Henry Varnum Poor was born in Chapman, Kansas in 1887 and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. Poor received his B.A. in art from Stanford University before going to Europe in 1910. He first studied at the Slade School in London with Walter Sickert. After visiting the Grafton Gallery exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, Poor moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian for five months.
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After he returned to the United States in 1911, Poor taught at Stanford University and then at the San Francisco Art Association. During the teens, Poor had one-man exhibitions at Stanford’s Old Studio (1912, 1913) and the Kansas City Art Institute (1912) as well as exhibitions at commercial galleries in San Francisco. Following military service in World War I, Poor settled in the artist community on South Mountain Road just outside New York City around 1919. There Poor designed and built his home and studio Crow House based on French stone architecture. Architecture became another passion for Poor and throughout his life he received commissions to build homes.
Poor’s first New York exhibition of paintings and drawings was held at Kervorkian Gallery in 1920 followed by an exhibition of ceramics at Bel Maison Gallery within Wanamaker’s department store in 1921. The success of his ceramics exhibition led him to be represented by Montross Gallery, who held an exhibition of Poor’s ceramics in 1922. Ceramics remained the focus of Poor’s artistic production until an extended trip to France in 1929-1930 reinvigorated Poor’s interest in painting. His French subjects were shown in a solo exhibition at Montross Gallery in 1931. When Montross Gallery closed in 1932, Poor began showing with the prestigious Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery. Out of Poor’s first exhibition with Rehn in 1933, the Cleveland Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Addison Gallery of American Art acquired paintings. In 1934 Rehn Gallery had a joint exhibition of Poor and George Biddle titled Paintings of the Hudson Valley. During the summer of 1937, Poor was a guest instructor at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.
In addition to being a painter and a ceramicist, Poor also worked as an architect, designer, furniture maker, sculptor, muralist, author, illustrator, and educator. Self-taught in many of these disciplines, Poor created art that was close to nature, instinctive, vigorous, and well-crafted. Poor spent summers in Truro, first staying at Wellfleet’s Mayo Hills Colony Club frequented by many artists. He purchased a 1830s home in Truro in 1946, which had been sketched by his friend Edward Hopper several times before Poor purchased it. Poor also spent time at Marco Island, Florida from 1930 on. He was a founder of the American Designers Gallery in New York and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (founded 1946). Among the first ten artists to receive federal funding for murals, Poor painted frescoes at the Departments of Justice (completed 1936) and the Interior (completed 1938) in Washington, D.C. Their success led to the Land Grant Frescoes, an extensive mural commission at Pennsylvania State University (1938-1949).
In 1941 Poor traveled to Fresno, California to install a ceramic tile mural, Grape Harvest, commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts. Upon its completion, he painted in Carmel over the winter. In 1943, Poor served as an artist-war correspondent in Alaska. He published An Artist Sees Alaska in 1945 about his experience there. In 1949 Poor had a retrospective exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute and was named painter in residence at the American Academy in Rome. In 1961 the Museum of Art at Colby College had a retrospective to mark Poor’s final summer teaching at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Henry Varnum Poor died in 1970 in New City, New York. His dealer Rehn Gallery had a memorial exhibition of his paintings, ceramics, and drawings in 1976. The Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University organized another exhibition in 1983 which traveled to the Burchfield Center in Buffalo, the Everson Museum in Syracuse, and the National Academy of Design in New York. Poor’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.