By Colin, in Lauren’s absence:
One of the greatest joys of working in a museum is getting to spend time with those who equally appreciate the arts. At the Hermitage there is no better example of this than our docents and volunteers. Aside from giving tours and helping guests, docents at the Hermitage are engaged in research that benefits not only their knowledge of the house and its collection, but the entire staff as well. One of our star docents, Donna Dodenhoff, recently presented and exceptionally well researched piece on the artist Charles Hawthorne. This insightful scholarship on the artist and his works is a refreshing reminder of how compelling and masterful Hawthorne was as a painter. So if you have not already visited the site and seen his works on display in our Mend Our Broken Art exhibit then this will hopefully draw you in, and for those who have perhaps this will bring you back for a better look!
Charles Webster Hawthorne
Introduction: Charles Webster Hawthorne’s reputation as a “painter’s painter” sums up his place in American art as both a major early twentieth century painter and teacher of painting. Hawthorne once noted that “The world is waiting for men with vision—it is not interested in pictures.“ The bold originality of his work has challenged art historians’ efforts to classify influences on his art ranging from the European Impressionists, the subsequent Modernists, or Abstractionists, and even earlier Dutch masters like Franz Hals, whose influence Hawthorne himself acknowledged. How modern or innovative was Hawthorne during his productive years, a period spanning 1894 until his death in 1930? Some art critics had declared him passé by the time he exhibited at the Armory Show, the landmark exhibition of modern art held in New York in 1913. Others see his work as a bridge linking developments in Western art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as his worked progressed from a more Impressionistic to Abstract painting style.
Yet perhaps one of the most important influences on Hawthorne’s paintings is their vernacular quality. As the art critic Hans Hoffman has noted, Hawthorne’s “art [was] rooted deeply in American life,” making it “robust and provocative” rather than being slavishly committed to “taste and design.” His paintings of Cape Cod people and places particularly suggest his affinities with major American painters who succeeded him as, for example, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn and Andrew Wyeth. Like the work of these diverse painters, Hawthorne‘s work embodied an original vision rooted in place and honed by an individualistic style that simultaneously captured both the essence of place settings and a more complex interior landscape. Certainly the inwardly directed gaze of his portrait subjects, one of the signatures of Hawthorne’s portrait painting, is reminiscent of the still, lonely atmosphere of paintings by Hopper and Wyeth.
Biography: Hawthorne was born in Lodi, Illinois in 1872 and grew up in Richmond, Maine, a small New England town on the Kennebec River. In 1894 he moved to New York City and worked in a stained glass factory while studying painting at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. The most dominant influence during this period was that of William Merritt Chase, the mentor with whom Hawthorne shared a passion for teaching, for lush colors, and for plein air figure painting. Hawthorne worked as both pupil and assistant to Chase. In 1898 he moved to Holland as Chase’s assistant and lived there a year. During this period he fell under the influence of the Dutch master Frans Hals, whose paintings Hawthorne admire for their contrasting tonal qualities. In 1899, on his return to the United States, Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts and guided the school’s art program for 30 years, until his death in 1930. The Cape Cod School of Art was modeled after Chase’s Shinnecock, Long Island school in its focus on outdoor figurel painting. During weekly talks and Saturday critiques of his students’ work, Hawthorne guided them but did not impose his own painting techniques or methods. At the school students were drawn back to the fundamentals of painting. Above all he urged his students not to make “pictures” but rather to create unfinished studies that were open-ended inquiries. As he repeatedly insisted, “A great painter is always a student, always seeing more until he has to send the canvas for exhibition.“ The school became a large art colony during the spring and summer months it operated. Among Hawthorne’s talented students were the artists Ben Shahn, John Noble, Richard Miller, Max Bohm and Norman Rockwell. Although he spent the fall and winter months in New York City, Hawthorne was very much involved in Provincetown’s community life as a founding member of the Provincetown Art Association. He was a music enthusiast who played the cornet and cello and was a member at various times of chamber music ensembles. His son Joseph saw Hawthorne’s love of music as influencing his father’s approach to painting. As Hawthorne himself put it, “Beauty in art is the delicious notes of color one against the other.”
Widely recognized as a major American artist during his life time, Hawthorne’s paintings today hang in such major museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He received awards from the National Academy of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as well as a string of prizes, including: the Hallgarten, the Thomas P. Clark, the Isadore Gold Medal (twice), the Benjamin Altman, Andrew Carnegie and Proctor prizes. He was a full member of both the National Academy of Design, exhibiting annually there, and the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts.
Development of Hawthorne’s Style:
As expressed in his critiques of his students’ work, Hawthorne held that color values were the fundament principle of painting: “Have the courage to set down the colors” he urged his students, and then the form “takes care of itself if color is right.” He stressed that “ Composition is color fusing with form.” In this way the painting could surpass the limits of calculation and construction. As he told his students: “You are here to represent by color, by separating of color, by exacting matching of color, what you see, and thereby learn to see.”
On his return from Holland, Hawthorne disciplined his painting style by painting for a time solely with a palette knife in order to relegate detail to a larger vision; details were to be suggested rather than elaborated, giving the viewer more opportunities to explore what the painting suggested but left undeclared. “My plea is for something big and fine and honest,” he said. Much more than obsessing with technical skill and painted detail, good painting, Hawthorne believed, hinged on the mindset of the painter. Hawthorne emphasized that the largeness and boldness of the subject lay not in the value social conventions attributed to it but in the artist’s ability to see beauty in the commplace and even ugly. As an exemplar of his own teaching principles Hawthorne sought ways to express in his paintings his fascination with the places and people of Cape Cod. As his son Joseph noted, the seacoast afforded Hawthorne an open field for exploring contrasts of sea, sand and sky and the dignity of those common folk who made a living off the sea,
While his exploration of color values and plein air painting were acknowledged Impressionist influences, his representation of plane relationships through color values, that is layers of paint, his compression of spatial relationships and his preference for pared down, suggestive representations of forms are impulses more akin to the twentieth century Modernists movement. Above all he shared every artist’s timeless impulse to create paintings of transcendent beauty. As he told his students, “painting must resonate with joy, the glory of creation, the thrill of seeing the thing for the fist time. Art is necessity, beauty we must have in the world.“
The fundamental precepts of artistic creation Hawthorne discussed with his students can certainly be applied to his own artistic production.
Portuguese Fisher Girl, 1927
In the Portuguese Fisher Girl, painted toward the end of his career, Hawthorne’s bold, simple composition features the fisher girl in the foreground against a backdrop of blue-green sea and a sky burnished to a copper sheen by the late afternoon sun. With broad flat brush strokes, and a sky more densely painted than the sea itself, Hawthorne suggests with few details a calm sea at late afternoon with little evidence of commercial fishing activity other than the faint outline of a trawler at one corner of the horizon. The contrasting color values of sea and sky, cool and warm values, blend in spots with a hint of the dark blue-green of the sea bleeding into the more solid dark green of the girls’ jacket along a streak of her right jacket arm. Perspectival color planes are further fused by linking the tonalities of sky with the large copper bowl inserted into the foreground of the painting, with the tonalities of the girl’s left hand blending the outline of her hand into the copper bowl. The composition exemplifies Hawthorne’s principle of relying on contrasting color values and tonalities to inform compositional form, theme and atmosphere. A lighter blue sky or a sea of blues and greens rendered with thicker layers of paint would have emphasized the expanses of sea and sky, blanching the girl’s flesh tones and the solidity of her figural presence. Instead the contrasts of darker and lighter color values detaches the girl from her background. The solidity of her form rendered with a dark green jacket and bright white shirt against the luminescent flesh tones of her face and neck endow her with the solemnity of a force of nature more powerful than the sea and sky.
The bold simplicity of the composition invites, in fact teases, the viewer’s exploration. Her stillness and repose, her unsoiled, simple yet formal attire, and her unblemished youthful beauty and vitality do not suggest an exploited worker drained of vitality. The absent mindedness with which she holds the bowl suggests she is both completely at one with the world of commercial fishing and yet detached from it. Moreover, the tonalities of sky and sea evoke a transitional atmosphere from a workaday world of toil to the more reposeful time of early evening. Is she attending a community festival? What are the visually captured but unarticulated thoughts that have directed her stoical gaze to an inner landscape?
Hawthorne once said of his mission as a portrait painter, “I want to express something about the humanity of my time that will live.” In this portrait Hawthorne can be credited with affirming the dignity and humanity of a working class minority. The strong central focus of this Cape Cod landscape is a beautiful, self-possessed Portuguese fisher girl. She was a member of a southern European minority that 1920s U.S. immigration and citizenship restrictions had relegated to the margins of mainstream American life. For affluent tourists increasingly flocking to this resort town, its Portuguese fisher folk would have been little more than background local color. It took the passionate eye of a gifted artist to bring the fisher girl from a peripheral to a central field of vision.
Hawthornes, Hawthorne on Painting: From Students’ Notes Collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960, paperback edition)
Richard Muhlberger, Charles Webster Hawthorne (Massachusetts: Chameleon Books, Inc., 1999)
Worldwide Web Sites:
Smithsonian Institution: aaa.si.edu/collections/collection/hawtchar.htm
Wikepedia: Charles Webster Hawthorne, wikepedia.com
Butler Art Museum: butlerart.com/pc_book/pages/charles_webster_hawthorne_1872.htm
University of Kentucky Art Museum: uky.edu/ArtMuseum/luce/19thcentury/Images/pages/Hawthorne_jpg.htm
An additional reminder to those reading:
Both of our Charles Hawthorne works are still up for adoption. The prices for which are:
Portuguese Fisher Girl – $1800
Girl with Pitcher – $1500