A Regionalist and a Modernist, a Midwesterner and a Southwesterner

Charles W. Thwaites: Reviving a Life and Building a Legend

by Gary John Gresl

Charles Thwaites Blanket Motif, 1959
One of the most impressive elements of the retrospective of Charles Thwaites (1904 – 2002) at the Museum of Wisconsin Art was the resolve all of the Thwaites heirs to rebuild his reputation and establish him as an important 20th Century master. This effort by his nieces and nephews was an act of respect, love and commitment not often seen when an artist passes away. The exhibit, the testimonials by family and friends , and the exceptional book, “The Art of Charles W. Thwaites, Freedom of Expression” (just published and written by Susan Hallsten McGarry) provide strong support for the claim that he should be recognized as an important American artists of the 20th Century.

He moved thru periods of academically inspired realism as seen in his ability to draw the human body, the Rural Regionalism of the Midwest, WPA murals, and especially after his move to New Mexico, abstraction and nonobjective paintings that hold their own when compared to other Modernists of his generation. As he evolved he showed his skills and talents, rarely if ever turning out a poorly considered or executed painting. He was a Regionalist and a Modernist, a Midwesterner and a Southwesterner.

Because Charles moved to the Southwest permanently in the early 1950’s, his name has not been kept alive here in Wisconsin, but once he was clearly among the very best artists in our state with a reputation that extended beyond our region. He had exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago several times beginning in 1930, the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, the National Exhibition of American Art in Rockefeller Center, Un. of Minnesota, the Great Lakes Exhibition in Buffalo, a Biennial Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, the 1939 World’s Fair, American Federation of Arts, New York, and many important exhibits in Wisconsin. There are many credits, accounts, and his own thoughtful statements in the McGarry book which has over 100 images of his work and the chronicle of his life.

The exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, ran from July 16 thru September 7, and copies of the Thwaites book can still be acquired there. As a result of seeing the body of work shown at the MWA, it is this writer’s opinion that Charles Thwaites must be considered equal or superior to other WI artists who in retrospect have been recognized as our state’s most important cultural treasures.

Charles Thwaites Blanket Motif, 1959 Charles Thwaites Abstractions, 1960
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