Frank Russell Wadsworth (1874-1905)
Please credit Illinois Historical Art Project and Author: Ronald G. Pisano (in loving memory)
Relatively little is known about the personal life and artistic career of Francis (Frank) Russell Wadsworth who died prematurely at the age of thirty-one while visiting Spain on a painting excursion. Even the cause of his death in 1905 is clouded in mystery, described only as “autumnal fever” in local obituaries. One thing is definite, however, he died at the height of his powers as an artist at a time when he was beginning to garner impressive prizes and awards for his work. In 1904, just a year before his death, he won the prestigious Young Fortnightly Club Prize of $100 for a painting he exhibited at the Chicago and Vicinity annual exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago. One critic astutely described Wadsworth as a young artist who paints “...in a manner in advance of his generation.” This comment echoed that of another writer who, just the previous year, confidently predicted: “Wadsworth is going a long way with his art, promising to command our attention for many years.” Sadly, fate denied Frank Wadsworth the opportunities of fulfilling this prophesy. However, in his short life, his talent flourished and his work was widely exhibited.
Wadsworth’s skills were developed early in his home town of Chicago, where he began his art studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. These skills were later sharpened under the tutelage of America’s master technician and ever-popular teacher William Merritt Chase, who became a close friend of the Wadsworth family and mentor to Frank. Wadsworth’s amazingly compact progress can be traced by the limited facts that have come to light about his training, his exhibition history and most importantly, his art. Based on the works mentioned in exhibition catalogues and reviews of his art during a brief career, it is likely he painted fewer than one hundred works. His paintings were exhibited in seven known cities: New York and Philadelphia on the East Coast; Nashville in the South; Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis in the Midwest and Chicago, where at least two- thirds of his known oeuvre was shown.
The facts of Wadsworth’s early life are particularly scant, leaving large gaps that can only be filled by supposition, or left unresolved. He was born Francis Russell Wadsworth, in Chicago, in 1874 (the exact date of his birth is still unknown) -- the only child of Dr. Francis L. Wadsworth and Sarah Robinson Wadsworth (originally of Pawtucket, Rhode Island). The only other member of the immediate family was Frank’s stepbrother Charles, Dr. Wadsworth’s son by a previous marriage. As a professor of physiology, histology and theory and practice of medicine at Woman’s Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Wadsworth was a prosperous and well regarded member of the community.
By 1895, and quite possibly earlier, the family lived in Oak Park, located on the western border of Chicago. At the time of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the population of Oak Park was a mere 500 residents; by 1890, the population had grown to 4,589. This quiet and relatively affluent community had a variety of social clubs (most of which met at the Scoville Institute) and a respectable public school system, which, by the time Wadsworth was eligible, had classes through high school. Whether or not he attended public school is unknown. Importantly though, at the early age of thirteen, Wadsworth began his formal study of art, enrolling in the “elementary class” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1887. His interest in art might have been inspired by that of his mother, as she too painted (as noted in subsequent accounts of their travels abroad). Art Institute professor Frederick Warren Freer (1849-1908), whose father was a doctor, was a pallbearer at Dr. Wadsworth’s funeral, may have also encouraged the parents to begin formal training for and artistically inclined boy. After only one month (October) Wadsworth left the Art Institute, not returning until eight years later, in 1895 (at age twenty-five). Just what caused this abrupt termination of art studies remains a mystery. It is clear though, he had advanced considerably during these eight years, undoubtedly the result of private instruction in drawing and watercolor, for he re-enrolled in the Art Institute at the “academic level.” This time, Wadsworth quickly demonstrated his skills in the classes he took: portrait and figure drawing; study from the nude and still life and head, this last course probably serving as his introduction to oil painting. All of these courses were taken in the amazingly brief period of eight months in 1895, from February through June, and during the fall term October through December. He earned seven monthly honorable mentions in the eight months he studied. Earlier that same year, Wadsworth exhibited for the first time at the Art Institute, having his watercolor August, accepted in the annual exhibition of watercolors and pastels by American artists. Exhibition records show his address was still Oak Park.
The Summer of 1895, while between class sessions, he and his mother traveled east to visit relatives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. During this trip, he sketched local scenes in watercolor, exhibiting three of these works the following spring in the same American watercolors exhibit (which had been expanded to include miniatures). As a result, he received his first critical review with one writer singling out his three watercolors as “...the daintiest and most pleasing watercolors shown.” Particular mention was given to his Street in Pawtucket, R. I., described as having “lovely color and soft atmosphere.”
Wadsworth won his first major award, the Young Fortnightly Club Prize of $100, for the more conventional and certainly less disconcerting painting Windmill, Adrian, Haarlem. Although not the top dollar prize offered in the Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists (the Municipal Art League purchase prize of $250 was awarded to Adolph Shulz for his painting Frost and Fog), it was the oldest and hence the most prestigious award of the day. The club was given first opportunity to choose their winning painting due to the seniority they held among organizations providing prizes. The previous year, the very popular and well established Chicago painter John C. Johansen (1876-1964) had won the Young Fortnightly Club Prize. According to at least one critic, Wadsworth’s work was a “...fit follower of Johansen’s great landscape.” Although Windmill, Adrian, Haarlem, is presently unlocated, it was illustrated in the press and described by a critic:
“It is a typical Dutch scene - a river front, or a section of a canal, its dark water mottled with vibrant shadows in the foreground, the rallying point of interest the large square, gnomelike wings of the mill rising from a quaint old factory, which is set in the nest of bright-orange buildings.”