Philip White is likely the finest painter River Forest ever produced. Oak Park and River Forest are better known for their writers than their visual artists, but White established a national reputation during the 1970s and ’80s.
He was certainly the most technically proficient.
If you’d like to verify that contention, you can view White’s work for yourself-the first retrospective exhibit of his paintings since the artist died in 2001 at the age of 66.
River Forest and nearby Thatcher Woods provided much of the inspiration for White’s work, which was representational to the point of photorealism and frequently made passersby at local art fairs do double-takes.
His parents moved to River Forest when Philip was two years old, and he graduated Oak Park and River Forest High School, where he was a standout runner in cross-country and track & field during OPRF’s long-running heyday, under the legendary coach Roy Gummerson. White captained that squad, which finished second and third in state, respectively, his junior and senior years. In the 1953 state meet, White finished second in the 880-yard run, edging future actor Bruce Dern of New Trier, who finished fourth.
Track took him to the University of Southern California, but his passion was painting. He graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts in 1957, spent two years in the Army, married Anita, then began his long career as a full-time artist, working out of an upstairs bedroom in his home on Clinton Place.
His reputation quickly spread, thanks to local art fairs, including annual exhibitions in Oak Park, Chicago’s Old Town, Oak Brook, and Evanston, and the prizes soon began to pile up. He won first prize in oils at the Illinois State Fair in 1960 and ’65 and at the Union League Club in 1963 and ’65.
He won first prize for traditional watercolor in the 1958 National Art Round Up in Las Vegas and the 1964, ’67, and ’69 Hallgarten Prize from the National Academy of Design in New York.
His paintings have been exhibited in the Art Institute and the Butler Institute of American Art. In 1995, he received the Municipal Art League of Chicago’s Award of Excellence and was honored during that organization’s Centennial Celebration in 2001.
White worked in oil, acrylic, egg tempera and watercolor. Instead of painting from sketches, he would take photographs of his subjects and combine elements from several of them. One of his favorite subjects was the slough in Thatcher Woods behind Trailside Museum.
His paintings frequently feature women and children, often set in nature. His later oil and egg tempera works often resemble watercolor paintings. From a distance, they look remarkably like photographs.
“I must have painted that old slough a thousand times,” he said in the cover story, “Philip White: Midwestern Visions,” in American Artist magazine in 1978. “I try to paint basically as I see things.”
The camera allowed him to freeze moments in time, but he didn’t just trace the photos and paint over them as some artists do. “The excitement of painting to me, is to see something and to just put it down freehand,” he said. A technical perfectionist, he nevertheless remained simple in his technique, painting out of old coffee cans and baby food jars. “I’ve always been very simple in my ways,” he said. “When I started painting, I used a chair for an easel.”
Architectural Digest selected him as one of the eight best American Realists of the 1970s. He was also featured in the book American Artists, An Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Americans.
An avid tennis player, White was a member of the River Forest Tennis Club from 1972 through 1999. He traveled extensively with his family, but remained a resident of his hometown. In 1980, he was named Centennial Artist for the village’s centennial celebration, and the painting he created for that event is still on display at the River Forest Public Library.
In the early ’90s, White contracted Hepatitis C, which led to liver cancer. He died while awaiting a liver transplant.
His son, David, who will give a talk on his father’s work at the Art League, 720 Chicago Ave., this Saturday at 11 a.m., said this is the first extensive exhibit of his father’s work since his death. The family had been thinking about it for the past year and decided on the Art League because Philip was a member.
“It seemed like a good fit,” David said via e-mail, “considering that Oak Park and River Forest had been such important parts of my father’s life and art. Many of the subjects of his work-persons and physical locations-were from those towns.”
Because they were so emotionally attached to his work, it took the family a while to decide to sell any of it. But enough time had passed, David said, and they agreed to an exhibit. Most of the works on display are for sale (in the $2-3,000 range). David said they’re also exploring the possibility of publishing a fine arts book featuring his art. More showings are likely in the future.
The current OPAL exhibit, which opened May 23 and runs through June 20, includes 60 paintings. The family’s full collection contains more than twice that number. A prolific painter, Philip completed several hundred paintings during his lifetime.
He worked primarily in watercolor early on, then switched to oil, egg tempera and acrylic. The show highlights both stages, which David said he would discuss in his talk this Saturday.
David says he inherited none of his father’s ability. His brother Daniel, a landscape architect who attended design school at Iowa State University, shows some talent, David said, but hasn’t pursued painting per se.
“My father was a better dad than he was an artist, which is saying something,” David recalled. “He took a genuine interest in both of his children. We were fortunate that his studio was in our home in River Forest which meant that we got to see him a lot. He was also available to attend morning or afternoon functions relating to school. At that time is was unusual for fathers to attend those types of functions. My dad was able to attend many of our sports games, which at that time was also a lot less common than it is now. He was very smart and his advice, which I often did not follow, was usually right on the money.”
He was also loyal, as was evidenced by the number of old friends who attended the opening reception, May 23.
“He was committed to his family,” David noted, “and he would play cards with his high school friends every Monday night.”