Biography from Southold Historical Society
Wells Sawyer was born in Iowa, the son of Moses C. Sawyer (b. 1838) and Helen Sawyer (b. 1838). His father became a well-to-do merchant, and by 1870 had moved his young family to Keithsburg, located in Mercer County, Illinois. Young Sawyer studied with a number of important artists, including John O. Anderson, Howard Helmick (1845-1907), and John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911). By 1884 he had set himself up as an artist in his native Iowa, advertising in the Iowa Gazetteer and Business Directory that year. In the 1890’s, with his career beginning to take off, he began work for the Federal Government as an illustrator with the United States Geological Survey and later with the Bureau of American Ethnology. He was also an early contributor to the Chicago Tribune and many other notable publications from the mid-west. Sawyer continued his studies at both the Corcoran Gallery School of Art (founded 1890) and the Art Students League of Washington, D.C.
In 1895 Wells was selected as the illustrator to travel with the Pepper-Hearst Expedition through the Florida Keys (Marco Island) where one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century was made by world renowned ethnologist, Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857-1900). Sawyer also took photographs as part of his work for the government. Sawyer also traveled to study impressionism in Paris, France.
Extremely well exhibited during his long career, he first began showing in the early 1890’s with a variety of groups in Washington D. C. This included showings at the Cosmos Club (the headquarters for Washington’s intellectual elite), the Society of Washington Artists, and the Washington Watercolor Club. In 1892 he exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Academy of Design. In 1893 his work was included in the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago and soon after, in 1894, his work was accepted for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual Exhibition.
His works are held in many prestigious institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution’s: National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C., and the Archives of America Art (sketchbooks); The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; The Benjamin West Society, Swarthmore College, PA; Museum of the City of New York, New York; IBM Corporate Collection, New York; Vanderpoel Gallery Collection, Chicago; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; California State Capitol, Sacramento; Hudson River Museum, Yonkers; Yonkers Museum of Science & Art, Yonkers; and the Thomas J. Watson Collection (IBM).
Written and submitted by Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director