Influenced and inspired by the idyllic surroundings of Cape Cod, John Whorf is considered one of the finest American watercolourists of the early twentieth century. His vibrant colours, layered brushstrokes and subtle use of light and shadow suggest parallels with the likes of Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. He achieved considerable success in his own lifetime, staging sell-out shows across America from the age of 21, and counting John Singer Sargent amongst his patrons. John Whorf was born in Winthrop, an oceanside suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, on 10 January 1903. His father, Harry C Whorf, was a commercial artist and graphic designer who introduced John to painting and drawing from an early age, while at home his mother Sarah Edna (née Lee), encouraged John and his brothers Benjamin and Richard to paint and draw as much as possible, even allowing the children to draw and paint on the walls of the house. At the age of 14, Whorf began formal artistic training at the St Botolph Studio in Boston, and later the same year at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, studying drawing under Philip Leslie Hale and painting under William James.
However, he soon abandoned the formal teachings of Boston’s academies to travel to Provincetown, on the northern tip of Cape Cod, where his family roots lay. By 1917, Provincetown was becoming a flourishing artistic colony, with many artists and writers settling there, having fled the war in Europe. Whorf quickly immersed himself in the town’s bohemian atmosphere, studying under George Elmer Browne and Charles Webster Hawthorne, who introduced the teenager to Impressionism, which would become a strong influence throughout the rest of his career. Whorf spent much of his time at the Beachcombers Social Club, where he met further artists who would influence his career and style, such as Richard E Miller and Gerrit Beneker.
John Whorf’s life took a dramatic turn at the age of 18, when a diving accident left him temporarily paralysed. Though he never fully recovered and walked with a cane for the rest of his life, he credited the accident with allowing him to focus all his energy and attention on his painting. When he had sufficiently recovered, he celebrated the return of his freedom by travelling extensively through France, Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Algeria. While in Paris, he studied at the Académie Colarossi, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was during these travels abroad that he began eschewing oil painting in favour of watercolour, which he found better suited to his lifestyle and aesthetic interests. He returned to the United States in 1923 and that year held his debut show, ‘The John Whorf Collection, Paintings of France, Spain and Morocco’ at the Hotel Bond in Hartford, Connecticut. The following year, at the age of just 21, Whorf held his first one-man show at the Grace Horne Gallery in Boston. The show would make him an almost overnight sensation. All 52 paintings in the exhibition sold, including one that was purchased by John Singer Sargent, who was in Boston at the time working on murals for the Boston Public Library. Whorf used this opportunity to bring a number of sketches to Sargent’s studio on Columbus Avenue for him to critique. The two men struck up a friendship and Sargent became a huge influence on the young Whorf before his death in 1925. The success of his show in 1924 secured Whorf’s reputation as one of America’s finest living watercolourists and for the next 30 years enjoyed hugely successful, sell-out exhibitions biannually at the Grace Horne Gallery and the Milch Gallery in New York. Even through the worst years of the Great Depression, his work remained in demand, and only rarely was he required to work on commissions. In 1925, Whorf married Vivienne Wing, whom he had met in his hometown of Winthrop when he was a student. Together they would have four children.
In 1928, following an extended honeymoon to France, Whorf exhibited the watercolour, Bathers, at the Art Institute of Chicago, for which he was award the Institute’s Logan Medal. This would be the first of three honours he would be awarded by the Art Institute of Chicago, including in 1939, when the Institute featured 24 of his paintings alongside works by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse at its International Exhibition of Water Colors. The previous year, he became the first contemporary painter to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University. He began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design in 1945, and was elected an Academician in 1947. The following year, he was elected a member of the American Watercolor Society.
From childhood, John Whorf had continued to spend his summers in Provincetown, and in 1934 moved there permanently with his family, initially renting a cottage a 3 Nickerson Street from the family of the marine painter Frederick Judd Waugh. In 1937, they moved to 205 Bradford Street, and then to 52 Commercial Street in 1944. As the years passed, Provincetown became increasingly popular as a tourist destination and in 1955, Whorf decided to sell his waterside house on Commercial Street and moved with his wife to a house belonging to their son-in-law and eldest daughter on the quieter West Vine Street. He died there on 13 February 1959 of a heart attack.