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Producer: Charlee Heaton
Kentucky’s Favorite Painter
For almost 100 years, many fashionable Kentucky homes have boasted paintings or prints by Paul Sawyier. Though not a native son—he was born on March 23, 1865, in Madison County, Ohio—Sawyier moved to Kentucky as a small child, and the state capital of Frankfort remained his home base for the rest of his life. He also found his subjects close to home, painting the landscapes and river scenes of Central Kentucky.
Paul’s parents, prominent and affluent residents of Frankfort, encouraged their children’s artistic impulses with tutors and good examples. Dad Nathaniel was an amateur painter himself, and both Paul and his sister Natalie eventually became professional artists.
After studying at the Cincinnati Art Academy, Paul briefly held a job as a hemp salesman, but the pull of art proved irresistible. He found his first taste of real popularity in 1893. A covered bridge he had captured in a series of copperplate etchings was closed, and suddenly those etchings were much in demand.
After additional study in New York, Sawyier came back to Frankfort to live and work. By 1908, he had bought a houseboat and was using it as a floating studio in which to paint scenes of the Kentucky and Elkhorn rivers. He later moved back to New York state and died there in 1917, but Kentucky is where his roots remained—and where to this day his popularity has never waned. More than five years after his death, his body was brought home to the Frankfort Cemetery.
In this special edition of Kentucky Life, owners of original Sawyier works talk about the enduring appeal of his oils, pastels, and watercolors. Interviews with Sawyier scholar Arthur Jones provide a picture of an artist who made a unique contribution to the history of art in America and help dispel the myth that Sawyier never enjoyed his fame. In fact, he was able to support himself as an artist at a time when others found it virtually impossible to do so.
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