When standing in front of a Thompson painting, one doesn’t simply “view” a bucolic scene, one enters it. Whether it is a quiet stream in northern Wisconsin, a boathouse on Geneva Lake or a stand of dogwoods in winter, Thompson does more than capture a moment. He creates an eternity.
The son of an illustrator, Thompson was a child prodigy in art and a gifted singer. At the age of 18 he decided to concentrate on art rather than music, although he often compared the two. He studied at the Chicago Academy of Art, the American Academy of Art and the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Because of the Great Depression, he worked as a commercial artist, where he was responsible for some of the back covers of The Saturday Evening Post, and he worked on the iconic Coca-Cola ads of the era. He eventually opened his own studio.
The successful illustrator realized he was every bit as good and talented as any of the impressionists whose works hung in the art museums and institutes. In 1959, after over 20 years of commuting from Fontana to Chicago, Thompson knew it was time to return to his calling. His son Bruce, who has achieved success on his own in the fine arts world as a photographer, remembers the day his father revealed his decision.
“Dad came home from work, put his hat and coat down and announced to the family that he was not going back,” Bruce said. “He said ‘I’m done. I quit. It’s over and I’m going to be the artist that I know I am.’ And he never did go back.”
Because of his many years of work in the art world as an illustrator, his talents were well respected among his peers. He got through the lean times by doing commissioned portraits, whether it was of children or Navy ships. It was not long before his paintings began appearing in galleries throughout the country. Over the years the price of his paintings went from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands.
Art critics described Thompson as “The grand man of impressionism,” “The dean of American impressionism,” and “America’s most celebrated impressionist.” He was often referred to as “Wisconsin’s Monet.” How did he react to that comparison?
“He was flattered,” according to Bruce, “but he was more interested in being himself and thought that he was more individualistic than Monet.”
By the time Thompson started studying impressionism, it already was fading. The art world had turned its attention to expressionism.
“Dad felt that he picked up impressionism where it left off and went forward with it. He felt very confident that he was doing work that was new. He created his own color wheel. He was doing scenes which weren’t really attempted, like deep winter scenes.”
Thompson knew there were now colors available that the early impressionists lacked, which made possible even greater variations of light and color.
As modernism and expressionism became the trend in the art world, Thompson’s light continued to shine brighter, as his colors, composition and vision became bolder. If the French style of impressionism was a stringed quartet, Thompson’s version was a full symphony orchestra.
Bruce learned how to perceive light and images from his father while growing up, especially during stays at their cabin in northern Wisconsin and in the boat while fishing.
“He would talk about something he hadn’t seen before, a light quality that was happening right at that moment,” Bruce recalled. “He would always point out something that I should pay attention to: simple things about light, about composition and color, patterns and designs … that you should acknowledge beauty wherever you find it.”
The younger Thompson applied what he had learned from behind the lens of a camera. Because of their shared vision of light and its wondrous effects on nature, a Bruce Thompson photograph often resembles an impressionist painting. So much so, that once, at an exhibit of his work, a confused viewer, not knowing the relationship, accused Bruce of displaying photographs of Richard Earl Thompson paintings.
Thompson liked to sketch in the field and take notes. He would put down bars of colors and precisely name them, but because light is constantly changing, he used a camera to stop it.
“It’s very important to use a photograph, and don’t let anybody tell you it isn’t,” he told an interviewer. “I see myself not as an extension of the camera, but of the emotions these colors can invoke.”
He used his own photos but increasingly turned to his son’s photographs as he mastered his own vision.
“Bruce is a poet of photography,” Thompson once said. “He does much the same thing I do, and I want to give him all the credit that’s due.”
Thompson’s mastery of the nuances of light and color demonstrate that the different combinations are endless and therefore the moments we witness in his paintings are eternal. From the subtleness of morning fog to the brilliance of autumn at its peak to the warmth of a winter sun, he shows us an instant of beauty as he saw it.
Richard Earl Thompson died in 1991. He created more than 1,600 paintings. The vast majority were bought by private collectors, art museums and corporations. His paintings adorn walls from John Hopkins Hospital to the Pentagon to the local bank in Walworth. Very few have made their way to the auction block even though their value has gone up. Perhaps it is because their owners treasure his works because they are unlike Monets. They are Thompsons.