Making the leap from a passionate hobbyist to full-time artist is a test of many things, including confidence, fear, skill, and efficiency. A little-known printmaker from the early 20th century made this jump, and his story, and his works, are getting a spotlight here.
Say the name “F. Townsend Morgan (1883-1965).” Doesn’t ring any bells, does it? Indeed, even most art historians that study art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries don’t know the name. However, independent scholar Stephen Goldfarb was taken aback by this little-known printmaker’s work, which has led to a remarkable exhibition of Morgan’s work at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia.
On view from June 17 through September 10, “Avocation to Vocation: Prints by F. Townsend Morgan” is a presentation of about 30 of the artist’s prints, drawings, studies, and a few watercolors. “Morgan’s prints of sailboats, in particular, caught Goldfarb’s eye,” the museum suggests. “They reminded him of James McNeill Whistler’s images of similar subjects, rendered with minimal detail that nonetheless captures sky, sea, boat, and land. Indeed, Morgan studied with the artist Joseph Pennell in Philadelphia, who knew Whistler and served as his first biographer. Although Morgan’s work was not well known, its quality was high.
“Morgan was born in 1883 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Art Students League in New York City, learning from artists Arthur Dow, George Bridgman, and John F. Carlson. In Philadelphia, he was associated with the Sketch Club, the Print Club, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. When he and his family fell on hard times, he found work with various New Deal art programs, traveling to the Virgin Islands and Florida.
“Morgan first found work with the Public Works Art Project in Philadelphia, in 1933. Specifically established to get the unemployed through the winter of that year, it was the first of several federal government programs that employed out-of-work artists. One of his assignments was to make drawings of slum conditions in Philadelphia for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to use in a talk. Two etchings resulted from these drawings, both of which are in the exhibition.
“Through the Federal Relief Agency sponsored by Key West Art Project, Morgan journeyed to Key West, Florida, and began working on prints of the surrounding seascapes and coastal life. From 1936 to 1937, he worked for the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) in the Virgin Islands, the smallest of the four New Deal art programs. He then returned to Key West and established its Community Art Center in 1941. In 1948, he became the artist-in-residence at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, a position he held until 1950. Along the way, he drew illustrations for a book on clouds and weather patterns, designed a stamp for the 300th anniversary of Annapolis, and made postcards of popular Key West scenes to promote tourism on the island.
“Morgan won prizes for his work, and his prints belong to the collections of the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Treasury Department of the United States, as well as the Georgia Museum of Art. He seems to have managed to support himself and his family through his commissions and various federally funded gigs. Goldfarb says he hopes that this exhibition will draw attention to Morgan’s ‘considerable oeuvre’ of prints and that they can become a small part of American art history.”
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