Worthington Whittredge and Thomas Waterman Wood had many parallels in their lives and artistic careers. Whittredge was born in 1820, Wood in 1823. Both traveled to Europe in the mid-1800s to further their artistic development. Both had studios in New York City for much of their careers. Each of them served as president of the National Academy of Design.
Wood, founder and benefactor of Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery, famously became an acclaimed figure painter. Whittredge painted landscapes — mostly American landscapes — and is identified with the Hudson River School.
In “Old Home by the Sea,” painted by Whittredge in 1900, a simple home with a wooden well pole and geese in the yard stands by the shore. As the sun rises, or perhaps sets, a plume of smoke wafts from the smokestack of a distant passing vessel.
“Old Home by the Sea” has been in the T.W. Wood Gallery collection since its earliest days, but has not been seen by the public in decades.
On Friday, Dec. 6, Whittredge’s freshly restored “Old Home by the Sea” will be unveiled at the Wood. Meticulous conservation of the painting has just been completed at the Williamstown and Atlanta Art Conservation Center. It has been installed in a new frame and will be on public view through coming months in the museum’s T.W. Wood Room.
“It is a beautiful painting. The Whittredge is a treasure of the Wood and we are so excited that it can be exhibited,” said Margaret Coleman, T.W. Wood executive director.
The path to the restoration of the Whittredge began over two decades ago and has been shepherded by Phillip Robertson, curator and vice president of T.W. Wood’s board of trustees and professor of art at Northern Vermont University. Robertson’s involvement with the Wood began in the 1990s.
Robertson recalls recognizing that within the extensive collection, some artworks were damaged and lacking frames. The Whittredge was among these.
To start addressing the situation, Robertson applied for a conservation grant for the Wood. The grant included a conservation report that considered everything in the collection. To stabilize damaged paintings, Robertson made archival housings for them.
Besides protecting these artworks, the T.W. Wood has had an eye to getting them properly conserved, framed and back to public view. The Whittredge is one step in this project as the T.W. Wood moves forward and also gears up to celebrate its 125th anniversary.
Wood made his first gift of 42 paintings to the city of Montpelier in 1895. Along with his intention of sharing classic art with his hometown, Wood also brought art of his contemporaries — Whittredge included — to the collection. Frederick Church, Asher Durand and other luminaries of the 19th century are represented, expanding the collection in numbers and depth.
Whittredge, born in Ohio, began his career in his home state before setting out for Europe in 1849. Arriving in Germany, he studied at the Dusseldorf Academy, including with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
Leutze was about to embark on his monumental “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Attentive to detail, Leutze had a copy of Washington’s uniform tailored, but was dissatisfied with its fit on German models. For this American painting, Leutze recruited his American students — including Whittredge who posed as both Washington’s body and the steerman.
Whittredge, Leutze and Albert Bierstadt traveled and painted together. Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford and Whittredge moved on to Rome in the 1850s.
In 1860, back in the United States, Whittredge opened his studio in New York City. From that base, he traveled around the country and to Mexico, painting landscapes of the western plains, the Catskills, coastal scenes and more.
“Old Home by the Sea” evokes a sense of the New England coast. Even for 1900, it seems to recall an earlier time with its simple house, rail fence, tall pole to aid in hoisting water. With the painting’s recent cleaning, a figure is just visible approaching the fence — and clearly of considerable interest to the gaggle of fowl.
The restoration of the painting involved cleaning, repair of multiple holes, re-varnishing and more. The project was made possible by generous donations by supporters of the T.W. Wood Gallery.