Henry Varnum Poor
With all the complaints about Standard & Poor’s these days, let’s not drag Henry Varnum Poor into it. That would be the artist Henry Varnum Poor (1888-1970), painter of landscapes, portraits and still-lifes, as well as an accomplished self-taught ceramicist. He had nothing to do with Wall Street, save that he was grandnephew of money-man Henry Varnum Poor (1812-1905), the financial analyst and founder of H.V. and H.W. Poor Co., which merged with the Standard Statistics Bureau in 1941 to become Standard & Poor’s, the bond-rating agency.
Our Henry Varnum Poor "was a successful artist in the period between the wars” -- meaning World War I and World War II -- “which is saying something, because not many artists were able to support themselves from their work during that time,” noted Caroline Hannah, a doctoral student at the Bard College Graduate Center in Manhattan, who is currently working on a dissertation on Poor. Success didn’t mean high times, according to his son, Peter Poor, who lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and is in his 80s, “but you didn’t need to have a lot of money back then in order to live well. We had our groceries delivered. That was something.”
Poor was born in central Kansas, but his father, Henry Varnum Poor III, a grain merchant and bank owner, moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri, which is where the future artist grew up. “They called themselves the ‘poor Poors,’” Hannah said, to distinguish themselves from the Henry Varnum Poors who were the direct descendants of the financial analyst. Although there was some overlap in their life spans, it does not appear that the analyst and future artist ever met. Still, the name and resulting confusion was ever-present, and the artist signed his work -- at least early on in his career -- “HV Poor.”
The name Henry Varnum Poor was taken by various members of the extended family and was a regular source of uncertainty. “There was one time when one of the Henry Varnum Poors died, and one of my mother’s friends called her in the middle of the night, telling her she had just heard the news and how sorry she was about her husband, and was there anything she could do,” Peter Poor said. “My mother, who had just left my father in bed to come downstairs to get the phone, said to her, ‘What are you talking about?. . .’”
Poor graduated from Stanford University in 1910, having majored in art, and soon after, he traveled to London and Paris to look at and study art in greater depth. On his return, he began teaching art at Stanford until he was drafted into the First World War, more active as a combat artist for his regiment than as an infantryman. After his military stint, Poor returned to California, but soon drifted east to New York City, and he remained an easterner for the remainder of his life.
“Many people are more familiar with his ceramics than with his paintings,” said Priscilla Caldwell, co-owner of Manhattan’s James Graham & Sons gallery, which has represented Poor’s fine art and ceramics for years. “He was a leading figure in the art pottery movement during the 1920s,” and many museums have examples of his work in their collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Newark Museum. “We’ve placed some important paintings at the Wichita Art Museum, as well as a full tea set,” Caldwell said.
Solo exhibitions of Poor's work are rare, but the last one at the gallery took place in 1999, eliciting a largely positive review in the New York Times in which the landscapes were deemed “notable for their sense of keen observation and changing light and weather.”
It was during the 1930s that Poor began to concentrate more on painting, creating easel paintings that were exhibited at the Rehn Gallery, which also showed the work of Edward Hopper, and a series of murals for what was later renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building and the Department of Interior Building in Washington, D.C., as well as for the Louisville Courier-Journal building in Kentucky and the Old Main Building at Pennsylvania State University.
Sales of paintings and pottery enabled Poor to buy land in Rockland County, New York, where he built a house that he designed. Like pottery, architecture and building were skills he taught himself. That house, called Crow House, still contains his original furnishings and many of his pottery pieces and paintings, and is supposed to become a museum devoted to Poor whenever the county comes up with the money to make the conversion.
Poor’s most lasting mark may have been made at Skowhegan, the artist colony in Maine, of which he was one of the founders in 1946. He maintained a home nearby, spending his summers there. One of Poor’s students at Skowhegan was the painter Alex Katz, who credited Poor with setting him on the path of figure painting.
Caldwell said that Poor’s paintings range in price from $10,000 to $70,000, while his ceramics start at “a few thousand dollars.” Poor’s work comes up at public sales from time to time, more often at regional auction houses rather than at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and prices have tended to be modest. The highest auction price to date is $16,100 for the undated 24” x 30” oil Winter Landscape at the Greenwich, Connecticut-based Shannon’s in 2000, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of that sale was that the estimate ($1,500-2,000) was so low. Other top prices include $8,225 (estimate $7,000-9,000) for the 1933 32” x 38” oil Gray Day at Shannon’s in 2003, $6,600 (estimate $3,500-5,000) for an undated 18” x 21” California Landscape at John Moran Auctioneers in Pasadena, California in 2003 and $7,930 (estimate $2,500-3,500) for a 9” x 6” glazed ceramic vessel at Rago Auctions in Lambertville, New Jersey in 2010.
DANIEL GRANT is a contributing editor of American Artist magazine and the author of The Business of Being an Artist and several other books.