Thomas Waterman Wood
One of the most observant and sensitive chroniclers of rural life in 19th-century America, T. W. Wood split his time between his birthplace in rural Montpelier, Vermont and New York City. Wood was quite a remarkable artist who deserves greater recognition and acclaim today. He worked with equal skills in oil, watercolor, pen and ink, and etchings. He was honored and recognized in his day, serving as president of both the National Academy of Design and the American Watercolor Society, and was praised equally for his portraits of important people as for his images of the life and struggles of African Americans during the mid- to late 19th century. His genre work often included people he knew in the compositions, and his faithful, relatively unsentimental treatment sugarcoated nothing. He was, as they say, a painter of “warts and all.” Testament to his unfailing honesty is an 1880 watercolor entitled Popcorn Vendor that I acquired from Kennedy Gallery in 1974. First viewing it in indirect light, I was deeply moved by the obvious elements of straw hat, sympathetic features, and vendor prepared to salt the popcorn. Unique, I thought. Placing it on a wall at home, I stepped back and suddenly realized the figure is crippled with the rear leg shorter, supported in a makeshift crutch and his cane hooked over his basket of popcorn. Such physical realities and hardships are not “artistic license.” In a mid-1980s auction catalogue, I fell in love with a T. W. Wood image of a dignified young African- Amercian domestic carrying a silver tray with tea and candies. The accompanying description however, made no sense at all; in fact, it was stupid. The catalogue stated that the Saratoga Springs family, for whom this servant worked, had “twin sons nicknamed Blackbird and Bluejay.” What nonsense… anyway the picture sold for a lot more than I had; but I never forgot it, nor the absurd description. Jump forward to 1990 while visiting the art dealer Howard Godel, I watched him unpack a crate marked T. W. Wood and out comes—I don’t believe it—the twin sister and mate to the auction piece. I’m in love again; and the nicknames now made sense: they applied to the twin servants. Accompanying the painting was a letter stating the girls had been born on the Henry D. Curtis estate in Old Saratoga, New York and worked for the family all their lives. And yes, Mr. Godel knew what he had, and several months of negotiation ensued before I obtained the picture, through which, amazingly, we remained friends.