William Pretyman’s Panama

William Pretyman, Clouds Rolling Seaward, Florida - 1912 watercolour painting

“This is by far the most difficult country that I have painted in.” British-born artist William Pretyman had travelled far and wide when he made this comment in Panama in 1912. He was referring to the country’s light and colour – a country of such exuberant tropical splendour that it leads him to bemoan his vibrant paints for being just “too low in key”. Pretyman had painted in difficult circumstances before, having been British Representative in Borneo where, sketching local scenes as the first Resident of Tempassuk, “His experiences of head hunters… developed the aggressive side of the man”.

William Pretyman North Borneo

William Pretyman, Kinabatangan River, North Borneo - Sabah State Archives

But it was the Panama landscape that Pretyman found the most challenging to reproduce, and he was not the first artist to encounter adversity in Panama. Just over two decades earlier, Paul Gauguin had lived on Isla Taboga off the Panama coast. Gauguin had left Paris to try to make his way as an artist and, he said, “in order to have peace and quiet, to be rid of the influence of civilisation”. But the penniless artist was forced to labour on the early, disastrous French attempt to build the Panama Canal in 1887, and, struck by illness, ended up in a Yellow Fever and Malaria Sanitorium on Taboga.

Travelling to Panama in 1911, William Pretyman wanted to capture the tropical beauty of the landscape, as well as document the feat of human endeavour that was the construction of the great Canal. His 1911 painting “The beach at Taboga Island Sanitorium off the Panama coast” brilliantly records these conflicting aspects in one image, depicting the very place where Gauguin convalesced: 

William Pretyman, Taboga Island Sanitorium off Panama -1912 watercolour painting

William Pretyman, Taboga Island Sanitorium, 1912 - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

This painting ostensibly depicts a paradise island: the sea streaked with azure blue, small huts scattered on the dazzling white sand. But Pretyman’s inscription on the back of the painting records the reality of the view: “here is a U.S. hospital for convalescent Canal employees".

William Pretyman inscription

The Panama Canal is hailed as one of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century, but this came at a human price, with more than 25,000 workers dying during the chequered history of the Canal’s construction, as a result of challenging terrain, hot, humid weather, heavy rainfall and rampant tropical diseases.

It was Pretyman's marriage to the beautiful American Jenny Remington that had taken him to the United States in 1881, living first in Albany, New York and then, from 1887, in Chicago, where Jenny’s family had connections with high society. The Pretymans moved south to North Carolina in the mid-1890s, and kept a beachfront home and studio, “The Wreck”, in Nantucket (which was stayed in by artist Walter Crane). It was no great leap, therefore, for this English artist to end up recording the transforming landscape in Panama at the beginning of the 20th century. These surviving photos nevertheless show the incongruity of British artist alongside Panama's construction workers:

William Pretyman painting by Panama Canal

William Pretyman painting at Panama Canal

Pretyman in Panama, Silver gelatin prints - Somerset & Wood Fine Art

Throughout 1911 and 1912 Pretyman produced a number of remarkable paintings documenting the Canal’s construction – a sample of which can be seen in these sepia archival photographs:

William Pretyman, Panama Canal Construction  William Pretyman Panama Canal Construction

 William Pretyman Panama Canal Contruction  William Pretyman Panama Canal Construction

These works went on to be shown at the first private exhibition of the Newport Art Association (now the Newport Art Museum, Rhode Island). The Boston Herald reported:

“Mr Pretyman in addition to the insight of a painter has the training of a world traveler and is apparently a true cosmopolitan and finds himself equally at home in England, Nassau, in mid-ocean or in Panama.”

In 1913, Dudensing Galleries in New York City exhibited the Panama Canal watercolours, and the New York Times noted:

“The topographical character has been so sumptuously preserved by the painter, while he has also succeeded in giving his sketches the spontaneity of work done on the spot. The brilliant tropical color is reproduced without garishness, and the series forms a most interesting record of the aspect of the canal before it was filled by water.”

William Pretyman, Towards Colombian Mountains, Panama -1912 watercolour painting

William Pretyman, Towards Colombian Mountains, Panama - Somerset & Wood

In this vibrant 1912 watercolour of a view towards the mountains of Colombia, Pretyman paints from the comfortable vantage point of the “Piazza of the Tivoli Hotel”. The Tivoli Hotel had been at the centre of Canal Zone society since its opening in 1906. Its stated purpose was to house Canal construction workers; but in reality its doors were also open to a host of dignitaries and celebrities, its first official guest being US President Teddy Roosevelt. In this watercolour Pretyman, again, presents a vision of a tropical idyll while nevertheless faithfully recording the impact of the Canal’s construction, drawing attention here to “Employees mosquito proof houses in the foreground”.

William Pretyman, Towards Colombian Mountains, Panama -1912 watercolour painting

Pretyman’s own biography is a mixed tale of privilege, adversity and conflict. Born into a Christian family in Aylesbury, his father was a Reverend, and his upbringing is presumed to be respectable. Following an unconventional path of world travel, on settling in the United States he found himself employed as a decorative designer and mural painter, working on a number of significant interiors in the Midwest during the 1880s and 1890s, including private residences, public spaces and church interiors. In Chicago he set up studio at the Bay State Building, and his own home exemplified the Aesthetic movement, furnished with his own decorative designs (influenced by William Morris) and curios from his world travels. His design talents can be seen in commissions for the Glessner House Parlor in Chicago and Society for Savings banking room in Cleveland.

Glessner House Parlor

Glessner House Parlor, Glessner House Museum. Photo by James Caulfield.

Society for Savings wallcovering detail

Society for Savings wallcovering detail. Photo by Jim Morrissette.

In 1891 Pretyman was named Director of Color at the World’s Columbian Exposition, but this post ended in resignation when his vision for the opalescent colouring of the exposition’s buildings was rejected in favour of white. As Maud Howe Elliott recounts: “There was no yielding in this man, and when he found that the sentiment of the majority was against his plan, he resigned his position as color director, and in doing so lost the chance of being associated with one of the truly ideal efforts of his time.”

The greatness of William Pretyman's interior designs - mostly now lost to decay and remodelling - is indisputable, and the ingenuity and uniqueness of his project in and around Panama form an important and enduring historical record. But sadly, of the man, a close friend, Harriet Monroe, conceded: “His genius was betrayed by lofty and indomitable traits of character which could not yield or compromise.”