A Rare Oil by John Whorf: “Ship in Rough Water”


John Whorf, "Ship in Rough Water," 1930, oil on canvas, 28 1/4 x 36 1/8 inches

John Whorf, "Ship in Rough Water," 1930, oil on canvas, 28 1/4 x 36 1/8 inches

Lisa N. Peters

Prominent in the New York and Boston art worlds from the 1920s through the 1950s, John Whorf (1903-1959) is best known for his vivid, painterly watercolors, which are often compared with those of John Singer Sargent.* Oils are a rare aspect of Whorf’s oeuvre, but one nonetheless in which he demonstrated the same masterful handling, using sweeping, bravura brushwork that seems effortless.  This technique is exemplified in Ship in Rough Water (1930s), in which John Whorf portrayed a large fishing vessel battling a raging sea.  Here he no doubt felt oil was ideal for this dramatic scene, and he used the medium adeptly to express the weight and feel of the surging waves.

An allegory of the confrontation between man and nature, the storm-tossed boat has been explored in art through the ages.  John Whorf’s painting of it parallels those by Winslow Homer, expressing man’s struggle against the sea’s elemental force.  As in the works of Homer, Whorf used a  high horizon and a dynamic, closely cropped composition to create a sense of immediacy. Whorf’s vision of this subject is hopeful.  On the listing ship, a lighted cabin offers refuge, while figures on the deck stand watchfully over the sea, exuding a sense of confidence that their ship will proceed to safety.

John Whorf is represented in many important private and public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Pitti Palace, Florence; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

The New York Times stated in John Whorf’s obituary:  “While still in his twenties, Mr. Whorf already had established a solid artistic reputation.  Reviewing Mr. Whorf’s 1929 exhibition in New York, one critic said of the young artist that he was ‘perhaps the most brilliant watercolorist in America today, if we take ‘brilliancy’ to mean a breathtaking skill in depicting reality.’ Mr. Whorf won constant acclaim from art critics over the years, particularly for his deft landscapes, maritime subjects, and nudes. . . he conceived of painting as an act of absolute fidelity to the picturesqueness of America and Europe.”  “John Whorf, 56, Water-Colorist,” New York Times, February 14, 1959.

*When Whorf had his first exhibition at the Grace Horne Gallery in Boston in 1924, John Singer Sargent visited the show and purchased one of Whorf’s works.  Following his successful debut, Whorf received informal instruction from Sargent.

One Response to “A Rare Oil by John Whorf: “Ship in Rough Water””

  1. Albert Decker Says:

    I was unaware of this. Thanks for sharing.


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