A Summer Retrospective Celebrates a Provincetown Realist

Originally published in Cape Arts Review, Vol.1, 2001

The real subject is what is known and felt about things encountered in a
world of real people and actual things.
                                                                 Thomas Hart Benton

Painter Nancy Whorf is a student of Provincetown, and she brings to that study an independent intelligence, a generous heart, and the history of her own life among the artists and fishermen, town folk and summer people of this light struck harbor at the tip of Cape Cod. One might place her work within what Edward Lucie-Smith, in American Realism, calls 'conceptual realism'. That is, the painting presents a kind of cumulative inventory of what the observer believes to be in front of her at a given moment -- governed by subjective experience -- things seen in the past, and ways of seeing developed through experience. Whorf herself says, "I paint pretty much what I want to see, not necessarily what is there." The subject of Whorf's painting is place - and she sees it with a complex eye.

Although Whorf began painting as a child in Provincetown, long a center of American Impressionism, with its romantic vistas of rose-covered cottages, boats and gardens dissolved in light, she was not captured by that fashionable prettiness. Her assertive style employs high keyed color and bold gesture, the paint applied in quick, thick strokes of built-up layers. While her lively gardens and vivid renditions of the bobbing rhythms of street life in a summer resort are well loved, her best work depicts the frank and dynamic images of the extremes of life lived thirty miles out to sea. There is the clear sense of the artist's admiration for the hardy and enduring life of a small fishing community.

Viewing the PAAM retrospective, the visitor is aware of Whorf's spiritual descent from the American painters of gritty urban life in the early 20th Century, for she does not spare us. For sheer emotional force, one notes a kinship with Charles Hawthorne, the founding painter of the Provincetown art colony and teacher of her father, internationally admired watercolorist John Whorf. Yet, it is not dramatic, indulgent emotion that Whorf presents. There is no polemical edge. There is always a certain distance, a lack of moral judgment, an acceptance that nature will have her way. Whether her subject is the tremendous, elemental power of a winter storm on the bay or a hushed view of Provincetown under snow, devoid of human activity, Nancy Whorf's record of place is not merely realistic; it is true. Her departures from the real, her conscious pictorial construction, serve to enhance the evocative quality of the scene.

As a small child, Whorf painted at home with her father. By 14, she began her formal art study as an apprentice to Peter Hunt, painting furniture, and for twenty years, she supported herself and her three daughters as a decorative artist. Yet, early on she wanted to explore her own painting more deeply and spent a year at the Museum School in Boston where she studied with Karl Zerbe. She also studied with Hawthorne student Vollian Rann. In the mid-80's, Whorf decided she would devote herself entirely to painting and closed her popular furniture shop in Wellfleet. Now she spends all her days painting, stopping only to work in her garden and walk briskly from one end of Provincetown to another, accompanied by her dog.

"I know this town, Whorf says, "There's a lot of information. I think I'm getting better at saying more with less. I want to simplify, to suggest. That's what I like about the palette knife. It's easier to suggest." Over time, Whorf has refined her knife stroke to the merest twist of line, the bright touch of color, to suggest the whole world of Provincetown.

The Nancy Whorf retrospective, "Provincetown Seasons and Sensations", will be on view at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum July 27-August 13. Berta Walker Gallery will present a concurrent exhibition of recent paintings, "Nancy Whorf: Provincetown Personals", July 20 - August 12.


©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved