Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Delaware Artist William D. White Retrospective at the Biggs is a “Must See”

I’ve written a fair amount about William D. White on this blog space and in other places. Now you can see for yourself the sizable collection of his art on display at the Biggs Museum of Art in Dover, Delaware. It’s all thanks to the heroic efforts of Nancy Carol Willis, who as a girl was fortunate to have known White. All during my own adolescence, growing up in Richardson Park, I had also heard about White from my father, who had known him during their years together working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s.

Nancy Carol Willis' Exhibition catalogue

I daresay that White was one of the most important artists working in Delaware in the 20th century. As far as I’m concerned, his stature ranks with that of Edward Loper as an artist of great vision. Yet, it may become apparent why William D. White’s work was nearly rubbed out of the legacy forged by Delaware artists. Part of the reason may have been caused by White’s own nature, which was as an unassuming gentle human being who never sought to direct attention onto himself. He lived his later life in poverty, almost as a hermit, for lack of a better term, in not much more than an adobe hut in the Penny Hill vicinity north of Wilmington.

Another reason his work fell into obscurity and his artistic legacy came fatally close to becoming forgotten was the nature of his artwork itself.

Even while providing large amounts of artwork to the corporate chemical giant Hercules Company during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he largely depicted the workingman and the ordinary people who could be our neighbors. It was his artwork from the later 1930s that his depictions of his subject matter took on a greater role as social commentary. Nancy Carol Willis, who compiled the catalogue that accompanies the Biggs’ exhibit, says it best:

“He invariably chose to depict laborers rather than foremen or managers. What stands out as highly unusual for the time was his honest and empathetic depiction of society’s marginalized members. European immigrants and African Americans rarely achieved prominence in such large paintings.”

William D. White was Delaware’s first, and maybe only, true Social Realist.

An untitled William D. White painting from my
own collection that's in the Biggs exhibit

Nancy Carol Willis’s catalogue is essential for gaining a complete story of William D. White’s life and artistic career. Inside are reproductions of works not available for the exhibit, along with photos of White’s parents and those of his youth.

Willis, herself a fine artist who is well acquainted with the history of 20th century American art, provides examples by other of White’s contemporaries to give context to White’s artistic endeavors. We see, in much the same manner Delaware artist Edward Loper kept pace with the development of American art and new trends in its expression, how White absorbed and learned from his peers and national contemporaries. Among Delaware’s 20th century artists, Loper and White sustained their careers as artists by understanding and learning from what was going on around them in the development of American art, from the Ashcan school to Social Realism, with that which came before and that which came in between. White even took some incursions into the realm of abstract art.

With some fortunate serendipity, when the Biggs Museum exhibit ends on June 21st, opening on June 27th, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington will present Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970 – 1990. William D. White died in 1971, just as the art movement in Wilmington was getting under way. Much of the art produced in the Wilmington vicinity during this period has much in common with the socially conscious art of William D. White. Unavoidably, it’s easy to see how the life and work of William D. White flows nearly seamlessly into the endeavors of those who followed and launched artistic careers in the early 1970s. White’s artistic career ended in obscurity while those beginning to work in the 1970s began in obscurity, subjected to marginalization and living, often times, in poverty, yet remaining true to a vision that comprised something more progressive than the bucolic landscape and elitist sensibilities of The Brandywine Tradition that held sway over Delaware artists.

Finally, with these two back-to-back art exhibitions, we are getting a truer picture of the Wilmington art world. Beginning with artists like William D. White, Edward Loper, Edward Grant, Bayard Berndt, Jeannette Slocomb Edwards, Walter Pyle, Henrietta Hoopes and many others who painted during the period of the late 1930s, we begin to see how an earlier art community morphed into the one that blossomed on the heels of the vibrant counter-culture of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Among those earlier artists, William D. White, along with Edward Loper, embodies the greatest element of cohesion with the aspirations of a later generation of local artists.