Worthington T. Whittredge (1820-1910)

Worthington T. Whittredge (1820-1910)

At the age of 85, Thomas Worthington Whittredge penned his autobiography, immortalizing his humorous anecdotes and insightful observations regarding the world of fine art. Though raised in a log cabin near Springfield, Ohio, this farmer’s son came to participate in an extraordinary number of cultural moments of American history. His stories include an enjoyable period spent in Dusseldorf during the 1850s when he posed in military garb as George Washington for American painter Emanuel Leutze’s famous work Washington Crossing the Delaware; a prolonged stay with the Beecher family as Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing the classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and even a brief friendship with the legendary scout Kit Carson. His ninety-year life reads as an epic adventure, but it is not surprising that the boy who grew up playing and fishing in the Ohio forests would be so greatly impacted by nature’s wonders. 

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Whittredge had little formal early schooling, but in 1843, he became determined to paint landscapes. Living with his sister in Cincinnati and working as a house and sign painter, Whittredge began educating himself about fine art and also learned much from his artist friends James Beard and Henry K. Brown. In 1846, the young artist was rewarded with a personal compliment from Asher B. Durand and the acceptance of one painting at the National Academy of Design. With this encouragement, Whittredge looked to further his education and traveled abroad in 1850, visiting London, Paris and Dusseldorf, and studying under artists Andreas Achenbach and Carl F. Lessing. His voyage also brought him to Holland and Belgium, as well as to a Roman artist colony for a four year stay. While many fine landscapes resulted from this period abroad, Whittredge recognized his deep wish to create an art style of his own, distinct from that of the old masters, and returned to paint his native land in 1860.

Upon arriving back to the United States, Whittredge settled into New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building and was elected an Associate of the National Academy. He had learned a great deal while abroad, but at first found it difficult to apply the European techniques to the American landscape: “It was the most crucial period of my life. It was impossible for me to shut out from my eyes the works of the great landscape painters which I had so recently seen in Europe, while I knew well enough that if I was to succeed, I must produce something new which might claim to be inspired by home surroundings.” [1] Whittredge persevered and found his voice in his depictions of the Catskill Mountains, the ridges of Virginia, the Rhode Island coast, and the Western territories, which he first visited after the Civil War, all executed under the philosophy that “A landscape painter is only at home when he is out of doors.” [2] He was made a full member of the Academy in 1862 (he would serve as President of the association twelve years later), and his American paintings became highly regarded. He submitted five paintings to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, of which Julian Alden Weir wrote: “Mr. Whittredge’s pictures of forest solitudes, with their delicate intricacies of foliage, and the sifting down of feeble rays of light into depths of shade are always executed with rare skill and feeling. His style is well suited to this class of subjects; it is loose, free, sketchy, void of all that is rigid and formed. It evinces a subtle sympathy with the suggestive and evanescent qualities of the landscape.” [3] 

Whittredge would also devote a significant portion of his career to serene views of the Western plains, which he visited on three separate occasions in 1866, 1870 and 1872, showing his fascination with the new territory. Of the raw West he wrote: “I had never seen the plains or anything like them. They impressed me deeply. I cared more for them than for the mountains, and very few of my western pictures have been produced from sketches made in the mountains, but rather from those made on the plains with the mountains in the distance.” [4] In 1880, Whittredge constructed a house in Summit, New Jersey, but retained his Tenth Street studio space in New York to stay connected with the city’s art circles. Towards the end of his career, as the Hudson River School style declined in prominence, he adopted a more Barbizon style of painting and continued to send work to the National Academy’s annual exhibitions, before passing away in Summit in 1910. Today his work can be found in several prominent museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum, among many others.

References: Worthington Whittredge, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1969; Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge (1905), John I. H. Baur, 1969; Worthington Whittredge, Anthony F. Janson (Cambridge University Press, 1989); “Worthington Whittredge in the West, ” Antiques, Jan. 1949.

[1] “The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge,” Brooklyn Museum Journal, Edited by John I. H. Baur. (Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences: Brooklyn) 1942, page 180.

[2] Ibid., page 53.

[3] See Anthony F. Janson, Worthington Whittredge (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 152.

[4] Whittredge, “Autobiography,” page 45.

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