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Neil Welliver, 75, Dies; Maine Landscape Painter

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page B07

Neil Welliver, whose large-scale paintings evoked the majesty and mystery of the Maine landscape in which he made his home, died April 5 of pneumonia at a hospital in Belfast, Maine. The 75-year-old artist had suffered from heart ailments and other health problems in recent years.

Overcoming considerable hardship in his life, including the deaths of three of his children, Mr. Welliver was acclaimed as one of the leading American landscape painters of his generation. He was often said to combine two seemingly contradictory styles: abstract expressionism and pure, straightforward representation.

Neil Welliver's style matured from abstracts to stark landscapes. (Alexandre Gallery)

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He did not, for the most part, paint panoramic, cheery pictures of sun-filled places. Instead, he was known for strong-shouldered works, sometimes as large as 8 by 10 feet, that depicted boulders, stumps, snarled clumps of fallen brush, beaver lodges, rushing water and rocky hills. He favored intimate, enclosed spaces in which darkness encroached on sunlight and everything was suffused in a bleak, brooding emotional tone.

On one level, his paintings had the simple clarity of Asian art or even paint-by-number works, yet on closer examination they contained the density and energy of abstract works.

"Welliver's huge paintings of the Maine woods are among the strongest images in modern American art," the critic Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine, adding that the paintings contain "an emotional intensity that goes beyond the ordinary limits of realism."

Mr. Welliver's works hang in many major museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

A gruff, muscular man who chewed tobacco and somewhat resembled Ernest Hemingway in both appearance and machismo, Mr. Welliver was born in the Pennsylvania lumber town of Millville on July 22, 1929. He graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art (now part of the University of the Arts) and received a master's of fine arts degree from Yale University, where he studied with the noted abstract artist Josef Albers.

Mr. Welliver taught at Yale from 1956 to 1966, even as his own style evolved from abstract color-field paintings to watercolors of domestic and small-town scenes. After discovering Maine in the early 1960s, he switched to oil paintings and often portrayed female nudes in outdoor settings. By the mid-1970s, he had eliminated the human figure from his work, focusing on his closely observed impressions of the Maine landscape.

He would hike deep into the woods, carrying 75 pounds of equipment on his back, to make open-air oil sketches. Later, in his studio, he meticulously plotted his works on large canvases, beginning in the upper left-hand corner and finishing in the lower right. He never revised his paintings once they were complete.

From 1966 to 1989, Mr. Welliver taught at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Art, commuting to Philadelphia for 19 years after he had settled permanently in Lincolnville, Maine, in 1970.

In 1975, Mr. Welliver's home and studio, and all the art in them, were destroyed by fire. ("Most of those paintings I should have burned myself," he later said.) He had another farmhouse moved to the same site and rebuilt.

In 1976, a daughter died of sudden infant death syndrome, followed six months later by the death of his second wife, Polly, 37, from an infection. In 1991, Mr. Welliver's son Eli, 20, was killed while studying in Thailand, and a second son, Silas, later died.

After the death of his son Eli, Mr. Welliver hired private detectives to find the killers and ended up getting death threats himself. He went into seclusion for a few years before emerging with more paintings of the stark Maine interior.

"That wildness," poet Mark Strand wrote, "those turbulent waters, those trees and rock-strewn hilltops -- they are the images by which Welliver chooses to be seen and through which Welliver sees himself."

Mr. Welliver's first and third marriages, to Norma Cripps and Sheila Geoffrion, ended in divorce.

Survivors include Mr. Welliver's fourth wife, Mimi Martin Welliver of Lincolnville; Titus Welliver of Los Angeles, a son from his first marriage who plays the role of Silas Adams on the HBO series "Deadwood"; another son from his first marriage, Ethan A. Welliver of New York; and a son from his third marriage, John Welliver of Rockport, Maine.

In his paintings, Mr. Welliver searched for what he called "places of power."

"For me," he said, "these places are often nondescript corners, small things, not the big 19th-century vistas of the Hudson River School. I can't put their meaning in words, but I try to do it in paint."

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