Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

Nelson-WhiteNelson Holbrook White is back in school. This octogenarian is studying art again even though he has been a professional artist nearly all his life. And this isn’t just any school. This is Florence Academy of Art, located in Florence, Italy, a city that many years before played a predominant role in Nelson’s decision to become an artist.

Nelson is a third generation painter. Growing up in Waterford, Connecticut he was surrounded by some of the most influential artists of the day which included his father, Nelson Cooke White (1900-1989) and his grandfather Henry Cooke White (1861-1952), both of whom were members of the Old Lyme art colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

The colony was established in 1899 by artist Henry Ward Ranger and was instrumental in the development of American Impressionism. Attracted by the bucolic landscape, artists like Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalfe, William Henry Howe, and others convened at Florence Griswold’s boarding house.

“My grandfather went there as boarder with my father who was then three. There was great camaraderie among the artists, most of whom had been trained in Europe. They all told me how wonderful Florence Griswold was,” recalls Nelson. “When her house started to get run down and she went on vacation for two weeks, they all chipped in and fixed it up. That was the feeling there. They appreciated how much she gave and sacrificed.”

The eldest White hailed from Hartford. At age fourteen he began studying with artist Dwight Tryon, with the strict understanding he had to attend school during the week but could accompany Tryon at his studio on the weekend. Although Henry’s father, a judge, had hoped his son would pursue law, he eventually acquiesced, recognizing Henry’s determination and talent.

Henry had a successful career and also established the Connecticut Academy of Fine
Arts and penned a major biography entitled, “The Life and Art of Dwight William Tryon,” to whom he remained close throughout his life. He was an avid boater with a deep appreciation of Herreshoff boats particularly, which he viewed as works of art equal to that of a painting. Henry taught Nelson how to row a boat at age three and to sail at age five.

“My grandfather was boat crazy. If he was going to do anything with boats, he was really going to get involved. He wanted to meet Nathanael Herreshoff. After a brief correspondence, he went to the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Rhode Island and bought a 33-foot yawl Nathanael had designed and built in 1926,” says Nelson. “That yawl, called Aida, was just donated to Mystic Seaport.”

Nelson’s grandfather who considered himself a tonalist, also gave him technical instruction in painting, as did his father, an impressionist who concentrated more on developing Nelson’s skills from an aesthetic perspective. But they both instilled in him a reverence for nature which is evident in Nelson’s realistic landscape paintings.

Even though Nelson’s artwork is in galleries, museums, and private collections across the country and has been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe, he was not always certain painting would be his vocation. At age twenty-six he was an accomplished pianist and violinist and was contemplating a career in music until a fateful trip to Florence with his family changed all that.

“My father always went into bookstores looking for books on art. When we were in Florence he found a book on a painter named Pietro Annigoni. My father said,
‘He’s like an extinct fossil. I didn’t know anybody existed today who could draw this well.’ The man in the bookstore knew Annigoni. He said he could introduce us, so we went to his studio,” recalls Nelson.

Nelson’s father was so impressed by this Florentine master, both as a person and artist, that he asked him to take Nelson on as a pupil. Annigoni was on the brink of becoming wildly renowned. He had just been commissioned to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which led to many others throughout his career including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the Shah and Empress of Iran, other members of the British royal family, actress Julie Andrews, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and many other dignitaries and heads of state.

Because of his hectic travel schedule, Annigoni, who refused to take any money for his teachings, suggested Nelson also study with Nerina Simi, who had the only school “in the western world” devoted to representational painting. But there was one caveat…Annigoni wanted to see everything he did.

“One time I came back from a summer of painting, showed my work to Annigoni, but there was not much of a response. He said, ‘I have seen you paint those places before. It’s alright to do what you want, but if you do it too much, like with these, they start to lose the emotion,” says Nelson. “I thought they were getting better because they were getting easier. But I kept doing the same subject over and over, and it lost its guts.  That’s the kind of thing he could put his finger on. My father and Simi could not see this, but he could. It was invaluable to me.”

Annigoni saw that Nelson was interested in painting landscapes and would go out with him on painting excursions when time permitted. He constantly pushed Nelson to become better at drawing, which he believed was paramount to becoming a master painter. He often had Nelson paint his compositions in black and white to keep his attention focused on the values and the drawing.

Many years and many shows later, Nelson is still heeding the advice of his friend, coach, and mentor by returning to school.

“When I was with Simi and Annigoni, I met a student, Daniel Graves. After they died, Dan started the Florence Academy of Art and asked me to be on the board. I visited the school continually and saw what was coming out of it. There are some things I missed in my education, so I decided to go back,” Nelson says. “Drawing has not been my forte, so I am going further with the process of drawing the figure and portraits. It’s a tremendous help with landscape painting.”

As a full time student, Nelson attends class all week and then heads to Viareggio on the weekend to paint for two days. When school is not in session, he returns to Connecticut, splitting his time between Waterford and Shelter Island and creating art he supplies to the various galleries he’s in.

Although Nelson has had the luck and privilege of learning from some very  prominent artists and being born into a family of artists, his work is decidedly his own. He still searches for the poetic qualities a beautiful landscape can illicit and then brings it to life on canvas.

Nelson’s former student and gallery owner, Laura Grenning wrote of her friend and teacher, “He paints with great spirit. Upon seeing his work, one quickly senses White’s great love for nature and the outdoors. Through his eyes we are able to view and interpret nature in an intimate manner. Whether Nelson H. White is painting the Connecticut shore, a beach in Italy, a pond on Shelter Island, or the hills of Vermont, he allows the observer to view a soft, yet dramatic side of nature. His ability to use color, coupled with rich brushwork and a graduation of light, air, and atmosphere allows one to enjoy a certain mood which is clearly conveyed in White’s paintings. It is a mood that leaves us with a lasting impression.”

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Caryn B. Davis Photography