Theodore Wores (American, 1859-1939)
Theodore Wores (American, 1859-1939)
The Shrine in Spring
Signed lower right “”Theodore Wores””
Watercolor and gouache on paper laid down on board
13 x 19 1/2 inches
Other Notes: Wores was one of the best-known and most admired artists of California, based primarily in San Francisco during his long career. After entering the first classes at the California School of Design in 1874, he went the following year to Munich, Germany, which was second only to Paris for the artistic education of American painters in the 1870’s and ’80’s. Wores trained in the academic manner of the Royal Bavarian Academy, but he also came under the influence of Frank Duveneck, the foremost exponent of the expressive Munich style initiated by Wilhelm Leibl, emphasizing dramatic tonal contrasts of neutral tones. In 1879, Wores joined a group of other American students and followed Duveneck to Florence where he set up his own school, and in the summer Duveneck and his “”Boys,”” including Wores, travelled to Venice, where they came into contact with James McNeill Whistler. On his return to San Francisco in 1881, Wores’ palette took on a bright and varied coloration, which suited his pictorial investigation of San Francisco’s Chinese population-their habits, costumes, and life style; one of the first artist to investigate this subject, he immediately gained local acclaim.
From San Francisco’s Chinatown, it was probably a smooth transition for Wores to travel to Japan in 1885; he may also have been influenced to do so by the general contact the Duveneck Boys had had with Whistler, though Wores was not to meet the great expatriate artist formally until 1889. After Japan had opened up to the West for commercial and political exchanges, it was only logical that artists from both Europe and America, painters such as John La Farge, would travel to Japan in search of unusual and exotic subject matter, but Wores was the first to actually live in Japan for several years. Wores first resided in Yokohama, in the compound reserved for foreigners, but wishing to get to know the “”real”” Japan, he arranged to give art lessons to the sons of a high official, and therefore was able to remove to a suburb of Tokyo. The onset of Japanese interest in Western ways had no place in Wores’s Japan, though Wores was sought out by Japanese painters interested in his methodology and techniques. In November of 1887, at the end of his stay, he held an exhibition of his Japanese paintings in Tokyo, and his return to America the following month, his Japanese paintings were exhibited to great acclaim at the San Francisco Art Association, and then in New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D. C. before arriving in London in April of 1889 for a two-year stay where his work was, again, well received; some of his Japanese paintings were also shown in Glasgow and sent to the Paris Salon in 1890. A year after returning to San Francisco in 1891, Wores travelled back to Japan for another two-year residence there, producing many more Japanese views: paintings of the distinctive appearance, activities, and costumes of the Japanese people. And he also almost always depicted both the distinct foliage of the Japanese landscape and an emphasis upon Japanese architecture-secular buildings, both exterior and interior views, and religious temples and shrines.
Wores followed up, after his Japanese stays, with trips to Hawaii and Samoa in 1901 and 1902 respectively, and in 1903 he travelled throughout Spain. He was especially drawn to the Alhambra in Granada, and later painted the Native American, both in the Canadian Rockies and especially in the American Southwest which he visited each year from 1915 to 1917, when he joined the Taos, New Mexico art colony. In California, Wores created a good many paintings of the wild flowers along the crests of the shores surrounding San Francisco Bay in a colorful and Impressionist manner, and a series of flowering fruit trees in the area around his summer home in Saratoga, California. While Wores was a brilliant colorist from his Chinatown years on, his ethnic works had necessarily to be more specific than his very Impressionist California landscapes. But while during his many active decades he essayed a great variety and diversity of subjects, it was the Japanese paintings which won him international celebrity.
The Shrine at Spring is an unusual work by Wores, because it is painted in watercolor. The vast majority of Wores’s Japanese paintings are done in oils, but there is also a small body of watercolors. Some of these are depictions of scenes in Yokohama where Wores and the foreign community were restricted, and a number of them are dated to 1886, the artist’s first year living in Japan. The present work is also unusual in that the figural element is not of great significance, but rather offers a sense of scale to the majestic architecture of the shrine and the soaring trees in the left foreground. The subject here offers free reign to Wores’s preference for bright sunlight and rich coloration, while the vertical format both echoes the verticals of the trees, the staircase, and the columnar structure of the shrine, while also suggesting inspiration from Japanese kakemono, or vertical scroll paintings. When Wores’s Japanese paintings were first shown in New York City at the Reichard Gallery in the spring of 188B, the reviewer for The Studio noted that “”The most striking of Mr. Wores’ pictures are the views of the temples, shrines and monuments ..”” Bringing Western art traditions of form, structure, and perspective to Japan, at a time when it was opening up to the West, Wores’s paintings impacted upon Japanese artists as well as bringing a wealth of pictorial information back to America and Europe.
William H. Gerdts
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Graduate School of the City University of New York