John Whorf (1903–1959)

Leading New England watercolorist best known for his depictions of Provincetown and Boston, Massachusetts

By Jenny Lyubomudrova

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

John Whorf was a prolific American painter who achieved a successful career as a watercolorist despite the difficulties of the Great Depression. Known primarily for his depictions of Provincetown and Boston, he was greatly influenced by his early introduction to French Impressionism, as well as by the artists John Singer Sargent and Frederick Judd Waugh.

Born and raised in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Whorf began his artistic education with informal studies with his father, Harry C. Whorf, a graphic designer. Harry and Sarah (Sadie), John’s mother, took an active interest in the development of their children’s creative pursuits. Their home was full of easels that were freely used by John and his brothers, their parents at times even encouraging them to paint on the walls. Whorf began his formal training in the Boston atelier of Sherman Kidd and at the Museum School, where he studied drawing with Philip Leslie Hall (1865–1931) and painting with William James (1882–1961).

Whorf spent summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which proved to have a significant influence on the development of his painterly style. Provincetown was then a flourishing artist colony, increased further by the arrival of artists and writers fleeing war-torn Europe. It was there that Whorf began studying under George Elmer Browne (1871–1946) and Charles Webster Hawthorne (1870–1930), who introduced the young artist to Impressionism, an influence that continued to be evident in Whorf’s art throughout his career. In 1919, Whorf traveled to France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, at which point he began to shift his focus away from oil painting and almost exclusively to watercolors.

By the time he was twenty years old, Whorf had staged two solo shows and was regularly exhibiting his work in Boston. During a 1924 exhibition at the Grace Horne Gallery, he attracted the attention of John Singer Sargent, who purchased one of his paintings. That same year, Whorf received informal instruction from Sargent, who had a clear influence on Whorf’s style. Whorf went on to annually exhibit his paintings both at Grace Horne Gallery in Boston and at the Milch Gallery in New York for over thirty years. Popular with the public and well-received by critics, his watercolors were compared to those of Sargent and Winslow Homer.

Whorf continued to spend summers in Provincetown with his wife Vivienne, née Wing, whom he met in his hometown of Winthrop as a student. In 1934, Whorf and Vivienne began renting a cottage from the Waugh family, thus beginning Whorf’s acquaintance with the marine painter Frederick Judd Waugh (1861–1940). Influenced by Waugh’s realistic depictions of crashing waves on the shores of Cape Cod, Whorf began painting seascapes. With advice from Waugh, who was by then in his seventies, Whorf worked on developing his talent in painting marine watercolors, including, however, elements of human interest and figurative elements that Waugh tended to exclude from his own work.

Whorf initially had the intention of moving only temporarily to Provincetown to wait out the economic hardships of the Great Depression. However, the town provided Whorf with ongoing artistic inspiration and by the mid-1930s, Whorf, Vivienne, and their four children had permanently settled in Provincetown. Whorf enjoyed depicting a side of the summer resort town that vacationers seldom experienced, finding poetry in Cape Cod’s austere off-season beauty. Critics and art collectors were drawn to Whorf’s depictions of Provincetown’s fishing boats, beaches, and cottages. In 1945, Whorf told a reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times that he had “never been sorry I settled in Provincetown. It is even more paintable in winter than in summer. The landscape is very handsome with a tracery of snow. We have ice storms here that make even a piece of clothesline a thing of beauty.”[1]

The difficulty of the Depression years did not discourage Whorf from his ever prolific work. Even during the worst years of that era, Whorf almost never painted on commission, and continued selling out his biannual solo exhibitions in Boston and New York, held regularly in the late autumn and early spring. Whorf was particularly drawn to the classic streets and New England architecture of Boston, and by the late 1930s, incorporated cityscapes into his oeuvre.

Whorf received numerous honors and awards for his achievements, including the Logan Medal, awarded by The Art Institute of Chicago in 1928. In 1938, he became the first contemporary painter to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University. A year later he was honored by The Art Institute of Chicago again when it featured twenty-four of his paintings alongside those by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse at its International Exhibition of Water Colors. In 1947, Whorf was elected to the National Academy of Design and in 1948, to the American Watercolor Society. In Provincetown, he was an active member of the Beachcombers Club, founded by his mentors George Elmer Browne and Charles Webster Hawthorne.

Whorf died in Provincetown at the age of 56. His paintings may be found in numerous prestigious museum collections, among them the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York and The Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois, as well as in the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden.

II. Chronology

1903 Born in Winthrop, Massachusetts
1919 Suffers transverse myelitis after a diving accident in Provincetown, resulting in surgery that leaves one of his legs shorter than the other and forces him to use a cane for the rest of his life; travels to France, Spain, North Africa, the West Indies, and Canada
1923 Holds debut show, the John Whorf Collection, Paintings of France, Spain and Morocco at the Hotel Bond in Hartford, Connecticut
1924 Holds second one-man show at Grace Horne’s gallery in Boston, Massachusetts
1925 Marries Vivienne Wing; travels to France on an extended honeymoon
1928 Receives the Logan Medal at the Eighth International Water Color Exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois for his painting, Bathers (n.d.; The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois)
1929 Joins an association of Boston painters known as “The Six”
1934 Begins renting a cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts called Colinette, at 3 Nickerson Street, from the Waugh family, across from Frederick Judd Waugh’s home and studio
1935 Elected Second Mate of the Beachcombers Club in Provincetown, a fraternity of artists and cognoscenti, organized by Whorf’s mentors George Elmer Browne and Charles Webster Hawthorne
1936 Named Skipper of the Beachcombers Club
1937 Rents a house at 205 Bradford Street at the East End of Provincetown, near the artist Richard E. Miller (1875–1943)
1938 Receives honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University, the first contemporary painter to do so
1939 Honored by The Art Institute of Chicago with a special exhibition of twenty-four of his paintings alongside collections by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse at the International Exhibition of Water Colors
1944 Purchases a house at 52 Commercial Street, Provincetown, near his rental home
1947 Begins selling paintings at the Shore Studio Gallery, established the same year by Donald Witherstine (1896–1961); elected to the National Academy of Design
1948 Elected to the American Watercolor Society
1955 Sells his house on Commercial Street in the face of increasing tourism to Provincetown and moves to a house at 8 West Vine Street, along with his wife Vivienne, owned by their son-in-law and eldest daughter
1959 After a period of illness, dies from a heart attack on February 13, at the age of 56

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland
Brooklyn Museum, New York
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana
Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy
RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island
Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
University of Illinois, Chicago, Illinois
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

IV. Exhibitions

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
American Watercolor Society, Inc. New York, New York
Boston Society of Watercolor Painters
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California
Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, Missouri
Milch Gallery, New York, New York
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana
New Rochelle Art Association, New York
Philadelphia Watercolor Club
Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
1924 Grace Horne Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts
1930 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1930 Oakland Art Gallery, California
1931 Mills College, Oakland, California
1934, 1939 California Water Color Society
1934 XIX Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
1939, 1943 The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
1933, 1936, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1945 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
1949 Vose Galleries, New York, New York

V. Memberships

American Watercolor Society
The Beachcombers Club
Florida Watercolor Society
National Academy of Design
Provincetown Art Association

VI. Notes

1. John Whorf and Amy Whorf McGuiggan, John Whorf Rediscovered (Woburn, Massachusetts: AFA Publishing, 2013), 105.

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. III, P–Z. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
Fairbrother, Trevor J. The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870–1930. Boston, Massachusetts: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986.
Kuchta, Ronald A. Provincetown Painters, 1890s–1970s. Syracuse, New York: Everson Museum of Art, 1977.
Whorf, John and Whorf McGuiggan, Amy. John Whorf Rediscovered. Woburn, Massachusetts: AFA Publishing, 2013.
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John Whorf

Paintings by John Whorf