Perhaps the best-known of the Vineyard’s landscape painters, Allen Whiting has captured the rugged beauty of the wild up-Island areas for four decades now. A member of a family whose roots are firmly entrenched in Vineyard history, Mr. Whiting has tapped his intimate connection with his native Island to create works of art that resonate for their sheer beauty, as much as for the more subtle magical quality of the Island he conveys.
However, Mr. Whiting occasionally turns his attention to the lives of Vineyarders. “Every year I try to do something a little more narrative than the landscapes,” he says. “Whenever I want to get out of my landscape mode, I look for a good anecdote.”
In the past Mr. Whiting has focused on subjects close to home — his son William working on the roof of the family farm’s barn, his niece’s horse standing in a field where brush is being burnt.
More recently, the artist has become interested in depicting historical events: “I’ve been admiring the work of Paul Schneider, who wrote a book on the Mississippi and one called ‘Enduring Shores: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.’” Mr. Whiting also mentions the nonfiction writer John Hough, who has written variously about the Battle of Gettysburg and Little Bighorn. “I got intrigued with the idea that a subject struck them, and they went out and did the research and made a story out of it.”
With his most recent narrative painting, Mr. Whiting chose to depict a historical subject, and one with a Vineyard theme. His large work, “The Exchange,” is loosely based on a story related by renowned Island character Craig Kingsbury in the 1998 oral history book “Vineyard Voices: Words, Faces and Voices of Island People.”
The painting depicts two boats rendezvousing in the waters off the Vineyard. “It’s a scene from the rum-running days,” says Mr. Whiting. “Very loosely based on the Craig Kingsbury story. I think he slightly embellished it. The story intrigued me partly because one of the principal people was a man named Dogmeat Francis. I first heard that name 50 years ago. His son and I were close friends. I always thought that was a great name.”
The romantic nature of the story and its subject had a certain appeal for the artist. He is also interested in the working life of the Vineyard; he and his family continue to operate a sheep farm on the property that has been passed down for generations.
“I’ve always had a real love for the old-fashioned illustrations,” says Mr. Whiting. It’s not surprising that Mr. Whiting would lean in that direction. His grandfather was illustrator Percy E. Cowen, whose work graced the covers of many issues of Collier’s magazine, among other publications.
Mr. Cowen is actually the subject of one of his grandson’s narrative paintings. “My grandfather was a wonderful painter,” says Mr. Whiting. “He grew up in Fairhaven and was connected with the New Bedford artists. He also did some landscapes on the Island. He mentored Thomas Hart Benton a little bit. They became very good friends. He died during WW I.”
Mr. Whiting owns a small landscape in oil done by his grandfather. “I made a big version out of that painting. I put him in the landscape painting the little painting.”
“That’s the kind of thing I like to do — make a painting out of a story. I would love to do much more of it. I find it more interesting. Everybody’s painting the lighthouse. It’s not the lighthouse’s fault, but I’m always looking for something different to do.”
Of landscape painting, Mr. Whiting says, “The scene is there. It stays there. You go to it four or five times. There’s not an awful lot of imagining, mental calisthenics. Sometimes it’s fun to have to work at it.”
That’s a characteristically modest statement from the amiable artist. He clearly works very hard at his landscape painting, and the work demonstrates a truly distinctive personal style reflective of a creative mind.
The friendly, very funny, and sometimes irreverent Mr. Whiting enjoys chatting with visitors, describing his work and telling stories. Just stop by his gallery anytime, and you can likely find out more about Dogmeat Francis and his booze-trafficking exploits.
Allen Whiting at the Davis House Gallery, 985 State Road, West Tisbury. For more information on the artist, visit allenwhiting.com.