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 Henry Varnum Poor  (1887 - 1970)

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Lived/Active: New York/California/Kansas      Known for: figure, landscape, still life easel and mural painting

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Ad Code: 3
Henry Varnum Poor
from Auction House Records.
Winter Lanscape
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born Chapman, Sept. 30, 1887; died New York, NY, Dec. 8, 1970. Painter. Ceramist. Lithographer. Illustrator. Muralist. Teacher. After graduating from Stanford University, CA in 1910, Poor spent a year in Europe studying at the Slade Art School in London with Walter Sickert, and at the Academié Julian in Paris with John Paul Laurens in 1911.

From Paris he moved to Rome and was a resident artist at the American Academy. He returned to California and taught at Stanford from 1911-1914 and at the California School of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Art Association from 1915- 1918. During WWI he served as a camofleur in France and was transferred to the regular war art staff before the armistice was signed. Here he produced watercolors, drawings and lithographs from the war.

After the war, he moved to New York. He had a one-man painting exhibition at the Kevorkian Galleries in New York in 1920 but spent most of the 1920s working as a ceramist. In 1929 he spent several months in France and reclaimed his career as a painter. Founder and first president in 1946 of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, ME. Guest professor of painting at Columbia University, New York from 1952-55. Author and illustrator of the book, An Artist Sees Alaska (NY: Viking, 1945) and A Book of Pottery—from Mud into Immortality (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1958).
Walter Purchase Prize, San Francisco Artist’s Association 1918; Harris Silver Medal, Chicago Art Institute 1932; Logan Prize for Landscape 1933; 3rd Prize Carnegie International Exhibit, 1933; Corcoran Gallery, 1935

Whitney Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; Garnett Public Library; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Radio City Music Hall; Dallas Museum of Fine Art; Spencer Museum of Art; Worcester Art Museum; Columbus Gallery of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles County 172 Museum; Cleveland Museum of Art; Addison Gallery of American Art; Newark Museum; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Kansas City Art Institute; Sandzén Memorial Art Gallery; Spencer Museum of Art. Wall paintings include: 12 fresco panels, Department of Justice Building, Washington, DC; a mural in Department of the Interior Building, Washington, DC; a large fresco for Pennsylvania State College.

National Academy of Design (Assoc, 1948); San Francisco Society of Artists; California Art Club; San Francisco Artist Association; Artists Equity Association

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Newlin, Gertrude Dix (Development of Art in Kansas. Typed Manuscript, 1951); Reinbach, Edna, comp. “Kansas Art and Artists”, in Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society. v. 17, 1928. p. 571-585.; American Art Annual. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1898-1947 12/18/20/22/24/27; Who’s Who in American Art. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1936- v.1=1936-37 v.3= 1941-42 v.2=1938-39 v.4=1940-47. 1, 2, 3, 4,6,7; Sain, Lydia. Kansas Artists, compiled by Lydia Sain from 1932 to 1948. Typed Manuscript, 1948.; Fielding, Mantle. Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, with an Addendum containing Corrections and Additional Material on the Original Entries. Compiled by James F. Carr. New York: James F. Carr Publ., 1965.; Festival of Kansas Arts and Crafts. Catalog: Arts and Crafts of Kansas: an Exhibition held in Lawrence, Feb. 18-22, 1948 in the Community Building. Lawrence: World Co., 1948; Dunbier, Paul. The Dunbier Value Guide; Over 1200 Painters in the Western U.S. Before 1920. Scottsdale: Altamira Press, 1981.; Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974. Art in Federal Buildings: an illustrated record of the Treasury Department’s New Program in Painting and Sculpture. Volume 1: Mural Design, 1934-36. Washington, DC: Art in Federal Buildings Inc., 1936; Samuels, Peggy. Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976.; KAC; Topeka Cap & Topeka J (Topeka Capital, Topeka J (aka Topeka J) newspapers—usually reports of the Kansas Artists Exhibition 1st= Topeka Cap Nov. 11, 1925 9th= Topeka J Nov. 11, 1933 2nd= Topeka Cap Nov. 10, 1926 10th= Topeka J Nov. 10, 1934 3rd= Topeka J Nov. 19, 1927 11th= Topeka J Jan. 7, 1936 4th= Topeka J Nov. 3, 1928 12th= Topeka J Nov. 11 & 14, 1936 5th= Topeka J Nov. 2, 1929 14th= Topeka J Jan. 22, 1938 6th= Topeka J Oct. 18 & Nov. 1, 1930 15th= Topeka J Mar. 10, 1939 7th= Topeka J Oct. 24, 1931 16th= Topeka J Feb. 2 & 10, 1940 8th= Topeka J Oct. 22, 1932 17th= Topeka J Mar. 8 & 17, 1941), Nov.-11, 1925; Julian; Sandzén files; Porter, Dean A, Teresa Hayes Ebie, Suzan Campbell. Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898-1950. South Bend, IN: Snite Museum of Art, 1999., Richard James. Henry Varnum Poor, 1887-1970: A Biography and Study of his Paintings (PhD. dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1983); Dickson, Harold E. Henry Varnum Poor, 1887-1970: A Retrospective Exhibition. (University Park, PA: Museum of Art, 1983); AskArt,, accessed Dec. 22, 2005
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chapman, Kansas, Henry Varnum Poor attended Stanford University for four years and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1910, having enrolled earlier for a year to study economics but took time out and re-entered to study art. With no financial support from an art disdaining family, he graduated from Stanford Phi Beta Kappa, and then went to the Slade School in London and Academie Julian in Paris.

From 1911 to 1918, he taught at Stanford and then served in the War. From 1920 to 1929, he distinguished himself in New York as a ceramist of decorative figures. Then he returned to painting and also became an excellent muralist in true fresco technique. His murals are in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Interior.

The following is from Peter Poor, son of the artist:
Comments: Attended Stanford 4 years, graduated 1910, taught at Stanford and San Francisco Art Institute, continued making ceramics past 1929 until his death in 1970.  He headed the Alaska War Art Unit during WW II, did a series of murals at Penn State, and was a leading founder of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and its President for many years. He was also a member of the National Academy of Design, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His second wife was the fabric designer Marion Dorn, and his third wife the journalist and novelist Bessie Breuer.
Exhibition Record (Museums, Institutions and Awards):
5th McPherson Exhibition (Catalogue of the Annual Art Exhibit. McPherson: McPherson High School Press, 1911-35) 1915; 6th McPherson Exhibition 1916; Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University, 1983.
National Academy of Design (Assoc, 1948); San Francisco Society of Artists; California Art Club; San Francisco Artist Association; Artists Equity Association

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chapman, Kansas on Sept. 30, 1888, Poor graduated from Stanford University in 1910 and then traveled to London where he was a pupil of Walter Sickert at the Slade School.  In Paris he studied with Lucien Simon and Laurens at Académie Julian. Returning to California, he taught at Stanford and the California School of Fine Art during 1916-19. He made his final move to NYC in 1921 where he was successful as a potter as well as a painter. He died in New City, NY in November 1970.  His oils include landscapes, portraits, and figure studies.

Member: National Academician (1963); San Francisco Art Association; California Art Club; National Institute of Arts and Letters

Exhibitions: Del Monte Art Gallery (Monterey), 1912; Pan-Pacific International Exhibition, 1915; San Francisco Art Association, 1916-19; Art Institute of Chicago, 1932 (medal); Carnegie Inst., 1933 (3rd prize).

In: Fresno, California Post Office (ceramic tile); Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum; Art Institute of Chicago; San FRancisco Museum of Art; Worcester Museum; Radio City Music Hall, New York City; Dept. of Justice, Interior Dept., Washington, DC (fresco); Dallas Museum; Whitney Museum.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Varnum Poor by Peyton Boswell; Artists of the American West (Samuels); Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs (Bénézit, E); Art in California (R. L. Bernier, 1916); American Art Annual 1919-33; Who's Who in American Art 1936-70; NY Times, 12-9-1970 (obituary).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery:
Henry Varnum Poor was born in Chapman, Kansas on September 30, 1887. Many sources, and even the artist himself, chronicled the date as 1888; however, census records and the Chapman newspaper confirm 1887. As a child growing up on the Kansas prairie, Poor developed a passionate love for nature and the outdoors – thanks in large part to the influence of his maternal grandfather, Simeon Graham.

Graham, a man of Irish descent, came to Kansas after prospecting for gold in California and serving as a scout during the Civil War. He established his family in Chapman and eventually taught his grandson the ways of the Prairie – including how to make grasshopper and cornmeal pones and baked Prairie Hen. In 1896, the immediate Poor family, consisting of his industrious father Alfred James – who came from Andover, Maine, and was a nephew to the founder of Standard and Poor's – artistic mother Josephine, brother Herbert and sister Eva, moved from Chapman to Kansas City, Missouri.  A. J. Poor, a grain dealer and banker, made the move on account of his increasing business interests and membership in the Kansas City Board of Trade.

While in Kansas City, Henry Poor attended one of the earliest Manual Training Schools established in the United States: learning drafting, carpentry, and other industrial arts. He frequently returned to Chapman until moving with his mother and siblings to Palo Alto, California, so that his older brother could enroll in Stanford University. His father remained in Kansas City, attending to the family's business interests.

Henry Poor graduated from Palo Alto High School and entered Stanford University in the fall of 1906, initially majoring in economics before switching to art his junior year. In 1910, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and began a bicycling trip through Europe with former art professor Arthur B. Clark. Prolonging his stay there, he continued his art studies in London and Paris.

In 1911 Poor accepted a one-year temporary position at Stanford. At its conclusion, he married fellow student Lena Wiltz and moved back to Kansas so he could manage his parents' farm approximately four miles north of Bonner Springs. While there a daughter, Josephine, was born. In the fall of 1913, he accepted a job back at Stanford and remained there until 1916, when his position was eliminated by the College president.

Out of work, but still a productive artist, Poor and his young family moved north to San Francisco where he eventually resumed teaching at what would become the San Francisco Institute of Art. He was drafted in 1918 and served as a regimental artist with the 115th Engineers in France. During the War, he was divorced from Lena Wiltz and married Marion Dorn after his return in 1919. The newly wedded couple decided to relocate to New York in hopes of more success with their individual careers.

They settled outside New York in New City, and Poor began constructing a home using local stone and hand-hewn timbers. The house became known as "Crow House" after the crows that congregated to watch him work. When the house was complete, he extended his artistic activities beyond painting and began working in ceramics. In the ensuing years, he made functional pottery, sculpture, architectural elements, fountains and tile murals in clay.

While busy developing his ceramic work, he also began constructing houses for friends and associates in the region – including playwright Maxwell Anderson, and actors Burgess Meredith and John Houseman.

Also in the 1920s, Poor remarried for the final time. He was divorced from Marion Dorn in 1923 and two years later married Bessie Freedman Breuer, an established writer and editor. Breuer had a daughter, Anne, whom Poor adopted, and in 1926 they had a son, Peter.

After working extensively in ceramics throughout the 1920s he resumed painting in 1929. By the mid-1930s, his paintings drew as much attention as his ceramics. New York critics such as Emporia native Murdock Pemberton and Edward Alden Jewell championed Poor's paintings, placing his work at the forefront of American artists. Reviewing an exhibition in 1937, Jewell wrote in The New York Times: "For my part, I will pit Henry Varnum Poor against any living artist anywhere, yes, and against a lot of artists who have laid aside their brushes, quite confident that he can hold his own."

Also, in the early 1930s, he began experimenting with traditional fresco painting. This eventually led to mural commissions for several public buildings.

In 1938 Poor's increasing reputation facilitated an invitation to illustrate Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome, published by the Limited Editions Club. He later illustrated The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

During the Great Depression Poor became deeply involved in the organization and operation of the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts. He participated as an artist and juror. After America entered World War II, he encouraged artistic activity in the war effort. He authored and illustrated a book, An Artist Sees Alaska, recounting his travels along the Alaska coast as a visual art war correspondent. He later wrote and illustrated a book on ceramics titled A Book of Pottery: From Mud Into Immortality.

Poor was generally reluctant to serve as a teacher following his time at Stanford and in San Francisco, but he did accept several positions in later years. His most dedicated effort as an instructor came in 1946 when he co-founded the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine.

The last years of his life were spent primarily working in ceramics and pastels. He died from a heart attack on December 8, 1970.

Submitted by Ron Michael, Curator, Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Henry Poor is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
The California Art Club
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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