Harry Willson Watrous was a highly successful academic portrait painter. During his distinguished career he specialized in a wide variety of subjects, including genre paintings, idealized portraits of women, landscapes, night scenes and still lifes.
Born in San Francisco in 1857, Watrous spent his childhood in New York. He attended private schools in New York City.
After a trip to California in 1881, Watrous went abroad for approximately five years. He first studied with Humphrey Moore in Malaga and traveled through Southern Spain and Morocco. He studied at the Academie Julien in Paris under Leon Bonnat, Gustave Boulanger and Jules Joseph Lefebvre. The most important influence on Watrous’ s early work was genre painter Jean Louis Meissonier.
Watrous established himself as an academic genre painter early in his career. He painted finely detailed genre scenes, which included men in historical costumes and decorative interiors.
Around 1905, Watrous began to lose his eyesight and he began more innovative paintings. From 1905 to 1918, Watrous specialized in painting highly stylized women in seductive costumes. These pictures often included unusual birds or insects; their symbolic content contributed to their uniqueness.
From 1918 to 1923, Watrous changed his focus from the female figure to landscapes and night scenes. The works of Watrous ‘s friend, Ralph Blakelock, influenced these paintings. Both painters used contrasts of light and shadow in broad compositions.
After 1923, Watrous concentrated on detailed still lifes of decorative objects. He used antiques from his collection in these carefully observed paintings.
Regardless of subject matter, Watrous’ s work was rather academic in style. The surface of the oil paintings was smooth and highly polished. He drew the outlines of the objects with precision, and the compositions were classic in their simplicity.
Watrous was married to painter and author Elizabeth Snowden Nichols. He served as secretary of the National Academy of Design from 1898 to 1920, and as president of the Academy in 1933. Watrous died in New York City in 1940.
*American Art Analog, vol.ll