By Jack Williams
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER-San Diego, California
September 29, 2005
Using vivid watercolors to express and evoke emotions, La Jolla artist Eileen Whitaker became widely known for painting with her heart. In a career that spanned more than 60 years and resulted in 87 awards, she exhibited her work from coast to coast and internationally. “She exuded vitality in her work and in her life,” said Barbara Cox, director of The Frederic Whitaker and Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Foundation in Friday Harbor, Wash. The foundation was established in 1988 to promote watercolor art, especially that of Mrs. Whitaker and her husband, Frederic, who died in 1980. Mrs. Whitaker died of natural causes early yesterday at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. She was 93. She began suffering from back pain due to compression fractures late last year and had become increasingly frail, said Jan Noreus Jennings, whose recent book chronicles the Whitakers’ careers. “Eileen, like her late husband Frederic, had an intense passion for working in watercolors,” said Robert L. Pincus, art critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “She painted people and objects with equal devotion to detail, color and form and was rewarded with national recognition for her gifts. Her draftsmanship was consistently elegant.”
In 1978, Mrs. Whitaker became the second woman to be elected as an Academician in the watercolor division of what is now the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York, a prestigious art society. Her husband previously had been designated an Academician, making the Whitakers the first married couple to be so honored. Mrs. Whitaker’s paintings have been exhibited at the national academy and in international venues including England, Canada, Guatemala and Mexico. Locally, her art was displayed beginning in the 1960s at the former A. Huney Gallery in Hillcrest, the Jones Gallery in La Jolla, Circle Gallery in Old Town and the Art Center in Rancho Santa Fe. “I’m always looking for something that gives me the opportunity to add a special twist, a different look, something that will jolt the imagination but in both a surprising and pleasing way,” Mrs. Whitaker told Jennings. Jennings’ book, Contrasts That Complement: Eileen Monaghan Whitaker – Frederic Whitaker, was published in February by Marquand Books. Starting with a small sketch, Mrs. Whitaker liked to feel her way through a painting. “She would find a rhythm and go with it,” Jennings said. “By contrast, Fred thought his way through paintings. He painted to please the average man, to connect. She did it to please herself and people in the art world whom she admired and looked up to.” Art patron and philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington once said, “Frederic paints with his head and Eileen with her heart.” A retrospective exhibition of the two artists was held in January 2007 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. The couple, who moved to La Jolla in 1965 from Norwalk, Conn., met on Valentine’s Day 1943 at an opening reception for his one-man show in New York City. “That’s what they considered their anniversary,” Jennings said. “They didn’t marry until 1950. Fred had been separated from his first wife for a long time, and finally got a divorce in Mexico.” A commercial artist with an emphasis in fashion design, Mrs. Whitaker had dabbled in watercolors before meeting her future husband. “He kind of spurred her on to get more involved,” Jennings said. In 1953, Mrs. Whitaker was elected to the American Watercolor Society. The Whitakers’ relationship “was one of those things you see in movies,” said Cox, the Whitaker foundation director. “It was a love affair on every level.” When her husband died at age 82, Mrs. Whitaker suffered a prolonged malaise. It took her at least two years to get back on track, Jennings said. When Mrs. Whitaker resumed painting, her palette took on a pronounced darkness. It would regain its customary brightness in subsequent years, inspired by a project to paint San Diego County scenes and three visits to Guatemala, where she admired the people and the richly hued tapestries.
In 1986, The Copley Press Inc. published a 150-page book, Eileen Monaghan Whitaker Paints San Diego, that showcased her paintings of San Diego area landmarks. It culminated four years of traveling throughout the county and was commissioned by the Copley family. “Eileen was loved by everybody, and all that love came back to her tenfold,” said Richard Reilly, former curator of the James S. Copley Library in La Jolla, where a reception celebrated the release of her book. “I’ve never known anybody so in love with life,” Reilly said. “She was remarkable.” Eileen Monaghan Whitaker, the fourth child in a family of six, was born Nov. 22, 1911, in Holyoke, Mass. Her first love was clay sculpting. During her fourth year at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, she changed her major to costume design and fashion illustration. She spent 15 years in commercial art for various East Coast agencies before devoting herself to watercolors. Along with her husband, who won 150 awards, she competed for years in exhibits sponsored by the National Watercolor Society, Jennings said. One of Mrs. Whitaker’s most prestigious honors was the Walter Biggs Memorial Award, presented in 1987 by what was then the National Academy of Design. Once she moved from New England to La Jolla, her art reflected the new environment and her frequent visits to Mexico.
“The watercolors were just beautiful,” said Annette Blaugruend, director of the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Art, where the Whitakers endowed a watercolor prize. “In subject, style and light, she represented the watercolor movement in California. And she continued to be active in her 90s. She was a lively, jaunty lady who was always thinking ahead.“