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William Thon

By Will Barnet


On a warm day by a bright window,
I hold my brush,
How my quiet thoughts wander—
Beyond the boundless shores.

Tao Chi (circa 1695 A.D.)
Chinese painter

William Thon was a painter of the sea. He lived with his wife in Port Clyde, Maine, where the forest meets the ocean, where the exuberant New England landscape will forever allude to his vibrant watercolors, oils, and sketches. Often compared by his most staunch admirers to Maine artist-legends Homer, Marin, and Hartley, William Thon created a permanent place for himself in the canon of American landscape painting. As Daniel O’Leary, director of the Portland Museum of Art, has written, “Thon lived to create and legitimize his own aesthetic universe.” Always painting from memory, always attuned to the textures, moods, and essence of nature, Thon’s pictures are more than real; they capture our metaphysical experience with nature as acutely as they capture nature itself.

As anyone who knew him surely realized, Thon was a generous man. He always shared his art with his local community, whether as a child painting sailboats at the beach in Staten Island, or as a mature artist making gifts of his work to local seaside merchants and fisherman. William Thon’s overwhelming generosity was demonstrated in the most astonishing way at his death, when it was announced that he had left a bequest of four million dollars to the Portland Museum of Art. Thanks to this bequest, the museum will house a series of exhibitions “devoted to recognizing and encouraging the rich community of artists associated with the state of Maine.”

Wherever Thon traveled or lived, the natural surroundings inspired him. He was born in 1906 in New York City and was fascinated by the Hudson River; he had little formal education, and at 27, he and four other men sailed a 50-foot schooner from New York to the Cocos Islands in the Pacific looking for the Lima Treasure. During World War II, he joined the Navy; and he spent many years at the American Academy in Rome, years during which he learned much about color, light, and faith. He was never a religious man in the formal sense, but, as the art historian Susan Larsen has written, “He believed in the inherently spiritual nature of the universe.” Looking at his works, one can’t help but feel the presence of the spirit who created them.

In the 1940s and 1950s William Thon stood out among his more famous contemporaries because he did not seek to master the theoretical literature of European modernism. Susan Larsen has written “He experimented but little with the intricacies of cubist form. He has been compared to the American eccentric Albert Pinkham Ryder, who lived at the edges of a volatile and prosperous art world, following his own idiosyncratic but compelling vision.”

In Thon’s own words: “I do about half my work by instinct. You know, a sailor used to be able to throw an eye splice or a bowline in the dark…. There is something deeply religious about the sea. It is a mystical force that I regard as superhuman, somehow; a force that I try to interpret with what meager tools we have. Painting is largely a matter of the spirit, and the eyes and hands of the artist and the tools of his trade must be made to obey it.”

He was a dignified man, self-evolved, and somewhat quiet; he had a friendly demeanor that put one quickly at ease. Susan Larsen: “His was not a grandiose personality but one projecting a deep, steady confidence.” In this room, nearly thirty years ago, William Thon gave tribute to fellow Mainer and landscape painter, John Folinsbee. His kind words written then apply to our tribute to him today: “He was a fine artist being motivated by the beauty of form, color, line, and texture… Without bothering to make sketches he attacks his canvas with lusty strokes, and with astonishing speed the face and form seem to come to life. With a full brush and a broad stroke the magic texture grew under his hand.”

For the last nine years of his life, William Thon was legally blind. With the help of his wife, Helen, and his darkened peripheral vision, he painted in blacks, whites, and grays. For the Academy’s Centennial Portfolio, he made a print, in 1997, evocative of his early depictions of the forest, but imbued with a new, monotone aesthetic, no less real, no less profound, than his works in full color.

William Thon was a poet of nature, and his paintings serve as enduring reminders of our condition as both members and lovers of the natural world.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 9, 2002.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters