Frederic Whitaker Obituary

The Providence Journal           Wednesday, March 12 1980

 Whitaker, 89, “Mr. Watercolor,” Providence native 

Frederic Whitaker, a Providence native who achieved national prominence as a designer of ecclesiastical metalware and went on to achieve international stature as a watercolor artist, died Sunday at his home in La Jolla, California He was 89. 

The works of Mr. Whitaker, known to his colleagues as “Mr. Watercolor,” first appeared on the walls of the Providence Art Club in the 1930’s and, today, hang in galleries through out the world. He was elected president of the American Watercolor Society in 1949, and was an associate of the National Academy and former president of Audubon Artist.

Born into a long line of English craftsmen, to parents newly arrived from Birmingham, England, Mr. Whitaker began his apprenticeship at 14 in the trade of fashioning ecclesiastical metalware. He also attended the Rhode Island School of Design. 

After apprenticeship under noted craftsman John G. Hardy, he worked for the Gorham Company and Tiffany’s as a jewelry and metalware designer. In 1922 he founded the Mangan Company, which distributed churchware nationwide, 10 years later sold it and purchased the Foly & Dugan Company, and in 1941 acquired the G.H. Seffert Company, which produced Ecclesiastical materials. 

His outstanding achievement as a metals craftsman was considered to be a jewel-studded gold and platinum monstrance, which he was commissioned to fashion for the National Eucharistic Congress in New Orleans in 1938. Still displayed at St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans, it was hailed by church dignitaries at the time as “the most beautiful in existence and the most costly sacred vessel ever made in this country.”

During this time, though, Mr. Whitaker was receiving recognition by Rhode Island art critics as “one of Rhode Island’s busiest avocational painters,” whose watercolors of the state’s rural and seashore scenes were rapidly gaining broader attention. 

From Providence, to which he returned frequently in later years for exhibitions, he traveled to Boston, New York and then coast to coast in the 1940s for one man and group exhibitions. The canvas had become a vocation.

In 1942, he won first prize at the Washingon Water Color Club’s 46th annual exhibition for his “Basic Industry,” a vista of a mill town.

In 1945, Peyton Boswell Jr. then editor of The Art Digest said of Whitaker: “Whitaker is never content with merely setting down the outward appearance of the scene before him – that function he believes, belongs to the photographer. His approach to nature is interpretive, poetic, often romantic. He takes from nature what his mood demands, eliminates extraneous details and composes his picture much as an architect would visualize a building.” 

Of himself, Mr. Whitaker wrote: “I think perhaps my greatest discovery and contribution to watercolor painting is the use of shadow colors. The shadow colors give the paintings solidity and cohesion. It is always the shadow colors that give these watercolors substance.”

In his last appearance in Providence as an exhibitor, in 1963, Mr. Whitaker stressed the difference between the illustrator and the “easel painter,” as he called himself. 

“The big difference in fine arts,” he declared, “is that you paint what YOU see. The illustrator is painting to the order of an art director, he has to please someone else.”

He won more than 150 awards for his work, and praise from critics throughout the nation.

One honor may have stood out in his memory more than some others: “The President and I are perfectly delighted with your charming water color painting, and I have hung it in the dining room, “ wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in the spring of 1944.

He leaves his wife, Eileen; a daughter, Mrs. Marion E. Thurston of Barrington; and a son, Frederic H. Whitaker of North Kingstown.