By Michael Astor
Guy Wiggins, a third generation painter who traveled the world as a soldier, scholar and diplomat before devoting himself to an art career that lasted nearly half a century, has died at 100. The cause was cancer.
He was the son of a famous American Impressionist, Guy C. Wiggins and grandson of a celebrated Hudson River School painter, John Carleton Wiggins. Mr. Wiggins had the pedigree for a career in art but was discouraged by his father, whose career suffered through the Depression. He eventually entered the family trade at age 55 and then managed to outlast and out-earn many of his contemporaries. His paintings regularly sell at high prices at Sotheby’s and Christie’s and his images have been used on Cartier’s annual Christmas card.
Well into his 90s, Mr. Wiggins could be glimpsed hauling his paints and easel from his Greenwich Village townhouse to his favorite subjects—among them the Plaza Hotel with its horse carriages, Central Park, the Flatiron building, St Patrick’s Cathedral and Wall Street.
Mr. Wiggins and his wife Dorothy seemed to inhabit a bygone New York, where people still dressed for dinner, drank Manhattans and danced the Foxtrot. Erudite and witty, he had a mid-Atlantic accent influenced by his English mother and was fond of reciting poetry from memory—Rudyard Kipling, Omar Khayyam and A.E.Housman were among his favorites. The couple could often be seen holding court at the National Arts Club or the Salmagundi Club—America’s oldest arts club, where there is a Wiggins Bar exhibiting three generations of their works.
The youngest of three children, Guy Arthur Wiggins was born in New London, Connecticut, on Aug. 23, 1920, to Guy Carleton Wiggins, the family’s most renowned artist, and Dorothy (Johnson) Wiggins.
Mr. Wiggins demonstrated an early talent. When he was in fourth grade, one of his drawings won a gold medal in a city-wide contest sponsored by Wanamaker stores. The prize was covered in the local press, with stories announcing that a third generation of Wiggins painters had arrived.
When he was 10 the Great Depression hit and the family retreated to Old Lyme Connecticut, where his grandfather, John Carleton Wiggins had helped establish an art colony decades earlier. His father and mother shrewdly bet that they could sell art lessons even if they couldn’t sell art and opened the Guy Wiggins Art School there in order to make ends meet. The school was successful and became a beacon for aspiring artists.
When the Second World War broke out, Mr. Wiggins was assigned to counter-intelligence attached to the Eighth Army in the South Pacific. In Japan, he was assigned to MacArthur’s headquarters and helped with the reorganization of the country’s post-war government.
Wiggins left the military in 1946 and went to UCLA to finish his undergraduate degree. He earned a master’s degree from Harvard in International Affairs and completed further post-graduate work at the London School of Economics. He then joined the US Foreign Service where he served from 1958 until 1976.
On a Ford Foundation grant in 1956, he drove overland from London to India through Afghanistan and Iran. This adventure was chronicled in the press and in letters to his father.
After returning home he met Dorothy Palmer who had fallen in love with him before they had even met as she had listened to his father’s reading of his letters to her mother who was a patron of the elder artist.
The couple married on Sept. 26, 1959, at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue—a location that required the two, both atheists, to get baptized. From then on, they were inseparable lovers over 62 years of marriage. They came to be known by multiple generations of New Yorkers for their storied romance and their over-the-top New Year’s costume parties. Their skill at ballroom dancing led friends to liken them to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, to whom Mr. Wiggins bore a passing resemblance. The couple took up residence in many exotic places which were often depicted inMr. Wiggins’ paintings: Tangier, Morocco; Biot, France; Sintra, Portugal; Taormina, Italy; and the island of Anguilla.
Mr. Wiggins adopted his wife’s son from a previous marriage—Grant P. Wiggins who would go on to become a leading American educator and author of the seminal book on modern education, Understanding by Design. The Wiggins had two boys of their own: Guy Stuart who was born in Mexico in 1962 and Noel Carleton born in Washington, DC in 1964.
He is survived by Mrs. Wiggins, two sons and seven grandchildren. Memorial Services will be announced.
In lieu of flowers donations to Salmagundi Arts Club www.salmagundi.org/donations.cfm in Guy Wiggins honor would be appreciated.