A Closer Look: Sid Willis
Around the turn of the 20th Century, an artistic movement was taking shape in Boston. Dissatisfied with the direction of modern art, and not impressed with the over the top grandeur of the Hudson River School landscapes, a group of artists in Boston established a foundation of ideals and methods that carry on to this day. The Boston School artists’ teachings combine the discipline and beauty of the French Academy, with the spontaneity and observational theories of impressionism. Now 80 years old, Sid Willis is a patriarch of the tradition.
The Boston School
The Boston School’s core members where Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862 – 1938), Frank Benson (1862 – 1951), and William McGregor Paxton (1869 – 1941). Tarbell and Benson were classmates at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Due to their skill, they were encouraged to study in Europe. They both studied at the Academie Julien in Paris under Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. Meanwhile Paxton was at the atelier of Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris, learning directly from the master. The three men returned to Boston equipped with this classical academic training in the European tradition. They were also exposed to and influenced by the excitement of the Impressionists work which filled the galleries.
Upon returning to Boston, they formed a tight group and painted, and eventually taught painting based on the principles of draftsmanship, classical beauty, spontaneity of observation, true color, etc. They committed to teaching in the master and pupil, atelier tradition.
Paxton, Benson and Tarbell all taught at the Museum School in Boston overseeing many artists’ development, and forming what is refered to the Boston School. One student, Ives Gammell, would prove to be the linchpin in the schools history.
R. H. Ives Gammell (1893 – 1981) is arguably the most important figure of the movement, not because of the artwork he produced, but the work he put into it. Gammell was a student of Tarbell and Paxton, as well as Joseph DeCamp and Philip Hale.
After painting professionally for some years, Gammell took it upon himself to carry on the Boston School Tradition. He began teaching in the 1940’s and wrote “The Twilight of Painting.” In 1950 he opened the Gammell Studios to teach an entire generation of artists with great discipline all he knew about painting. Gammell’s students make up this 3rd generation of Boston School Painters, of which Sidney F. Willis (b. 1930) is a part. The group includes Robert Douglas Hunter (b. 1928), Paul Ingbretson (b. 1949), Robert Cormier (b. 1932), Richard Lack (1928-2009) and many other prominent artists who now have many well-known students of their own.
The Boston School’s artistic lineage is unparalleled in American painting leading all the way to Jacques-Louis David (1784-1825) who is the pinnacle of neoclassicism and the highest ideals of Western art. David taught Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres who taught Paul Delaroche who taught Antoine-Jean Gros who then taught William Paxton.
Trained in the Boston School tradition I was inspired by their gallant attempt to combine the vision of Vermeer with the fresh look of Monet.
Juxtaposing various toys and relics from childhood Willis creates charming narratives and playful scenes. While often times humorous, these endearing paintings are possible only because of his immense artistic talent. Now in his eighties, Willis has fully mastered the use of color to achieve his visual goals. Always topical, Willis here plays on modern politics as he places President Obama’s portrait upon the Prince Charming’s stead in a painting titled “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
After he graduated from the Vesper George School of Art, Willis trained under Robert Douglas Hunter. Mr. Willis delights his viewers with luminous still lifes and impressionistic landscapes in the Boston School tradition. He has earned the reputation of being one of the finest painters in the United States. His paintings are cited for their strong design, beautiful color harmonies and consummate draftsmanship. While Mr. Willis’ still life reflects his solid academic values, they also incorporate his keen impressionistic observations to form unusual and interesting compositions. His subjects, often rare and distinctive antiques and textiles, are carefully chosen from throughout his native New England countryside. Willis’ still lifes exhibit a unique elegance of design and achieve a closeness of color unsurpassed by any other artist today. An American Impressionist, Mr. Willis spends much of his time painting out of doors, directly from nature. New England provides Willis with a never ending supply of subjects for his landscapes. Though best known for still life, Willis has also won gold medals for landscapes and portraiture, and has been honored for paintings in oil pastel, and acrylic.
In his own words …
“Dear Chris, I guess I paint because I can’t write. Trained in the Boston School tradition I was inspired by their gallant attempt to combine the vision of Vermeer with the fresh look of Monet. Their approach to impressionism included “the big look”. View your subject as a visual whole. Paint only as much detail as you must to convey the total vision. Pay great attention to the lost and found plus check your edges. I have always tried to add my own personal touch to painting. I try to see as much detail as possible without losing the visual whole. Often mistaken for a tromp painter, I am a contemporary impressionist who paints in a tight manner. It’s not how I paint, or what I paint, it’s how I see what I paint. I work only from life with my on look. Subject matter doesn’t matter. Color is all. Ives Gammel described some painter “entranced with the visual world”. I wish it had been me. Sid p.s. I,m better on the phone.” – an email from Sidney F. Willis, March 2010