Paul Sawyier was born March 23, 1865, in Madison County, Ohio, but his family had its roots in Frankfort, Kentucky, and moved to that small city about 1870. Paul's father was a physician, and the early years of his son's life were marked by general prosperity. The Sawyiers lived on Broadway Street in Frankfort in a neighborhood considered a "very select part of town."
From a young age, Paul was inclined toward artistic, rather than scholarly, pursuits and his family supported these endeavors. After first attending the Second Street Public School, he was enrolled at Dudley Institute, an Episcopal academy in Frankfort. Because this academy offered no art courses, Dr. Sawyier, who had always dreamed of being an artist himself and who consequently encouraged the artistic inclinations of his children, employed an itinerant artist from Cincinnati, Miss Elizabeth S. Hutchins, to instruct Paul and his sister Natalie. Another source of artistic motivation for Paul was his mother who was one of Frankfort's most accomplished pianists.
Paul Sawyier's serious art study began in the year 1884-1885 at the Cincinnati Art School, where he enrolled in a life drawing class taught by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, who was born in Lexington, Kentucky and who studied under Thomas Couture in Paris. The next year Sawyier opened a studio in Cincinnati with another artist, Avery Sharp, and supported himself by creating commercial charcoal portraits. In 1886 however, Sawyier, persuaded by his father, returned to Frankfort where he worked as a salesman for the Kentucky River Mills, a hemp factory of which the elder Sawyier was president. Realizing that he lacked the spirit for this kind of work, Sawyier soon resigned to pursue his painting full-time. By this time, his family had lost most of its fortune and Sawyier's life henceforth was to be on the brink of poverty.
By 1889 Sawyier had moved to New York City and was attending classes at the Art Students League, where William Merritt Chase was one of his teachers. Chase considered Sawyier talented and, at one time, gave him the following advice: "Be yourself Paul -- be your individual self; be Paul Sawyier." Chase additionally played a significant role in Sawyier's later stylistic development into impressionism -- if not as a teacher, then as a stylistic model to emulate. A relationship between Sawyier's painting style and Chases's definitely exists; however, it is only evident when comparing Sawyier's work completed after the mid-1890s to Chase's impressionistic works.
In 1891, Sawyier was back in Cincinnati where he studied under Frank Duveneck. He was the teacher to whom Sawyier related very well and who taught him much about overall composition. After his instruction with Duveneck, Sawyier's formal training in art was finished. Unlike many contemporary American artists, he never studied in Europe and was strictly an American product. He was however acquainted with European styles as both Chase and Duveneck were great exponents of European painting techniques.
Shortly after his study with Duveneck, Sawyier returned to Frankfort, where he painted many scenes for local patrons and personal friends, and for sale on the open market. From about 1891 to 1908, Sawyier concentrated on Frankfort-area subject matter, often portraying local houses, landscapes, and riverscapes. Although he worked in a wide range of media, at this time his preferred and most frequent medium was watercolor. It was during this Kentucky period that Sawyier began to attract a large group of local admirers who would collect his works throughout the rest of his life.
From about 1908 to the fall of 1913, Sawyier is said to have spent most of his time on the Kentucky River, living on a houseboat that also served as a studio and making runs up the river in his small motorboat. He tied up at High Bridge and Camp Nelson in Jessamine County for long periods of time and often painted scenes from these areas. He also made frequent trips to other towns in Central Kentucky, such as Frankfort, Lexington, and Danville, and to Cincinnati.
Sawyier was a very proud artist and felt strongly about being able to live entirely off the sale of his work. Most often he was in need of money; and yet, he would never accept any sort of odd job. Occasionally, opportunities for public and private commissions came to Sawyier. In 1907, he was commissioned by the State of Kentucky to paint a portrait of Charles Scott, an early governor, and in 1910 he was contracted by Transylvania University in Lexington to execute an oil portrait of Bishop Henry B. Bascom, an early president.
Sometime during the autumn of 1913, Sawyier left Kentucky for Brooklyn, New York where he lived with his recently-widowed sister. As he switched locations, Sawyier also changed his preference in medium, from watercolor to oil. He soon became acquainted with a widow, Mrs. Marie S. Myer, who invited him to paint at the Catskill summer residence of her sister Mrs. Marshall L. Emory in Highmount, New York. Sawyier first visited Highmount in 1915 and stayed until the early spring of 1916. He then moved to the neighboring village of Fleishmanns where he boarded at the home of Phillip Schaefer and where he died on November 5, 1917.
In 1917, Sawyier was listed for the first time in the "Who's Who in Art" section of the American Art Annual. His death at age 52 preceded the artist's full and well-deserved recognition.
Text adapted from Arthur F. Jones, The Art of Paul Sawyier (Lexington, The University of Kentucky, 1976). (EAF)
Biography courtesy of The Charleston Renaissance Gallery, www.antiquesandfineart.com/charleston