Helen Alton Sawyer

(American, 1900 – 1999)

Landscape and still-life painter Helen Alton Sawyer was the daughter of a prominent Washington, D.C. family. She spent much of her childhood in Spain where she was exposed to fine art and other elements of culture. Her father was painter Wells M. Sawyer with whom she studied as well as in New York City at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, and with painter Charles Hawthorne on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her talent manifested itself early, and she and her father exhibited in a two-person show in 1921 in New York City at the Babcock Galleries. Sawyer married artist Jerry Farnsworth from Dalton, Georgia, whom she met when they both studied with Hawthorne. He referred to his wife as a "born artist, while terming himself a made artist" (Sternberg, 107). She continued to use her maiden name of Sawyer throughout her career. Her painting career is primarily associated with Cape Cod where from 1933, she and her husband founded an art school, which in 1940, they had near their home at North Truro. In 1943, they also founded an art school in Sarasota, Florida where the Ringling Brothers Circus had their headquarters. Both Helen and her husband painted circus scenes. Sawyer evidenced a very personal style with elements of the primitive combined with impressionism. She used both oil and watercolor. Her oil, "Road to Shankpainter Pond, Provincetown," is a landscape depiction with two tiny figures on a road between clustered foreground cottages that contrast with one isolated in the middle distance. This lonely house appears to be their physical destination, but thanks to the artist's handling, is also the symbolic goal of their emotional or spiritual journey. The artist's seascapes also tend to be rich in mood, often expressing a certain loneliness. Another example of her talent is her 1950 painting, "Circus Wagon," an image of a worn-out wagon whose blocky forms are strongly painted in intense, moody, dark colors, and almost savagely expressive of loss and abandonment. She was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1937 and an Academician in 1950. She was also a member of the National Association of Women Artists, the National Arts Club, Washington Society of Artists, the Hudson Valley Art Association, Washington Art Club; Yonkers Art Association, New York; and Provincetown Art Association, Massachusetts. She regularly exhibited with those groups as well as venues including the Pennsylvania Academy, Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Ringling Museum and Atlanta Museum. Her work was included in the "American Art Today" New York World's Fair exhibit in 1939 and the 1933-34 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. Helen Alton Sawyer died in 1999 after a long and prosperous career in the art world.

  • Studied
  • Masters School, Dobbs Ferry
  • National Academy of Design
  • Art Students League
  • With Charles Hawthorne, Johansen and Wells Sawyer
  • Member
  • National Academy of Design, Associate and Academician
  • Royal Canadian Academy, Associate Member, 1937
  • Provincetown Art Association
  • Yonkers Art Association
  • Hudson Valley Art Association
  • National Arts Club
  • Florida Artists Group, President 1953-1955
  • National Association of Women Artists
  • Audubon Artists
  • Washington Art Club
  • Washington Society of Artists
  • Author
  • "Peter Sawyer Master Mariner," Cape Cod Compass
  • "Paintings in Oils on Paper," American Artists Living Among the Modern Primitives
  • References
  • Dunbier (ed.), The Artists Bluebook: 34,000 North American Artists to March 2005
  • Steiner, The Art Students League of New York, A History
  • Falk (ed.), Record of the Carnegie Institute International Exposition, 1896-1996
  • Sternberg, Things of Beauty/ Floral Still Life Art by American Women
  • Falk (ed.), Biennial Exhibition Record of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
  • Falk (ed.), The Annual Exhibition Record of the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Sternberg, Centennial Exhibition 1889-1989, Members National Association of Women Artists
  • Collins, Women Artists in America: Eighteenth Century to Present
  • Everson Museum of Art, Provincetown Painters 1890s-1970s
  • Falk (ed.), Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975
  • Heller and Heller, North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary
  • Henkes, American Women Painters of the 1930s and 1940s
  • Opitz (ed.), Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers
  • Sternberg, Art by American Women – Collection of Louis and Alan Sellars
  • Watson, Twenty Painters and How They Work
  • Exhibited
  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1923-1925, 1932-1936, 1940-1951
  • Hudson Valley Art Institute, 1935 (prize), 1936 (prize)
  • Fine Prints of the Year, 1937
  • Carnegie Institute
  • "American Painting Today," Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago, 1933-1934
  • Corcoran Gallery, 1937-1947 (6 exhibitions)
  • Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939-1940
  • "American Art Today," New York World's Fair, 1939
  • Ringling Brothers Museum of Art Circus Exhibition, 1950, 1951 (award for the Bareback Rider)
  • Atlanta Museum of Art (first prize for landscape and still life)
  • Frank Oehlschlaeger Gallery, Sarasota, FL
  • Art Institute of Chicago, 1925-1943 (first honorable mention for "Trees by the Turn," 1936; 13 exhibitions)
  • National Academy of Design, 1920-1950 (22 exhibitions)
  • Babcock Galleries, NY, 1921
  • Work
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Library of Congress
  • John Herron Art Institute
  • Vanderpoel Collection
  • Toledo Museum of Art
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • International Business Machines Collection
  • Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad
  • First National City Bank, New York
  • Highland House Museum, Truro Historical Society, Massachusetts
  • National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D. C.
  • References Continued
  • Falk (ed.), Annual Exhibition Record, National Academy of Design, 1901-1950
  • Falk (ed.), Annual Exhibition Record, 1914-68, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Fresella-Lee, The American Paintings in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Falk (ed.), Who's Who in American Art, Artists Active 1898-1947
  • Baur, Whitney Museum of American Art Catalogue of the Collection
  • Clark, History of the National Academy of Design 1825-1953
  • Mallett, Index of Artists International-Biographical
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Catalogue of A Century of Progress Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture