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Harry Watrous

Harry Willson Watrous

Harry Willson Watrous (17 September 1857–10 May 1940) was an American artist who received an academic education in France. His paintings included genre scenes, stylized figural works, landscapes, nocturnes, portraits, and still lifes. His 1913 painting The Drop Sinister has been called the first known portrait of an American interracial family. He is perhaps best known for his enigmatic paintings of sophisticated women, often darkly dressed and seen in profile.

Harry Watrous was born in San Francisco in 1857, the son of Charles and Ruth Willson Watrous. He had two brothers, Charles (1854-56) and Walter (1860-1903). Harry's father had been a whaler in his youth and made his fortune during the California Gold Rush. The family moved to New York City in 1864, where his father's wealth allowed the young Watrous to be educated in private schools and to pursue an artistic career at his own pace, without having to worry about making a living.

He traveled to Spain with the deaf American artist Henry Humphrey Moore in 1881, and then to Paris, where he studied under Boulanger and Lefebvre at the Académie Julian, and in Léon Bonnat's atelier. He had paintings accepted at the Paris Salons of 1884 and 1885. He was strongly influenced first by Marià Fortuny and then by Jean Louis Meissonier, who predicted that "someday this young man will be the American Meissonier." Watrous would later contribute a chapter about Meissonier to the book Modern French Masters. He returned to the United States in 1886.

Beginning in 1883, Watrous painted small genre pictures, "amazing in their almost microscopic detail." These works "of cabinet size…descended directly from such seventeenth-century masters as Metsu, Terborch, and Vermeer," and later, Vibert and Meissonier.

This impairment of his vision began in 1905 and was temporary, but did prompt Watrous to stop painting tiny, minutely detailed genre scenes, and to work on a larger scale and in a broader manner, producing from 1905 to 1918 the idealized female figures for which he is best known. "Perhaps the most original of all his works, these paintings are very enigmatic, suggesting a symbolic intent or at least a psychological strangeness." The paintings often convey a sense of whimsy or quiet melancholy.

A profile of Watrous from 1923 noted that in these paintings

Throughout this period, Watrous also painted images of a woman kneeling at prayer. On the first of these, in 1908, American Art News commented, "Harry Watrous' Fair Penitent [aka Devotion] is…well thought out and well painted. There is a decided contrast in this canvas to the risqué Cup of Tea, Cigarette, and She, which Mr. Watrous showed last spring." The Sun denounced a later example: "The succès de scandale of the Academy [exhibit of 1916]…is called Lead Us Not Into Temptation, a prayer that Mr. Watrous himself should utter each time he feels inclined to paint. It shows a profane young woman in shockingly frivolous gauzes and flamboyant morning cap, kneeling upon a garish prie-dieu for prayers, but judging by the simper upon her foolish face her 'words fly up' while her 'thoughts remain below.' In every way the picture is an offense against good taste." The Art World found the same painting "a work of delicate wit and genial satire…intellectually stimulating art."

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Harry Watrous Artworks
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