Kentucky’s most popular artist of the past, Paul Sawyier was not a native of the state. He was born in Madison County, Ohio. About 1870, Sawyier’s family moved to Frankfort, and the artist’s formative years were spent in Kentucky. His formal study in art began in 1884 at the Cincinnati Art School (later renamed the Cincinnati Art Academy) under Thomas Noble. From 1889 to 1890, he studied in New York at the Art Students League where William Merritt Chase was one of his instructors, and in 1891 he studied briefly with Frank Duveneck in Cincinnati. Sawyier settled in Frankfort about 1908 and over the next five years he spent considerable time living on his houseboat. During this period, he traveled the Kentucky River in search of attractive scenes to paint and frequently tied up at High Bridge and Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. In the fall of 1913, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to further his professional career. In 1915, he relocated to upstate New York, residing in the Catskill resort towns of Highmount and later Fleischmanns, where he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 52.
Although he is best known as a watercolorist, he also worked in charcoal, pastel and oil, turning increasingly to oils as his preferred medium. He was primarily a painter of natural and urban landscapes, and expressed an aversion to doing portraits, but occasionally did so to earn money.
A stylistic eclectic, he often adapted aspects of impressionism in his art. Although he might be described as central Kentucky’s major proponent of that style, he also painted in the moody, darker mode of American tonalism. While his watercolors were done in the studio from sketches and photographs, in his later years he often painted out of doors more like a true impressionist.