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Thomas Waterman Wood - The Argument

Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903), American
The Argument, 1874
OIL ON CANVAS, 10 5/8 x 13 5/8 inches
Gift of Horace Fairbanks

A leading artist of his day, Thomas Waterman Wood was born in Montpelier, Vermont and maintained close ties with Vermont throughout his distinguished career. Wood's sentimental portrayals of American life captured the popular imagination and gained widespread recognition beginning in the 186os. The themes of childhood innocence and rural life pervade his work and appealed to urban audiences nostalgic for simpler times.

The Argument revisits one of Wood's most famous compositions, The Village Post Office, of 1872 (in the collection of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown). Fairbanks probably saw the latter painting when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition in 1874 and commissioned the artist to paint this vignette from the larger composition. The appeal of the scene for Fairbanks was undoubtedly local, as both the site of Wood's composition, the Ainsworth General Store in Williamstown, Vermont, and the sitters, well-known residents of nearby Montpelier, are identified. Apparently debating a story in the day's newspaper, the figures in The Argument are reported to be, from left to right, Calvin Bullock, R. H. Whittier, and a Mr. Boyden.

Although the Vermont landscape often appeared as a subject in the National Academy’s famous exhibitions, Vermonters themselves were rarely represented. Fairbanks seized the occasion of Wood's celebrated painting to document the state's national appeal as seen through the eyes of one of the state's most accomplished artists. In later years, Wood became a supporter of the Athenaeum himself, presenting a copy of Rosa Bonheur's Plowing in the Nivernais to the Gallery during the 1890s.