William D. White, Delaware’s Most Preeminent
Unknown Artist of the 20th Century
By Steven Leech
The history of art from Delaware really begins with the art of illustration by Felix Darley, who lived and worked in Claymont, Delaware where he died in 1888. Darley’s art graced works by such notable figures of the American literary canon as Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving. Nearly on the heels of Darley’s passing, the art of illustration from Delaware artists such as Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth rose to the level of what today is clearly recognized as fine art. Students and aspiring artists who followed in Pyle’s and Wyeth’s footsteps eventually formed what has been called “The Brandywine Tradition,” culminating in the bucolic and sublime work of Andrew Wyeth.
There are other strains of artistic work that have contributed to Delaware’s artistic legacy. One strain comes from contributions to the arts and craft movement in Arden, which was established in 1900. Another influence on Delaware artists came from the Pre-Raphaelite works purchased, beginning in 1890, by local industrialist Samuel Bancroft, which later found a home in the Delaware Art Museum when its current facility opened on Wilmington’s Kentmere Parkway in 1938.
The next step in the story of Delaware’s artistic legacy occurred in the 1930s with the establishment of the Federal Artists’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) established under the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It could be argued that those prior influences of a burgeoning Brandywine Tradition as well as exposure to Pre-Raphaelite art contributed to the maturity of work created by those Delaware artists who worked during this later period. However, those WPA artists from Delaware like Edward Loper, Edward Grant and William D. White, among others, expressed their art with their own unique vision.
The most well known among those artists from the WPA period is Edward Loper, who is still working in Wilmington while currently in his 90s. Another of those accomplished artists who worked for Delaware’s Federal Artists’ Project was Edward Grant. Like too many of the artists who worked and earned money from the Project, Grant’s contribution had been largely forgotten until the Biggs Museum in Dover, Delaware presented the retrospective of his work, “Forgotten Dreams: The Paintings of Edward Grant” between November 2008 and February 2009. Among these three of Delaware’s more accomplished artists, from a larger body of very good local artists of the period, is the one who is the most forgotten. Very much the artistic equal of Edward Loper is the art of William D. White.
William Davidson White was born in Wilmington in 1896. He served in the Army Corps of Engineers in France during the final months of World War I. Previous to his service he honed his craft between 1914 and 1916 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. From 1916 to 1917 he studied under Delaware artists Harvey Dunn and Gayle Hoskins, who in turn had been students of Howard Pyle.
In 1923 White earned a commission from Percy G. Beckett, who was the Vice President and General Manager of Phelps Dodge Corporation. White was asked to travel to Arizona to paint the miners of Bisbee and nearby Nacozari, Mexico. White painted works under the auspices of this commission until 1930. Examples of these early works can be viewed on the website http://www.minrec.org/artwork.asp?cat=2&artistid=28.
When the Great Depression of the 1930s arrived, William D. White was hired by the Delaware Artists’ Project of the WPA. His major accomplishment was to paint the mural entitled, “Harvest, Spring and Summer” in 1936 – 1937 for the post office in Dover. Much of the mural survives, the section depicting “Harvest,” can be viewed in the Educational Building belonging to the Wesley Methodist Church, which had been the Dover Post Office before a new post office was build across the street.
All through his life and work in Wilmington, White displayed a developed awareness of his social and cultural environment, especially the plight of the downtrodden who suffered at the hands of the wealthy and powerful, especially during the Depression when so many people went jobless and hungry. Putting these sentiments into practice, White regularly donated illustrations to be used in advertisements for Wilmington’s Needy Family Fund Campaign, which were published in local newspapers. Another example of White’s social conscience can be demonstrated by an incident where he railed against the extravagances of the local wealthy class during the opening celebration for the newly installed fountains at Longwood Gardens, then turning around to buy up coats at the Goodwill in order give them away to cold and homeless children.
In the close quarters of Delaware it is almost too easy to acquire the status of an eccentric no matter how accomplished one is. After his success during the 1930s, the graces faded from William D. White, which may have been attributable to his withdraw from work and life following failed attempts to win the hand of tennis star and amateur artist Helen Wills Moody.
In another unfortunate episode, White’s home and studio at Penny Hill, just north of Wilmington, reportedly caught fire resulting in serious damage. Having little or no resources, White continued to live and work in the building, patching up the building’s deficiencies the best he could by borrowing against and selling off chunks of his family property. A monthly veterans’ pension of $85 a month, which he began receiving in the mid 1950s, was little help. However, his ability to accomplish quality work suffered little from his growing poverty.
Anecdotal stories attest to his poverty, like the one of him walking from his home in the rain to Hardcastle’s art supply store about forty blocks away in downtown Wilmington. Another of White’s favorite hang-outs, as with many of Wilmington’s artists, poets and cultural devotees, was the city’s Greenwood Book Store.
In spite of hardships, White retained his personal and professional integrity, always donning a tweed jacket, tie and beret when venturing into the public eye. In another story, White had been commissioned to paint a portrait of a local industrialist, but when the industrialist expressed displeasure with the result White decided to erase the portrait with turpentine so that he could reuse the canvas. While White had little time for adults, who may have looked down their noses at his eccentric behavior, he had a real following among neighborhood kids who respected and loved him. In fact, many of White’s surviving artworks depict the happiness of childhood.
William D. White’s presence is as a kind of ghost in Delaware’s artistic legacy. Factors contributing to White’s obscurity as one of Delaware’s major 20th century artists may be attritributable to many of the factors suggested in this article. They may be attributable as well to reports like one that claimed a collegue had purposely destroyed some of his work in an act of professional jealousy. Other examples of careless obfuscation have been the misidentification of his work and at least one attempt to “touch up” one of his paintings, thus defacing the work.
My personal reason for writing this article parallels reasons that friend and Delaware artist Nancy Carol Willis has for attempting to revive the life and work of this important 20th century Delaware artist. William D. White had been a friend of my father’s from their days working for the WPA in the 1930s. As a child and young woman, Nancy personally knew White, and may be one of only several people still alive who knew him. Between the stories my father told, Nancy’s personal reminiscences and what a few others who had known White told both of us, we have hobbled together this brief story about him. While I own a couple of works that White gave to my father, Nancy owns the bulk of what was left in his estate when he died in 1971.
Like the mural in Dover, examples of William D. White’s work have survived in spite of a sizable portion of it having been “cast to the winds” of obfuscation. However, enough survives to encourage effort to assemble, along with supplemental material and assorted ephemera, a retrospective of his work. However, to be completely comfortable in mounting such a retrospective, more of White’s work needs to be found. There are enough leads that indicate examples of his work are still extant though hidden away in private collections or stored in unlikely places, perhaps by persons who do not fully realize what they are holding. In a sense, this article and presentation is an effort to discover more of White’s work so that one day a retrospective might be publicly presented. Having said that, if there might be anyone who’s got this far in this article who might suspect they possess an example of William D. White’s work, we’d love to hear from you.
I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.