Henry Varnum Poor papers, 1873-2001, bulk 1904-1970

Poor, Henry Varnum, b. 1887 d. 1970
Painter, Muralist, Educator, Designer, Ceramicist
Active in New York, N.Y.

Collection size: 11.1 linear ft.
4 rolled docs.

Collection Summary: The Henry Varnum Poor papers measure 11.1 linear feet and are dated 1873-2001, with the bulk from the period 1904-1970. Correspondence, writings, artwork, printed material, and photographs document his work as a painter, muralist, ceramic artist and potter, architect, designer, writer, war artist, educator and a co-founder of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Also found is extensive information about the design and construction of Crow House, his home in New City, N.Y., commissions for other architectural projects, and his personal life.

Henry Varnum Poor's correspondence documents his personal life, his professional activities in a number of fields, and his artwork in several media. Correspondents include family and friends, among them: George Biddle, Charles Burchfield, John Ciardi, Marion V. Dorn (who became his second wife), Philip Evergood, Lewis Mumford, John Steinbeck, David Smith, and Mrs. John Work (Alice) Garrett. Other correspondents are individuals representing galleries, museums, schools, and organizations. There is fan mail from readers of his books, letters from former students and colleagues, as well as friends and acquaintances from his military service and travels.

Family correspondence consists mainly of incoming letters addressed to Albert J. and Josephine Poor from their son Henry about his education, travels, World War I experiences, and his teaching and painting career. Scattered throughout are letters from their daughter-in-law Bessie Breuer Poor, and grandchildren Anne and Peter. Correspondence between Albert and Josephine Poor was written in 1911 while she was traveling in Europe with Henry. Also found are letters from other relatives and friends. A few letters are addressed to Lena Wiltz, Henry Varnum Poor's first wife. After the death of Josephine Poor circa 1940, Poor's letters are addressed to his sister Eva and her husband Herbert Stone. Josephine Poor's relatives, the Graham family, are represented by a small number of 19th century letters.

Among the writings by Henry Varnum Poor are manuscripts of his two published books. Also found are the text of "Painting is Being Talked to Death," published in the first issue of Reality: A Journal of Artists' Opinions, April 1953, and manuscripts of other articles. Of particular interest are Poor's notes from his studies in London and Paris, including: "Drawing Ideas from Slade School and Walter Sickert in London," "The Whistler Palette and Notes Gathered from [Clifford] Addams," "Grafton Galleries Post-Impressionists." Writings by others include M.R. ("Muktuk") Marston's account of Poor rescuing an Eskimo, and Bessie Breuer Poor's recollections of The Montross Gallery.

Subject files include: Advisory Committee on Art, American Designers' Gallery, Inc., William Benton, Harold Dickson, Reality: A Journal of Artists' Opinions, Sales, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and War Posters.

Artwork by Henry Varnum Poor consists mainly of drawings and sketches - loose and in 45 sketchbooks - that include studies for paintings, murals, and pottery. Also found is work done in France, 1918-1919, and produced while a war correspondent in Alaska in 1943. There are commissioned illustrations and some intended for his monograph, "A Book of Pottery: From Mud to Immortality." Also found are a small number of watercolors and prints. Work by other artists consist of Anne Poor's drawings of her father's hands used for the Lincoln figure in The Land Grant Frescoes and interior views of Crow House by Ernest Watson.

Documentation of Poor's architectural projects consists of drawings and prints relating to houses designed and built for Jules Billing, MacDonald Deming, John Houseman, Burgess Meredith, Isabel Padro, and Elizabeth S. Sargent. Also found is similar material for the new studio Poor built in 1957 on the grounds of Crow House.

Miscellaneous records include family memorabilia and two motion picture films, "Painting a True Fresco," and "The Land Grant Murals at Pennsylvania State College."

Printed material includes articles about or mentioning Poor, some of his pottery reference books, family history, a catalog of kilns, and the program of a 1949 Pennsylvania State College theater production titled, "Poor Mr. Varnum." Exhibition catalogs and announcements survive for some of Poor's shows; catalogs of other artists' shows include one for Theodore Czebotar containing an introductory statement by Henry Varnum Poor. Also found is a copy of "The Army at War: A Graphic Record by American Artists," for which Poor served as an advisor.

Photographs are of Henry Varnum Poor's architectural work, artwork, people, places, and miscellaneous subjects. This series also contains negatives, slides, and transparencies. Images of architectural work include exterior and interior views of many projects; Poor's home, Crow House, predominates. Photographs of artwork by Poor are of drawings, fresco and ceramic tile murals, paintings, pottery and ceramic art. People appearing in photographs include Henry Varnum Poor, family members, friends, clients, juries, students, and various groups. Among the individuals portrayed are Milton Caniff, Marcel Duchamp, Wharton Esherick, M.R. ("Muktuk") Marston, and Burgess Meredith. Among the family members are Bessie Breuer Poor, Marion Dorn Poor, Anne Poor, Eva Poor, Josephine Graham Poor, Josephine Lydia Poor, Peter Poor, and unidentified relatives. Photographs of places include many illustrating village life in Alaska that were taken by Poor during World War II. Other places recorded are French and California landscapes, and family homes in Kansas. Miscellaneous subjects are exhibition installation views, scenes of Kentucky farms, and a photograph of Poor's notes on glazes.

Biographical/Historical Note: Henry Varnum Poor (1888-1970), best known as a potter and ceramic artist, was also an architect, painter, muralist, designer, educator, and writer who lived and worked in New City, N.Y.

Gift of Henry Varnum Poor's son, Peter V. Poor, in 2007.

How to Use this Collection

  • A small potion of this collection is available on 35 mm microfilm reels 644-634 at Archives of American Art offices, and through interlibrary loan. Researchers should note that the arrangement of the papers as described in this finding aid may not reflect the order on microfilm.
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Also in the Archives

Related Materials

An oral history interview with Henry Varnum Poor was conducted by Harlan Phillips for the Archives of American Art in 1964.