Richard Sumner Meryman – For the Love of Painting (1881 – 1963)

By Richard S. Meryman, Jr.
In January 1906, the great painter and naturalist Abbott Thayer asked the distinguished artist Edmund Tarbell at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts to suggest two students who would live in Dublin and each morning copy his previous day’s work. Suggested pay: three dollars a day.

Thayer was an Emersonian Transcendentalist who believed that beauty is “God’s handwriting” and struggled to paint “pictures of the highest human soul, beauty.” These copyists would preserve the “God given” passages he often compulsively wiped away and repainted in spasms of experimentation and self-doubt. One of the artists Tarbell recommended was Richard Sumner Meryman. The young artist had started at the school under Frank Benson, but the eminent portraitist told Richard to quit; he would never be a painter. Meryman, known as Wig, went across the hall to Tarbell who took him in and became a mentor. In his years under Tarbell, doing studies “from the antique” and drawing in life classes, Wig acquired a solid foundation of classic academic technique.

Arriving in Dublin the winter of 1906, Wig soon became a member of Thayer’s inner circle. Thayer’s daughter, Gladys, once wrote in a letter, “Wig Meryman had a big place in his heart and in our lives.”

During the afternoons the young artist worked on his own pictures and received criticisms from the master. Wig once described Thayer, “He would frequently adjust the values in my picture with heavy impasto notes, at the same time saying in his Thayeresque fashion that ‘old Thayer’s strongest point is a sense of values!’

Just a walk with Thayer was inspirational. Crossing a brown autumn field which rose toward the sunset, Thayer once said, “What color do the shadows of these grass tussocks look to you? The queer thing is that, to me, they seem blood red.”

Born in 1881 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Wig grew up poor. His grandfather, Jacob, was a captain and owner of clipper ships sailing to the East Indies out of Harpswell, Maine. Wig’s father, Richard, was an architect whose legacy to his son may have been an artistic drive. Richard headed his own Boston firm, until an embezzler overnight bankrupted the business. He ended up a draftsman in another firm. Heartbroken, Richard soon died before the birth of his son, whose mother then married a man named Wigglesworth (hence the nickname Wig). Leaving high school to study art, Wig sometimes had to walk long distances to save a five cent trolley fare to the Museum School.

Wig remained an intimate of the Thayer family for two decades and a Dubliner for the rest of his life. By 1909 he was receiving portrait commissions from the Dublin summer community. In a letter that year to Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s biographer, he cockily confessed, “It looks now as if Master Meryman is fast becoming a society portrait painter. Just think, I finished school last fall and didn’t know what in the world was going to happen and painted a portrait of old man Catlin and of the Leighton kids and all Dublin immediately recognized a new star. Let us hope it stays up and isn’t a poor little comet.”

In 1916 Wig joined the World War One Ambulance Corps, bringing wounded from the front to French hospitals. When America entered the war in 1918, he transferred as a lieutenant into the Camouflage Corps, which was among the first units in France. Rushed to a French Army base, this ramshackle contingent of artists, scene painters, and architects was received by relieved cries of “The Yankees are here!”

Later, his commanding officer’s reminiscence read, “There was a painter from Boston named Meryman, perfectly harmless as a soldier, but full of wit, philosophy and mental activity.”

Wig traveled by motorcycle with a sidecar along the battle lines. One of his reports read: “The 114 Machine Gun Battery. Two positions in trenches at edge of woods, natural camouflage. Two positions in trenches in open. Direct observation from enemy trenches. False earth and brush wired on clasp wire. Work done at night.” He was applying the principles he had helped illustrate in Abbott Thayer’s 1909 book, Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the culmination of Thayer’s obsession with the natural world. This book, adapted to uniforms and equipment, made Thayer the father of military camouflage.

After the war, once again thanks to Edmund Tarbell, Wig became director of the art school at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and married Dorothea Bates, the sister of a friend in the Ambulance Corps. In Washington, he painted numerous portraits of dignitaries including university presidents, seven generals and admirals, the secretary of the Navy, a chief justice of the Supreme Court, a senator from Tennessee, and President Coolidge’s deceased son. Wig won awards at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exhibition and the 1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition.

By 1935 modernism had so permeated the art world, Wig’s tradition of 19th-century realism was no longer relevant. His definition of art and his program of academic training were not what students wanted. By mutual agreement, he left the Corcoran and returned to live year-round in Dublin. Bitterly blaming art dealers for promoting abstract art, refusing to advance himself in the art establishment by “playing the game” as he put it, Wig rejected representation by a gallery, though that would have given him wider recognition. He sold his landscapes out of his studio. He received portrait commissions from summer Dubliners and was to a degree an official state portraitist, painting former New Hampshire governors, including Sherman Adams who became President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff. In 1951 he mounted his own retrospective show in the barn of Dublin’s George Stewart.

As time passed, Wig became the last resident representative of the early artistic era of Dublin, the time of Thayer, George de Forest Brush, Alexander James, and Joseph Lindon Smith. Until his death in 1963, he was a personage, a raconteur with the gift of instant kinship.

Local resident, Justine Eaton, remembers, “Everybody just loved Wig. There was something just so human and so appealing and also so sincere and clean, like a child.”

Another longtime summer resident, Thayer Greene, remembers “a gentleness of spirit and a major twinkle in his eye and a quiet wit. He had the capacity to be amused by the follies of the human condition. And he was not overly impressed by important people.”

One sitter in Washington was a general who insisted that all wrinkles be painted out of his uniform — and each evening Wig put them back in. Another general was color blind, and Wig temporarily painted a yellow band across the oblivious man’s uniform. In Dublin, departing for lawn parties at the lordly Frederick Brewster estate, Wig would appear in paint-stained white ducks and dismissed his wife’s dismay with, “Everybody knows I’m an artist.” Over her further protests, he would take along his sidekick, Ritzy, the black Labrador who went everywhere with Wig, including the forbidden territory of the golf course. Wig was a man who said what he thought, tactfully or not.

In 1920 Gertrude Catlin, wife of wealthy summer resident Daniel K. Catlin, enrolled her son Danny in the summer art school run by Wig and Alexander James. After a few weeks she complained, “I’m disappointed in Dan. He doesn’t seem to enjoy this sort of thing. What am I going to do?” Wig answered, “I suggest you remove him.”

Unlike other early Dublin artists and despite his reverence for Thayer, Wig was never a deep thinker who fulfilled in his work a transcendent ideology, although he did become an American Impressionist, depicting light and atmosphere through the juxtaposition of strokes of color. He considered “arty” talk pretentious and its practitioners fraudulent “popinjays.” He attached no particular significance to a painting once it was finished and was only mildly interested in its fate. He described himself as “a plugger.” His simple philosophy: “I paint what I see.”

Actually, he painted out of love — love of the act of brushing paint onto canvas, love of a landscape or person that moved him. He painted it all with a pleasure that permeated and transfigured his pictures. John Singer Sargent once said, “Thank God the very accomplished work of Mr. Meryman still has the flavor of a study of nature.”