ANTHONY THIEME (1888-1954) was one of America’s most successful artists of the first half of the twentieth century, one of only a handful of American marine and landscape painters of this period whose work occupies the walls of museums and serious private collections. He was a major figure of the Rockport (MA) School of American regional art, and a contemporary of important Rockport artists Aldro Hibbard, Emil Gruppe, W. Lester Stevens, Antonio Cirino, and Marguerite Pierson. Like other Rockport artists, his style was influenced by Impressionism, with special attention paid to the effects of light (especially upon water), but also by the Dutch tradition of seascape painting. Throughout his career, he favored painting en plein air, because it allowed him to better capture the atmosphere’s fleeting effects, and his proficiency in this method earned him the title ‘Master of Light and Shadow.’
Thieme was born in Rotterdam, Holland on February 20, 1888. His parents, Karel and Alida Cornelia Thieme, named him Antonius Johannes, (which he changed upon gaining resident status in America). The young ‘Antoon” (as his parents called him) showed artistic abilities at an early age, and his proficiency at drawing attracted the attention of a local school master, who took him for visits to the art shops of Rotterdam, where the child viewed and learned from the drawings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Mauve, and Van Gogh. Thieme’s parents, however, did not believe that an artistic career was a promising vocation for their favorite son, and so they sent him off to a naval school in the north of Holland, hoping that a close proximity to the ocean would instill in him a love of ships, and perhaps lead to a future as a master mariner like his uncle. But the effect of this experience was only to provide Thieme with a further opportunity to study ships and their rigging at close quarters, and perhaps deepen his fascination with the dappling effect of sunlight in water, a theme which inspired him throughout his long and prolific career.
In 1902, at the age of fourteen, Thieme enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rotterdam, where he remained for two years. This was followed by a brief period of matriculation at the Royal Academy in The Hague. But despite his training, he could not convince his parents to support his artistic leanings, and so, at the age of seventeen, he made the fateful decision to leave home and pursue his passion for art.
Thieme’s first stop wasDusseldorf, Germany. Upon his arrival, he was fortunate to find an excellent mentor in George Hacker, an art instructor who also did stage design for the local theatre. Hacker was a rigorous teacher, and Thieme worked hard at improving his skills at landscape painting; he also used the opportunity to study the craft of stage design, a profession which would support him in the lean years before success as a painter. Being a restless soul, Thieme took leave of Dusseldorf after three years and set out for Zurich, Switzerland. While painting in that city, he met an American art student with whom he decided to walk to Italy, sleeping out of doors and sketching along the way. When the American decided to stop at Lake Como, Thieme kept walking, eventually reaching Turin, Italy, where he obtained employment with Guiseppe Mancini, an architect and painter who had been commissioned to do stage sets for a production of La Giaconda. Thieme proved an able assistant and continued to gain knowledge in the craft of stage-design.
In 1909, Thieme left his position with Mancini and enrolled in the Scuola di Belli Arti (School of Fine Art) in Turin to study with the noted professor Carlo Bini. He spent a year there before moving on to Naples, where he resided for two years, sketching and painting. Unfortunately, amidst all the traveling, a trunk filled with sketches Thieme had executed in Germany and Switzerland was lost forever.
Thieme was very fond of his years spent in Italy, particularly of his time spent in Naples and in the ancient city of Pozzuoli. He used this opportunity to study the impressions of light and shade created by the strong Mediterranean sun. During this period he also learned to sing many operatic arias in fluent Italian, his favorite being Manon Lescaut. Like many painters, music played a vital role in his life.
While in Naples, Thieme met a Belgian sculptor whom he accompanied to London, England. Inspired by the ancient architecture of buildings there, especially St. Paul’s Cathedral, he drew a series of sketches, which he promptly sold to a firm on Fleet Street. Using the money to book passage to America, soon thereafter he arrived in New York City. His training in stage design helped him to land a job painting stage sets for the Russian ballerina Pavlova at the Century Theater. Yet despite what was considered good pay for this time-period (60 dollars per week), Thieme was upset with the lack of respect accorded this profession in America, where the work was rushed through in what he deemed to be a careless manner, compared to Europe, where stage settings were considered high art. Thus, when his commission at the Theatre ended, he packed his bags and, with a fellow-artist as a traveling companion, embarked on a steamer for South America. Upon their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, the pair found a mural painter who employed them on a project doing figure work. The painter was so impressed with Thieme’s sketches that he purchased one for one hundred dollars, an enormous sum of money in 1913 Brazil. When that commission ended, the pair moved on to Argentina, which was in the grip of a depression. One day, while spending their last centavos on a meager breakfast, a man whom they had spoken to on arrival suddenly appeared and asked Thieme to paint twenty-seven figures for a theatrical set, helping him stave off penury for a while longer. Thieme’s traveling companion, however, decided he wanted to paint in Russia, and asked Thieme to join him there once his commission was finished. Thieme set out to do just that, but, while on shipboard, he met a group of passengers who, upon learning of his profession, prevailed upon him to visit Paris - the true mecca of artists, they argued - before proceeding on to Russia.
Paris in 1913 was also in the grip of a widespread depression, and Thieme initially eked out a living by exhibiting his sketches in the window space of several small, cramped stores run by locals whom he had befriended. Fortuitously, though, he ran into the very artist with whom he had been traveling and who had set out for Russia, but had also ended up in France. Thieme’s friend immediately obtained work for him, and the two were kept busy with stage work in Paris, and then London, for some time. But Thieme eventually found the wanderlust gnawing at him again, and decided to return to Italy, where he dedicated himself to painting and sketching. From there he returned to America, with a contract for stage work in New York, but fate stepped in and, instead of New York, he found himself in Boston.
Boston in the early part of the twentieth century was a city of wide, tree-lined streets, intriguing back alleys, gracious brick town houses, and the ambience of the best European cultural centers. Thieme - always a European at heart - quickly fell in love with the city. Finally, he had a found a place where his roving nature was imbued with an air of tranquility. He tore up his New York contract and went to work designing stage scenery for the Copley Theatre, a job which would occupy him for nearly a decade; Additionally, he acquired a studio in the Copley Square area of Boston’s Back Bay, where he did easel paintings, landscapes, marines, and book illustrations, such as Talisman by Sir Walter Scott. Thieme’s association with theatrical producer Henry Jewett, and the highly regarded productions of the Copley Theatre, helped to promote his reputation as a fine-artist. In 1928 he was offered his first exhibition, at the renowned Grace Horne Galleries in Boston. The exhibit opened to critical acclaim, enabling him to give up his work as a stage designer and dedicate his life to painting.
Also in 1928, Thieme received his first award, the first prize in Landscape at the North Shore Arts Association, Gloucester, for a painting entitled Virginia Homestead, which, in a review in the July 14, 1928 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript, was said to “epitomize Southern charm - tall, white pillars, people on a porch, sun-flecked velvety turf.” Thieme’s relationships with Boston’s North Shore artists led both to new friendships and a new direction in his life. Richard Recchia, the well-known sculptor, introduced him not only to picturesque Rockport - a quaint old art colony on the tip of Cape Ann, Massachusetts - but also to Lillian Beckett, a young woman from Portland, Maine who, in 1929, became Thieme’s wife. The couple never had any children, choosing instead to dedicate their lives to one another - and to Thieme’s painting. Lillian, or ‘Becky’ as she preferred to be called, was Thieme’s staunchest ally, not only during their twenty-five year marriage, but also in the years after his death where she did everything she could to promote his artistic reputation. The couple purchased a one-hundred and fifty year old cottage in Rockport, and settled into a routine whereby Thieme painted and tended the land he acquired around the cottage. The fishing boats, white-painted cottages, and church steeples of the picturesque village served as a continual inspiration to Thieme. He also became a highly-regarded art instructor, directing the Thieme Summer School of Art in Rockport from 1929 to 1943, when he was forced to close the school due to ill health. One of the most famous pieces of advice he gave to his admiring students is contained in his collection of papers which are stored in the Archives of American Art in the Smithsonian Institution: “A good landscape painter must paint fast to catch the light of any hour. Unless you know what to put in, what to leave out, the result is a mess. A good carpenter has the best of tools. A good artist should have the same. Use only the best canvas, brushes, and paint. How can you expect to turn out a good canvas if your palette is dirty? Wear holes in the soles of your shoes, but spend money on plenty of paint.”
Thieme’s reputation as a master of ‘sunlight and shadow’ continued to grow. Galleries clamored to carry his work. In 1930 he was elected a member of the prestigious Grand Central Galleries in New York, and exhibited with them regularly. Above all, he loved to paint ‘Motif No. 1’, the old red fishing shack in Rockport Harbor which he painted so many times (four hundred by some accounts) that the image became an internationally recognized symbol of the art colony. In fact, Thieme has been credited with doing more than any other artist to publicize nationwide the many attributes of his adopted hometown.
In 1935 Thieme became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and after World War Two, the Thiemes made St. Augustine, Florida their winter home. Tragedy, however, struck in 1946, when his Rockport studio burned down, together with much of his work of the previous thirty years. Rather than immediately rebuild his life in Massachusetts, Thieme struck out on a new journey of exploration. HIs initial landing-place was Charleston, South Carolina, where he spent two months in prolific activity, inspired by the revelation of light and color far more intense than that to which he had become accustomed. The work that he produced in Charleston was“a far cry from his picturesque New England harbor scenes” as one reviewer acknowledged after taking in Thieme’s 1947 Exhibition at the Grand Central Galleries. The serenity and tonal discipline of his seascapes was set aside for elaborations of wrought iron, profusions of blossoms, and the dense, tropical foliage which he witnessed in Charleston. After concluding his stay in South Carolina he continued on his journey: to Nassau (the Bahamas, where he had previously visited and painted) in 1948, to Guatemala in 1949, to the Riviera in 1951, and to Spain in the year of his death, 1954. He also spent time painting in Grasse, France, and his work from this period was exhibited in 1950 at a critically acclaimed show at the Bernheim-Jeune Galleries in Paris. Though he continued to earn praise and win prizes for the excellent and timeless quality of his work, he was not a happy man. He found Europe much changed after the ravages of war. His soul had always remained that of a European, and it saddened him to see what had become of the countries he had once known. His wife recounted (Thieme papers; Smithsonian Institution) that her husband often said that “‘he was born fifty years too late. He disliked the rush and roar of the modern age... this conflict was always within him, the longing to paint peace and quiet, beauty and harmony, yet confronted daily with the ugliness of modernity.”
After spending much of 1954 painting on Majorca, and the east coast of Spain, Thieme returned home to Rockport, weary and emotionally drained. He brought back with him an abundance of work, to be exhibited at an upcoming major show at the Grand Central Galleries. On December 6th of that year, the Thiemes, en route to spend the winter in St. Augustine, took a break in their journey in Greenwich, Connecticut. That morning, in the bathroom of their hotel room, Anthony Thieme, unable to resolve his deep inner turmoil, or perhaps distressed over an unpublicized major illness, shot himself. He was sixty-six years old.
1930-1934 National Academy of Design; 1930 Art Institute of Chicago; 1929-1931 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; 1932 Corcoran Gallery of Art; 1930-1931 Los Angeles Museum of Art (prize); 1932 Albright Art Gallery; 1931 Detroit Institute of Art; 1929-1931 Salamagundi Club (prizes); 1928-1931 Springfield, Utah (prizes); 1928 Gloucester Art Association (prize); 1927-1928 Springfield Art League (prizes); 1930 North Shore Art Association (prize); 1930 Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts (prize); 1930 New York Water Color Club (prize); 1930 Boston Tercentenary Exhibition; 1930 Ogunquit Art Center; 1931 Hatfield Gallery, LA; 1931 New Haven Painters and Clay Club (prize); 1931 Washington Water Color Club (prize); 1932 Albright Art Gallery (prize); 1932 Pasadena Society of Artists; 1932 San Francisco Art Annual; 1938 Los Angeles Museum of Art; 1938 Buck Hill Falls Art Association (Pennsylvania) (prize); 1944 Jordan Marsh Exhibition (Boston) (medal); 1949 Pan-American Art Show (Miami) (prize)
American Artists Professional League; American Water Color Society; Art Alliance of America; Boston Art Club; Boston Society of Artists; California Academy of Fine Arts; Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts; Gloucester Society of Artists; National Arts Club; New York Water Color Club; North Shore Art Association; Philadelphia Art Alliance; Providence Water Color Club; Rockport Art Association; Salmagundi Club; Springfield Art League
Albany Institute of History and Art, NY; Beach College, Storrs, Connecticut;; City of New Haven Collection; Dayton Art Institute; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Montclair Art Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; New Britain Museum of Art, CT; Pittsfield Museum of Art, MA; College of Springfield, Utah; University of Iowa
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