By Stuart W. Sanders

A new exhibit at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) in Frankfort features unique works by artist Paul Sawyier that were inspired by a poem.

“Poetry in Color: Paul Sawyier’s Two Villages,” explores more than 30 watercolors that Sawyier used to illustrate Rose Terry Cooke’s 1860 poem, “The Two Villages.” Each painting includes a line or more from Cooke’s work, allowing visitors to see the verses that inspired the artist.

The poem, which examines a “village white and still,” touches on themes of nature, religion and death. Today, “The Two Villages” is considered to be her most famous poem. Bridget Renee Garland, who wrote a thesis on Cooke, contends that “’The Two Villages (1860)’ was reprinted frequently and was so popular that people carried it in their pockets.”

Frankfort residents will immediately recognize many of the places Sawyier included in the series. In considering the themes reflected in Cooke’s poem, Sawyier’s paintings include landscapes, houses, the Kentucky River and the Frankfort cemetery, including Daniel Boone’s grave and the state military monument. 

“Sawyier’s paintings allow visitors to reflect on the words of the poem and ponder how ‘The Two Villages,’ namely the villages of the living and the village of those who have passed, connect in their own lives,” said KHS registrar Beth Caffery Carter.

KHS curator Julie Kemper added that the exhibit also demonstrates Sawyier’s important role as an American impressionist.

“Paul Sawyier has a special place in both art history and Kentucky history,” Kemper said. “His view and works are rooted in the natural and cultural heritage of Kentucky, yet are influenced by the American Impressionism movement.”

A prolific artist, Sawyier created more than 2,000 paintings. KHS is the largest public repository of his work, having more than 100 of his paintings in their collection. He made three sets of “The Two Villages” and this exhibit displays two of the sets together for the first time.

Born in March 1865, Sawyier’s family moved to Frankfort when he was young. He studied under artists Frank Duveneck and Thomas Satterwhite Noble and is today known for the scenes he painted of Frankfort, the Kentucky River and other area buildings and landscapes. Sawyier died in 1917.

The exhibit will be open at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, 100 W. Broadway, in Frankfort, until Oct. 31.