Henry Fonda: Drawing for relaxation

Norman Thayer, Jr., 1980
Henry Fonda
Watercolor and pencil, 15 3/4 x 24 1/5 inches

A good friend of my youth was hired in the late 1970's as location scout (and, later, location manager) for the film On Golden Pond. A year or so after the film was completed, I visited his apartment in West Los Angeles and ogled the painting over his mantle. At the time, I was starting my own career as a watercolor painter, making photorealism portraits on commission of LA friends.
"Where did you get that? Who painted that?"
He said it was a lithograph of Henry Fonda's watercolor of the three hats he wore in On Golden Pond.

I have never forgotten the watercolor and I have yet to see another Henry Fonda painting.

The thing about the Fonda watercolor is that it shows such fine draughtsmanship. Fonda's drawing skill was superb. 

I have searched and searched for information on Henry Fonda drawings and paintings but all I've found is a 1988 New York Times article that quotes Fonda's wife, Shirlee, who said,
''Henry painted most of his life, but he took up serious painting during 'Mr. Roberts.' ''
...and a few paragraphs from a Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweeney (who quotes from an American Film article by Andrew Sarris),
"Fonda had always enjoyed drawing, and during the run of Mister Roberts he began seriously working in pastels. The first time he tried drawing was when he brought crayons and pastels home for the then-small Peter. "On a rainy afternoon I picked up his pastels and drew a picture of a glazed picture in our house. Much to my surprise, it turned out looking like a glazed picture."

Although Fonda drew mainly for relaxation, his work also fetched some high prices. He once sold a series of four prints for $2,000. In the 1970s a drawing of the view from the rear window of his New York town house was purchased by the Frnaklin Mint for $11,000, and soon after actress Jennifer Jones bought an oil called "Ripening" for $23,000 at a charity auction.

"Insanity! They're not worth it," Fonda said in 1981. "I can't believe anybody would want one enough to pay that kind of money."

"I can sometimes hardly believe a painting is mine when I've finished...I get a real kick out of friends asking me for a painting."

He cites W.M. Harnett, Andrew Wyeth and the Dutch realists as major influences. In fact, it was Wyeth who introduced Fonda to his favorite medium, dry brush. It appeals to him because of its similarity to watercolors.

Fonda doesn't do detailed preliminary sketches before adding colors. "He may do a very light pencil outline, just to establish composition. But once he adds his first wash of color, he erases the pencil marks." His favorite subjects are landscapes, window views, location scenes and especially fruit -- apples in particular. He's never tried to paint people.

Fonda rarely exhibits his work, and he prefers not to sell his paintings." 
I cannot tell you much more about Henry Fonda's drawing activities except the obvious — that he was able and well practiced. The Andrew Wyeth influence is clear. I can tell you a bit more about his watercolor of the hats.

Katherine Hepburn gave Fonda a brown Fedora on their first day at the On Golden Pond set. The Fedora was Spencer Tracy's "lucky" hat. Fonda made the above painting of the three hats he wore during the film and gave the original to Hepburn as a thank you gift.

Fonda had 200 lithographs made of the watercolor. He numbered, signed and sent one to every person who worked on the film, thanking each by name.

After Fonda's death, Hepburn gave the original painting to playwright (etc.), Ernest Thompson.