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William Thon


Born in New York City, William Thon grew up in Brooklyn. Having shown an early interest in drawing and painting, he enrolled at the Art Students League around 1925 and attended evening classes. He dropped out after a brief stint because he had no interest in drawing plaster casts, which was then a prerequisite to working from a live model. Instead of formal training, he taught himself to paint at night while working as a janitor during the day.

After marrying in 1929, he and a friend started a company that created window displays for drugstores, which sustained them during the Depression. In 1933, he joined a sea voyage to Cocos Island off Puerto Rico, an experience he credited with giving him a feeling for shipboard life that made it possible for him to paint vessels. He especially relied on this feeling late in his life, when he continued to paint familiar subject matter like boats though he was nearly blind from macular degeneration.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II (he was thirty-five when he enlisted and thus not obligated to do so), a period when his art career took off. His paintings appeared frequently in juried art shoes and national magazines, and he was awarded a Prix de Rome in 1947, followed by a fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, where he later served as a trustee and artist in residence. Upon returning to the United States, he and his wife resided in a home they built in Port Clyde, Maine.

Awarded numerous prizes, Thon was represented by Midtown Galleries for most of his career, beginning in 1942. He exhibited his work regularly and widely during his lifetime, held an honorary doctorate from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the National Academy of Design.

Thon’s work is in more than sixty museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Butler Institute of American Art, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Farnsworth Art Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art.

Thon became legally blind due to macular degeneration when he was in his eighties. He continued to paint by “instinct,” as he said. In his last paintings, he developed strategies that deftly juxtapose blacks—acrylic, ink, watercolor— against the white of paper, leading to a late body of work that shows a rejuvenated treatment of subjects that were a familiar part of his lifelong oeuvre. As well as using brushes to paint his last works, he also used his fingers, leaving traces of his prints on the surfaces of his works.

William Thon in his studio in Port Clyde, Maine, in 1993.
Photo by David Etnier.
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