks of Aims and Life,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 25, 1956; Eva Maria Dane, “Visit to Truro Art Couple Told,” Cape Cod Summer Times, August 13, 1967; Jerry Farnsworth, Portrait and Figure Painting, 1963; Jerry Farnsworth, Painting with Jerry Farnsworth, 1949.
[i] Jerry Farnsworth, Portrait and Figure Painting. NY: Watson-Guptil Publications, Inc., 1963. p. 15.