Charles Thwaites: An American Journey 

On View January 28-March 12, 2017

January 10, 2017
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(WEST BEND, WI) Charles Thwaites should be a household name for anyone interested in 20th century American art. Unfortunately, he’s not. He was one of those rare artists who excelled at both realist and abstract styles, and this major retrospective seeks to introduce this remarkably talented painter who successfully responded to changing artistic trends in the mid-twentieth century to a new audience. Graeme Reid, MOWA’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions (and curator of this exhibition) has long championed Thwaites’ painting. “It’s exceptionally rare for any artist to be so successful in one style and make a smooth, almost effortless, transition to another. Whether it was realism or abstraction, Charles Thwaites could do both with confidence and originality. That he is virtually unknown beyond connoisseurs is a shame. He should be celebrated for doing what so few others even attempted, let alone succeeded at.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Charles Thwaites could do no wrong artistically. He abandoned his engineering studies for art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1926 after seeing a painting demonstration by Arthur Nicholson Colt. The next year he enrolled at Milwaukee’s progressive Layton School of Art. By the mid 1930s he had become one of the best painters in America with ninety exhibitions during these two decades at prestigious venues such as the National Exhibition of American Art at the Rockefeller Center, New York (1936, 1937, 1938); Corcoran Biennial, Washington, DC (1939, 1941, 1947); Annual Exhibition of American Painting and Sculpture, The Art Institute of Chicago (1937, 1941, 1942); and the Artists for Victory show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1943). He was the go-to artist in Wisconsin for official portraits, particularly of academics, politicians, and the judiciary, and executed four post office murals under the auspices of the WPA in the 1930s in Chilton and Plymouth (WI), Windom (MN) and Greenville (MI). To complete four post office murals during the Depression was exceptional.

Although resident in Milwaukee, Thwaites and his wife, Antoinette Gruppe, began regular visits to New Mexico in the 1940s. There, they met and became friends with Mabel Dodge Luhan, who, together with her husband Tony, were the hub of the area’s artistic and cultural scene, This connection gave Thwaites a quick entrée into the state’s artistic life and the couple moved to Taos permanently in 1954. The move marked a fresh chapter and a significant artistic shift, but meant his reputation in Wisconsin faded, particularly as the realist style he had mastered was falling out of favor. This realism slowly transitioned to abstraction with Thwaites becoming a member of the “Taos Moderns” group. Like the others in the group, Thwaites became entranced by the combination of the old (such as the ancient Pueblo culture) and the sense of rebirth in a land that encouraged new starts. Success came immediately: his work was included in the Annual Exhibition of New Mexico Artists in 1955 alongside such established artists as Ernest Blumenschein, Emil Bisttram, and Agnes Martin. In 1957, he had a solo show at the Museum of New Mexico Art Gallery and he exhibited regularly with the Taos Art Association.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Thwaites produced purely abstract work but ceased to paint by the early 1980s. When he died in 2002, his name had faded from both the Southwestern and Wisconsin art scenes, rendering him a forgotten man in both New Mexico and his home state. Now, thanks to a splendid gift from the artist’s estate, the Museum of Wisconsin Art has the opportunity to restore Thwaites to his rightful place in twentieth-century American art as an artist who—unusually—transitioned successfully from one distinct style to another. Laurie Winters, MOWA’s Executive Director and CEO says “that MOWA was selected as the home for the estate of this important artist’s work, speaks volumes to the commitment we have made to the historic artists of the state. For Charles Thwaites, we now have the principal holdings of a remarkable artist who needs to be given a serious reconsideration, not just in Wisconsin or New Mexico, but nationally.”

The journey Charles Thwaites undertook over the course of his life was not just one of physically relocating from one state to another, but really from one culture to another and one artistic style to another. That he made this journey with such skill and success was a rarity – few artists are successful in both realism and abstraction, but as Thwaites said in 1947, “there are 1,000 ways to paint, why limit yourself to one manner?”



Saturday, January 28 | 2:00–5:00
Spend the afternoon celebrating this major retrospective of Thwaites’s paintings and drawings. At 3:30, Graeme Reid, MOWA director of collections and exhibitions, will provide a guided tour of the exhibition.

The story of Charles Thwaites’s exceptional work over six decades is told in a 120-page, full-color catalogue, The Art of Charles W. Thwaites: Freedom of Expression, by Susan Hallsten McGarry. Now available in the MOWA shop.

Saturday, March 4 | 2:00
What do a biophysicist, marketing consultant, a lip balm maker, and a plantsman have in common? They all collect Wisconsin art from the 1930s and 40s. Join Dr. James S. Hyde, Richard Hartman, Paul Woelbing, and Kevin Milaeger, respectively, as they discuss why they collect art and what makes a great collection.


About the Museum of Wisconsin Art
The Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) explores the art and culture of Wisconsin. Founded in 1961, MOWA is one of the top museums of regional art in the United States, with almost 5,000 works of contemporary and historic art by more than 350 artists. Through rotating exhibitions and educational programs, MOWA provides an innovative forum for the culturally engaged.

In 2013, MOWA opened its new 32,000-square-foot facility in downtown West Bend. The building, the first museum commission by acclaimed architect Jim Shields of HGA Architects, is situated along the west bend of the Milwaukee River on a triangular plot of land that inspired the facility’s modern wedge shape. An expansive wall of windows follows the curve of the river bank and minimizes the boundaries between interior and exterior. The museum houses five permanent collection galleries, three temporary exhibition spaces, and two classrooms as well as visible art storage, a shop, and a large atrium for public events. The Museum is located at 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend. For general information, call 262.334.9638 or

Jessica Wildes, Director of Communications and Marketing, 262.247.2266