Thomas Samuel Mairs (1949-2003)
Artist • Researcher • Historian
“When the height is won, then there is ease.” Aeschylus Motto, Les Pompiers
“Thomas S. Mairs had the mind of a genius, a compassionate heart, a mordant sense of humor, and great personal and artistic courage,” James Childs 2003.
Thomas Samuel Mairs was born in Saint Paul, MN. He was the grandnephew of Minnesota artist Clara Mairs and was interested in art from a young age. Tom eventually became the first student of Richard Lack. They met when Lack painted Tom’s portrait in 1963. From 1964–1967 he studied privately with Lack on weekends and in the summer. He graduated from the Saint Paul Academy in 1967 and then majored in art history at Yale University. Tom continued to study part time with Lack during the summers from 1968-1970. He left Yale shortly before graduation and returned to Minnesota to study full time with the first cohesive group of students at Lack’s newly formed studio school, Atelier Lack, from 1971–1975.Tom was a diligent and highly focused student and he developed into one of the finest draftsmen of his generation.
During the summer before his final year as a student, Mairs and two fellow students, James Childs, and Stephen Gjertson, formed a society that they named Les Pompiers, after the nineteenth century academic painters whom they admired and with whose artistic ideals they sympathized. They wrote a lucid and detailed artistic manifesto that articulated their reasons for forming the group, the definition and etymology of the name, a motto, their relationship to past art, and their position in relation to the current art world. They enumerated their artistic goals and pictorial aims, chose a symbol (Greek helmet) and colors for a banner that Gjertson designed (green, purple, and saffron), and on which Childs would letter Les Pompiers.
For two months during the fall of 1974 Tom travelled to England and France with Childs and Gjertson to study nineteenth century Academic art. They arranged their itinerary to visit cities and museums that had major works by Ingres, Jules-Elie Delaunay, Paul Baudry, and Hippolyte Flandrin. Their primary interest in England was the work of Frederic Leighton in London. While there, Tom was able to purchase a drawing for Leighton’s Captive Andromache. They crossed the English Channel to France and visited Amiens, Nantes, La Roche-sur-Yon, Fontenay-le-Comte, Montauban, Chantilly, and Paris. Gjertson’s high school French was long forgotten, and with his characteristic droll wit, Tom said that the only two things that he needed to know in France were “ou est la salle de bain,” and “un bon vin blanc.”
After leaving Atelier Lack, Tom taught from 1975-1979 with James Childs in their atelier across from Mears Park in downtown Saint Paul. He also gave private instruction. Mairs was an admirable teacher and anyone who applied to him as a sincere and talented student benefitted from his enormous repository of theory and practice.
During this time, Tom acted as secretary of the newly formed Twin Cities Guild of Painters and Sculptors. He also worked as clerk and manager at The Book House, a store that specialized in used and rare books. His extraordinary knowledge of books enabled him to collect a large and excellent library of rare books on noted artists and art history. Tom’s breadth of understanding included all artistic styles and genres and allowed him to appreciate the strengths and assess the weaknesses of each. His powers of analysis were formidable, and he was an acute master of maxims, such as “Monet was a major exponent of a minor branch of art.”
It is not surprising that Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was one of the artists Tom most admired. Throughout Tom’s career the great Frenchman remained at the pinnacle of his personal artistic pantheon. Ingres’ dictum that “Drawing is the probity of art,” was Mairs’ artistic directive. He also admired Frederic, Lord Leighton, Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein, and Jan Vermeer. He was very interested in the imaginative art of R. H. Ives Gammell, whom he met and with whom he corresponded.
In the early 1980s Tom moved to Boston and rented a studio in the historic Fenway Studios Building, where Ives Gammell worked and taught. He copied a drawing and drew a copy of a painting by Ingres in the Fogg Museum at Harvard, and these superb studies earned the respect of Ingres scholar, Agnes Mongan and the other renowned Ingres scholars there. He had an excellent and discerning eye and was able to assimilate the lessons to be learned by studying the drawings of Ingres.
Tom’s work consisted primarily of portraits and a few still lifes. Although his œuvre was small, the quality of his work is exemplary, as evidenced in his superbly rendered portrait drawings. The silvery perfection of his line and carefully designed stylizations reveal his profound study of the pencil drawings of the youthful Frederic Leighton for his painting The Triumphal Procession of Cimabue’s Madonna through the Streets of Florence. Leighton’s superb drawings of flowers and trees influenced Tom’s delicate sketches of flowers and leaves.
His mind was not, and could not, be satisfied by half measures or cursory visual statements. As a painter he combined the subtlety of color and atmosphere with a suavity of touch and finish, yet the bravura touch of a master was not lost on him, as his stunning copy of Van Dyck’s Cornelius van der Geest confirms.
A linguist, Mairs read German, French, and some Latin. Music was also important to him. He loved Brahms and early music but could appreciate the best of all periods and styles. He was an accomplished pianist and was a friend of the remarkable cellist and influential British Suzuki teacher, Annette Costanzi, whose portrait he drew.
Mairs served on the Fenway Studios, Inc. Board of Directors and was its President from 1984-1986. His extensive research into the history of that famous building helped it get accepted by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark. In the late 1980s failing health forced him to stop working at his art but he continued his writing and research. From 1990-1991 he was a Research assistant to Eleanor Tufts for a projected monograph on Boston artist Mary Bradish Titcomb. At the time of his death, he was completing Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in French, as well as studies in the Iliad and Odyssey.
During his lifetime, Mairs’ exhibited his work in the following shows:
163rd Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, NY (1988).
Seventh Annual Drawing Show, Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA (1986).
New Masters, New England School of Art and Design, Boston, MA (1985).
Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, UT; Amarillo Art Center, Amarillo, TX; Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, WA (1982-83).
The Twin Cities Guild of Painters: Paintings and Drawings, Minnetonka Center of Arts and Education, Crystal Bay, MN (1980).
Second Annual Guild Invitational, Twin Cities Guild of Painters and Sculptors, Minneapolis, MN (1977).
First Annual Guild Invitational, Twin Cities Guild of Painters and Sculptors, Minneapolis, MN (1976).
Thomas Samuel Mairs Retrospective
In 2004 The Saint Paul Academy and Summit School held a Memorial Exhibition of Mairs’ work in The Harry M. Drake Gallery from August 30-September 28. Except for a few works in private collections the majority of his œuvre was exhibited there: thirty-seven paintings, drawings, studies, copies, and decorative tile designs.
Richard F. Lack Catalogue Raisonné: 1943-1998, Afton Press, 2016.
Thomas Samuel Mairs, Drawings, Designs, Paintings, memorial catalogue, 2009.
In Memoriam, Thomas Samuel Mairs, by James Childs and edited by Stephen Gjertson, Classical Realism Journal, Summer 2003, p. 48.
A Master Recognized and Remembered, James Childs, Classical Realism Newsletter, Fall 2003.
Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century (1982-83), exhibition catalogue.