Editor's note: The following essay was published on April 5, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Seasons of Light - Eternal Moments by Richard Earl Thompson

by Susan Hallsten McGarry


Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values yet uncaptured by language. Aldo Leopold [1]


In 1979, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum hosted an exhibition of forty-six works by Richard Earl Thompson. During the opening events, the typically reclusive artist made an appearance, delivering a lecture and a painting demonstration. Both his art and his presence received critical and popular acclaim.

Twenty-five years later, and fourteen years after Thompson's death in 1991, forty of his landscapes have been assembled at the Woodson Art Museum in a retrospective titled Seasons of Light. The exhibition theme speaks to the heart of Thompson's fascination with the daily and seasonal cycles of Earth. Just as important, however, was Thompson's belief that these cycles were a metaphor for life itself. The marvels of spring's renewal and summer's growth, followed by fall's colorful decline, and the inevitability of winter's death are inherent in the lifecycles of all creation. It was Thompson's goal, as he stated, to make people stop and reflect upon these eternal rhythms. The painting God's Way, created in the sunset of his life, epitomizes Thompson's belief that the regularity of the seasons affirmed the supreme orchestration of the universe.

Thompson's favored subject for expressing his philosophy was the Upper Midwest, and particularly the landscape of his beloved home state of Wisconsin. During his childhood and early career in commercial art, Thompson lived in the southeastern part of the state in Lake Geneva, midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. During the last three decades of his life, he lived and worked five months of the year in the lake country of northwestern Wisconsin, while spending the colder months in the Florida Keys. Although travels to Europe and the New England Coast also inspired paintings, Thompson invariably returned to painting Wisconsin's distinctive seasonal colors and temperatures, from winter's stark variations on brown and grey to spring's cool blue-greens, summer's effulgent yellow-greens, and the glorious reds and golds of autumn.

Whatever his location, Thompson's forte was capturing both the seasonal and daily effects of light. Three paintings in the exhibition serve as a good example. Mid-Summer, After Sunset, and February's Mood depict the same landscape from the same point of view. However, their moods are literally worlds apart. In Mid-Summer, Thompson invites us to stroll through masses of wildflowers and to pay homage to a verdant tree. The translucent blue sky is dappled with airy clouds, and one feels the fullness of this magnificent midday. Conversely, the hazy, snow-blanketed meadow and venerable tree in February's Mood turn one's attention inward, to thoughts of a blazing fire and the comfort of loved ones on a late afternoon. After Sunset, on the other hand, crackles with the clarity of a cold snap that happens as the sun sinks below the horizon taking its warmth with it as night overtakes day.

A sense of place was vital to Thompson's life and to his landscapes. An avid outdoorsman, he spent hours in the countryside, fishing, hiking, observing, and sketching. By routinely communing with nature, Thompson internalized its fugitive beauty, freezing moments with precision and intimacy. In a way, he cemented what Wisconsin ecologist and philosopher Aldo Leopold (1897-1948) described as uniquely ephemeral: "Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations. I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind's eye." [2]

Throughout his life, Thompson was never far from water. He sought out ponds, rivers, streams, oceans, and marshes, relishing their surface qualities and the varied textures of surrounding trees, shrubs, and grasses. He thrived on the physical and psychological "thirst-quenching" that water played in his personal life. Whether he was a kid hunting frogs along the shores of Lake Geneva or an adult fishing in the Hayward Lakes area or in the waters off Key West, Thompson was at one with the buoyancy, calm, and life-nurturing qualities of water. His oeuvre, like the glacier-pocked landscape of Wisconsin, is studded with paintings of glasslike lakes reflecting sky and clouds, rippled coves where sunlight dances like diamonds as in Fishing at Sunset, and creeks that meander through enchanted glades such as the one in Beaver's Haunt.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1914, Thompson was destined to be involved in the arts. He began drawing at an early age, encouraged by his father who was an art director and designer for Montgomery Ward. As a boy, Thompson was also a vocalist, singing soprano as a youth and tenor in his teens. His love of nature came from spending summers at his grandparents' Lake Geneva home, which he subsequently purchased.

Thompson's decision to select the fine arts for his career was fueled by a paint box his parents bought him on his tenth Christmas and by meeting the professional artists from whom his father commissioned covers for Ward's catalogues. As a teenager, Thompson was introduced to impressionistic techniques through the widely exhibited members of the Hoosier School and notably Carl Krafft (1884-1938), president of the Society of Ozark Painters. At age fourteen, Thompson solicited advice from Edward Redfield (1869-1965), leader of the New Hope, Pennsylvania, Impressionist school. As reported by Thompson's biographer, Patricia Jobe Pierce, Redfield prophetically responded, "I worked some twelve years in art schools here and abroad only to find I had to learn from nature." [3]

Although Thompson would indulge himself in the lessons of nature throughout his life, he took his formal studies seriously, committing himself to seven years of academic training at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, the American Academy of Art, Chicago, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Two instructors would leave indelible impressions. At the Chicago Academy, Thompson studied with Frederick Grant (1886-1959), a painter, illustrator and etcher who had trained in Paris and Venice under American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849-1960). Later, at the Art Institute of Chicago, Thompson trained with Louis Ritman (1889-1963), who was also a student of Chase and had painted under the influence of Claude Monet (1840-1926) in Giverny, France.

Through these mentors, Thompson fell under the spell of Chase, a painter who embraced impressionist techniques because they were useful to him even though he neither ascribed to Impressionism's philosophy nor its aesthetic. Rather, as noted by William Gerdts, "the motivation for Chase's art remained the expression of the reality of his subject through the expressivity of his technique." [4]

Thompson would likewise modify his techniques and his palette to match the personality of each landscape. In documenting a landscape's physical qualities, he often emulated the dazzling light effects achieved by Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923). Like Sorolla, Thompson was also a consummate draftsman with a well-honed knowledge of human anatomy.

Thompson perfected his skills at conveying the human form during two decades of commercial work beginning in the late 1930s. Commuting from Lake Geneva to Chicago, he participated in the lucrative post-World War II illustration market, with its emphasis on print advertising in mass-media periodicals. At the time, New York was the king of fiction illustration, while Chicago was queen of advertising illustration. Thompson worked for Esquire magazine and in various Chicago advertising studios, including Stevens, Sundblom and Henry, best remembered for Haddon Sundblom's Coca Cola Santa Clauses. Thompson also operated his own studio and advertising business, earning a respectable income that supported his family, which included wife Mary Munn and three sons.

The advertising climate had changed dramatically, however, by the early 1960s. Photography replaced the work of many illustrators, and television became the vehicle for advertising to mass audiences. At age 45, Thompson saw a door close in commercial work, while a more intriguing door opened to easel painting, where he could dedicate himself to subjects that fed his soul.

The transition was not without its challenges. Having worked in the deadline-driven public world for two decades, Thompson saw his new career as an opportunity to paint for himself and to share his philosophy with others through art. Although he taught briefly, Thompson maintained his privacy, keeping a low profile as he embarked on paintings that started out with figures, especially women and children, dominating the landscapes. He exhibited his works in Chicago, Rockford, and Evanston, Illinois, Milwaukee, and Detroit, but the gallery system always perplexed him. That problem was solved in 1977 when his son Richard Jr. opened The Richard Thompson Gallery in San Francisco, California.

By the late 1960s, Thompson had moved increasingly toward pure landscape, with the occasional addition of diminutive figures. A turning point came in the early 1970s when he traveled to Europe and to Israel. Six of the paintings in Seasons of Light were created following a trip to Spain, Portugal, and France, including Along the Oise, which features several hallmarks that presaged the future of Thompson's work.

The luminous pastoral depicts an unannounced encounter, as if the viewer has chanced upon this clearing without plan or expectation. The light is radiant; the beauty intoxicating. Brilliance dissolves the distant view of the river, muted with silt, while cool shade beckons in the foreground. The dramatic backlighting of the tree trunks and the riot of foliage enliven the surface of the painting. The woman, unaware of being observed, is at one with this place. She adds a sense of scale rather than a point of identification. The light, which is suggested without the benefit of a visible sky, elicits awe, while reinforcing a sense of humility. That evocative combination of admiration and diffidence would dominate Thompson's landscapes during the ensuing two decades of his career.

Because of his early training with American Impressionists who had studied in France, Thompson was often accorded the epithet, the "Monet of Wisconsin." Throughout his career, Thompson decried the label. He thought of himself as neither a "follower" nor an "imitator." Instead, he confessed to being a romantic realist in love with "plaintive things. . . . [that] have lasting quality and will live. . . . I have tried not to be something I am not. No shock treatments, no political messages, compositions based rather on tranquil scenes -- a sincere approach to painting to which all people can relate." [5]

In his best works, Thompson elevated the specific to the universal. Unlike a plein-air painter focused on a fleeting light effect, Thompson was a studio painter who planned, responded to, and edited his scenes. Along with his firsthand observations and sketches, Thompson also used photographs taken by his son Bruce, admitting that his memory was not capable of cataloging the vastness of "nature's mysteries." His landscapes represent a point in time that has both a sense of history and eternity.

The phrase "that was a day to remember" is used so often that it can fail to elicit emotion. For Thompson, however, it commands a profound sensual and psychological relevance. His landscapes are not snapshots of nature's randomness; they are meditations on nature's harmonious perfection, which he visualized in his mind's eye and refined on canvas. Thompson discovered examples of that perfection not in grandiose vistas nor in ominous geological phenomena. Rather, as suggested by the painting A Day to Remember, Thompson found perfection all around him. It was as nearby as a neighbor's backyard or a favorite fishing hole. In these intimate places, Thompson saw, remembered, and through his art, reminded others of paradise on earth.


1. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Ballantine Books, New York, 1966, p. 102.

2. Ibid, p. 54.

3. Patricia Jobe Pierce, Richard Earl Thompson-A Prophetic Odyssey in Paint, Richard-James Publications, San Francisco, CA, 1982, p. 48.

4. William Gerdts, American Impressionism, Abbeville Press, New York, 2001, p. 137.

5. Pierce, op. cit., p. 137.


Copyright © 2005 by Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum.


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