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Wells Moses Sawyer (1863-1960)

Black Boy at a Window

c. 1938-40

Oil on Masonite panel, 14 x 12 inches. Inscribed "WELLS M SAWYER" in black crayon on reverse of liner.


Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.


Enduring America (catalogue); Antiques and The Arts Weekly, May 26, 2006, p. 101 (auction advertisement, Elder's Antiques); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 89.


Fleming, Geoffrey K., biographical entry for Wells Moses Sawyer at; Gilliland, Marion Spjut, Dearest Daught and Popsy Wells: Two Artists Named Sawyer (privately printed, 1995). 


Estate of the artist; to the artist’s daughter, Helen Sawyer; bequest to the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, 1982; deaccessioned, 1985, and sold at auction through Elder’s Antiques, Nokomis, FL, June 12, 2006 (item no. 684578).


In original 2¼- inch wide and 2¼-inch deep gold leaf and wash frame plus 7/8-inch white-painted wood liner. “SALJY” or possibly “SALTY” inscribed in pencil on reverse of liner. Reverse of panel bears typed label reading as follows: "47. BLACK BOY AT A WINDOW/ ca. 1938-1940/ Oil/ PA-82-68-HS-UFG". Accession number appears in several additional locations on reverse of frame.

     Over a career which spanned parts of eight decades, Wells Moses Sawyer distinguished himself as a painter, illustrator and photographer, first in his native Iowa and later in Washington, D.C. and Florida.  

     Sawyer, who was born near Keokuk, Iowa, in 1863, established himself as an artist in that state by 1884. He studied with influential artists including John O. Anderson, Howard Helmick (1845-1907) and John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911), and later in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery School of Art and the Art Students League. Beginning in the 1890s, he was employed by the federal government as an illustrator and photographer with the United States Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology, his most lasting contributions being made as a member of the Pepper-Hearst Expedition through the Florida Keys (Marco Island) where celebrated archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900) unearthed stunning evidence of the presence there of the prehistoric Calusa Indian culture.

     Sawyer began to exhibit nationally before the turn of the century, showing at the Art Institute of Chicago, National Academy of Design, the World Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Later exhibition credits included, among many others, the Babcock Gallery (1916, 1921 and 1923-24), Ferargil Gallery (1916, 1919-20, 1935-36), the Majestic Gallery (1924), The Studio Guild Gallery (1924 and 1938), Milch Galleries (1929), Museo Nacional de Arts Moderno (1929), Corcoran Gallery (1931), The Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Art (1931), Salon Belles Artes (1934), American Federation of Art Traveling Exhibition (1939-41), Allied Artists of America (c.1941), University Club of Mexico City (1941), American Watercolor Society (1941-46), Provincetown Art Association (c. 1940s), Sarasota Art Association (c. 1940s), Traveling Exhibition of the Federal Art Project (1944), Ringling Museum of Art (1950), and the Sarasota Art Association (1955). Sawyer’s daughter, Helen Alton Sawyer, A.N.A. (1900-1999), gained national recognition as an artist in her own right and married noted painter and art educator Jerry Farnsworth (1895-1983).*

     Sawyer was probably in his mid-seventies when he painted this sensitive portrayal of a young black man. Charming yet enigmatic, this small work evokes the precariousness of life in the years preceding the advent of the Second World War, particularly within the African-American community. While the unidentified urban neighborhood depicted in the upper half of the painting appears relatively prosperous, we sense that the young man pictured in this work is unsettled.  His room is bare, his pants are tattered and the object he caresses in his right hand on the windowsill appears to be the source of melancholy.  It could be a small book, a religious token or perhaps a framed photograph of a loved one back home.


    While purely conjecture, it is tempting to interpret Black Boy at a Window in terms of the Great Migration, the movement in the interwar years of African-Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest.  Many left their families behind while seeking to find work and establish lives for themselves in unfamiliar—but theoretically less discriminatory—surroundings. In this sense, Sawyer’s evocative painting suggests the loss of place, family and history inevitably associated with this difficult transition.


*Biographical information on Sawyer based on material furnished to by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director, Southold Historical Society, Southold, New York.

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