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American Realism

Gerry Souter

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Text: Gerry Souter Layout: BASELINE CO LTD 33 Ter – 33 Bis Mac Dinh Chi St., Star Building; 6th floor District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam © Parkstone Press International, New York, USA © Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY © Charles Burchfield © Everett Shinn © John Sloan Estate, Artists Rights Society, New York, USA Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY © Andrew Wyeth ALL RIGHTS RESERVED No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification. ISBN: 978-1-78042-992-2

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Gerry Souter


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Contents Introduction


Eastman Johnson (1824-1906)


Winslow Homer (1836-1910)


Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)


William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)


Frederic Remington (1861-1909)


Robert Henri (1865-1929) and the “Ashcan Artists�


Edward Hopper (1882-1967)


Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975)


Grant Wood (1892-1942)


Charles Burchfield (1893-1967)


Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)








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Frederic Remington, Boat House at Ingleneuk, c. 1903-1907. Oil on academy board, 30.5 x 45.7 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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The concept of ‘Realism’ as applied to a style of art embraces too much

out in their impassioned minds. Masters of technique became

with too little. You might as well try to define ‘Dance’ without looking

elevated in society and gathered together to protect their franchise

at ballet, tap, jazz, clog or folk. It is true in art there is Cubism,

with orders, academies and societies where membership was seen as

Futurism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism and many more lesser

a goal, an achievement, a sacred trust. To display their work or

‘isms’ and each bears certain characteristics, or cleaves to certain

commission their skills bestowed a cachet, a symbol of piety, good

constraints or expansions that define the style. Each of these styles has

taste and social responsibility.

practitioners who themselves are defined by the results of their identification with the specific creative method. Each painter has also

Of course there were the malcontents: Dürer, Da Vinci, David,

brought an individual contribution to the interpretation of the style. The

Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Caravaggio; artists whose passion

key differences between these ‘isms’ and ‘Realism’ is time, place and

flowed from their brushes and etching needles and crayons to show

state of mind.

there was more to realism than polished technique. When the American Colonies of the New World finally sought the trappings of

A ‘Realist’ painter is the beneficiary of a legacy stretching back to the

civilisation after their Revolution and Westward Expansion, the

earliest cave paintings that describe the activities of our most

Tripolitain War and the War of 1812 and the border wars with

primitive ancestors who ‘saw’ giant elk, mammoths, cave bears and

Mexico, both a native art and the arts of Europe began staking out

their own humanoid brothers. They ‘saw’ the spears flying through

new ground. All this civilisation arrived just in time for the birth of

the air, observed the graceful arch of the antelope’s neck and the

photography in the 1840s. The capturing of reflected light in an

hump of the buffalo’s back. They painted exactly what they saw,

infinite scale of values preserved in silver halide crystals and fixed with

subjects standing still or in motion, in coloured clays mixed with

hyposulphite forever democratised reality upside down and

animal fat and tallow. No one is sure if the result was pure journalism

backwards on glass and paper, and held a mirror up to nature with

of observation or using magical suggestion to assure a successful

the click of a mechanical shutter.

hunt. The sophistication of interpretation wound its way through the centuries from the stylised propaganda scribed into the walls of

And what did ‘true artists’ attempt to do with this brave new

tombs and temples to the sprawling epic of the Bayeux Tapestry

medium? Why, forced it to look like a painting, of course, and then

documenting the Norman-french depredations on the shores of

hurried off to form orders, academies and societies and create rules

England. Religious faith was reinforced by depictions of stories from

of recognition for a ‘truly artistic’ photograph. The science and

holy books such as the Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad-Gita and the Analects


of Confucius.

commercialisation, artistic pretension and ultimate creative








potential were achieved in the United States, in the nation of Realism has always dealt with the baggage carried by the interpreter

immigrants who inherited the need to challenge the status quo.

of the scene. The practice of realistic painting produced an elitist class

They passed along that need in their genes. The European wave of

schooled in effects and techniques, and secret paint- and

academic realism subsided at the hands of the nineteenth-century

preservation-formulations, like alchemists granting eternal life to

French Impressionists and tumbled into the larger-than-life

reality seen through their eyes and granting reality to scenes played

theatricality and geographically diverse American scenes and


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— American Realism —

lifestyles. Photography’s faithful translation of light and shadow

your work as Portrait Realist – or maybe a Portrait Regionalist Realist

into a reproducible image freed painters to pursue their

if you painted Native Americans in the West, or sea captains on the

imaginations. They could manipulate any of the elements: colour,

East Coast. There were Realists who brushed the style of French

line, perspective, placement, addition and subtraction, making the

Impressionism into every canvas and Academic Realists who dragged

scene their reality. Realism as a monolithic, lock-step, strictly

the dog-eared mechanics featured in Old World European salons into

governed method of painterly visualisation shattered into nuances

scenes of American life. Some Realists successfully stepped back and

of interpretation.

forth across the line between commercial illustration and fine art. Others took realistic subjects into the realms of surrealism or shaved

Where you painted could make you a Regional Realist. What you

the medium to such a fine point; the results of which challenged the

painted might label you a Genre Realist, or who you painted classified

photographic arts.

William Metcalf, Gloucester Harbour, 1895. Oil on canvas, 66.4 x 74.3 cm. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, gift of George D. Pratt.


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— Introduction —

Of the variations cited, there are even further nuances that mock the

This book presents a cross-section of American Realist artists spanning

concept of ‘American Realism’ as an all-embracing style. What remains are

more than one hundred years of art. It begins as some artists struggle

American Realist artists, each facing subject matter that is part of the fabric

with the influences of Europe, and other home-grown painters bring

of the American scene. The result of their efforts is determined by the

their nineteenth-century American scenes to life, and ends as today’s

filtering of their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets,

generation of Realist painters co-exist with American Modernism and

training, regional influences, ethnic influences and basic nurturing. If there

absorb this new freedom into the latest incarnation of their art. The

is any binding together it is within the tradition of Realist Art in the United

range of talent is exceptional, touching on the broadest interpretation

States, which accepts such a range from Winslow Homer’s poetic

of the American Realist artist. In examining this cross-section, we can

watercolours of the 1860s to the haunting minutiae of Andrew Wyeth and

better understand and appreciate the amazing diversity and the

melancholy light of Edward Hopper in the 1950s and 1960s.

infinitely variable Realist styles.

John Sloan, Gloucester Harbour, 1916. Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm. Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York.


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Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) By the 1840s, the United States was still a work in progress. Its population

President James Madison. Moving on to Boston the following year, his

had leaped 33 per cent from the previous decade to 17,063,353 with

subtle use of line and tone learned at the stone soon brought him portrait

four states exceeding one million residents: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio

commissions such as the likeness of a youthful Charles Sumner

and Virginia. Texas signed up for annexation in 1845 and the first

commissioned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

immigrant wagon trains headed west over the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. In December of that same year, President James K. Polk told

The famed poet gave Eastman’s career a considerable boost with requested

Congress it was the country’s “manifest destiny” to pursue expansion

drawings of Longfellow’s influential friends and family, including poet

west and vigorously uphold the Monroe Doctrine.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Longfellow Pierce, Charles Longfellow, Ernest Longfellow, Mary Longfellow Greenleaf and Cornelius Conway Felton, soon

These great events were just beginning to be communicated across the

to be president of Harvard University. Johnson worked in Boston for three

country by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph, proven on 24 May 1844 with a

years, but he felt he needed more training in the fine arts. It was not until

message sent from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Maryland that read,

1848 that he created his first oil painting, a portrait of his grandmother.

“What God hath wrought”. A somewhat less momentous event was taking place in a Boston studio as a twenty-year-old Eastman Johnson struggled to

In 1849, Johnson travelled across the Atlantic to Germany and enrolled in the

learn the mechanics of crayon and gum arabic in the art of stone

Düsseldorf Academy, an influential realist school created in the early

lithography. This was journeyman work, a profession in the printing industry

nineteenth century. He was accepted into the studio of the American

and his father had apprenticed him to the studio by to learn a useful trade.

expatriate artist, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. While the school was noted for its painters who turned out realist landscape allegories and historical subjects,

Young Johnson was born in 1824, in Lovell, a small town near Maine’s

just before Johnson arrived many of its students had been politically involved

western border, the last of eight children born to Mary Kimball Chandler to

in social protest, manning the barricades as part of the Burgwehr citizen army.

Phillip Carrigan Johnson. Following Eastman’s sisters, Harriet, Judith, Mary,

The revolution of 1848-49 forced Frederick William IV to grant a constitution

Sarah, Nell and his brother Reuben, he was also well down the line from first-

uniting the Prussian States into a single entity. Eastman joined a number of

born, Commodore Phillip Carrigan Johnson Jr. As the family moved from

American artists who passed through this school, which at the time was more

Lovell to Fryeburg, a former frontier outpost in 1762, and to Augusta,

influential than anything happening in Paris. George Caleb Bingham,

Maine’s capital city on the Kennebec River, the patriarch Johnson climbed the

Worthington Whittredge, Richard Caton Woodville, William S. Haseltine,

ladder of success. From being a successful businessman he ascended to the

James M. Hart, and William Morris Hunt all passed through Düsseldorf as well

post of Maine’s Secretary of State and eventually moved on up to influence

as the painter of luminescent western landscapes, Albert Bierstadt.

in Washington D.C. as Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair of the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t difficult to obtain an apprenticeship;

While the academy offered considerable technical training, Johnson felt

Eastman’s gift for drawing and observation made the job a good fit.

restricted by the pedagogy and in 1852 packed up his paints and brushes and toured Italy and France, finally ending up in The Hague in Holland. His goal

At the age of twenty-one Eastman moved to Washington D.C. in 1845

there was to study seventeenth-century Dutch artists, specifically Rembrandt

and established himself as a portraitist, eventually producing images of

and that artist’s brilliant use of light and composition. His work was so well

such notables as orator Daniel Webster and Dolly Madison, wife of

received that he was offered the post of court painter, which he refused.

Eastman Johnson, Woman in White Dress, c. 1875. Oil on paper board, 56.8 x 35.6 cm. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.


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Johnson had come to a decision that realist art was not tied to populist allegories, drenching sentimentality or forced reenactments of historical events. Painting could tell both simple and complex stories without bogus emotion or flights of fancy. Direct observation in the field, activities sketched from life, all these acquisitions could render the American lifestyle in the American landscape. Armed with Rembrandt’s methods of visualisation, the rigorous curricula of German technique and his own sensitivity to story telling, Eastman Johnson spent two months in academician Thomas Couture’s Paris studio, and in 1855 he departed for the United States. The American art scene that greeted his arrival was considerably different from when he had left just seven years previously. Daguerreotype salons had sprouted like mushrooms on a log – especially in Washington. The fashionable one-of-a-kind photographic portraits in their velvet and gutta-percha clamshell frames became the rage as carte de visite leave-behinds and commemorative gifts. Sadly, the faces that peered back were mostly severe in expression due to the often three-minute exposures, while the head was securely kept in place by a clamp. Even so, the market for crayon portraits had crashed. Still, his reputation and fine work kept him in portrait commissions in Cincinnati and Washington, and finally funded his studio when he settled in New York. Another major change was Americans’ attitudes to art and its place in their society. In the 1840s everything European was considered the definition of good taste and enlightened sensibilities. Now, in the 1850s, Americans began to turn inward and seek their own identities in art and letters. The nation’s vistas were expanding and in the East and Midwest those who bought paintings wanted scenes of the exotic Far West. People who lived in teeming cities longed for idealised views of bucolic farm life and recreation in the forests and along country roads, images of simple lives led in the Deep South and even among the Plains Indians.

Eastman Johnson, The Hatch Family, c. 1870-1871. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 186.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, gift of Frederic H. Hatch.


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Eastman Johnson, Negro Life at the South, 1859. Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 114.9 cm. Robert L. Stuart Collection, New York Historical Society, New York, New York.


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— Eastman Johnson —

Eastman Johnson, Corn Husking, 1860. Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 76.8 cm. Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, gift of Andrew D. White.


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Eastman Johnson, Cranberry Pickers, c. 1879. Oil on paper board, 57.1 x 67.9 cm. Private collection.


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It was Johnson’s good luck to have his sister, Sarah, marry William Henry

this five-year sojourn was his oil painting, The Wounded Drummer Boy.

Newton, who took his bride up to property investments he had made in

During the next twenty years, Eastman Johnson became a Regionalist

the upper Midwest. Johnson’s brother, Reuben, had also moved up north

Realist painter, keeping himself to the East Coast and creating his most

to Superior, Wisconsin and opened a sawmill. Having kin already

memorable works. He settled into a routine of venturing back to

established in that distant country motivated Johnson to journey into the

boyhood haunts in Fryeburg, Maine and made regular summer visits to

wilderness armed with cash from his portrait sittings and a loan from his

Nantucket. He married Elizabeth Buckley in 1869 and fathered a

father to invest in land. The summers of 1856 and 1857 were spent

daughter, Ethel Eastman Johnson in 1870. Many of his most charming

working with brush and crayon around western Lake Superior and in a

works are of his wife and child in and around their home.

cabin he built on Pokegema Bay. Johnson recognised something in the East that gave him comfort and He enlisted the services of a guide, Stephen Boonga, a mixed-blood

there is an undercurrent of contentment in all his genre paintings of this

African-American and Ojibwe Native-American man, to help him build a

period of his work. When not traipsing off after the Army of the Potomac

canoe and paddle to the Apostle Islands and the cities of Duluth and

throughout the 1860s, he travelled to New England. After seeing up

Superior. In Grand Portage, Johnson made contact with the Ojibwe tribes

close the destruction of war, the comfortable semi-antiquity of his

and made a number of sketches in charcoal and oil.

homeland must have come as a relief. Since so many young men were in


uniform during the war years and many didn’t come back from the In 1859, Johnson reached back into his Düsseldorf training and created

battles he was left with the elderly and women and young people who

his first American genre painting titled Life in the South (aka: The Deep

were not of conscription age as his subjects. Where no people were

South, Negro Life at the South & Old Kentucky Home). On close

present in his pictures, the tools they used and the interiors that sheltered

examination, he did not reach too far. The painting is largely a collection

them showed use and degrees of decay. They lacked a swab of

of portrait sittings grouped in story-suggesting clusters about a

whitewash or a few stones in the wall or the hearth blackened dark with

charmingly dilapidated barn and slave residence. Taken as a whole, it is

soot, or a cane chair seat needing a fresh weave.

quite sappy, but the portrayals of the courting couple, the slave children and their extended family members – even the white mistress watching

One of his most successful genre paintings was Corn Husking, exhibited

the scene from a hole in the fence (or is she watching the courtship of

in 1861 at the National Academy of Design in New York. The show

the mulatto couple?) – have a homey sincerity. Whatever the level of

opened just three weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter and

sugar coating, the painting managed to please both the Southerners,

the start of the Civil War. No less than the 200,000 New Yorkers crowded

who saw it as an idyllic representation, and the anti-slavery North, who

into Union Square to support the Union cause, and Johnson had made

read into it all the evils of that “peculiar institution”. If it was packed with

his own pro-Union statement in this painting. Written on the barn door

sentiment, it was American sentiment and was good enough to get him

are the words “Lincoln and Hamlin” referring to Lincoln’s successful run

elected to the National Design Academy of New York.

for the presidency and his running mate from Maine, Hannibal Hamlin. New England had come out in strength for the Republican ticket during

Johnson took his sketch pad with him to the Civil War, following the Union

the election so the painting was as much a subtle political broadside as it

Army not unlike a modern photojournalist. The most famous outcome of

was an example of fine art.


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He never felt the need to fall back upon the historical ‘Down Easters’, the

Royals. But his enactments of cowboy and Indian mock battles and the

Puritans in knee britches or the old coaches that plied the roads. Except

skills of his bronco busters, sharpshooters and ropers lost relevance as

for his Old Stage Coach painting he sketched in pieces and then

the real West began to disappear. The land was still there, but railways,

assembled in his studio. It depicts the ruin of stage coachwork without

the telegraph and hordes of settlers transformed the face of it. What

wheels or axles being reclaimed by the local vegetation and workings of

had been news stories of Custer’s Last Stand, the Battle of Wounded

the elements. But even this lamentable reminder of days past is

Knee, land and gold rushes became nostalgia and slipped from

rejuvenated by the shouts and whoops of children as they play around

newspaper headlines to memories swapped on shady porches in the

and upon the disintegrating shell. Boys whinny and gallop in place while

cool of the evening.

drivers snap whips made of air and imagination and the girls peer out of the windows at the passing scene. All this action by the side of the road

Genre paintings slipped from favour. Johnson fell back upon his portraits

takes place under late afternoon sun and is so unforced and natural that

for income but, like the old men seated around the stove in the general

it is impossible to imagine this captured moment was created in a studio

store, he reached back into his own memories. He had, for instance, a

from bits and pieces and assembled in Johnson’s mind.

great desire to produce a large canvas depicting the process of maple sugar boiling. Over the years he made a number of studies of this unique

All this rural hoopla fitted in with the trend that had citizens returning to

‘Down East’ scene, but never completed the finished canvas as interest in

their roots during and after the Civil War, paying homage to the old,

nostalgia waned. His fame as a portrait artist never vanished and he was

uncomplicated days so prominent in imprecise memory. Books, plays,

in constant demand. Even into his seventies, he remained active,

artwork all celebrated the ‘good old days’ unencumbered by the

documenting both his era and the images in his memory.

industrial revolution, crowded cities, smoke-belching steam locomotives, and the stink of a hundred backyard privies on a hot summer night. Coal

Of the series, Henry T. Tuckerman, Boston essayist and critic, explained

gas hissing into the lamps in overstuffed apartments. The reek of crowds

Johnson’s ability to capture “Maine, of old… rare materials… becoming

layered in Victorian fashion moving in clouds of scent to mask the odour

more rare and less picturesque as locomotive facilities reduce costume,

of their unwashed bodies. The paintings promised open vistas, big

dress, speech and even faces to a monotonous uniformity.”2

spaces, dense forests and winding brooks, the warm dry smell of hay in a feed barn and the splashing rumble of a mill wheel in the river race.

By 1880, Johnson focused more and more on his portrait work. Around him, the nation was changing rapidly as industry,

Making use of his years studying Rembrandt’s use of light in etchings and

transportation and communications evolved, making the crusty, dusty

oil paintings, Johnson infused his works with sophisticated views,

antiquity of Maine memories even less relevant. There were few artists

particularly with the interiors. He evoked mood and the rough-hewn lives

still around who had begun their careers before the Civil War, and of

of Americans of all walks of life. He bestowed grace and charm on the

that diminishing group, he remained in public favour. Right up until his

most mundane subjects.

death at the age of eighty-two on 5 April 1906, he was considered a popular pioneer for realism that reflected the American scene using


Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West travelling show to cities and towns

Old World techniques, but filtered through the flint-sharp sensibilities

after touring the capitals of Europe and performing before the Imperial

of a true Yankee ‘Down Easter’.

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Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, c. 1862. Oil on paper board, 55.8 x 66.4 cm. The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, gift of Miss Gwendolyn O.L. Conkling.


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Winslow Homer, Prisoners from the Front, 1866. Oil on canvas, 61 x 96.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, gift of Mrs. Frank B. Porter.


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Winslow Homer (1836-1910) Almost a generation behind Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, also a


largely self-taught artist, carried forward Johnson’s gift of portraying the

O Art, high gift of Heaven! How oft defamed

American scene and added a love of the sea to the rustic genre images. He

When seeming praised! To most a craft that fits,

was born on 24 February 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts to Henrietta

By dead, prescriptive Rule, the scattered bits

Benson and Charles Savage Homer. Henrietta grew up in Cambridge,

Of gathered knowledge; even so misnamed

Massachusetts where she learned the art of watercolour. She was an active

By some who would invoke thee; but not so

amateur painter and went on to exhibit with her son at the Boston Art

By him,—the noble Tuscan—who gave birth

Association in the 1870s. His mother became Winslow’s first teacher.

To forms unseen of man, unknown to Earth,


Now living habitants; he felt the glow An even greater influence on his early art training was the legendary

Of thy revealing touch, that brought to view

Boston romantic painter, Washington Allston (1779-1843). Though he

The invisible Idea; and he knew,

made two trips to Europe, studying various salon painters including the

E’en by his inward sense, its form was true:

British artist, Benjamin West, Allston became a leading figure in the early

‘T was life to life responding,—highest truth!

nineteenth-century Romantic Movement in America. His emphasis was

So, through Elisha’s faith, the Hebrew Youth

on landscape, but he concentrated more on mood and emotion than

Beheld the thin blue air to fiery chariots grow.

observation of an actual scene. His skills also extended to writing and he produced poetry, novels and treatises on art. Of these, his philosophy

Washington Allston, Lectures & Poems, 1850.

ordained that “primary subjects” seen in the painting were supported by underlying “secondary subjects” that enforced the mood and had

At the age of nineteen in 1855, Homer was apprenticed to the Boston

religious undertones inspired by the revelations of God.

lithography shop of John Henry Bufford who had studied under New York’s George Endicott and Nathaniel Currier (soon to be partnered with

Though Allston died when Homer was just seven years old, the presence

James Merritt Ives) to find practical applications for his art.

of the Great Man was everywhere in the Boston-Cambridge neighbourhoods where he had painted and written. Poetic tributes,

He remained at Bufford’s for two years and then embarked as a

exhibitions of his works and publications of his lectures, edited by Richard

freelance illustrator finding sketch work at Ballou’s Pictorial and

Henry Dana Jr. – author of Two Years Before the Mast – created a virtual

Harpers Weekly. He opened a studio at the Tenth Street Studio

Allston cult. Homer was surrounded by Allston’s acolytes and could not

Building in New York City. Located at 51 West Tenth Street between

have avoided the artist’s work and philosophies. Homer’s contemporaries

Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the Studio Building was a virtual rabbit warren

and close associates who knew of Allston’s impact claimed they

of artist studios that radiated out from a central domed gallery. Artists

recognised the ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ subjects in Homer’s paintings

from all over the country came to the location and took rooms nearby,

and understood the ‘secret’ to the success of the works. To appreciate

giving Greenwich Village its new and future reputation as a Bohemian

Allston’s romantic sensibilities, one of his poems follows.

arts centre.


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At Harpers, where he remained a frequent contributor for years, his

remained, following the troops and botched campaigns of Major

sketches made in the field were carved into wood blocks for multiple

General George B. McClellan. He drew their camps on picket duty,

printing. He also copied images imported from England so they could be

playing cards between battles, and worked alongside photographers

used to illustrate stories. And then the largest story he would ever cover

whose bulky glass plate cameras could not produce pictures of any

burst as artillery shells slammed into Fort Sumter and the American Civil

troops in action. Their photographic prints had to be turned into steel

War flashed to life.

engravings in order to be printed in newspapers or by Harpers. Most of his sketches differed greatly from the heroic work of Eastman Johnson

Homer was attending classes at the National Academy of Design,

who produced The Wounded Drummer Boy. Homer seemed more

studying under Frédéric Rondel, a landscape artist who had just joined

drawn to the homey non-action moments that happened between

the teaching staff. Harpers Weekly armed Homer with sketch pads

battles, as with Home Sweet Home showing two Union soldiers boiling

and sent him off to join the Union Army of the Potomac in 1861. He

water over a fire in an encampment. These intimate scenes became

Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), c. 1873-1876. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 97 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation.


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popular with Harpers’ readers, showing how their boys lived when they

breech-loading rifle that, when combined with the telescopic sight,

weren’t fighting or marching. Because of the war’s huge casualty totals,

became a deadly and feared weapon. Any snipers captured by opposing

these images of men bonding on the battlefield were comforting.

troops were usually shot as being godless, cold-blooded murderers. This drawing and another one, Prisoners from the Front, were turned into

While many of his drawings copied the stiff compositions of the

paintings in Homer’s studio after the war, resulting in his being elected a

photographers, he managed to capture some unique, journalistic images

full academician.

such as Sharpshooter on Picket Duty. This drawing shows a Union sniper aiming a rifled musket using a long telescopic gun sight. The new

In 1867, he travelled to Paris where Prisoners from the Front was hung

technology allowed marksmen to use these sights to make long range

in the American section of the Paris World Exposition called the

shots and kill enemy officers, harass artillery units and sink the morale of

‘Universal Exhibition’. As with the British Great Exposition of 1851, art

enemy troops. The name ‘sharpshooter’ referred to a specific Sharps

was considered a secondary attraction when compared to steam

Winslow Homer, The Signal of Distress, 1890. Oil on canvas, 62 x 98 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


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engines, railway trains and mass-produced manufactured products and

against the angled horizon and activity behind them, the Parisians

processes, plus exotic goods and cultures from distant lands. The

admired it for its closeness in style to the sugary allegorical

Americans shipped over a tribe of Indians and their tepees that

academician Jean-Léon Gérôme.

became a hit for the show. Excluded from the show were the ‘young naturalists’, Cézanne, Degas, Monet and Renoir, who set up their own

Homer stayed on in Paris for a year with his Boston chum, Albert Kelsey,

exhibitions outside the Exposition. The hall devoted to art was small,

sharing a flat. They were very close friends and had a photo taken that

requiring paintings be hung in rows up to the ceiling. Still, Homer

mocked the convention of wedding photography of the time with Kelsey

managed to see a broad cross-section of European art from

standing behind the seated Homer with his hand on Homer’s shoulder.

Impressionists to hoary academicians grinding out neo-classical

On the back of the photo, Kelsey wrote, Damion and Pythias, after the

allegories. The London Times wrote:

Greek lovers. This relationship and a subsequent sketch of Kelsey sitting

“In the exhibition palace, one wanted in particular, apart from

naked on the back of a giant turtle combined with Homer’s male-

landscape painting by Rousseau or Français, to see exotic art or

dominated lifestyle suggests either an asexual or homosexual bent to his

images of history in the academic, neo-classicist style. In the

social life. Many of his contemporaries offered that he was “painfully

event, the walls were mainly covered with works of the panel

shy” around women, which was not unusual considering his strong

members, who included: Gérôme, Dupré, Bouguereau, Millet,

Congregationalist church upbringing, with his dominant mother

Daubigny, Huet and Corot, who, other than was the case with

providing his art training.

Courbet, were each represented with between eight and fourteen paintings. Genre pictures were particularly popular and

On the other hand, Homer was considered a man’s man by his male

represented. Although only works were supposed to be

friends, hanging out, drinking and smoking in cafes until the wee

exhibited which had been completed after 1 January 1855, the

hours, even professing to enjoy love affairs. He demonstrated his love

exhibition proved in the final analysis to be a retrospective of

of nature and the men who sailed the sea, hunted and farmed the land,

recognised artists. Art was, in its undecorated, crowded and

his bonding with the soldiers he sketched during the war. And yet as he

uncomfortable presentation, one product among many, only an

matured, he sought his own space and little or nothing to do with

“agreeable accessoire”, as Charles Blanc, who was himself a

women except as candid subjects for his sketches and paintings. When

panel member, expressed it in 1867 in the Le Temps newspaper.

he did show women they were strong, independent and happy with


their own company as in Promenade on the Beach featuring two


According to the New York Times previewing the show, “The best

women arm and arm at sunset. He also demonstrated how harm can

American works from the best private galleries and studios have

come to women in works such as To the Rescue; a brooding barren,

been cheerfully placed at their (the U.S. Government) disposition. A

colourless landscape that appears to show two women being pursued

collection of the highest character will in consequence be exhibited,

by a man with a rope noose. All the Gay and Golden Weather is an

instead of the crudities of unknown hands.” 5 While Homer’s

engraving produced in 1869 that shows distance and eroded

painting, Prisoners from the Front bears a striking resemblance to

communications between couples. Apparently Homer had little faith in

Courbet’s Bonjour Monsieur Courbet with a foreground group

the institution of marriage.

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— Winslow Homer —

Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast and Gulls, 1869. Oil on canvas, 41.3 x 71.4 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, bequest of Grenville H. Norcross.


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Winslow Homer, Summer Storm, 1904. Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 76.9 cm. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.


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— Winslow Homer —

Winslow Homer, Watching the Brakers, 1891. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.


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Winslow Homer, Moonlight, 1874. Watercolour and gouache on paper, 35.6 x 50.8 cm. The Arkell Museum, Canajoharie, New York.


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However, during the 1870s some of the homosexual suspicions were

swap ideas and plan outings to paint. Its membership included such

dispelled by an apparent romance that brewed up between Homer

notables as William Merritt Chase, Augustus Saint Gaudens and Arthur

and a young amateur artist, Helena de Kay. The relationship began

Quartley. Homer endured the nickname ‘The Obtuse Bard’.

shortly after he returned from his two-year sojourn in Paris. She was a student at the Women’s Art School at the Cooper Union in New

With a possible eye on the success of Eastman Johnson, during the

York. He likely made her acquaintance through her brother Charles,

1870s Winslow Homer plunged into a series of genre paintings,

who occupied Homer’s studio during the artist’s Paris trip. When they

choosing, like Johnson, to observe the ordinary lives of common

met is not clear, but he painted The Bridle Path in 1868 and the

people. He granted elegance to the most basic of pursuits.

resemblance between the rider and Helena is striking and was

Considering the level of his skills, this choice of less than uplifting

recognised by several friends.

subjects confounded both his champions and critics. In 1872, his painting Snap the Whip was displayed in the 1876 Centennial

Seven letters written by Homer to Helena exist and they indicate more

Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It shows a line of shabbily

than a passing interest or platonic friendship: “Miss Helena, if you would

dressed boys playing a game, running and tumbling at full speed in

like to see a large drawing on wood, and will come to my studio on

an open field. Behind them are an equally shabby barn and a

Monday or Tuesday, I shall have a chance to see you. Why can’t you

diagonal horizon of two intersecting hills that complements the

make some designs and let me send them to Harpers for you, they will

diminishing line of boys as they run across the width of the painting.

gladly take anything fresh. And I will see that you draw them on the

Author and social critic Henry James wrote of Homer: “We frankly

block all right.”

confess that we detest his subjects... he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilisation; he has resolutely treated

Sadly, the “Come up and see my block of wood” ploy failed to work and

them as if they were pictorial... and, to reward his audacity, he has

Miss Helena demurred. Winslow’s letters then took on a really needy

incontestably succeeded.”

tone, but all to no avail: “Dear Miss Helena, You know you were to let me know when it would be agreeable for me to call at your studio.

It was also in the 1870s that Homer took up watercolours seriously and

Having no word from you I suppose you have made other

for the rest of his days rarely went into the field without his water-based

arrangements.” Still later, his note became an entreaty, “My work this

paints and brushes. He explored the games and pensive moments of

winter will be good or very bad. The good work will depend on your

children and young women, perfecting his watercolour technique for

coming to see me once a month – at least – Is this asking too much? Truly

what would later become his signature works in the medium.

yours, Winslow Homer.”


Today, through the use of x-rays, the fluorescence spectrometer, infrared But the lady wanted nothing to do with him, so the door clanged shut

micro spectrophotometer and the Raman laser microscope, a team at the

on future amorous pursuits and he retreated to the disreputable

Chicago Art Institute has revealed the secrets of Homer’s seemingly

collection of the finest illustrators in New York, the Tile Club, and

casual approach to watercolour. The medium does not usually allow

wallowed in manly camaraderie. The club met frequently to debate art,

many changes once committed to the paper, but Homer planned his


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paintings very carefully, drawing every feature in pencil before adding

‘Carmine Red’. It is made of the dried crushed husks of the cochineal

colour. Even after the colour was on the page, he used sandpaper to

bug that lives in colonies on the pads of prickly pear cacti and is

create hazy skies and fog effects. A sharp knife blade scraped away

cultivated in Mexico and India. It must be mixed with tin oxide to

pigment to reduce intensity and a wet brush applied to already dried

become permanent in fibres. Another was ‘Indian Yellow’, actually

pigment created foam on waves and surf at the shore.

created from magnesium euxanthate – the magnesium salt of euxanthic acid, which is the chemical name for the urine of cows that

Watercolour is subject to fading over the years and some of his

have been fed mangoes.7

paintings have lost degrees of colour where the originals held tints of sunset orange that added to the overall atmosphere and fading blues

He did not baulk at making changes in compositions to enhance the

have been replaced by bald skies. Some of this fading is due to the use

story. In the painting After the Hurricane, which shows a man

of ‘fugitive’ pigments. Many artists have been guilty of seeing the

stretched out on the beach amid the wreckage of his small boat,

immediate effect of a colour without a thought about its longevity.

Homer’s original concept had the man’s outstretched arm in the air.

Homer employed some colours that, over time, have shifted drastically

X-rays show he overdrew that idea, laying the arm on the sand

from the original, or have disappeared altogether. Among these are a

and leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether the man was

colour discovered in antiquity by the ancient Romans and Aztecs called

dead or not.8

Winslow Homer, Two Figures by the Sea, 1882. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 88.9 cm. Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado.


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— Winslow Homer —

Winslow Homer was a meticulous planner when executing his paintings,

Did his thwarted relationship with Helena de Kay drive a nail into his

but watercolours held another appeal to his creativity. He could work more

further dealings with women – except as observed for a sketch – as

quickly and increase his production, thereby adding to his income. He also

subjects? Is that the reason many of his later portraits of young women

keenly observed the work of other artists, especially after his trip to Paris

show pensive, unsure, sad faces? Most women are painted alone or with

and exposure to the upstart French Impressionists. His palette lightened

another woman – but almost never with a man. Does this alienation from

considerably and he became one of America’s first ‘modernist’ painters.

women – according to Allston’s teachings – represent a ‘secondary’ subject showing through the ‘primary’ image?

Another curious fact has arisen lately concerning this 1870s-80s period of his genre painting. The watercolour Reading, done in 1874 of a fair-

Homer decided to leave for the British Isles in 1881. He visited the British

haired girl in a dress stretched out the full length of the picture reading a

Museum and studied the Elgin Marbles stolen from the Greek

book is in fact a boy hired by Homer to play the part of a girl. This

Parthenon. He pondered the romanticism of Pre-Raphaelite painters

discovery led to similar instances where Winslow Homer substituted boy

such as Edward Burne-Jones and from these studies changed his style to

models for girls. Of course this returns to the matter of his sexual

more painterly, dramatic images. He had accumulated all the tools he

orientation, or did he just feel more comfortable negotiating rates with a

needed over the years and now shut off his previous society and

boy than a girl?

locked himself into his work. He settled in the coastal fishing village of

Winslow Homer, Rocky Coast, 1883-1900. Oil on canvas, 35.6 x 86.9 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.


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Cullercoats in Northumberland on the North Sea where the River Tyne

became the club house. He painted the men, the forest and the women

empties its currents.

who ran most of the local boarding houses and camps. He also travelled up into Canada for similar subject matter.

On these shores he documented the fishermen’s daily struggles with the sea and devoured the bleak vistas and salt-scoured rocky coves, the deep

The wilderness seemed to have a calming effect on Homer. His cronies in

rolling combers of the pitiless North Sea. His study of Japanese prints in

New York would not have recognised their hail-fellow-well-met carouser

the 1860s now offered up unusual compositions that placed man at the

with a short fuse. Among the woodsmen and Adirondack residents he

mercy of the elements. He sought out the families of the fishermen and

was quiet, shy, and capable in woodcraft. He painted images of them and

their hard life, waiting on the beach as their men searched for the great

listened to their stories.

living shoals of fish. He shared their adventures and eventually moved among them as an What he found at the edge of the North Sea he brought home with him

equal rather than a tourist. The bitter recluse, often reported by people

in 1882 when he moved to a house in Prout’s Neck, Maine, a tide-blasted

who visited his Prout’s Neck home and studio unannounced or seeking

promontory that thrusts out into the Atlantic. There, he continued to

interview, vanished in the great forest.9

explore with his watercolours, sketchbooks and oils. Finally, at the age of seventy-four he visited the North Woods Club in June Homer’s admiration for the men who went to sea is obvious in his

1910. Knowing he was mortally ill, he wanted to experience the serenity

watercolours of their harrowing occupation and the skills needed to

and power of the unspoiled wilderness one last time. He was attended by

survive out on the Grand Banks.

his friend and live-in servant, an African-American named Lewis Wright who had lived with Homer since 1895. They stayed for ten days and then

When winter arrived, Homer departed to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas

returned to his old rambling house at Prout’s Neck in Scarborough, Maine.

to paint the native fishermen in their small boats. During these trips, he

His visits to the Adirondack woods had resulted in some well-designed

often was accompanied by his father. Besides the sea, the outdoors

magazine illustrations, fourteen oil paintings and roughly one hundred

attracted his attention. He loved roughing it in the woods and found

watercolours. He worked with his watercolours right up to the end

pleasure in the company of trappers and other woodsmen who spent

because he wanted no unfinished work left behind to be ‘completed’ by

their lives in direct contact with nature.

some hack with his, Homer’s, name on it. On 29 September, 1910, he died with one painting still on his easel. Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River


Often, he made summer trips up to Essex County, New York and what

remains unfinished. He was laid to rest at Mount Auburn Cemetery in

appeared to be a boarding house in a clearing deep in the woods. This

Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had achieved fame and success in his

was the North Woods Club of which he became a member in the 1880s.

lifetime by his own efforts. He was largely self-taught and spoke a

Many members built cottages on the property and the hearty life coupled

language with his oils and watercolours that still resonates with modern

with rough and sturdy men appealed to Homer. He spent much time

viewers. He was a complex and very private man who drained life to the

tramping about the Adirondacks, fishing, hunting, and relaxing in what

bottom of the cup – and up-ended the cup when he was finished.

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Winslow Homer, Coast in Winter, 1892. Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 122.6 cm. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.


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Thomas Eakins, The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull), 1871. Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 117.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, the Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Fund and George D. Pratt gift.


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thomas eakins (1844-1916) Thomas Eakins was a brilliant artist, but a failed human being. He

Though he started out following his father into calligraphy and becoming

brought the realism skills of the European salon painter to the

a ‘writing master’, his studies in anatomy had motivated him towards

American scene, but left behind the scattered detritus of a rather cruel

medicine and surgery. The quality of his drawing, however, earned him a

and sordid lifestyle. He had a gift for technique and capturing emotion

trip to Paris to join the classes of the classic salon academician and

on canvas, but some of the emotions he captured were the result of

‘Orientalist’ painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme.

his reclusive and demanding personality. On the one hand, his contemporary cronies and colleagues thought him a fine fellow, if a bit

A superb technician, Gérôme was one of three painters allowed by the

overbearing and driven. The personal side of his relationships with

Emperor Napoleon to open a Paris atelier with sixteen selected students

women and relatives and many of the people he painted was littered

under the reorganised École de Paris in 1864. At that time, in order to

with sorrow, suicides and madness. Despite the dualism of his nature,

exhibit at the salons where patrons made their purchases, membership of

he emerges as one of the most influential and important American

either the École or Salon de Paris was mandatory. Gérôme was an

Realist artists of his era.

‘historical genre’ painter given to the romance of historical anecdotal works and costumed models that were more mannequins for the

Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (pronounced “Ache-ins”) was born on 25

costumes and props than character studies. The fold of a silk dressing

July 1844 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which eventually became his sole

gown on a bare-breasted young lady, or the realistic curl of smoke from

base of operations. He was a painter, photographer and sculptor. His

an exotic hookah pipe, were as prized for commercial success as the

parents were his Dutch-English mother, Caroline Cowperthwait and

emotional content of the picture’s theme. The training in these effects as

Benjamin Eakins of Scots-Irish ancestry. His father was the son of a

well as the chemical properties of the paints and endless drawing from

weaver and took up calligraphy and the art of fine copperplate writing.

plaster casts was rigorous.

He moved from Valley Forge to Philadelphia to pursue that trade. Thomas was their first child and by the age of twelve he admired the exactitude

Eakins eventually moved on to the atelier of Léon Bonnat, whose pupils also

and precision required to produce calligraphic script and printing. This

included Gustave Caillebotte, Georges Braque, Aloysius O’Kelly, and Henri de

early exposure to careful planning and diagramming images stayed with

Toulouse-Lautrec. Bonnat had a love for the anatomical precision of da Vinci

him and became an important part of his creative method.

and Ingres, which resulted in works of exceptional craft and technique, but lacking in imagination. Eakins made the most of his own anatomical studies in

His love of the physical sports he later painted, rowing, ice skating,

Bonnat’s classes. His Paris schooling also included classes at L’École des Beaux-

swimming, wrestling, sailing, and gymnastics also began in his youth.

Arts, which having had its ties to the French government cut in 1863 offered

His academic life started in Philadelphia’s Central High School, the

painting, sculpture and architecture to a broad, more diverse cross-section of

finest school in the area for applied sciences and both practical and fine

artists. Some of those who had classes there included Géricault, Degas,

art. Eakins maintained his consistency by settling into mechanical

Delacroix, Fragonard, Ingres, Monet, Moreau, Renoir, Seurat and Sisley.

drawing. In his late teens, he shifted to the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts to study drawing and anatomy and then expanded his

Eakins chose to ignore the radical Impressionists, but he also turned away

anatomical studies at the Jefferson Medical College from 1864-65.

from the ponderous French academicians such as Gérôme and Bonnat.

Thomas Eakins, Starting Out After Rail, 1874. Oil on canvas, 61.6 x 50.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, The Hayden Collection – Charles Henry Hayden Fund. Thomas Eakins, John Biglin in a Single Scull, c. 1873-1874. Oil on canvas, 61.9 x 40.6 cm. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.


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In a letter to his father in 1868 that predicted some of his future

has much improved, and to show, I’ll make a point never to look hereafter

difficulties, he wrote:

on American Art except with disdain.”11

“She [the female nude] is the most beautiful thing there is in the world except a naked man, but I never yet saw a study of one

Having already dismissed the Impressionists Monet, Degas, Seurat and

exhibited... It would be a godsend to see a fine man model painted

Renoir and the growing ‘modern’ movement, all that were left were the

in the studio with the bare walls, alongside of the smiling smirking

academicians: Gustave Doré, Ernest Messonier, Thomas Couture and his

goddesses of waxy complexion amidst the delicious arsenic green

teachers, Gérôme and Bonnat. From them he had amassed an impressive

trees and gentle wax flowers & purling streams running melodious

arsenal of flashy techniques and a definite aversion to their commercial

up and down the hills, especially up. I hate affectation.”

success with historic and romantic anecdotes. Style wise, he had gleaned


from Velázquez a love of the Baroque. Truth and beauty – in the form of the nude – became almost inseparable to him as he learned to render flesh and anatomy with great precision.

This seventeenth-century art form had dealt primarily with religious

This proclivity for wedding the two concepts raised its head a number of

works, but populist paintings using ordinary people – much like the

times in socially unacceptable (in nineteenth-century terms) events during

Russian icons showing plain villagers engaging in traditional religious

his career.

ceremonies – appeared from the likes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Diego Velázquez. Eakins might have seen Dinner at

From Paris, he travelled to Germany, Switzerland and Italy, ending up in

Emmaus at the Prado, which shows a serving girl gathering dishware that

Spain to study the realism of Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera in the

would be used in Christ’s Last Supper. The artist’s choice of painting a

Prado. While there he tried his hand at a large canvas, A Street Scene

serving girl instead of the gathering disciples in the next room carries the

in Seville. The painting of three street performers displays at once

ring of truth and brings the ordinary person closer to the religious event.

Eakins’ independence of mind by depicting two of the performers

Velázquez’ use of chiaroscuro and the window light touching the girl’s

playing the horn and drum sitting in the shade of a scarred stucco wall

cap, pots and jugs strengthens the realism and reinforces the populist

while the young girl dancer stands forward in the sun on the brick

inclusion. This Baroque interpretation tapped into a trend showing up in

street. The sun strikes her white dress and barely glances off her

American art that Eakins discovered when he packed his bags and

accompanists. His use of light and shadow gives the picture a captured

returned in July 1870. But in Eakins’ hands, the Baroque of the

immediacy of a quick photographic visualisation – another prediction of

seventeenth century and fidelity to the observed or imagined scene

things to come.

created by Velázquez would take on a definite American character. “I shall seek to achieve my broad effect from the very beginning,”

His tour of Europe and subsequent studies seemed to fix his artist style in

he declared.12

amber as he tossed aside the works of the Old Masters in a letter to his


sister Frances: “I went next to see the picture galleries. There must have

Eakins retuned to Philadelphia and opened a studio on Mount Vernon

been half a mile of them, and I walked all the way from one end to the

Street. The location was only a short distance from the three-storey brick

other, and I never in my life saw such funny old pictures. I’m sure my taste

home his father had built at 1729 Mount Vernon Street, a tall narrow, deep

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Thomas Eakins, The Swimming Hole, c. 1884-1885. Oil on canvas, 69.8 x 92.7 cm. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.


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building that housed a warren of rooms and curiously-placed stairways that

Hemingway once said of his craft, “What you leave out is as important

became symbolic of the lives that were lived out beneath its roof. Allowing

as what goes on the page.”

for brief sojourns, the structure became his anchor, refuge and claustrophobic dominion for the rest of his life. The house had a constantly

A watercolour titled The Sculler became his first sale in 1874 and critics who

shifting population including friends, cousins, nieces and nephews, wives

saw his assembled rowers were unanimous in their praise. His friend and

and husbands, servants and babies. The world was kept out behind closed

fellow painter Earl Shinn introduced Eakins to the public in the magazine

shutters summer and winter. Heat came from fireplaces and there was no

Nation in 1874 when he wrote: “Some remarkably original and studious

plumbing, so water for all uses had to come from a hand pump in the back

boating scenes were shown by Thomas Eakins, a new exhibitor, of whom we

yard. Walls were painted in dark chocolate shades and decoration followed

learn that he is a realist, an anatomist and mathematician; that his perspectives,

the usual chaotic Victorian pattern of overstuffed pieces, drapes and

even of waves and ripples, are protracted according to strict science....”

brasses needing a good polish. The air was musty, warm and rank with the smells of bodies, bedclothes, cooking, gas from lighting fixtures, wood ash

That same year also heralded his engagement to Katherin Crowell, the

and the lingering piquant scent from under-bed porcelain ‘thunder-jugs’

sister of Will Crowell, who was married to Eakins’ sister, Frances. The

used in the night rather than make a trip over cold floors to the privy. Add

‘engagement’ lasted from 1874 to 1879 and Eakins felt no obligation to

to this a small zoo of animals: Bobby the monkey, dogs and at least one

consummate the relationship. It is suggested that the young woman was

cat, all scampering and thrashing up and down stairs, in and out of rooms

pressed upon him by his father, the family patriarch. In any case, she died

with their human internee counterparts.

of meningitis in 1879 leaving Eakins free to select and marry an up-and-


coming artist, Susan McDowell, in 1884.14 She eventually gave up her art Eakins began his assault on fame right away with his painting Max

career to clean house for Eakins and the live-in menagerie. His idea of

Schmitt on a Single Scull – a man bare to the waist sitting at the oars in

marriage, it turned out, was not a love match, but the need for a healthy

long narrow racing scull boat on a bend of the Schuylkill River. He looks

woman to breed and bear his children.

back at the viewer as though a photographer had just hollered across, “Smile!” He is down river from a Roman-style stone-arched lift-bridge.

The year following his engagement to Katherin Crowell, he painted the

Sports intrigued the artist and he went on to explore rowing with a series

work that is today considered the pinnacle of his career, The Gross Clinic.

of paintings on the subject. True to his academic roots, Eakins produced

It is a large oil showing the removal of a dead piece of bone from an

a number of perspective plans, studies and sketches prior to execution of

anaesthetised man by a number of doctors in dark suits with blood on

the oil. The final picture had the feeling of not being seen as a piece, but

their white shirt cuffs in the operating theatre presided over by Doctor

assembled from many different observations. This practice became an

Samuel Gross. In the background, the wife of the man under the knife

immutable standard. He went beyond the empty detail-saturated

cowers in horror with her face away from the action and her hands in

decorations of the academic realists to the application of their skills plus

claw-like reaction. By today’s standards it is a mild enough scene, but in

his own knowledge derived from meticulous observation. In exercising

Victorian Philadelphia, those red gobbets of blood on the surgeon’s

this conglomeration of observations and details, he did what good

fingers and the scalpel blade caused revulsion. Dr. Gross, a dignified

writers attempt – he edited out what was unimportant. As Ernest

gentleman, is spotlighted with a deeply shaded face, his glowing dome

Thomas Eakins, Between Rounds, c. 1898-1899. Oil on canvas, 127.3 x 101.3 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gift of Mrs. Thomas Eakins and Miss Mary Adeline Williams.


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of a forehead surrounded by a frizz of unruly grey hair, his mouth an

Photographs allowed Eakins to continue his practice of assembling a painting

unfeeling slit dragged down at the corners. Today, the painting is riveting

from many different sketches and studies, but with greater precision due to

and dynamic as well as heaped with Freudian pronouncements

the photo’s detail. From his collection of more than 800 photos, many were

concerning Eakins and his relationship with his domineering father. In

used to add elements to paintings by tracing the captured action and

1875, nobody wanted the thing, but it finally sold for $200. Society

transferring the pencil tracing on see-through paper with a rubbing on the

retreated from the artist as a wave draws back into the sea.

paper’s opposite side. His photographing of nude figures in his classroom was usually done in the presence of a chaperone if young women were involved.

Following the cool reception of The Gross Clinic, Eakins entered the

He photographed his wife and his nieces who frequently scurried about the

Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as a teacher. He rose to the position of

house naked and continually pestered female relatives to undress and pose.

salaried professor in 1878 and was named a director in 1882. To his students

No other artist of his time made such a broad use of photography in his work

he brought refreshing if controversial teaching methods. Harking back to his

and studies. Their constant display in his classroom probably had something

own rigorous academic studies, he banned sketching from dusty antique

to do with his later difficulties with the Philadelphia Academy.15

casts – the standard of the time – and following a brief introduction to charcoal sketching, his students plunged directly into painting in colour.

This broad-based acceptance extended to the students accepted for his

At this time, he introduced photography as an artist’s aid.

training. He did not distinguish between fine art and practical arts. He welcomed illustrators, lithographers, decorators and other applied

Photography had arrived from M. Daguerre in France about the same

artists as long as they took their work seriously. This ‘serious’ approach

time Eakins was born. By the 1880s, it had been refined from a slow

to art included joining in his appreciation of the nude figure. His classes

chemical-optical nightmare into a common hobby and documentation

included both male and female students and they viewed a constant

tool. Thanks to Richard Leach Maddox, photographs were made on a

parade of nude models in this era when a glimpse of a female ankle

dry glass plate coated with silver bromide suspended in gelatin –

was considered scandalous. Eakins also delighted in leading his male

negatives were no longer made on freshly coated wet plates that had

students out to remote locations where everyone disrobed – including

to be developed immediately after exposure. This development

Eakins – and cavorted in sports and games or simple contemplation

allowed for portable full (20.3 x 25.4 centimetres), half (12.7 x 17.8

while sketches or photographs were made for future reference.

centimetres) and quarter (10.2 x 12.7 centimetres) plate cameras to be used by anyone. Film was exposed in plate holders by the lens and

In one instance, he talked a sixteen-year-old boy into climbing up to the

shutter to be developed later in a darkroom lit by a dim ruby-red

Eakins’ house rooftop and posing nude, save for a loincloth, on a cross

lamp. Eakins obtained his first camera and took his first photograph

for the painting Crucifixion. In this work, Eakins managed to show the

in 1880. He also discovered the photographic motion studies of

event, a young man dying in the sun, minus any religious overtones. The

Edward Muybridge. Using multiple cameras firing in sequence, the

neighbours were sure the body was a corpse.16

flying legs of a galloping horse or the muscular arc of a pole-vaulting man were studied to see how the anatomy functioned. Eakins was

Eakins managed to accumulate a large collection of nude photographs

enthralled and began using photos in his work and his classes.

of men and women featuring full frontal nudity. In his portraits of his

Thomas Eakins, Taking the Count, 1898. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.


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Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic, 1889. Oil on canvas. 214 x 300 cm. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875. Oil on canvas, 243.8 x 198.1 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


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female relatives he was almost always at them to pose naked or to shed

Ranch in Little Missouri Territory of the Badlands. In the wide-open

some of their layers of clothing. This nagging often went on during the

spaces, he thrived.

painting session and accounts for the wearisome expression on the faces of many of his female sitters. Sometimes the portraits were rejected or

Eakins scholar Elizabeth Johns, PhD writes of his stay: “So he was at a

taken home and put in a cupboard.

very low ebb when he came out here. And I think what this experience


gave him was a vital contrast to the constricting landscape of Never the prude and always willing to help, when a female student, Amelia

Philadelphia. This was a sanctuary that he would remember. A largeness

Van Buren, requested some instruction as of the movement of the pelvis,

of the physical universe. A hardiness of the characters that made their

Eakins promptly dropped his trousers to show her how his pelvis moved: “I

living on this soil that would inspire him the rest of his life.”19

gave her the explanation as I could not have done by words only.”18 His enthusiasm for the rugged life and its restorative powers come This parade of naked people through his life, work and teaching

through a letter to his wife, Susan: “Dear Sue, Only last fall a horse thief

culminated in his casual act of whipping away the loincloth from a male

was shot full of holes a few miles north of here and fall before last they

model in his class in front of attending female students. This rude

hung one... While I was holding down the ranch I had all the chores to

demonstration, plus a litany of accumulated complaints from students

do: milking the cows, cleaning the stables, watering and feeding stock,

and faculty, got him fired from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

etc. On the second day the twin calves broke out of the stable. I tried to

He was devastated. Some of his loyal students quit the academy as well

shoo them in but they wouldn’t go. Then I ran into the stable and picked

and created the Art Students League of Philadelphia where he did some

up the first rope I saw and made a loop and tried to catch one. The rope

instructing, but a great depression swept over him. At home, a

was too short and mean and I couldn’t get them so then I went and got

collection of his relatives rose up against him as well. A student, Lillian

my good lariat... I chased them up and down throwing at them for about

Hammitt, who claimed she was his wife, was hauled away to a mental

an hour till I was so hot and mad I should have enjoyed branding those

institution in 1888. His mother had died in 1872 of a consuming mania

same calves... The boys had a good laugh when they heard how I had

and later, another young lady, Eakins’ repressed niece, Ella Crowell at

tried to rope the calves afoot. They got on their horses and caught them

the age of twenty-three blew her head off with a shotgun. Family

right away. I killed a big rattlesnake the other day and will bring home the

members all pointed at Eakins because of his surly attitude and often

rattle for Ella. My horse is the fastest of all those on the ranch... The time

eccentric habits. Because of a lack of primary resource material – Eakins

is more than half gone now. How happy I shall be to see you again.”

wrote very few letters in his lifetime and kept no diaries – all accusations are speculation or second-hand declarations. Eakins

His rehabilitation lasted from July to October 1887 when he returned to

refused to even display his growing number of unsold paintings,

Philadelphia. He and his wife had been staying in a small flat near the

keeping them stacked against the wall of his studio.

Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and now moved into his father’s house where he ultimately became the patriarch following Benjamin Eakins’

On the recommendation of Dr Horatio C. Wood, a professor of nervous

death. To accommodate his work, he added a fourth floor to the building

diseases, Thomas Eakins fled to North Dakota and lived on the B-T

in the form of a faux Mansard roof and there he remained for the rest of

Thomas Eakins, Self-Portrait, 1902. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. National Academy Museum, New York, New York.


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his life. On his return, he produced a portrait of Walt Whitman, which the

Institute. But during this time he was also fired from the Drexel Institute

elderly poet favoured above all the previous attempts. Eakins would make

for once again parading a nude male model in front of female students

many trips to Whitman’s home over the next years. Their friendship lasted

during a lecture. In 1896, he received his only one-man show at the

until Whitman’s death in 1892.

Philadelphia Museum of Art and in 1902 he was elected an Academician of the National Academy of Design.

His one sortie into sculpture came in 1891 when he collaborated with his sculptor friend William Rudolf O’Donovan in the creation of bronze

By 1910 both his eyesight and health were on the decline. In his final

equestrian reliefs of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln for the Soldiers’

years, he rarely left the house on Mount Vernon Street with its

and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza. O’Donovan

wearying collection of family tenants, assorted animals and hangers-on.

sculpted the two human figures while Eakins created the horses.20

With his good friend Samuel Murray – and not his wife, Susan, from whom he had become estranged – holding his hand, he died on 25

His teaching continued at various venues including: the Art Students

June 1916 from, it is surmised, the gradual accumulation of

League in New York City, the National Academy of Design, the

formaldehyde in his system. This preservative was used in milk to avoid

Women’s Art School at New York’s Cooper Union, and the Art Students’

spoilage in those days of erratic refrigeration and Eakins drank a quart

Guild in Washington D.C. By 1898, he withdrew from teaching to

of milk every day at dinner.

concentrate on his portraiture. The love-hate relationship with the evolving art world continued after his As before, his portraiture, especially of women, while some writers call it

death. In 1917 both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the

“revealing”, is for the most part bleak and distracted. Even the men came

Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art hung his work in memorial

off as cold and distant. Their clothing always seemed to need a good

retrospectives. Still later a number of biographies surfaced that

ironing. In fact, he often asked his sitters to pose in old clothes rather

emphasised the quality of his work over his rather sordid lifestyle and its

than their finery. This is a contemporary view, but considering the portrait

obsessions and homoerotic fixations. The value of his work was

standard of the time where the client was considered a patron as well as

significantly elevated and his personal relationships idealised.

an object and treated with kindly flattery – whether deserved or not – Eakins’ images did not please many of his sitters.

In 1984, a large collection of Eakins’ papers came to light. They had been hidden by one of his pupils, Charles Bregler, after the artist’s

Though he carried a disreputable taint, honours came his way: The

death in 1916 and they re-emerged in the possession of his widow

Chicago Exposition of 1893 awarded him a gold medal. He received

Mary in 1958 following his death at the age of ninety-three. Since

other medals from the Universal Exposition in St Louis, a bronze medal

then, a more balanced look at Thomas Eakins’ life has been possible.21

from the Exposition Universal in Paris, the Proctor Prize from the National

No one can take away the value of his work in the tradition of

Academy of Design, the Temple Gold Medal awarded by the

American Realism. Understanding his numerous frailties, however,

Pennsylvania Academy, a gold medal from the American Art Society of

adds a dimension to appreciating what survives on canvas and in

Philadelphia and the Second Class Medal presented by the Carnegie

photographic prints.

Thomas Eakins, Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881. Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 82.5 cm. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund.


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William Michael harnett (1848-1892) In 1886, United States Treasury agents accompanied by New York City

artist lasted only sixteen years from 1876 to 1892. In that time, he

police bustled into one of the saloons owned by Theodore Stewart and

managed to produce about five hundred paintings, many of which have

demanded a painting be removed by order of the Federal Court. The

been lost; an even greater number have been forged and some

painting was titled Still-life – Five Dollar Bill and the officers peered

achieved major recognition in collections around the world. Over that

closely at it shaking their heads. They declared the confiscated work to

period of sixteen years he was either ignored, or excoriated by the art

be a counterfeit and removed it from the premises. Shortly thereafter,

critics and taste-makers. He won no medals and received no prize

Federal Secret Service agents rapped on the door of the artist, a wan,

awards from prestigious New York or Philadelphia academies. Only

thin, moustachioed man named William Michael Harnett and informed

after his untimely death at the age of forty-four were his paintings held

him he was under arrest for counterfeiting U.S. currency. The agents also

up as examples of excellence – and then only for a short time – until

confiscated other money paintings in the cluttered cell of a studio.

Impressionists from Europe waded ashore and he slipped from the

Eventually, Harnett faced a federal judge, who, after examining the

scene for almost fifty years of obscurity.

paintings closely through his pince-nez, told the artist: “The development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not

Harnett was actually upholding a tradition in the United States begun in

be encouraged.”

the eighteenth century with miniature painters and ‘Illusionists’ by the likes of Raphaelle Peale, his brother Rembrandt and his father Charles

The young man was released with a warning and the paintings were

Wilson Peale. They called their work ‘deceptions’. One of their most

returned. Harnett never painted money again and died four years later,

famous collaborations is titled Catalogue for the Use of the Room, a

almost universally recognised as America’s finest still-life painter.

Deception (1817). This painting by Charles Wilson Peale shows full-length


portraits of Raphaelle and Titan Ramsey Peale mounting a flight of stairs This painting that created such a turmoil was a prime example of the

framed by a real doorway and step.

excruciating detail Harnett created when rendering ordinary objects to a degree of accuracy that people felt the need to reach out and touch

The Peales in their time were cast in the same mould as ‘mechanics’

the painting’s surface. Some viewers of Still-life – Five Dollar Bill tried to

who slavishly copied nature without bringing a moral uplift or

peel the bill off the wood tabletop with their fingernails until it was

dramatic statement to the subject. These ‘Illusionists’ with their

hung out of reach. The lines of the engraving tools are shown as are

‘deceptions’ fell into the pit of ‘marginalisation.’ Still-life painting was

the slightly rolled edges of the tears caused by wear. As the wrinkles in

considered the lowest rank in the classifications established by the

the paper’s surface rise and fall, so does the image giving the illusion

academies back in the eighteenth century. In his essay, “Sordid

that there is actually space between the bill and the grainy wood

Mechanics” and “Monkey Talents” – The Illusionistic Tradition, Nicolai

surface. The signatures, the tiny writing and age-worn seals; everything

Cikovsky Jr writes:

is there giving a power to that crumpled slip of paper money it never

“Marginality was arguably the most essential and distinctive

had in reality.

condition of the production of trompe-l’œil painting….what illusionistic painters had most in common was not only their

By 1886, William Harnett had built up a considerable reputation as a

language of style, but their marginal artistic existence: the

trompe-l’œil, or ‘fool the eye’, painter. Sadly, his active career as an

loneliness, alienation, and poverty that were the social, artistic

William Michael Harnett, The Artist’s Letter Rack, 1879. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Morris K. Jessup Fund.


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and economic costs of the undertaking of illusionistic still-life

in Victorian Ireland that the older brother followed father into the

painting. The recurrence of those conditions from Raphaelle Peale

business and the younger brother got the education. The daughters

to Harnett was, perhaps, the truest tradition of illusionism.”23

worked for their dowries so they would have some value when married off; but that was in the Old Country. In 1849, the Harnetts packed up and

Raphaelle Peale started out as a portrait artist, but achieved little

emigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

patronage in Philadelphia. He tried cutting profiles with a patented ‘physiognotrace’ machine, but his reduction in circumstances sent him

A natural talent for drawing must have been revealed in his formative

into alcoholism, delirium tremens and crippling gout that put him on

years because in 1866 he entered the antique class at the Philadelphia

crutches. He eventually turned to still-lifes, which at that time were

Academy of Fine Arts. There, he laboured over drawing from casts,

considered fodder fit only for amateurs. Regardless, his work was

graduating from sketching bits of the human body up to the full body

displayed at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts from 1814 to 1818.

casts that were required before entering the still-life classes. In 1864 his

Peale’s bad habits plus arsenic and mercury poisoning from helping out

father had drowned in the Delaware River and Harnett had to work and

with taxidermy exhibits in his father’s museum added to a night of heavy

support his mother and siblings while going to school. Demonstrating

drinking, finally killed him on 25 March 1825.

his drawing skills, he was able to apprentice himself to the engraving trade, a practical application of his skills. As an apprentice, he began

The same prejudice against still-life painting in general and the rigours of

with wood, graduated to copper and steel, and was finally promoted to

illusionism in particular dogged William Harnett as well as causing

engraving silver flatware. At the age of twenty he moved to New York

myopia from that close work under flickering gaslight. He was crippled

in 1869 and worked for the firms Tiffany & Company and Wood &

from rheumatism while working over the cramped details in an often

Hughes scribing monograms. It was at the latter firm where he met his

chilly room when he could not afford to heat it. His clothes were clean

lifelong friend William Ignatius Blemly. During their acquaintance,

but ‘antique’ in cut.

Harnett presented a number of engraved gifts to Blemly that have survived to reveal his gift for skilfully incorporating the decorative motifs

Yet, he produced this incredible bounty of work and scholars have filled

of the time with his burin onto everyday objects such as matchboxes and

books with psychological interpretations and picked over into fragments

napkin rings.

what little documentation of his life exists. His genius is apparent once cut free from the Victorian imposition of romantic values and

Engraving is a nervous, highly controlled art form. A slip with the steel

motivations. Buried in those myriad of details and textures lies his own

tool on the mirror surface of sterling silver cannot be erased or painted

poetry. For eighteen years, it rang in his ears only.

over. Success demands an artisan-craftsman frame of mind to initiate the cut, vary the depth and conclude the line in a single modulated stroke. It


William Michael Harnett was born on 10 August 1848 in Clonakilty,

is also a tedious art form if the design must be repetitiously applied, as it

County Cork, Ireland to William Harnett, a shoemaker, and Honora

was with silver eating utensils. Another factor was the design, which

(known as “Hannah”) Holland, a seamstress, He had an older brother,

might have come from a supplied template rather than his own

Patrick, who also became a shoemaker, and two younger sisters, Anne

imagination. To extend his creativity, Harnett began studying painting at

and Ella, who followed their mother into the seamstress trade. So it was

New York’s Cooper Union Institute and the New York Academy of Design

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William Michael Harnett, Job Lot Cheap, 1878. Oil on canvas, 45.7 x 91.4 cm. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. William Michael Harnett, After the Hunt, 1885. Oil on canvas, 181.6 x 123.2 cm. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, Mildred Anna Williams Collection. William Michael Harnett, After the Hunt, 1883. Oil on canvas, 133.3 x 91.4 cm. Colombus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio, bequest of Francis C. Sessions.


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at night. After a day at his engraver’s bench, the painting classes must have seemed relaxing. The class structure at the National Academy allowed Harnett to progress rapidly straight to sketching advanced sculptures. His chalk and charcoal drawing, Borghese Warrior, demonstrates a gift for observation and an appreciation of the mechanics of anatomy. His use of light shows modulation from upper left to lower right as the single high light source diminishes across the diagonal composition. Another motivation to shift over to paint and brush was the advance of technology in the engraving trade. Electroplating, invented in the 1840s, allowed an industrial approach to what had been a hand-executed artisan craft. The assembly line was replacing the artist’s bench. In 1874 Harnett painted his first oil painting – which he was able to sell – of a stilllife with a paint tube and grapes. The painting is hardly a world beater, but it tapped into a market that had greater promise than the diminishing demand for his engraving skills. The painting also marked an advance beyond the studies offered at the National Academy. It was the practice at that time to offer painting to only the most advanced students. Part-timers like Harnett had to find painting lessons in the atelier of a full time professional artist. He wrote of his frustrations with this arrangement: “I ventured to take a course of lessons from Thomas Jensen, who was at that time a famous painter of portraits. I paid him in advance and intended to finish the course, but I couldn’t do it. He didn’t exactly say I would never learn to paint, but he didn’t offer me any encouragement. After I had studied with him for ten days, I asked him how a certain fault of mine could be corrected. I shall never forget his answer. “‘Young man,’ he said, ‘the whole secret of painting is putting the right colour in the right place.’ “The next day I went back to my old way of study.”24

William Michael Harnett, For Sunday’s Dinner, 1888. Oil on canvas, 94.3 x 53.6 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.


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Harnett packed up and moved back to Philadelphia in 1876, rejoining his mother and sisters and enrolling once again in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. By this time, one would imagine he could write his own ticket at the Academy. He was a professional artist, exhibiting and selling his paintings. However, he exhibited and sold mostly in public places: building lobbies, saloons, restaurants and billiard rooms. The critics wrote him off as having little talent other than patience. Trompe-l’œil art had the same reputation as humorous paintings with animals such as Dogs Playing Poker – non-aesthetic placebos for the masses. Although he enrolled in life drawing classes at the Academy, Harnett continued to pursue still-lifes as his bread and butter work, seeking out varieties of textures and surfaces that appeared to be totally random. Of his working methods, very little documentation was left behind. Only an observation by his friend Edward Taylor Snow has survived stating Harnett would “make a finished lead pencil drawing with minute details prior to executing a painting”.25 Until infrared reflectography began revealing carbon under painting details, little was known about the sequence of events with that drawing. Today, we can see the pencil lines directly on the canvas, and other mysteries have come to light. For one thing, the pencil drawing was not the necessarily the final disposition. In Still-Life with Violin and Music, for example, the violin’s scroll has been significantly thinned. In other works, whole background elements have been painted over to simplify the compositions. He sometimes altered the subjects, removed handles from jars, tassels from pipes and shifted bits of paper or creased their corners as he painted. While he used the pencil guides in his earlier paintings, the more he worked, the more often he applied his placement of objects directly on the background colour. Harnett used a pointed tool or the end of his brush to scribe a line in directly into the background and then painted

William Michael Harnett, Trophy of the Hunt, 1885. Oil on canvas, 107.8 x 55.4 cm. The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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into it. As he worked, he fattened jugs and shortened canes to maintain

method pipe smokers use to enjoy a hot short cigar or cigarillo – with

correct spatial relationships and scale to honour the composition. He

the burnt matches dropped casually on the table cloth. The viewer’s

continued to use some form of background drawing for object

eye is drawn to the upside-down New York Herald banner of the half-

placement and painted his subject matter elements in front of each other,

folded newspaper beneath the jug, and a mug of tea, claret or other

as they existed in reality.

drink sits behind the cigars. Two biscuits with crumbs complete the scene as if waiting for the smoker to return and finish his snack and

In his paintings of the late 1870s produced in Philadelphia, The

clean up the mess.

Banker’s Table, painted in 1877, shifts Harnett’s subject matter from trivial collections of fruit, dishes, flowers, vegetables and other

In 1880 Harnett sailed for Europe, the birthplace of trompe-l’œil

frivolous objects to hard currency and realities of commerce. His time

painting. The style dated back to 400 B.C. and can be found in the

in New York might have introduced him to these symbols of finance as

murals recovered from the ruins of volcano-devastated Pompeii. A

the new icons of American progress. The country had shifted into the

famous story from the historian Vasari tells of two competing

Industrial Revolution of factories and finance, mass production and

trompe-l’œil artists who arranged a contest to see who could paint

rapid communications following the Civil War. Ledger books, an

the most realistic scene. One artist painted a bowl of fruit with such

antique quill pen and a wad of bank notes held down with a coin

faithful detail that birds fluttered down to peck at the grapes. Certain

wrapper of silver dollars sit next to what appears to be a gold Double

he had won, he turned to his rival and crowed loudly, “Draw back the

Eagle. However, the activities, both social and industrial, of the Gilded

curtains and reveal your painting!” The rival then knew he had won

Age were built on a foundation of unease, a corrupted morality that

because the curtains were his painting. Another tale of the time told

Harnett seems to grasp. Ashes spill from overturned pipes, crumbs

of Rembrandt’s pupils in his studio taking time to paint coins on the

litter table tops, age and patina darken well-handled instruments,

floor and then laugh uproariously when the master bent down to pick

brass is left unpolished and reveals the subtle dents of hard use.

them up.

Nothing seems new. Murals painted in the Baroque and Renaissance by Andrea Mantegna, He became involved with gathering both the symbols of national

Paolo Uccello and Paolo Veronese utilised trompe-l’œil techniques in

commerce and personal items as well: letter racks, business cards,

churches and palaces to open what architect Leone Alberti referred to as

addressed envelopes, newspapers, elements of after-work relaxation

“windows into space”.

showing pipes, tobacco cans, musical instruments and recreation. His Cigar Box, Pitcher and “New York Herald” reproduces a variety of

Harnett had earned enough with his painting sales in Philadelphia to

textures in a strictly male context that seem to have followed an

support himself in Europe where he studied and exhibited his new

event. There is a story-telling quality to the collection of objects. The

works in London, and the Paris Salon, finally spending four years in

pitcher anchors the right side while the wood cigar box of cheap

Germany. His arrival in Munich at that time was fortunate as the

Colorado Gold cigars is the Cigar Box, Pitcher and "The New York

influence of seventeenth-century Dutch art with its still-life tradition

Herald" centrepiece. It is the details that tell the story. A Dutch

was just making itself felt in Munich in the last quarter of the

porcelain pipe sans shank has a cigar butt stuffed into its bowl – a

nineteenth century. His still life paintings had received their typical good

William Michael Harnett, Cigar Box, Pitcher, and “The New York Herald”, 1880. Oil on canvas, 20.1 x 19.7 cm. Courtesy of Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, New York.


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reactions among the people of London and Paris, but as usual the critics

Harnett produced four versions of After the Hunt and was sure this

ho-hummed his style as boring. Painting was undergoing a loosening of

virtuoso demonstration of his skills would create his reputation in the fine

styles, a freer use of brushes and palette knives, an explosion of colour

art world instead of decorating saloons and billiard halls. He was wrong.

and lighter schemes as the Impressionists began to make their presence

Critics still harrumphed and turned away from yet another dead animal

felt. But in Munich, in the academy and the galleries, still-life pictures

picture with no “soul”. In 1886 he returned to New York, set up a studio

of cluttered interiors and aftermaths of hunting were all the rage on the

and continued to paint what and how he knew best.

burghers’ walls. Guns of all vintages leaned against drapery or rough wood panelling as game hung head down from lashings and pipes

One of the most recognised paintings from this period is The Faithful

sprouted from tobacco canisters. Baskets, ceramics, brass and

Colt, finished in 1890. The subject is an old 1860 Colt Army Model

hammered tin flasks, pots, covered beer mugs and butchers’ cleavers

percussion revolver hanging from a nail through its trigger guard. Its

lay strewn about. Harnett plunged into this œuvre adding Prussian

treatment resembles the “dining room” pictures of dear game. The old

bloody-mindedness to his compositions.

pistol is nickel plated with worn ivory grips and shows wear from firing where gunpowder has pitted the plating where the cylinder meets the

Considered his masterpiece series, after studying in Munich for three

barrel’s breech. A general patina has flattened the shine and cracks

years, he began these paintings titled After the Hunt – a common

appear in the grips where they meet the butt strap. An officer or

German theme – substituting various objects within the same

cavalryman in the Civil War might have used this weapon, but at the time

concept. Dead game hangs in front of an old door surrounded by

of the painting, guns that used loose powder, ball and percussion caps

guns, hats, game sacks, pipes on tethers, dented hunting horns, old-

had been made obsolete by cartridges.

fashioned powder horns, knives and swords. These are large paintings, much larger than his previous works, but displaying the

This work is one of only ten paintings completed in Harnett’s last four

same level of excruciating detail and attention to lighting, texture and

years of life. It was exhibited – like so many of his works – not in a

spatial relationships.

gallery, but in the store window of Black, Starr & Frost, a New York jewellery store. Originally titled The Old-Fashioned Colt, this painting

He also created a series of ‘dining room’ pictures that featured single dead

carried a literary title like his other works, After the Hunt, For Sunday’s

animals: ducks, geese, or rabbits hanging in front of a plain background.

Dinner, The Old Cupboard and The Old Violin to reduce the “illusionist” stigma that drew yawns from critics as being little more than

While the German artists preferred more austere scenes of plucked

mechanically slavish copies of nature. In one of his few

game, and very realistic dead creatures often with wounds showing,

pronouncements about his work, Harnett further attempted to distance

Harnett’s Merganser, painted in 1883, portrays an almost balletic

himself from the “deception” artists: “In painting from still life, I do not

duck arrested in a dignified swoon. Nary is a feather ruffled. The

closely imitate nature. Many points I leave out and many I add. Some

layers of feathers beneath the wing are sculpted and its breast is

models are only suggestions.”26

plump and undamaged. One leg is trussed up by a tether to a nail in the wall, but the other hangs languidly apart from the body in a

In 1886, Harnett developed rheumatoid arthritis and had to be

gesture from Swan Lake.

hospitalised to bring down the inflammation. At the age of forty his

William Michael Harnett, The Old Cupboard Door, 1889. Oil on canvas, 156.5 x 104.1 cm. City Art Galleries, Sheffield, England. William Michael Harnett, Still-Life – Violin and Music (Music and Good Luck), 1888. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, Wolfe Fund, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection.


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— William Michael Harnett —


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— William Michael Harnett —

health declined further when he came down with kidney disease and

Cubists, Picasso, Braque, Rivera, Lipchitz and others who might well

admitted himself to Saint Francis Hospital in Manhattan. By 1889 his

have seen his work in Europe. Picasso’s Still-Life with Violin and Fruit is

sickness had intensified into acute diffuse glomerulonephritis or

a particularly startling comparison.

inflamed kidneys that can lead to kidney failure. This failure, or uraemia, shuts down the kidney’s ability to clean toxic material from the

Following his return from Arkansas, Harnett suffered a stroke on the

circulatory system causing nausea, vomiting, anaemia, hypertension,

pavement outside his Manhattan studio and collapsed into a coma. He

mental dysfunction and strokes.

was taken to a nearby hospital where he died on 29 October 1892. The doctor’s post-mortem examination revealed that Harnett was

In that same year his mother, Honora, died. Her pride in his

undernourished and anaemic. His estate amounted to $500 and a

accomplishments as a painter had never wavered and her death left

few paintings.

him depressed. Since his father’s death in 1864, Harnett had contributed to the support of his mother and sisters, which, though his

As is the case with so many artists underappreciated in their lifetime,

paintings had sold well, left him very little spare cash. That summer, he

his death brought about a re-evaluation of his work and he became –

journeyed to spas in Carlsbad and Wiesbaden in Germany to “take the

for a brief time – eulogised as one of America’s finest still-life painters.

waters” and relieve his crippling rheumatism. The application of hot

However, the Impressionists and anything French was beginning to

springs provided some relief, but after returning to New York, his health

devour Manhattan wall space in galleries and museums. Harnett’s

slipped further downhill. After another hospital stay, he travelled to Hot

quaint still-lifes slipped from favour as relics of the past and for forty

Springs, Arkansas. That year, he completed only one painting, The Old

years – until 1939 – remained curiosities bundled together with other

Cupboard Door.

illusionists and forgeries still relegated to saloons and billiard parlours in small towns.

This small painting includes a potpourri of his favourite subjects – but the choices are steeped in melancholy – from the torn binding of the

In 1939 William Michael Harnett’s work was rediscovered and

book dangling by a thread (the frailty of life) to the small Roman

championed by Downtown Gallery owner Edith Halpert in her

figurine of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. A violin bow

Greenwich Village establishment. Her interest had been piqued when

diagonally brings the composition back to centre where it pauses at

she saw The Faithful Colt and brokered the sale of the painting to the

the circular stained tambourine and then continues along the angled


pages pinned to the wood next to the violin. Above Harnett’s dying

Manufacturing Company had their headquarters in that city and

rose is sheet music for La Dernière Rose d’été, a popular tune of the

donated a wing to the Atheneum. Harnett’s painting was a welcome

period where Thomas Moore sees his life in comparison with the last

addition to the museum’s collection. Intrigued by Harnett’s work, Halpert

rose of the season. Accepting the metaphoric road signs to mortality,

began to acquire his paintings and in April 1939 staged a highly

it is at this point when the viewer takes in the overall view and

successful exhibition which attracted a cross-section of influential

becomes aware that William Harnett’s 1889 painting is virtually a

museums and collectors, adding their imprimatur to the resurrection of

Cubist abstraction. The sophistication of his elements, “… Many

Harnett’s reputation. Over the years, he has risen to the top tier of

points I leave out and many I add…” amounts to a road map for future

American Realist Painters.








William Michael Harnett, The Old Violin, 1886. Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 60 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of Mr and Mrs Richard Mellon Scaife in honour of Paul Mellon. William Michael Harnett, The Faithful Colt, 1890. Oil on canvas, 57.1 x 47 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.


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frederic remington (1861-1909) “I paint for boys – boys from ten to seventy,” said Frederic Remington.

Remington’s West had a reality none of the stiff and stuffed photographs

No artist in the tradition of American Realism was more American or took

of the time conveyed. No one had to stand still for ten seconds while the

to life at such a fast gallop. Sketches, water colours, oils and bronze

photo process etched their shadow into the glass dry plate. They only had

sculptures seemed to rush from him over his all too brief career

to pass within his line of sight and he had them, first in pencil, then ink

documenting the Western United States. His last name alone conjures up

and finally oil back at his studio in New York. The American Wild West

images of long-barrelled rifles and holstered pistols looped over bullet

frozen in time, that was his legacy; and those were the tracks he left

studded belts, the chink of spurs, the snap of a whip and the whistling

across history.

arc of a braided lariat. His idea of his own epitaph was: “He knew the horse.” And that he did in hundreds of images: the American pony,

But a lot of people didn’t think Frederic Remington was an artist; some

mustang, thoroughbred and bronco emerged from his pen; accurate

still don’t think so. He was an illustrator, soiling their hands with that

from cannon bone to throat latch, withers to barrel, the conformation of

implied pejorative. During his twenty-five years as an active artist, he

his horses was always correct. Cowboys, dudes, Native Americans,

didn’t win critical praise until the West he had known as a young

wagon masters, mule skinners and homesteaders all paraded across his

eyewitness had faded into memory and imagination after the turn of the

sketchbooks faithful to a fault.

century. His journey was spurred on by historic events and kept alive by almost immediate sales of his work and admiration of his Western

Then there were the great skies, huge and cloud-washed, filled with

depictions by the general public, by presidents, by kings and emperors

heat or deep as the ocean above the blasted landscape of desert

and the publishing and printing industry that hungered for his images of

arroyos, wind-carved buttes and the scored trails of tumbleweed. His

cowboys, Native Americans and life in the Western wilderness.

houses were Mexican stucco, mud brick, and lumber brought down from the high timberlines and sandpapered by never-ending dust. They

He was born into the blood and iron of the Civil War on 1 October 1861

were Native American tepees and settlers’ ‘soddies’ that seemed to

in Canton, New York to Seth Pierrepont Remington and Clara Bascomb

grow from the earth with layers of grass-bound earth holding up lodge

Sackrider. The Remingtons and Sackriders were very prominent families

pole canvas roofs.

in northern New York State, but the war and patriotism for the Union overrode Seth Remington’s business values. Only two months after

Soldiers in faded blue and khaki wore slouch hats, bandannas and sat

Frederic’s birth, the fiery, quick-tempered newspaper owner of the St

astride conscripted horses, barely broken hammerheads wearing their

Lawrence Plaindealer saddled up and rode off to fight with a locally

first horseshoes. Springfield rifles were looped over pommels and Colt

raised regiment that became the famous Fighting Eleventh New York

revolvers were wedged deep in holsters to stay put when the riding got

Cavalry. Clara bundled Frederic off to live with her parents, who also

rough. Cowboys soaped up and tugged their good shirt from their

resided in Canton.

bedroll in the chuck wagon, heading into town for a double shot of busthead or who-hit-john – whiskey to the dudes – and maybe a roll in

He grew up in a countryside made for a boy’s adventurous demands. He

the arms of a ‘Soiled Dove’ – a well-worn prostitute – for a half-dollar

excelled at sports, swimming, climbing and loved everything in the

in the cribs down the street from the town’s spit-and-sawdust saloons.

outdoors, building a sturdy physique, endurance and a love of action.

Frederic Remington, Self-Portrait on a Horse, c. 1890. Oil on canvas, 74.1 x 49.2 cm. Sid Richardson Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.


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He hated the confinement of school classrooms and book studies.

through stodgy art history studies. Frederic faced his first assignment,

When his father returned with a distinguished record from four years at

a drawing of The Faun of Praxiteles. This insouciant naked lad with fig

war, Seth discovered his son needed strict discipline to keep him at

leaf slouching against a tree stump was hardly the subject matter

school. Frederic’s mother also found him to be a handful as he

young Frederic was looking for. In a letter to a fellow artist back at

constantly put himself in harm’s way swimming in fast icy rivers and

the military academy with whom he was swapping sketches,

climbing tall trees.

Remington had written: “Don’t send me any more women, or any more dudes. Send me Indians, cowboys, villains or toughs. These are

His great love was horses and at the age of ten, he became the

what I want.”


‘mascot’ of the Canton Fire Brigade, Engine No.1 in payment for his constant care of the fire horses that pulled the steam pumper. His

He did manage to achieve his first published work, contributing a series

father, being a cavalry officer in the war, encouraged his son’s equine

of cartoons titled Riff-Raff that first appeared in 1879 over the initials,

interests. Frederic began to fill sketchbooks, the margins of

‘F.R.’29 The Yale Courant that published Remington’s efforts was edited by

textbooks, and any clean paper surface, with drawings of horses.

Poultney Bigelow, son of the Minister to France and friend of Prince

Clara Remington had decided her son was to be a businessman and

William of Hohenzollern, later the Emperor William II of Germany.

both his parents agreed he needed greater discipline. He was sent off

Bigelow was the only other art student in that year’s Yale class besides

to the Highland Military Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts in the

Remington, and championed making the Courant the first illustrated

autumn of 1876. Though he would spend a great portion of his later

college weekly. If Remington was favourably impressed by seeing his early

life in company with the military, he hated the restrictions of the

artwork published, he was even more excited about being a member of

Academy. Though he was constantly in trouble at the school, his

the Yale Eleven football team and was celebrated by the university as an

unerring enthusiasm for sports, drill and the physical side of military

excellent athlete.

life won the admiration of both his fellow cadets and his instructors. Remington was also a good student despite being lazy. He wasn’t

But just as he was getting rolling in Yale’s “Good Old Boys Club”, in

stupid, but his formal classroom work was a necessary evil and didn’t

1879 his father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and Remington quit

interest him. After two years, his apparent, though grudging success

university to go home to Canton and care for Seth. His father died in

at the military academy rekindled his parents’ desires for a business

1880 and Frederic received an inheritance and a bureaucratic

education and his need to “settle down”. In the autumn of 1878, he

sinecure as a clerk on the staff of the New York governor. Paper

was packed off to Yale.

shuffling did not suit him and he quit. Being footloose during that summer of 1880 allowed him to meet a particularly vivacious young


In keeping with Yale’s stuffy nineteenth-century curriculum for the

lady, Eva Adele Caten, with whom he was immediately smitten.

scions of wealthy families marking time until they received their

Society demanded he ask for her hand from her father. Eva’s dad

inheritances, the art classes were deeply rooted in European classics.

looked upon this sandy-haired, red-faced, big galoot who failed to

Students were escorted down into a dingy basement where they

graduate twice and couldn’t even hold down a job as a clerk and

confronted a collection of musty classical sculpture casts and walked

refused Remington’s request.

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Frederic Remington, Coming Through the Rye, 1902. Bronze, H.: 68.7 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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Bitter and disappointed with the hand he had been dealt, the

Everywhere Remington travelled, he picked up cowboy skills with

nineteen-year-old dude turned west to finally go where he had

pistol and lariat. He was an expert horseman and never backed away

always dreamed of cowboys, Indians and adventure. He headed for

from a fight in some smoky saloon. Everywhere he went he sketched

Montana in 1881 looking for an investment that would finance the

with pencil, ink and crayon. He also collected western artefacts: boots,

lifestyle he had in mind. He discovered that both cattle and mining –

gloves, belts, Indian crafts, bits and pieces of a Western way of life that

the West’s main industries – were too expensive. He began

was fading as the railway pushed towards California, the Northern

wandering across the prairie coming across the huge buffalo herds

Plains and down through the Texas Panhandle. The telegraph linked

and places where hunters had decimated the beasts for their hides

towns together with cities in the East and land speculators carved up

and tongues leaving the rest to rot. He met up with the blue-shirt

the unfenced prairie for trains full of European immigrants arriving by

U.S. Army patrolling for roving bands of Sioux and Comanche Native

the boatload in Eastern and Western ports.

Americans who were off their reservations. The massacre of General Custer’s command on the Little Bighorn River had occurred in 1876

Harpers Weekly Magazine published his first commercial drawing on

and the tribes were still unsettled.

the cover of an 1883 edition, sharing the credit with another artist

Frederic Remington, Rounded-Up, 1901. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 121.9 cm. Sid Richardson Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.


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who copied from his sketch.30 He tried his hand at sheep and cattle

In a short time, his lack of vigil over his investment made him vulnerable

ranching and raising mules, but the day-to-day management of

to a swindle and his saloon partnership was sold from under him. Furious,

livestock was as boring as the clerk’s job at the Statehouse. He also

he snatched up a revolver and went looking for the swindler. Friends

enjoyed a certain amount of luxury in his life that was unavailable on

dissuaded him from unloading his six-gun into the crook. Eventually,

the rugged plains. After selling his ranch in 1884, he went home and

Remington headed back east, reconciled with Eva Caten and married her.

borrowed some money from his mother. Remington set up a

His stories that sold her on the wonders of the Old West collided with

hardware store in Kansas City, but it failed so he invested what

reality when she moved into his tiny house and assayed his business

remained of his money into a silent half-partnership in a saloon. By

prospects. Frederic’s never-ending flow of sketches of the local denizens

this time, he had turned some of his drawings into paintings and

failed to excite her. Realising the problem, he sent her back East while he

managed to sell a few to storekeeper William W. Findlay, whose

continued undaunted. Later, he wrote of this time of learning and

emporium also acted as a gallery to sell pictures to the well-heeled

sketching: “Without knowing exactly how to do it, I began to try and

rancher gentry. Remington’s realistic paintings of familiar subjects

record some facts around me, and the more I looked, the more the

appealed to these self-made businessmen.

panorama unfolded. Youth is never appalled by the insistent demands of

Frederic Remington, Buffalo Runners – Big Horn Basin, 1909. Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 129.9 cm. Sid Richardson Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.


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Frederic Remington, Aiding a Comrade, c. 1890. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 121.9 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, The Hogg Brothers Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg.


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— Frederic Remington —

a great profession, because it is mostly unconscious of their existence.

From San Carlos, Remington journeyed across Texas, crossed the Red

Time unfolds these abruptly enough. Art is the she-devil of a mistress,

River into Indian Territory and settled in at Fort Sill to learn about the

and, if at times in earlier days she would not even stoop to my way of

Comanches. During his time there and working through the army’s

thinking, I have persevered and will so continue.”

official interpreter, Horace P. Jones, who had lived among the Indians for


thirty-one years, Remington found himself admiring the Native Having exhausted his capacity for managing any kind of business,

Americans.33 He particularly took note of their ability to breed their

Remington loaded all his needs into his pockets and walked out into a

painted ponies for speed and endurance. One military commander said

Kansas City afternoon. He hailed a wagon driver acquaintance and asked

of the Comanche that they were “the finest light cavalry in the world”.

if he could buy the man’s horse. In the street, the deal was made for $50, the horse was removed from the wagon traces, saddled, and Frederic

At long last, Frederic Remington arrived back in Kansas City,

Remington swung aboard, waved goodbye and rode out of town,

disappointed in his failure to find riches on the Western frontier and

heading south-west.

burdened only with a wad of sketches crammed into a rough portfolio. He probably borrowed money from friends there to buy a

The Native American tribes of the South-west were particularly upset

train ticket to New York, but the story he told J. Henry Harper when

with the tide of white settlers and the U.S. Army. Apaches and

he arrived at his New York offices also had the ring of truth. In his

Comanches roamed the plains and deserts, living off the settlers they

book, The House of Harper, the story was recounted:

encountered, often taking all day to skin a captive alive and leave him

“When… Frederic Remington first appeared in our office, he

staked out under the sun. It was into the land of Apache Chief Geronimo

looked like a cowboy just off a ranch, which was, in fact, the case.

that Remington wandered, armed with sketch pads, pencils and ink

The sketches he brought with him were very crude but they had

bottles, and partnered up with some hopeful gold miners. When digging

all the ring of new and live material. In the course of conversation

for gold became hard on his hands, he sought out the army fort on the

with him he told me that his ranch life had proved an utter failure

San Carlos Indian Reservation. On the recommendation of a military

and that he had found himself stranded in a small western town

captain he kept a couple of off-duty troopers near him as he sketched the

with but a quarter of a dollar in his pocket.”

Apaches. He wrote of this adventure: “I remembered that years before a Blackfoot on the Bow River had shown a desire to tomahawk me because

The story went on to describe his desire to get to New York and how

I was endeavouring to immortalise him. After a long and tedious course

he entered a small cafe to get something to eat with his meagre

of diplomacy, it is at times possible to get one of these people to gaze in

funds. A poker game was in progress and it became obvious a pair

a defiant and fearful way into the eye of a camera; but to stand still until

of cardsharps was cheating a drummer (travelling salesman).

a man draws his picture on paper or canvas is a proposition which no

Remington intervened and when the sharpers became angry, he

Apache will entertain for a moment. With the help of two officers, who

drew his revolver and escorted the drummer upstairs to the man’s

stood up close to me, I was enabled to make rapid sketches of the scenes

room to spend the night there with his loaded pistol at the ready. By

and people, but my manner at last aroused suspicion and my game

the next morning the drummer was so relieved, he bought a ticket

would vanish like a covey of quail.”

for Remington on the same train.


Frederic Remington, Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun, 1892. Ink wash and brown watercolour on paper, 53.7 x 39.4 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York. Frederic Remington, The Cheyenne, 1901. Bronze, H.: 50.8 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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Arriving in New York with only three dollars in his “poke”, Remington

furious rays of the Arizona sun. I had been there and my

sent for Eva and they moved in with friends in Brooklyn as he walked

innermost corpuscle vibrated at the truth. I looked at the

his portfolio around the Manhattan publishers over the winter of

signature …Remington.

1885-86. Mostly, they were unresponsive. They wanted pictures that

“‘That’s an odd coincidence; I had a classmate at Yale…’ I said to

boosted the industrial capacity of the United States showing smoke-

him, but before I could utter another word, out he roared, ‘Hell

belching industry, happy farmers, prosperous fields and heavy

Big, is that you?’ And so it was.”

livestock. Nobody wanted to see some poor fellow in buckskins running for his life chased by Apaches with skinning knives drawn, or

The editor was Poultney Bigelow, Remington’s art classmate and

bum-looking mule skinners in boots thick with mud, riding by a

publisher of his first Riff-Raff cartoons from Yale. After their tearful, back

tumbledown shack.

slapping reunion, Bigelow bought the entire portfolio and pulled out every manuscript he had that lent itself to Remington’s talent – enough

Remington, with a wife to support and no roof of his own overhead, tried

to keep the artist hard at work for the next two years. From there,

a clerk’s job and quit at the end of the day. An uncle, William Remington,

Frederic Remington never looked back.

lent him a few dollars so he could keep looking for illustration work. At last, Harpers Weekly bought two of his drawings for the issue of 9

Suddenly, his watercolours were accepted for the Annual Exhibition of

January 1886.

the American Water Color Society and his Return of a Blackfoot War Party won the Hallgarten and Clarke prizes at the 63rd Annual

The success of this sale began a long relationship between Harpers and

Exhibition of the National Academy. His name began appearing

the artist. This cover is made from a wood engraving transferred from

everywhere as he churned out fifty-four pictures for Harper’s Weekly

the original sketch and carved by an artisan. Compared to Remington’s

alone in 1888.

later work, especially where his hand alone is seen, these figures are stiff and lack the dynamic anatomy his later war and action studies

This war party return is a victorious one. Three mounted warriors

showed. His ability to show textures and the actual costumes of the

escort two prisoners who will be traded back to the raided tribe for

cowboys, vaqueros and Apaches opened new doors into illustrating

horses, killed or made slaves to serve this band of the Blackfoot tribe.

the West.

One of the warriors whips a bound prisoner wearing a scraped elk or buffalo hide coat. The horses are small Indian ponies, not the large


As his drawings began to find publishers, he wandered into the offices of

American saddle horses ridden by the U.S. Cavalry. Remington uses

Outing Magazine and the editor wrote later in his autobiography:

the red saddle blanket on the lead horse, balanced by the almost

“Here was the real thing, the unspoiled native genius dealing

white coat on the captive beneath a cold, roiled sky. The intricate

with Mexican ponies, cowboys, cactus, lariats and sombreros.

beadwork and fringe on the lead warrior’s jacket and breeches

No stage heroes these; no carefully pomaded hair and neatly

indicate at least a sub-chief, as does the ornate wampum belt at his

tied cravats; these were the men of the real rodeo, parched in

waist. He carries a short barrel single-shot trade rifle adorned with

alkali dust, blinking out from barely open eyes under the

brass tacks for decoration. The muskets only required powder and

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Frederic Remington, The Charge of the Rough Riders (Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill), 1898. Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 152.4 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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ball, not expensive cartridges. His hat is probably beaver or bearskin.

rather than wood block printing for the Illustrated Edition of the Song of

The warrior with the whip behind him, almost equally well turned

Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

out, may be his son. Remington collected Indian garments and decorations as well as cowboy clothes and accessories that included

In 1890 he followed General Nelson Miles and the U.S. Cavalry into the

weapons of all kinds as props.

Dakotas to put down what was interpreted as an insurrection by the Sioux Indians, who, by that time, were starving on mismanaged

Every summer, once his client list was full, he headed west to paint, hunt,

reservations. Remington saw this campaign as the last gasp of the Old

fish and visit friends he had made. That meant three months away from

West as the Indians faced extinction and assimilation. The pre-Custer

his work, which included 119 illustrations for Harpers Weekly alone in

cockiness had left the Army now and every confrontation with the

1890. Harper’s Monthly used thirty-six of his pictures and Century

Indians was entered into with great caution. The Sioux were particularly

Magazine put eighteen illustrations on their pages. His greatest

dangerous, having been part of the Custer massacre and the raids that

accomplishment was the set of drawings reproduced in photogravure

had swept through Minnesota.

Frederic Remington, Evening in the Desert. Navajos, c. 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 50.8 x 66 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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Travelling with Lieutenant E.W. Casey, considered the finest commander

well-received paintings. Money was no longer a problem and he was able

in the Indian Scout service, Remington rode into the heart of Sioux

to buy a large house in New Rochelle in Westchester County, just north

encampments and followed a fleeing band across the frozen Dakota

of New York City. Part of the estate included a Neo-Gothic style house, a

landscape. At one location, while riding with a wagon and some

sweeping greensward, and a stable for his prized horses. The upstairs

troopers, they came across a band of hostile Sioux who seemed to rise

comprised a large workroom where he stored all the paraphernalia he

from a series of coulees – rolling low hills forming gullies – and at that

had collected over the years. The painting studio was on the main floor,

moment five armed cowboys galloped into the scene, their revolvers

added to the original house. This dream studio was 6 by 12 metres with

blazing. The troopers, wagon driver and Remington all lit out for their

a 6-metre ceiling and a skylight taking up one pitch of the gabled roof.

camp sixteen miles distant.


Memorabilia of his trips into the West were everywhere. He relied on His presence during this last of the Indian wars translated into a number

these actual objects in his work rather than memory when assembling

of illustrated articles for Harper’s Weekly and the production of some very

one of his highly detailed scenes.

Frederic Remington, An Old-Time Plains Fight, c. 1904. Oil on canvas, 68.6 x 101.6 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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The homeliness of life on the plains gives his pictures the ring of truth. In

This gift for detail served Remington well in his next creative adventure.

Prospectors Making Frying Pan Bread done in 1893, two prospectors sit by

He always had the ability to see a scene from all sides. In more than one

their campfire baking bread for their evening meal. The flour sack sits on a

case, he completely reversed the figures in a scene to better see the

rock above the can of baking powder. Their saddles are nearby and both

action or for compositional needs. A friend noticed this ability and

men have their weapons within reach if needed. The horses are probably

suggested: “You’re not a draughtsman, you’re a sculptor.” Remington

hobbled to keep them from straying too far. His composition constantly pulls

laughed at the suggestion, but later, after watching the creation in clay

attention back to the cooking fire on the bank of this dry creek bed.

of an equine sculpture in a tent near his home, he became intrigued with the idea of working in three dimensions.

Remington wanted no part of Europe, European art, art galleries or museums. He would rather listen to a Sioux Scalp Dance song wailed by

Naturally, Frederic Remington could not start out small and simple. His

Native American braves than the finest Grand Opera. When Poultney

first sculpture was The Bronco Buster, a rearing bronco on its hind legs

Bigelow suggested he accompany him to North Africa, the Sahara and

with a cowboy aboard. Technically, it was a difficult piece to balance and

into the Russian steppes where Remington could draw the grandsires of

support let alone get the details correct, but he stubbornly persevered

his blessed horses, the artist relented.

and eventually – after more than once throwing up his hands in defeat –


turned clay into bronze. Bronco Buster became a signature piece for the One of the curious highlights of this trip to exotic locales was landing in

artist and 250 copies of the sculpture were cast and sold for a total of

London at the same time Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was drawing

$62,500 before the mould was broken.

huge crowds during its world tour. He had to see it of course and was amazed to see the British populace and royalty enthusiastically

Of the work, Remington wrote, “I have always had a feeling for mud,

applauding the cowboys, Indians, sharpshooters, Russian Cossacks and

and I did that [the Bronco Buster] – a work long attended with great

scenes of stagecoach robberies and Custer’s Last Stand. Remington’s

difficulty on my part. I wanted to do something which a burglar wouldn’t

travels through Africa, Russia and Germany netted a collection of ninety-

have, moths eat, or time blacken. It [sculpture] is a great art and satisfying

six pictures which he produced on returning. However, his foreign

to me, for my whole feeling is for form.”36

subjects did not sell as well as his Western material. His love of sculpture never abated and he produced a total of twenty-five Even though the subjects were foreign, his attention to detail and riding style

bronzes, all of them exceptional, including the famous Coming Through

are true to the individuals. The Russian Cossack rides with a European tight rein

the Rye in 1902.

and heels-down in the stirrup as taught in military riding academies. Every element from bedroll to the braids securing his bearskin fur hat is authentic. In

Four horsemen gallop across the plains, firing their revolvers and whooping it

the drawing An Arab, he isolates the robed rider so nothing interferes with the

up for sheer joy. You can imagine they have been trailing a herd of cattle for

bravado tossing of the musket into the air and retains the homey fly whisk

months and are cutting loose to ‘hoorah’ a town for a few drinks of white

girdle that both decorates and protects the horse’s forequarters. He also

lightning, to ‘buck the tiger’ at a faro card table and find compliant women

catches the strong neck and small head of the true Arab stallion.

for the right price. This would become the most famous of his bronzes.

Frederic Remington, The Bronco Buster, 1895. Bronze, H.: 59.5 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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Frederic Remington, Hauling the Gill Net, c. 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 66 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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With the sinking of the U.S. Navy battleship Maine in Havana Harbour on

Summer trips to the West of the early 1900s stopped. His West only

16 February 1898, a righteous America embarked on the Spanish-

existed in his dreams. He was still up at six o’clock AM every morning

American War against Spain and their occupied island of Cuba. To cover

to a blasting phonograph, a huge breakfast of half-a-dozen lamb

the war, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Harper’s

chops, pigs’ knuckles, side dishes and at least three large cups of

Weekly Magazine paired Frederic Remington and journalist Richard

coffee and then to work. Besides his drawings, paintings and

Harding Davis. Their assignment was to “sneak” into Cuba before the

sculpture, he wrote books such as Stories of Peace and War and Men

troops and begin wiring news and sending pictures back to the U.S.

with the Bark On. He produced six books in less than five years. He

Remington was eager and ready to see action. One of his images had

took his writing as seriously as his daily canoe trips around the lake

already incited the populace against Spain. The sketch Spaniards Search

that fronted his home.37

Women on American Steamer is one of his rare pictures of a woman in all of Remington’s output – and a naked woman no less – being leered at

The subjects of all his artistic endeavours never varied; always the

and strip-searched by Spanish agents.

ordinary cowboy, the common soldier from the ranks, the simple Native American warrior. And yet he infused each character with dignity and

After harrowing storm-tossed attempts, both men finally reached Cuba

elegance coupled with acceptance of their calling. He continued working

with the troops. Bored with inaction, Remington had the legendary

on paintings into the summer of 1909. He wanted to see American

exchange of cables with Hearst. The artist sent off, “Everything is quiet.

buildings hanging the work of American painters.

There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst supposedly wired right back, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and

In December, he mounted a show of twenty-three paintings at Knoedler’s

I’ll furnish the war.”

galleries in New York City to surprising critical praise. Most critics continued to write him off as an “illustrator”, but this time his work was

The war Remington eventually saw was one of death, disease and short

well received. One critic wrote:

vicious battles with modern rifles, the first use of machine guns (Gatlings)

“The presence, in Mr. Remington’s characteristic work, of a great

and terrible confusion. Of his pictures to come out of the brief conflict,

central motive… is an indication of power, and the ability to

the most famous was Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill. It was

express the motive in a hundred vivid forms, is proof of genius.”38

a large painting that appeared in Scribners Magazine and helped Theodore Roosevelt become the Vice-President and eventually President

Three weeks into December, he suffered an attack of appendicitis and

of the United States. Remington did not see the actual charge, but pieced

when told of the impending operation, his last words were: “Cut her

it together from interviews and his imagination.

loose, doc.” The operation was a success, but peritonitis set in and he was too weak and hugely overweight to survive the poison. At the age

Middle age hit Frederic Remington hard as he reached his forties. His

of forty-eight, he died and was buried on 27 December 1909. He had

weight ballooned as he consumed prodigious meals and spent

achieved his ambition to be recognised as an artist and his passing was

considerable time at his easel or drawing board. He no longer rode his

mourned at many a camp site, ranch house, line shack, pueblo and army

horses, but still swam and tried to do some exercise every day.

outpost where the rugged men he had immortalised remembered him.

Frederic Remington, The Outlier (preliminary version), 1909. Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 68.6 cm. Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, New York.


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George Bellows, Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Oil on canvas, 102.1 x 106.8 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California, Los Angeles County Funds.


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robert henri (1865-1929) and the “ashcan artists” At the turn of the century and for the next twenty years, New York City

It first appeared in a book, Art in America – a Complete Survey by Alfred H.

represented the surging pulse of the United States and its Western

Barr Jr. and Holger Cahill, (Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1935) and loosely

Territories. It was the major clearing house for streams of immigrants from

applied to these American urban realist painters.

Old Europe. Financial empires spurred growth that radiated out into the hinterland on steel rails and copper telegraph and telephone lines. The city

Except for Bellows, this group came together for the first time in an

functioned like the hub of a revolving door. As new arrivals flocked in,

exhibition assembled by Henri in opposition to the restrictions of the

trainloads rushed out to join relatives who had come earlier in horse and

Academy’s rules and regulations concerning the organised display of art.

ox-drawn wagons and on foot to settle, scratch out a living and prosper.

Henri’s 1908 exhibition at the MacBeth Galleries, 450 Fifth Avenue in

But the door jammed in its revolutions in one teeming crush of architecture

New York, featured eight artists, many of them his pupils at the Art

that humanity referred to on maps as New York’s Lower East Side. Into that

Students League. In addition to the above mentioned were Arthur B.

chaos where Old Europe’s multi-ethnic class structure still flourished, where

Davies, Maurice B. Prendergast and Ernest Lawson. While these artists

grinding poverty existed amid the trappings of twentieth-century progress

were unique and produced excellent work, Davies was more of a poetic

and where money was to be made off the backs of a captive, semi-literate

Symbolist, Lawson specialised in Impressionist palette landscapes and

work force came the Ashcan artists between the 1900s and the late 1920s.

Prendergast followed the style of the Nabis movement – if not their almost religious zeal in believing in their name ‘Nabi’ that meant

Just as Frederic Remington painted the larger than life Wild West, Edward

“prophet” in Hebrew. Their subject matter was often vague and opened

Hopper made the architecture of the coastal towns of Maine and

doors to later abstract and non-objective expressionism.

Massachusetts his own and Winslow Homer is forever linked to sea, six painters owed their careers to New York City. Though Remington, Hopper

The bond shared by some of the Ashcan group was their grounding in

and Homer painted in other locales creating rich collections of Realist

newspaper illustration that offered them, if not a deep social conscience

works, there are signinficant portions of their outputs that remain affixed

then an ability to skilfully grasp and portray the images of real life. If their

to their names. This is the case with the Ashcan artists who came together

paintings did not always portray the grim realities of life as lived in New

not as a rigidly constituted “school” or “movement”, but as a loosely

York’s Lower East Side and other rough areas, their ability to grasp the

strung together assembly of painters who shared a focus on the ordinary

overall mood of the scenes could not be challenged.

person and the visual poetry to be found in his and her existence. Often compared to the work of Jacob Riis, the brilliant photographer who If a single common influence can be found in their number, it is Robert Henri,

lugged his large camera and flash powder gun into the worst sweatshops

(pronounced hen-rye) a painter of portraits, instructor at the New York School

and crowded hovels, the painters worked skilfully with what he could not

of Art and promoter of exhibitions that countered the stultifying oppression

– colour and the ability to add and subtract to create dynamic

of the entrenched Academy that dictated what was good and bad art. Henri

compositions. But Riis had a different agenda. His job was to portray the

had imagination, drive and a natural gift for teaching that overshadowed his

absolute worst in order to draw attention to the terrible conditions. He

gift for painting. The other members of the Ashcan cabal included William

manipulated his images, points of view and subjects as did the painters,

Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan and George Bellows. The

but to affect social change. The Ashcan artists had to accomplish the

painters never used the term ‘Ashcan School’ of artists during their association.

same revelation, but also had to sell their work to art patrons. Caught in


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this apparent contradiction, they let each scene play out without editorial

This was the era of the “Special Artist” assigned to breaking news.

commentary, but with objectivity and creative artistry.

Before newspapers developed the half-tone printing process allowing them to print directly from photographs, they required black and white

The metaphor that best suits their relationship is Henri as driver of a spirited

line drawings for their illustrated news events. An artist arrived on the

team of horses. He had the most formal art training of the lot, achieved a

scene, sometimes with a sketch-book, but often with just a note pad for

reputation in the art community and was an accomplished painting

special details pertinent to the later drawing. Of the group, Glackens

teacher. He offered a unique spin on art instruction, emphasising intellect

had the best memory for fixing the details of a scene without resorting

and inquiry as important facets of an artist’s training. His students were also

to notes or sketches. He could then reproduce what he had seen with

colleagues, frequently meeting at his studio for critiques, drinking, and long

startling accuracy.39 Once back at the newspaper each artist settled in at

discussions. While each artist was individual in his technique, except for

his drawing board and produced his finished drawing in time to catch

Bellows, the others took advantage of their newspaper art backgrounds.

the front page.

John Sloan, Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912. Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. John Sloan, A Woman’s Work, 1912. Oil on canvas, 80.3 x 65.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, gift of Amelia Elizabeth White.


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Besides Henri and Bellows, the other member not part of the “breaking news” story artists was John Sloan. He did feature illustration, jokes, puzzles and assignments not requiring the rush to the press experienced by his colleagues. The others kidded Sloan that his name was the past participle of “slow”. But no one suggested his elegant use of light and details that gave each painting the ring of truth were any less brilliantly executed. In his painting Election Night, for example, Sloan offers the immediacy of a candid photograph and New York characters as if captured by Lautrec or Degas. The revellers cheering for their candidate beneath the sweeping tracks of the overhead electric railway and illuminated by street lamps are at once humorous and grotesque in their masks, raucously blowing their paper horns. Their abandon recalls the hyperbole of Goya’s depictions of the crowds during the Spanish Inquisition as heretics went up in flames in the town square. Curiously, for all their onslaught upon the Big Apple, none of the Ashcan artists were natives of New York. They were Philadelphia students except for George Bellows who came from Ohio. In many cases, it was their fresh examination of shop-worn scenes that brought the city to life.

Robert Henri His real name was Robert Henry Cozad, born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1865 to Theresa Gatewood and John Jackson Cozad. His father knew his way around a poker table and put together enough of a stake to found the town Cozaddale, Ohio in 1871. Two years later, in 1873, the family moved into Nebraska where John Jackson once again put down his stakes to form the street grid of Cozad. They lived on a ranch near town until a dispute arose with a neighbour named Alfred Pearson over pastureland for Cozad’s cattle. The dispute grew until October 1882 when Cozad emptied his revolver into the unfortunate Pearson. Though acquitted of all charges, John and his family left Nebraska to lose themselves in the more populous East. They paused long enough in

Robert Henri, Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance, 1919. Oil on canvas, 215.9 x 124.5 cm. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gift of the Sameric Corporation in memory of Eric Shapiro.


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Denver, Colorado to change their names and young Robert Cozad became “Robert Henri” (pronounced hen-rye) while his younger brother, Johnny became “Frank Southern” and they posed as adopted children of Theresa and Richard Henry Lee, his re-named parents. By 1883, the peripatetic family paused in New York City and then moved on to Atlantic City, New Jersey. There, young Robert began demonstrating his gift for painting. By 1886, he was enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying with academician painter, Thomas Anshutz, a pupil of Thomas Eakins, who specialised in pictures of coquettish women. Financed by his parents, Henri departed for Paris in 1888 to study at the Academie Julian, a private art school established in 1868 that accepted professional artists, serious amateurs and women. His instructor was the slick academician, William Adolphe Bouguereau, who embraced the romantic anecdotal works favoured by the ossified Paris Salon. The Academie was sanctioned by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and soon Henri was admitted to that noble sanctuary. He accepted the light-infused Impressionist palette and completed his Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Brittany and then Italy. By the time he returned to Philadelphia for studies with Robert Vonnoh, also an Impressionist, Henri’s palette had darkened considerably. He began teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1892. Eventually known as Moore College of Art and Design, it was the only institution of its kind in the U.S. It was while teaching at the School of Design that he attracted what became known as the ‘Philadelphia Four’: Luks, Glackens, Shinn and Sloan. Referred to as the ‘Charcoal Club’, they met to sketch and discuss the works of Henry David Thoreau, Emile Zola and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was during these heady salons, thick with tobacco smoke and awash in drink and ideas that Henri eventually inculcated the newspaper artists, who visualised wider horizons, into his own plot against what he perceived to be the moribund academy and its creativity by rote. Light, gay, aristocratic Impressionism was all the rage in New

Robert Henri, Salome, 1909. Oil on canvas, 196.2 x 97.8 cm. Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts.


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York and art circles exemplified by the work of medal winners, William

to create small pochades, or colour sketches of a scene. These rapid

Merritt Chase and Childe Hassam. What had freed artists from the rules

impressions would serve as guides to his own work in New York as he

of the French Academy by 1895, in Henri’s eyes had itself become the

contributed to the Ashcan style.

“new academicism”. Henri’s transcontinental lifestyle continued throughout 1898 when he As the nineteenth century wound down, Robert Henri commuted

married Linda Craige, an art student, and honeymooned in Paris. To add

between Philadelphia and Paris. In the City of Light, he met a Canadian

to his growing reputation, the French government purchased his

painter, James Wilson Morrice, an expatriate who championed

painting The Snow (La Neige), which hung in the Musée du

Impressionism and Post-Impressionism while renouncing the avant-

Luxembourg. Finally, in 1902, he settled down in New York to teach at

garde Cubists and Fauves. He showed Henri the French custom of

the New York School of Art at the invitation of William Merritt Chase.

carrying small boards in his jacket pockets and a minimum oil paint set

The school had originally been the fiefdom known as the Chase School

Robert Henri, Snow in New York, 1902. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 65.5 cm. Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Everett Shinn, Mouquin’s, 1904. Pastel on cardboard. The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey.


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John Sloan, Election Night, 1907. Oil on canvas, 67 x 82 cm. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, Marion Stratton Gould Fund.


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John Sloan, Six O'Clock, Winter, 1912. Oil on canvas, 66 x 81.3 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.


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where the celebrated and socially connected artist held forth. At that

Robert Henri had risen to a status that would only grow and seep into all

time, Chase and Henri seemed compatible and admired the same master

corners of the New York art scene. He tested that status in 1908 with a

painters: Hals, Velázquez and Manet. They were both portrait artists and

non-juried show for his Philadelphia pals who had followed him to New

teachers with very personal styles.

York and been trod upon by the Academy of Design. The show was titled The Eight and included three other rebellious painters who would follow

Viewed more closely, however, Chase infused his work with a commercially

their own paths apart from the Ashcan artists: Maurice Prendergast,

successful joie de vivre and a pandering to the upper classes who could

Ernest Lawson and Arthur B. Davies. Glackens, Sloan, Luks, Shinn and

afford his work. Henri, on the other hand, was more the journalist, the

Henri completed The Eight at the MacBeth Gallery that opened to a long

realist who let his models be themselves. What began as a mild style

line of attendees and was a huge hit with ordinary people, but was a bust

divergence, widened into a chasm. In 1902 Henri wrote to his parents: “I

with critics. The critical press would be sorely tried during the first ten

really do believe that the big fight is on and I look for great change in the

years of the twentieth century as waves of gritty realism, then Cubists

attitude towards the kind of art I have been doing in the coming year.”40

and Expressionists and Dada tramped through galleries in a sordid display

He began to veer into more gritty subject matter revealing a darker side of

of original creativity that baffled the anointed gentlemen of the Fourth

the urban landscape – probably drawn from the work of his ‘Charcoal Club’

Estate. The gentility of slick classicism had succumbed to frothy

newspaper artist students back in Philadelphia. The lack of elegance in the

Impressionism handed to the U.S. by France even as the Post-

lives of ordinary street people offended Chase’s socially-tuned sensibilities.

Impressionists were being assaulted by the Fauves and the Cubists and


the odd raving Futurist. Kandinsky sent shudders down Continental backs









draughtsmanship which were entrenched elements of Chase’s style and

together with Miro and that strange Spaniard, Pablo Picasso.

teaching curriculum. Gradually, discussions became shouting matches as Henri defied Chase’s quietly refined world. By 1907 the tension between

Suddenly these jumped-up newspaper illustrators were a sensation in New

them had become unbearable, and it was Chase who departed while Henri

York, and fashionable society adopted them as the new rage. The critics,

went on to help mould the work of future artists who changed art history:

who freely enjoyed the buffet at the prestigious Salgamundi (a stew of

Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, George Belows, Rockwell

many ingredients) Club – where Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase

Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.

and other New York Impressionists gathered – wrote scalding, dismissive


reviews of the “inappropriate” subject matter and “sloppy” brushwork of The next three years were a roller-coaster ride of emotional highs and

these deluded amateurs. They labelled the artists the “revolutionary black

lows. In 1905, Linda, his wife of only four years, died after a long battle

gang”, too much interested in the “uglier” aspects of city life.42

with poor health. The following year, Henri achieved peer recognition by being elected to the National Academy of Design. In 1907, however, he

The works shown argued against this sweeping condemnation and,

was shocked when his painter colleagues were rejected from the

fortunately, the people who bought art appreciated this breath of

Academy’s annual exhibition. Henri turned on his Academy colleagues

fresh air and sudden recognition of the lives playing out in their city. In

making angry accusations of bias, and stormed off the jury vowing to

Henri’s Cumulus Clouds, East River, his departure from portraiture

create a show independent of the Academy which had become, in his

displays the luminosity of Turner where the rain-wet street meets the

words, a “cemetery of art”.

hardly picturesque dockside looking out between buildings, shabby

William Glackens, At Mouquin’s, 1905. Oil on canvas, 122.4 x 92.1 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, Friends of American Art.


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storefronts and bare masts, past a father with his daughter wearing a

Once again, the media turned the event into a circus and curiosity

white dress at the East River anchorage. Everything is mood

seekers filled its galleries and halls. But as with The Eight, critical

and suggestion.

reviews were uneven and this time the number of artists participating watered down the overall quality of the presentation. The most

As he hung the paintings, Robert Henri also found his new wife, the twenty-

important function served by the Exhibition of Independent Artists in

two year old Irish-born Marjorie Organ. They were married in May 1908.

1910 was that it set the stage for the monumental exhibition that caused a re-examination of the American art scene, the Armory Show

The Eight opened on 3 February 1908 and toured Philadelphia, Chicago,

of 1913. Robert Henri had little to do with that exhibition, but five of

Toledo, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Bridgeport and

his paintings were presented along with some of the finest work in

returned via Newark. Almost at once, Henri went on from The Eight to a

the world.

show titled The Exhibition of Independent Artists fashioned after the French Salon des Indépendants where there was no jury, the paintings were hung

Everett Shinn

alphabetically and no prizes were given. It opened on 1 April 1910 and ran until 17 April, hanging almost five hundred works in a building on West

Using charcoal and watercolour, Everett Shinn managed to portray a

Thirty-fifth Street in New York. More than one hundred artists participated

snow-covered side street streaked with wagon tracks, populated with

and their works were mobbed on opening day by more than 2,000 people.

bundled-up passers-by at the bottom of a canyon of antique buildings

Everett Shinn, Theatre Box, 1906. Oil on canvas, 41 x 51.2 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, gift of T. Edward Hanley, 1937.


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and fire-escapes. This harsh, single point of perspective of Cross

In his spare time, he built a fifty-five seat theatre, wrote plays, designed sets

Streets of New York (1899) was a Shinn trademark, as was his rapid,

and costumes, painted backdrops and acted in his own productions. His play

sketchy brushwork slashing details into place.

More Sinned Against than Usual was performed around the world in seven languages for at least quarter of a century. He taught at the Art Students’

He was one of those artists who thundered through life, taking

League, designed sets for the Ziegfeld Follies and travelled in France. His

advantage of his gifts to become a painter, designer, illustrator, art

peripatetic lifestyle was hard on his love life and he was divorced four times.

director in films and playwright. Born in New Jersey in 1876 to a Quaker

His art also suffered and the critics deemed him the least talented of the

family, he was extremely precocious, and began studying industrial

shabby Ashcan painters. When they did acknowledge him, he was America’s

design at the age of twelve. By the age of fourteen he was designing

Degas for his theatrical subjects and curiously-angled points of view.

light fixtures and created his own steam engine. When he had reached sixteen years, Shinn transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine

Everett Shinn worked well into his seventies, dabbing away at clowns and

Arts in 1893 studying mechanical drawing. He paid his way by

naked women primping in their boudoirs. He was the last of The Eight

becoming a seventeen-year-old sketch artist (“visual reporter”) on the

group when he died at the age of seventy-six in 1953.43

Philadelphia Press and fell in with Sloan, Luks and Glackens. Though at the age of twenty-one Shinn was part of the Ashcan School, his heart

Almost the exact opposite to Shinn were the plump ‘lumpen’ depicted by

was always with the theatre – his favourite subject matter.

the most vivid character of the ‘Charcoal Four’, George Luks.

Everett Shinn, Theatre Scene, c. 1906-1907. Oil on canvas, 73 x 91.4 cm. Manoogian Collection, Washington, D.C.


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George Luks, Roundhouse at High Bridge, c. 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 77.2 x 92.1 cm. Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York.


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George Luks

In 1894, after creating some drawings for Truth and Puck magazines, he was accepted onto the staff of the Philadelphia Press. His quick drawing

While his painting Café Francis has the Impressionist touch of Renoir,

style and eye for revealing details made him ideal for late breaking news

whom Luks admired, it is pure Golden Age New York and mirrors the

illustrations. He quickly became part of the ‘Philadelphia Five’ that included

attitude of the artist who was often referred to as “Lusty Luks”.44 The

Henri, Shinn, Sloan and Glackens. Luks totally accepted Henri’s philosophy

gentleman with the cookie-duster moustache and tuxedo is bon vivant

of choosing the common city dweller for a subject and painting quickly in

James Brown. He is obviously taken with his trophy, the vivacious lady

one sitting to capture the essentials while they were fresh.

who reveals far more décolleté than was appropriate for 1906 society – and she knows it. Using a lighter palette than usual and stepping away

On following the crowd to New York, George Luks became a bit of one-

from the grime of alleys and rag pickers, Luks unveiled a couple who are

man street theatre. He wandered the Lower East Side streets with a

ready to party into the night.

sketch pad under his arm, peering out from under a swatch of grey hair and carrying his short pudgy figure in a suit of bold printed fabric and

Considering the rousing life he led, his background is surprising.

was often wrapped in a cape and sheltered from the effluvia floating

Born in 1866 to Eastern European immigrants in Williamsport, a

about by a wide brimmed fedora hat. He peered at people and scenes

Pennsylvania logging town, his father was a respectable doctor and

through a monocle attached to his waistcoat with a satin ribbon. He had

apothecary and his mother had formal art training in France and

no trouble getting people to pose for him because he looked like an

Switzerland. His mother was the driving force in his art education.

eccentric artist.

While other artists enrolled in the methodical art academies, Luks had little patience for sketching casts and formal rules. He had a gift

Luks hung his work in the 1913 Armory Show and won numerous

for the quick study and was taught by his parents, who worked

awards. With only about four weeks of formal art training behind him,

closely with the coal miner families, about the dignity of the common

he went on to become famous as an Ashcan artist and in his own right.

man. This teaching gave some humanism to his work throughout

Luks made several pilgrimages to Pennsylvania’s coal region in the early

his life.

1920s, an area where he had worked as a boy breaking large clumps of coal into smaller clumps. He documented this country of his youth in oils,

But “humanism” didn’t have to be dull. George spent his twenty-fifth

watercolours, and drawings. During this period, he taught at the Art

year touring the vaudeville circuit with his brother William in a

Students League until 1924 and then started the George Luks School of

blackface minstrel act called ‘Buzzey and Anstock’. Bored with the

Painting in New York.

lessons at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he dropped out and travelled to Germany. There, he dropped out of the Kunstacademie in

Sadly, his huge personal image manifested itself in a drinking, brawling

Düsseldorf and instead went where the art was displayed to learn

lifestyle that found him dead at the age of sixty-seven on the pavement

directly from the great masters, travelling to the museums in Germany,

early one morning in the doorway of a saloon. But until that moment he

England and France. Of all the artists he studied, Frans Hals had the

had lived his life much like his favourite taunt:

greatest impact, and when he returned to the U.S. in 1890, Hals would

“I’m George Luks and I’m a rare bird! You people stick with me

be his lifelong inspiration.45

and you’ll have a good time.”46


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George Luks, Bleecker and Carmine Streets, c. 1915. Oil on canvas, 63.5 x 76.2 cm. Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gift of Mr and Mrs Donald Abert and Mrs Barbara Abert Tooman.


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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

John Sloan, The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue, 1907. Oil on canvas, 66.3 x 88.5 cm. The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, gift of Mrs Harry Payne Whitney.


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William Glackens

Sloan and Henri headed for Paris in 1895 and Glackens came with them. After stopping off in Holland to look at the Dutch masters,

William Glackens chose to hang two pictures in the 1908 show, The

Glackens and Henri shared a rented studio for a year in Paris. During

Shoppers and Chez Mouquin. In a dimly-lit New York shop, he turned his

this first trip to Paris, Glackens chose not to attend any of the art

attention to the impatience of the upper classes while purchasing their

schools, but spent his time painting. He returned to the U.S. in 1896

finery. Dressed ostentatiously for the outing, three shoppers wait with

and settled in New York, but he would make many return trips to Paris

obvious displeasure as a bolt of cloth is presented for their selection. The

over the course of his career.

central matriarch, hung about with mink, leads the discussion while – probably her daughters – listen attentively. The coolness of the palette

Through George Luks, Glackens obtained a job at the New York World

suggests the blue of their blood and the atmosphere in the shop. The girl

newspaper as a sketch artist and then jumped over to the New York

on the right looks out at us, but hasn’t quite mastered the imperious gaze.

Herald. He also began freelance drawing for magazines such as McClures that sent him to Cuba in 1898 to cover the Spanish

In Chez Mouquin, the exact opposite of the George Luks’ Café Francis

American War. Instead of remaining well back from the fighting,

painting is shown. The cool palette tips off the uncomfortable scene, but

Glackens went forward with the troops and was felled by malaria,

the woman’s wedding ring appears to sort out the relationship. However,

which remained in his system for the rest of his life. When he returned

the gentleman is the wealthy playboy James Moore, the same rake who

to New York he had all the magazine illustration work he could handle.

is the escort in George Luks’ Café Francis. Instead of squiring one of his

His greatest gift was both capturing gestures and making his subjects

many ‘daughters’, he seems to have brought his wife out into public

seem to be individuals with complex personalities as well as using

view. Both are fashionably wealthy, drinking cocktails in a restaurant

artistic invention to add drama, humour and sadness to scenes without

where mirrors assure everyone will be seen. His or her evening opera cape

resorting to mawkish sentimentality. These skills directly transferred to

lies across the foreground chair and she is swathed in blue silk brocade

his painting.

with lace to the neck. He drinks whiskey and soda while she samples sweet vermouth with a cherry. She is bored and is well aware of his

His method of working was often a composite, using sketches made in

reputation. He is ruddy-faced and on his way to being sociably drunk. The

the streets and then testing compositional elements to create the final

line between illustration for the Saturday Evening Post and fine art is

drawing. Added to the sketch work was the use of photographs of

often blurred.

backgrounds: signs and buildings details discovered in the black and white photo prints that added common touches of reality. However,

William Glackens was born in Philadelphia on 13 March 1870 into a

Glackens abstained from the Ashcan mentality in that he depicted New

railway family. He began drawing while still in high school and after

York’s streets and Washington Park near his home not as dangerous or

graduation from Central High School in 1890 headed straight into the

ugly, but with humour and hope. Later in life, however, he came to loathe

Philadelphia Record newspaper as an artist-reporter. He left the Record in

the illustration work. His paintings came closer to the works of Monet

1892 for the Philadelphia Press and entered the Pennsylvania Academy of

and Renoir, using short, choppy brush strokes. This technique and

Fine Arts. He met John Sloan at the school who in turn introduced

frequent return trips to Europe eventually allowed him to support his

Glackens to Robert Henri.

family on painting sales alone.

John Sloan, Easter Eve, 1907. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 66 cm. Collection of Deborah and Edward Shein.


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George Bellows, Outside the Big Tent, 1912. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 97 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, gift of anonymous donor.


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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

John Sloan, Travelling Carnival, Santa Fe, 1924. Oil on canvas, 76.5 x 91.8 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., gift of Mrs Cyrus McCormick.


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— American Realism —

His painting March Day in Washington Square (1912) exemplifies this

John Sloan

painting style, which suggests just the essentials. He worked in quick brush strokes and employed an Impressionist palette to the little parade

John Sloan was another Pennsylvania lad who was born in the town of Lock

of well-dressed walkers along the rainy pavement amid the bare trees

Haven in 1871 to James Dixon, a man of numerous ambitions who could

and distant brownstones. Regardless of the rain, it is a cheery painting

not hold a steady job, and his wife, Henriette, who taught school and came

with a clean washed atmosphere.

from money. Young John grew up in Philadelphia, graduating from Central High School where he met William Glackens. Sloane’s father suffered a

Glackens returned to France in 1925 and remained there until 1933,

breakdown in 1888 forcing John to leave school and seek jobs at the age of

winning numerous awards as his work even more closely resembled Renoir

sixteen to support his mother and sisters. While working as a cashier, he

except for a darker palette and less robust nudes. In 1933 he was elected to

studied art and made some etchings on his own before joining the firm of

the National Academy and five years later he passed away on 22 May 1938

A. Edward Newton as a designer of greeting cards and calendars. By 1892,

in Westport, Connecticut. With over five hundred paintings in collections

he had accepted a job with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Sloan started taking

around the world, he is still remembered most for being one of The Eight.

occasional classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and began to

John Sloan, South Beach Bathers, c. 1907-1908. Oil on canvas, 65.7 x 81 cm. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, Gilbert M. Walker Fund, 1948.


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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

be noticed by the faculty, specifically Robert Henri, whom he met at a

Sloan came upon the gardens when he first arrived in East Gloucester during

Christmas party. It wasn’t long before he was part of the ‘Philadelphia Four’,

that summer of 1914. He and Dolly rented what came to be known locally

gathering and endlessly talking at Henri’s studio. He shifted over to the

as The Red Cottage on East Main Street. During successive trips, the artists

Philadelphia Press doing more feature art and puzzles than breaking news

Charles Allan, Alice Winter and Stuart Davis shared the house with the

sketching, which left him more free time to explore painting.

Sloans. He created almost one hundred paintings during that first year, using his neighbours’ gardens and those on Rocky Neck and Mt Pleasant Avenue.47

Sloan was not comfortable in social situations so everyone was surprised when he met Anna Maria Wall, called Dolly by her chums and

His painting Gardens of Gloucester, made during that first summer,

clients. She was a boozy prostitute who worked as a shop assistant by

displays a bright Impressionist palette and short stabbing brush strokes

day and a hooker at night, where Sloan met her in a brothel. They fell

that are so unlike his New York work. The change of scenery and fresh sea

in love and were married on 5 August 1901. She remained his faithful,

air must have been refreshing and recharged his sensitivities. In 1919 he

supportive partner.

ventured even further afield into the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico at the urging of Robert Henri, who had visited there in 1916 and 1917.

In April 1904, having produced about sixty oil paintings, Sloan moved to

Again, his painting is relaxed and atmospheric as in his study of a New

New York and settled in to work. To earn a living, he worked for both

Mexico hacienda in the evening shadows; it is saturated with blue and the

Harpers and Scribners producing illustrations.

stucco walls are awash with mottled pinks and diluted alizarin crimson. He and Dolly embraced the easy-going lifestyle and he purchased a house in

Like the other Ashcan artists, Sloan had a gift for using light. In

Santa Fe returning every year except one for four months until 1950.

McSorley’s Bar, painted in New York in 1912, the bartender and waiter in their white shirts and white aprons are lit by the afternoon light filtering

In 1916 Sloan had his first one-man exhibition at Gertrude Vanderbilt

through the saloon’s unseen front window. McSorley’s is a typical

Whitney’s Studio in New York and began a life-long association with

neighbourhood bar with foot rail and beer taps and local pictures on the

Kraushaar Galleries. But it wasn’t until 1921 that he sold a painting to a

back bar. Even the beer is served in pewter mugs to minimise breakage

major museum, The Dust Storm, Fifth Avenue, purchased by the

and keep the brew cool. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and stale

Metropolitan Museum of Art.

whiskey. Even though the palette is dark with deep shadows, the scene is warm and friendly, the perfect place to hoist a pint after work.

The Flatiron building looms beneath the black storm clouds as women’s skirts are lifted and dust swirls ahead of the approaching storm on

John Sloan was prolific and participated in many exhibitions in New York

Twenty-third Street at Madison Square. Loitering men are moved along

including The Eight and later the 1913 Armory Show. He fell in with the

by police as they pause to catch a glimpse of ankle or calf. The term “23

Society of Independent Artists’ first exhibition in 1917. About the same time,

skidoo” might have originated here.

the war began in France and he quit the Socialist Party he had joined in 1910, producing illustrations for their posters and Masses Magazine. In

Sloan became president of the Society of Independent Artists in 1918 and

1914 he also began what was the first of five successive summer visits to

remained at that post until 1944. His long career was studded with

Gloucester, Massachusetts.

awards, shows and honours until his death in 1951 from a post-operative


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condition. Always considered a leader of the Ashcan artists, it has often

the young artist the name of a friend in New York who might take him on

been suggested that it was his gritty paintings with their dark palettes

as a student. Bellows packed up and in 1904 moved to New York City.

that were responsible for that name. Duncan Phillips was quoted in The Eye of Duncan Phillips – A Collection in the Making, stating that Sloan

A YMCA with a good gym was located around the corner from the New York

was a “sympathetic and understanding observer of class consciousness,

School of Art. Bellows dropped his bags in a room and set off to look up

crowd psychology and the bitter ironies of life.”

Professor Taylor’s friend at the school, Robert Henri. An almost immediate


father-son relationship grew between the European-trained instructor who

George Bellows

had also been born in Ohio and the home-grown young Midwesterner. Henri saw that Bellows’ gift was a natural ability to transfer a scene quickly to a

The fifth member of the Ashcan alliance was George Bellows, who arrived in

canvas and catch details that gave each image a touch of honest observation

New York from Ohio and Ohio State University. His path to the university was,

and the ring of truth. At the same time, Bellows discovered New York, the

as he commented, “surrounded by Methodists and Republicans”. Born into a

writhing life on her streets and in the places where people gathered.

prosperous Columbus, Ohio family on 12 August 1882 and remembered as a “solemn little boy who sat on our stone front steps drawing on yards of ribbon

In his classic painting Cliff Dwellers (1913) the street fairly seethes with

paper”, his introversion soon found an outlet in baseball and basketball.

activity with the city’s canyon walls where laundry wafts in the breeze

Through his educational and sporting experience, he discovered his gift for

between buildings and above the prow of an advancing trolley car.

caricaturist drawing. His drawing and sports abilities overcame his average

Children play on the pavement under the watchful eye of neighbours and

grades and carried him through Ohio State. He later wrote The Relation of

grandparents taking the morning sun on the front porch of their

Art to Every-day Things, in Art and Decoration Magazine in 1921.50

brownstone. The suffusion of sunlight penetrating the sheer walls


hemming in the action draws the viewer into the crowd. “You do not know what you are able to do until you try. In learning a topic, whether it be painting, or housekeeping, or building, or any other art,

As Bellows settled into Henri’s stimulating classes, the new gritty subject

consider every method that can be followed. Try it every possible way. Be

matter and his new artist friends – Glackens, Shinn, Gluks, and Sloan – he

deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned

also began seeing Miss Emma Louise Story, who studied at the Art Students

and impulsive, intellectual and inspired, calm and temperamental. Learn

League. She had grown up in Montclair, New Jersey across the Hudson. They

your own possibilities. Have confidence in your self-reliance.”

quickly discovered a mutual attraction – despite her parents’ objections – and began meeting in Central Park for their lunch breaks. Since Henri’s


Though he was pursued by sports organisations to become a professional

classes were rigorous, these outings had to be brief. Even Sundays were

baseball player – specifically with the Cincinnati Reds – he saw his future in

taken up with “The Boss’s” critique of the week’s work, which all the

fine art. He conveniently missed his final exams and departed from Ohio

students eagerly anticipated. While William Merritt Chase, the original

State before graduation. His father, a normally tight-fisted Yankee, offered

painting instructor when this was the Chase School, had been ruthless and

him an allowance of $50 a month until he could get along on his own.

brow-beating with his criticism, Henri praised what worked in a painting and

Ohio State Associate Professor Joseph Taylor, who had encouraged George

justified criticism of what did not. He spoke of books and plays as well,

to continue his art studies regardless of family and social pressures, gave

leading conversations that took the critique well past its dismissal point.

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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

George Bellows, Forty-Two Kids, 1907. Oil on canvas, 107.6 x 153 cm. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund.


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George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo (aka Brodie’s Revenge), 1924. Oil on canvas, 129.5 x 160.7 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York, Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.


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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

George Bellows, Club Night, 1907. Oil on canvas, 109.2 x 135 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., John Hay Whitney Collection.


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By 1906, Bellows had moved out of the YMCA into rooms shared with

cavort naked as jaybirds in and out of the black water. While the evening

two other artists and also into a sky-lighted studio where they all could

sunset grants them the glow of good health, these skinny kids are city brats;

set up their easels. Henri’s class had discovered the streets of the Lower

naked because who could afford a bathing suit? Eakins even managed to

East Side, the elevated tracks, saloons, docks and other dingy locales

drop himself into his picture, swimming in the lower right corner and peering

where the city’s denizens plied their trades. Bellows did not exhibit with

up at his buff young men. Bellows is nowhere to be seen.

The Eight, but with his name and work linked to his fellow members of Henri’s class his paintings came to the attention of the public. His career

Between 1907 and 1915, Bellows produced a series of paintings

blossomed, outstripping even Henri’s reputation, but the two always

featuring a snow-covered New York, softening the city’s angular ugliness

remained friends, travelling and exhibiting together.

with a natural shroud of white, veined with blue shadows.

Bellows’ take on forty-two kids diving and swimming off a riverside dock in

In Snow on the Battery (1913), Bellows blankets Battery Park, looking out

New York is both homage to, and a tongue-in-cheek cartoon of, Thomas

on the river beneath a foot of snow, adding some strollers, steam coming

Eakins’ Swimming Hole painted in 1884-85. Whereas Eakins has assembled

from distant chimneys, and a few bare trees adding their vertical

his nude males from a collection of studio poses and endowed them with the

elements to the composition. As opposed to his usual chaos in the city,

nobility of classic Greek sculpture, Bellows’ kids are almost cartoons as they

this is a muffled scene, buried and frozen, the city in hibernation.

George Luks, The Wrestlers, 1905. Oil on canvas, 122.8 x 168.5 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, The Hayden Collection – Charles Henry Hayden Fund.


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— Robert Henri and the “Ashcan Artists” —

His frequenting of boxing clubs, however, produced a series of brutal

aggressive as he matured and became a family man, building a house in

paintings that would become his signature works for all time. Club

Woodstock, New York.

matches were usually amateur events where up-and-coming boxers grew their list of victories on their way to the big-time professional fights. They

On 8 January 1925, George Bellows died in New York of peritonitis

were gruelling matches and his pictures convey the desperation of the

caused by an unattended burst appendix. He left behind his wife Emma

fighters to win and not just become another round-heeled bum with

and two daughters, Anne and Jean, and a well-lived life that flashed

cauliflower ears and mashed brains hanging around the fight gyms. They

briefly in the world of American art.

were also one of the few venues where a black boxer could get a fight for a cash purse – but could not advance into professional ranks without

“I do not see why a man should wait a minute to begin work after he has any

enduring ugly racial prejudice.

security in his technique; because the way to become a painter is to paint.”52

When he painted Both Members of this Club in 1909, besides capturing

Summary of the Ashcan Artists

the dingy claustrophobic crush of patrons around the ring and the harsh overhead lights barely illuminating the canvas and boxers, he made a

These six artists blazed across the American art scene from 1908 to the

point about the black boxer in the title. Both fighters were welcome to

1920s, each with his own distinctive style and yet all forever linked to the

battle each other in the club ring, but public prize fights at that time were

city of New York. They were totally different individuals, but the city

banned by state law. The idea of a black boxer beating a white boxer

seemed to stoke their fires, give courage to the timid and create a stage for

could cause riots in the streets at that time.

the showmen. Robert Henri’s influence is seen in all their paintings, in their use of light and shadow, in their choice of subject and in their story-telling

When Jack Dempsey fought Luis Ángel Firpo in 1923, Bellows was ready

capacity no less than the books they read and discussed in his classes. All

to depict the action. Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring and onto a

of them branched out, setting up easels on the Eastern seacoast, the high

sportswriter’s Corona portable typewriter. The ringside writers helped

desert of the Southwest, amid the props and costumes of the theatre,

Dempsey back into the ring to fight another round and eventually win the

along the banks of the Seine, and in the homes of the city’s High Society.

match. The typewriter manufacturer had a new advertising slogan: “Firpo could knock down Dempsey, but he couldn’t knock out Corona!”51

But their great contribution to the history of American art was their

Bellows’ painting became a sports icon.

refusal to bow to an ossified collection of rules laid down as the Victorian era came to an end. Where the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists

Realising the importance of prints, Bellows had a lithography press

had broken the grip of the French Salon on European art, The Eight, the

installed in the studio in 1916 where, between 1921 and 1924, he

Society of Independent Artists and the 1913 Armory Show thrust a new

worked with master printer Bolton Brown to generate over one hundred

vitality into the hand-me-down Impressionist hold on American painting.

images. During his later years, he also taught at the School of the

This vitality loosened up people’s appreciation of the power of art and

Chicago Art Institute and illustrated several books. To keep the financial

paved the way for the Cubists, Expressionists and other unique Realists to

pot boiling, Bellows accepted portrait commissions from New York’s

claim some of the creative high ground. Individually, they were flashes of

elite. His painting style became more formulaic and less fluid and

brilliance, together they created a force for change.


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Edward Hopper, Drugstore, 1927. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 101.9 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, bequest of John T. Spaulding.


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edward hopper (1882-1967) Edward Hopper overcame the disadvantages of being a spoiled rural rich

to success. However, his breeding and channelled view of the world and

kid from a matriarchal family. He was too tall, too introverted, too

people around him also created some voids. The impish, obsessive and

insecure but became one of the iconic artists of the twentieth century.

violent sides of his nature became known later.

Born on 22 July 1882 in Nyack, New York, Hopper was a product of Victorian sensibilities in a turnaround of role models. His maternal

His drawing talent carried this over-bred package across the Hudson River

grandmother, Martha Griffiths Smith, was the daughter of a leading

by ferry to the train and 40 kilometres into New York City. Entering the

Baptist minister, the Reverend Joseph W. Griffiths, who started up the

career path of commercial illustrator, Hopper enrolled in the New York

Nyack Baptist Church in 1854. Elizabeth Smith inherited her grandfather’s

School of Illustrating at 114 West Thirty-fourth St. and he commuted

strong will, righteousness and prestige along with his accumulated

each day to and from Nyack. He sketched from models and casts in the

properties and fortune.

studio and then brought home ‘worksheets’ of objects to copy as dictated by his instructor, Charles Hope Provost. He stayed with this

Hopper’s father, Garrett Hopper, was a brocade and button seller who

rather boring routine until, in 1900, he persuaded his parents to provide

operated a local dry-goods store, and when he married Elizabeth they

the $15 per month fee and walked his portfolio over to the New York

moved into Grandmother Martha’s house. Young Edward lived with his

School of Art, where the acclaimed William Merritt Chase was the

parents and older sister Marion throughout his early school years, having

ultimate authority.

the run of Nyack and sketching the yacht sailing and building docks while becoming a local character. He loved the water and went sailing

Heralded in his youth as an artist to be watched, young Chase had

as often as he could, taking one summer to build a boat that proved

trained at the Royal Academy in Munich in 1872. When he returned to

somewhat unsuccessful. He was known for his height and called

the U.S., forged in the tradition of European realism, critics stifled

‘Grasshopper’ as well as playing his practical jokes with an edgy, slightly

contagious yawns and soon his great promise as a new ‘American’

cruel sense of humour.

painter faded away under layers of European impasto. While his flawless technique sustained him, and was a gift to his pupils, some of those

It was his ability to draw and paint that his mother Elizabeth seized upon

students – Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth and

as his true vocation and encouraged his creativity. From his father, Edward

eventually, Edward Hopper – outstripped his notoriety and acclaim.

inherited a love of books – derived from the extensive library in his father’s den at home – an escape Edward learned from his father when

Kenneth Hayes Miller was also among the instructors at the New York

the pressures of existence became excessive. One specific literary gift was

School of Art. His superb drawing talent and lush canvasses delighted

fluency in the French language.

critics and inspired his pupils. Hopper always listed him as one of his great mentors. But if he had fine teachers, he also worked in an atmosphere

Edward was always the tall boy – 180 cm. by his twelfth birthday to

created by talented fellow students: George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, C.K.

which he added 15 cm. more as an adult – in the back row of any

“Chat” Chatterton, Guy Pene DuBois and Walter Tittle, all of whom

photograph. His first impression was all elbows and knees with large

would figure in Hopper’s gradual ascent. But it was Robert Henri who

hands and a pouty, mournful expression. This excess of pedigree provided

came to teach at the school in 1902 who would link together talent,

Edward Hopper with all the tools that would eventually carry him forward

method and intellect into an enduring creative package that Hopper

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.


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carried with him for a lifetime. Henri also provided the setting where

the Ashcan crowd, he decided to launch his career as a fine artist with a

Hopper met his long-suffering, adoring, obsessive and annoying future

trip abroad to Paris, as Robert Henri had done. In October 1906 he took

wife, Josephine Nivison, an artist in one of Henri’s classes.

a steamship to France and then a train up to Paris. Through a stipend from his anxious parents and using his grandmother’s connection with

While Henri’s training was also classic European – even steeped in the

the Baptist Church, he obtained a room in a Baptist Mission, the Église

romantic allegories of William Adolphe Bouguereau, he had managed to

Évangélique Baptiste at 48 rue de Lille run by Mrs Louise Jammes. He had

shrug off the classic French realism of the salons and went in search of

barely arrived when he burst back out onto the street armed with

an ‘American’ realism. His dark palette, assured brushstroke and

sketchpad, lead-white sized panels, easel and his paint kit.

avoidance of cloying sentimentality gave his portraits and landscapes a rooting in a more straightforward reality. This approach and his less

Hopper in sports jacket, flat cap, bow tie and twenty-four years of

domineering teaching methods set him apart from the imperious Chase

conservative American breeding soaked up both the classic and raffish Paris

and attracted a more dedicated and accomplished coterie of followers.

like a sponge. He devoured the denizens of the demi-monde, the streets,

Their work, coupled with his training and need to break away from the

cafes, and patrolled the banks of the Seine, lashing away with brush and

New York academic rule-makers who dictated what constituted ‘good’

pencil – often elbow to elbow with the crowd of foreign artists who had also

art, produced a band of American realists eventually referred to as the

stormed this enormous visual feast. Some New York art students living in

Ashcan School of painting. George Bellows, William Glackens, Everett

Paris became his guides, leading him in and out of the fleshpots, zinc bars

Shinn and George Luks followed Henri into immortality documenting life

and can-can clubs where his fluent French, unusual height and American

on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side.

embarrassment caused amusement, opened doors and expanded his experience. He was hardly a bon vivant, but neither was he bound by the

Hopper was immediately impressed by Henri and accepted the dark

rigour of toeing the line in Nyack, New York. They also trooped him in and

palette and style of his mentor as well as acceptance in a corner of Henri’s

out of the many galleries crammed with Impressionists, Post-Impressionists

drinking, talking and gathering of selected students apart from the

and Cubists where he was dazzled by Cézanne and Monet.

school. His tall, silent – except for the occasional joke-cartoonpantomime produced at someone’s expense – and looming presence at

While he visited Germany, the Netherlands and England, he continually

the back of the room earned him membership in the circle, but his desire

returned to Paris as his inhibitions fell away and he felt more at home. He

to set his own path kept him away from really close camaraderie. By 1905

found love – a charming English girl – and lost it. In Paris, he found the

he had abandoned Chase’s bluster and showboating completely and

play of sunlight on French walls, buildings, rivers and vacant streets

became a star pupil in Henri’s classes.

produced virtually abstract shapes of colour that did not need to be defiled by suggestions of people.

Early on, Hopper began getting commercial illustration jobs from


advertising agencies, but he hated dealing with the art directors who

The planes of Paris architecture, first in shadow, as he started with Henri’s

often took liberties with his finished jobs, adding or removing a

dark palette, and later in bright sunlight as the Impressionists surrounded

moustache, blotting out a background, painting in a bowler hat or some

him in every gallery, were rendered slab-sided with thrusting brush

other indignity. Though he distanced himself from the daily activities of

touches of merely suggested detail.

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Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939. Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 101.9 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, anonymous gift.


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People, vehicles and the myriad of windows that looked out

If people strayed into his compositions, they remained anonymous as in

everywhere over his scenes became paint daubs as counterpoints to

Le Bistro where two women share a bottle of wine. The exceptions to

the sweeping blocks of golden and blue-shadow buildings and

this anonymity were his sketches of Paris street people, whom he

bridges. This rendering style was at complete odds with the detail

lampooned mercilessly, and in one painting, a masterpiece that was only

work of his commercial illustrations and he revelled in it even as his

rediscovered rolled up in a cupboard after Hopper’s death, it

colours became lighter and more prismatic, applied in almost

foreshadowed his later work where people became important elements

pointillist fashion.

and yet remained in isolation from each other. This painting he titled Soir Bleu and created it from memory in 1914.

Between 1906 and 1910 Hopper made three trips to Europe building a stockpile of these images that were not unlike Van Gogh’s fields of

A mild Parisian evening lit by festive Japanese lanterns reveals a bizarre

wheat under the southern sun. In Hopper’s work, nature became an

collection of the demi-monde and slumming autocrats. A prostitute

appendage to urban and rural structures, a shimmering weather

haughtily surveys her prospects, a pickpocket, possibly her pimp, smokes

gauge or the surface of a mystery: forests, tree lines, rivers, the sea,

while an off-duty clown and two artist-types share a table. All are

the rolling hills.

together in this large canvas and yet all are separate, each frozen in a

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929. Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 96.5 cm. Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth.


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reverie. He would paint subjects in this mood again and again in different

Hopper’s one shining success during this dreary period of cranking out

settings over the next decades.

commercial illustrations to keep the wolf from the door while looking for walls to hang his Paris pictures was the Armory Show of 1913. The

When he returned to New York the final time in 1910, he had exhausted

international exhibition organised by independent artists scandalised the

his desires to ever travel overseas again. During his comings and goings,

New York art scene with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending

the Bank Panic of 1907 had reduced everyone’s discretionary income –

a Staircase n°2 and work by Wassily Kandinsky, his first showing in the

especially money to buy paintings and sculpture. The market was

United States. This time, the American realists did their share of critical

depressed. Robert Henri’s February 1908 exhibition of independent artists,

huffing and puffing at this fresh wind from Europe, but the paintings

his The Eight show, had not been a critical success, but had been an

were hung and many eyes were opened to new possibilities.

historical landmark. Hopper’s return brought him hard up against galleries who were in no mood to waste time looking at paintings of French

As usual, Hopper had dragged his dog-eared portfolio of Paris pictures to

subjects when everyone was crying out for American works. He manfully

the hanging committee in this non-juried show, but at the cost of $10 a

trudged from dealer to dealer and from one exhibition opportunity to

painting (two for $18) he only hung one work, a little sailboat titled Sailing

another with his French pictures only to find rejection in various forms.

that he had painted in 1911 which sold to a cloth merchant for $250 – the

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4 cm. Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa, James D. Edmundson Fund.


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Edward Hopper, Summer Evening, 1947. Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 106.7 cm. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert H. Kinney.


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equivalent of $5,000 in modern currency. He was so excited by the sale that

and his coterie of chums retreated each summer to get relief from the

he took the cheque home to Nyack to show his mother. He would be forty

heat in New York City. By living frugally, he saved up enough to journey

years old before he sold another piece of his non-commercial art.

to the seaport villages and usually found himself in the centre of a New York art colony.

The real tragedy of Hopper’s early days was his skill as a commercial artist. While he was not in the top rank of fashionable illustrators of the Charles

The pounding surf, rocky shoreline and salt-scoured homes of the

Dana Gibson stripe, his clean technique and compositional innovations

residents were a tonic to Hopper. He found rooms in local boarding

kept him constantly busy among the numerous industrial trade

houses that set family style tables and he spent the days marching to

magazines. By 1915, as the Great War propaganda from Britain gradually

each suggested scenic vista. Being who he was, more than likely he

seeped over into the United States, patriotic posters and printed

painted whatever was in the opposite direction to what was attracting

exaltations came his way along with the usual run of vapid romances and

the other painters like flies to honey.

tales of heroism in the trenches and later on the home front. The photomechanical process had overtaken stark black and white woodcuts

His work was not unlike his Paris paintings with their blocked-in

allowing artists greater freedom with colour and values.

compositions of buildings, lighthouses, rocks and occasional swipes of the brush that represented beached fishing boats. The salt air was

Of course, he was not oblivious to the lack of desire for his French paintings.

rejuvenating and recharged his energy when it came time to resume the

He reasoned those people were just wrong and would eventually come to

gruelling trudge back in New York.

their senses. In the meantime, he did paint a variety of subjects while he waited for his French pictures to catch on. His Summer Interior painted in

On returning from his seacoast adventures, he found the painting market

1909 offered a subject he returned to often, the nude at a bedside with light

unimproved and cast about for a way to make money without resorting

streaming in through a window playing on the walls or floor. Another

to more commercial illustrations. His friend at Henri’s classes, C.K. ‘Chat’

recurring New York subject was cigar-shaped Blackwell’s Island in the East

Chatterton, had accepted a position teaching art at a girls’ school.

River, home to a variety of prisons and correctional institutions. He and

Teaching seemed more honourable than selling his soul one drawing at a

Robert Henri both painted the island, and their individual observations and

time, so Hopper went home and turned the unused parlour in the family

renderings clearly demonstrate their differences.

homestead into a classroom. He advertised drawing lessons for serious students and soon had a class full of eager amateurs. Being used to a

Hopper’s Blackwell’s Island from 1911 shows an odd view looking down

certain discipline and a certain high level of expertise, Hopper discovered

including a portion of the Queensborough Bridge and the river at night

his students had many more thumbs than fingers.

with the moon’s reflection and speckles of window lights in the vaguely seen windows below. Henri’s 1900 Blackwell’s Island is a forbidding island

One day, in a fit of jaw-clenching despair, he penned a new advertisement

of snow surrounded by ice-choked water, a pitiless prison.

in French that read: E. Hopper Firm, Founded in 1882

Hopper also chose once again to follow in Henri’s footsteps and take the

Firm: E. Hopper

train to the Maine coast and to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Henri

Objects of Art and Utility


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Oil paintings, engravings, etchings, courses in painting and

room to spread out and later in 1913 discovered a Greek Revival walk-up

literature, repair of electric lamps and windows, removal and

building at 3 Washington Square North, facing Washington Park. It was an

transportation of trunks, guide to the countryside, carpenter,

elderly pile built in the 1830s and had housed such creative luminaries as

laundryman, hair dresser, fireman, transportation of trees and

Thomas Eakins, Augustus St Gaudins and one of Henri’s acolytes, William

flowers, wedding and banquet halls, readings, encyclopaedia of

Glackens. Hopper took the fourth floor at the top of seventy-four steps with

art and science, mechanic, rapid cure for illnesses of the spirit

no private bathroom which was heated by an iron stove rooted in the main

such as flightiness, frivolity and pride. Reduced prices for

room. A skylight that dripped when rain fell provided considerable light

widows and orphans. Samples on request. Demand the

when kept free of soot and bird excrement.

registered trademark.


While he had steered clear of the really boisterous Paris nightlife, the The painting he had sold at the Armory Show had been a symbol more than

Greenwich Village bohemianism caught him up having to only traipse

a breakthrough. He had to keep his sense of perspective, realising that each

up and down stairs to attend any number of parties. William Tittle, a

dreaded illustration bought time to paint. He also needed a larger studio,

friend from Chase’s classes, also lived there and helped Hopper find

Edward Hopper, Apartment Houses, 1923. Oil on canvas, 61 x 73.5 cm. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, purchased through the John Lambert Fund.


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illustration jobs to keep the pot boiling. Hopper’s painting New York

The stack of unsold pictures against the wall continued to grow. Escaping

Corner was finished during this time.

to the Maine seacoast again, Hopper renewed an acquaintance with a short feisty redhead with an upturned Irish nose and an apparent non-

He had made a sketch from a train window of an American Village street

stop patter which jarred him when it came out in fluent French. He had

in 1912 as seen in the fading light of evening or before an approaching

met Josephine Nivison at the New York art school where Henri had

storm looking down from a bridge. The buildings, awnings, horse

painted her and as a fixture among the Village bohemians. She painted

wagons and dabs indicating people make it one of his more populous

in watercolour amid the swirling seagulls, blown sea mist, blustery winds

scenes. The New York Corner took the viewer down to street level to

and dancing sand clouds. Jo also had a yellow cat and Hopper always

face a red brick residence over a cigar store and newspaper stand where

asked about it, which struck her as sweet and caring. Their relationship

workers stopped on their way home from the misty buildings seen in the

picked up again after they returned to New York.

background. Again, the people are ciphers in dark clothes following their daily lives beneath a very ornate, gilded corner-sign display. Trolley

Following a suggestion from a magazine editor to try printmaking as a

tracks and a lamp post complete the very formal composition.

way to freshen up his style, Hopper bought an old banknote press and

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 86.4 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, gift of John Hay Whitney.


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had it hauled up to his studio. Printmaking was becoming a new source

church where they could be married. They finally located the Reverend

of revenue for a number of American artists and there were many of his

Paul D. Elsessor of the French Huguenot Church and he married them in

artist acquaintances to show him the basics of the craft. He learned about

a French service which suited them perfectly.

buffing copper plates, spreading on the wax, sketching the image into the wax with the engraving tools, immersing the plates in acid and

The Hopper/Smith family in Nyack did not consider Josephine to be much

repeating the process until the finished etching was revealed in its final

of a catch and she referred to them her letters as “that loathsome

state. Edward Hopper blitzed through a number of plates, mastered both

breed”. As for Edward, now he had someone to take care of him, do the

etching and dry-point engraving and from 1915 to the 1920s began

laundry, help lug coal up from the basement to the fourth floor and

selling them to New York dealers. He even found his work purchased by

accompany him to restaurants for meals – neither of them could cook –

museums and hung in print exhibitions.

and keep the books covering sales of his pictures, the goofy charm evaporated somewhat. She came up against his often-stony silences.

Hopper’s etchings revealed an intimacy in his point of view and sharp

Worse, however, was his total disregard for her painting abilities or her

observation of details that gave the black and white images a gift of life and

women friends who had the temerity to consider themselves artists.

atmosphere. He also began to touch his surfaces with breezes and winds

While Edward used the studio for his work, Jo kept a folding easel in the

that ruffled life around his subjects as well as the light that illuminated them.

kitchen. Even her cat ran away.

By this time, Josephine had convinced him to work on his watercolours

Josephine’s early life had been difficult, frugal and rootless. She had tried

during their trips to the seacoast towns. Typical of these new, fresh

teaching, nursing, dramatics and finally discovered she had a gift for

images done in plein air style was The Mansard Roof, painted in 1923.

painting. Though her French was fluent and she loved to read, her

A remarkable watercolour, it brings the sea breeze in beneath billowing

sophistication was not deeply developed. Her art tended to be ‘nice’, but

yellow awnings and carves the seaside hotel architecture out of white

was nowhere near profound in concept or execution. On the other hand,

paper and lashings of blue shadows from the blowing leafy trees. His

Edward Hopper’s work had begun to be noticed and less of their income

small town and seacoast watercolours suddenly caught fire with the

depended on commercial illustration. She apparently made a conscious

galleries and museums together with his etchings. The Brooklyn

decision to take the risk and stay with him for the full ride. Even when

Museum, Worcester Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

that ride became a roller-coaster of screaming fights, biting and kicking

and the Cleveland Museum were all creating extensive watercolour

battles, she remained affixed to him like a limpet. As his stature grew

collections based on the works of Winslow Homer and John Singer

among his fellow artists and the awards and exhibitions came his way she

Sargent. Though they sold for less than the oils, their volume and the

remained at his side. After a while one was rarely seen without the other.

enthusiasm with which they were received more than compensated. As he had begun actual sales, Hopper wrote every one down in a book. Jo


Back in New York, Josephine helped Hopper secure his first one-man show

took that idea and created a series of ledgers where every painting,

of the watercolours and talked his work up among her Greenwich friends.

watercolour, etching and oil was included. Edward added a thumbnail

On 9 July 1924, Hopper and Josephine dragged their friend, painter and

sketch of the work and she penned in all the details: medium, size, surface,

art magazine editor Guy Pene du Bois with them in search of a ‘Christian’

colours, details about the subject, purchaser and price less thirty-three

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Edward Hopper, House by the Railroad, 1925. Oil on canvas, 61 x 73.7 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, anonymous gift.


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Edward Hopper, People in the Sun, 1960. Oil on canvas, 102.6 x 153.4 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.


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percent for Hopper’s agent. She was with him virtually every time he went

toothed window shades. A sense of profound decay radiates from the

out of the door and whenever a painting required a female figure, she

house as the railway tracks seemed to segregate it from growth,

posed either nude or costumed.

prosperity and a future. The old pile’s isolation seemed symbolic of Hopper’s own crisis when in 1927 he produced his last commercial

In the 1920s Hopper purchased an old Ford to drive up to the seacoasts

illustrations and bet his future on his art.

and extend his range, visiting far-flung lighthouses, seaside villages and little towns to paint. He always drove, considering Jo incapable of piloting

Soon, their lives settled into a routine wherein they divided their time

an automobile. Once, when she was at the wheel and scuffed a

between the Washington Square fourth-floor apartment and summers in

mudguard on the side of a wood pole, in a rage, he dragged her from

the north-east seacoast towns. In New York, Edward made the rounds of

behind the wheel by the hair, beat her at the kerb and stuffed her into

the city streets and neighbourhoods where he observed his subjects and

the passenger seat – all on the main street of a little country town.

brought them back to the studio in his head, or as brief sketches. From the windows and roof of the old building, he found compositions and

On other days, when they were living in South Truro on Cape Cod, he could

miniature mysteries most people would have overlooked.

be romantically charming, putting a waltz record on the turntable and dancing her away from the ironing board to sweep around the house. They

In the 1928 work Manhattan Bridge Loop Hopper explored the

also made up stories about the people he painted and read verse to each

composition in many sketches, adding, but mostly subtracting elements. At

other in French. Regardless of their vicious fights, they came to depend on

the last minute, he painted in the man wearing the overcoat and flat cap

each other being there. She knew how to drag him from his deep

at the far left, which completed the composition and provided both scale

depressions when no paintings would come. He detested her friends, but

and a lonely melancholy to the harshly-structured scene. His painting Early

relied on her being between him and nosy visitors when he was working.

Sunday Morning, done during the same period of urban exploration but two years later, boils down his observation to a half-block of shopfronts on

In 1927 Hopper once again followed Robert Henri’s lead and with their

a Sunday morning deserted street. This time, the barber’s pole was a final

used car stuffed with extra petrol cans, rope for towing, a shovel,

addition to what is an almost abstract composition, almost a page of music

suitcases and tinned food, he and Jo set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico.

notation. It ranges from the pizzicato of the brackets just below the roof

A bit jaded with Gloucester summers, they thought the change of

line through the punctuated row of upstairs windows to the beckoning,

scenery would freshen up his work. On arrival, he detested Santa Fe,

booming open spaces of the shopfront display widows all resting on the

which at that time was still a dusty collection of fortress-like adobes

flowing string line of street kerb that supports everything. The barber’s pole

roofed in orange tile and ringed with patches of cat’s paw cactus. He

rises from the pavement like an oboe solo in the early morning sunlight.

produced only thirteen paintings before they returned home to New York. He did manage one painting during the middle 1920s that became

Hopper’s personality – his true personality – began to emerge in his

a signature work. House by the Railway is a looming dormered white pile

paintings as if they were Raushak inkblot tests revealing in their shapes,

of Victorian bric-a-brac sharply truncated by the trackbed and rails of a

shadows and vacant spaces like the core of loneliness he carried with

railway track. It rises alone and naked beneath its extravagant cupola

him. His people stared into the distance waiting for something to come,

against a bald sky with its interior life sealed from prying eyes by gap-

to begin, to relieve an ache, to offer up an answer.


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As for Josephine, it appeared that he might as well have kept a cat – if the

modest talent and he was able to translate his bottomless introversion into

cat could speak French, do laundry and keep the books. But that would

a visual experience that had a huge impact on American art.

be a surface observation. She offered him a ready-made sounding board for what he could not make clear in his artwork. As his self-esteem soared,

During their summer excursions, they had always rented a cottage near a

hers dipped. He thrust and she parried. She whined and he struck out. Her

shore, often without running water except for a hand pump and no

non-stop clinging dripped like acid on the thin covering of his great drum,

telephone or even electricity. They both fell in easily with this frugal way of

but when the work would not come, she was able to pull him back from

life, dining mostly out of tin cans and rough washing their clothes, which

his deep depressions. Everyone knows someone like Edward Hopper,

were bought for use rather than fashion. However, in 1930, a death in

where the sun shines only from him or her and you enjoy the warmth, or

Josephine’s family left her with a small inheritance and they used it to buy a

get burned. Josephine achieved and relished an identity beyond her

patch of land on South Truro in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Edward designed

Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953. Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 101.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, George A. Hearn Fund.


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the house with a large main studio and a huge north-facing picture window.

make many trips to the same spot to catch the same light and sky. They

No studio space was planned for Jo’s work area, which she deeply resented.

were his bread and butter pictures that sold readily and showed off his flashy technique. Again, the isolation of the lighthouses, scoured by

Besides the usual seaside subject matter, coastguard stations, light-

ocean winds and salt surf, seemed to be metaphors for his own situation

houses, surf-blasted rocky points, the Hoppers drove inland to the small

in life. When he moved inland to paint the homes of ship captains or

towns in the area where Edward could translate what he saw into oil as

blocks of houses on a street, people were absent, but their artefacts,

well as watercolour.

however mundane, were treated with kindness.

His lighthouse pictures were almost all captured in watercolour and then

Beached bream trawlers also caught his eye with their rusted stacks and

oils were made later. He preferred bright sunny days and often had to

iron fittings, the sweep of their deep hulls and complex winching gear.

Edward Hopper, Four Lane Road, 1956. Oil on canvas, 68.6 x 104.1 cm. Private collection.


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He added their abandoned hulks to his collection of boats and offshore

I don’t believe such an aim can be achieved by a human being… We

packets that still plied the waters, skirted the points and broke the surface

would be leaving out a great deal that I consider worthwhile expressing

of the nearby sounds.

in painting, and it cannot be expressed in literature.”55

These paintings of ships and houses often brought together the works of

Curiously, the abstract painters embraced Hopper’s later paintings – and

Hopper and Charles Burchfield, a contemporary and friend of Hopper’s

even the very early French works that dogged his efforts – his rectilinear

who passed through an American Realist period between 1920 and the

compositions and patterns of shapes which verged on the abstract.

early 1940s. One critic even upset Hopper by suggesting that some of his ideas might have come from Burchfield’s paintings. Burchfield’s efforts

In his oil Approaching a City, painted in 1946, Hopper gives the viewer

sometimes brought comments such as another critic’s put-down, “merely

an engineer’s view of an upcoming dark tunnel that leads beneath rows

Hopper on a rainy day”.

of opaque buildings. A variety of interpretations are available, but the elements of the painting when taken separately create a de Chirico-like

The year 1927 marked another watershed in Hopper’s life if not his career.

dream world of intersecting planes and shadowed spaces as in his work

Robert Henri died in July. Suddenly the man whose trail Hopper had stalked

Montparnasse Station. Many of Hopper’s later paintings lead us into

like a frontier scout from the inspiring teacher’s classes to Paris and back to

strange worlds that are almost real, but are impossible. This scraping of

Greenwich Village had gone. The man he had tracked to the Atlantic

images together from internal resources almost makes a lie of Hopper’s

seacoast villages and the relationship with Josephine was out of the picture.

membership of the American Realist tradition.

Hopper masked the sudden hole in his life’s fabric with the tossed-off quote: “It took me ten years to get over Robert Henri. He wasn’t a very

Rothko, Pollock, Malevich, de Kooning and the pioneer Kandinsky passed

good painter. At least I don’t think so. He was a better teacher

through the world of Realism on the way to the total evaporation of

than a painter.”

recognisable subject matter. Monet’s later paintings at Giverny all but


washed away the boundaries of nature and yet he, like Hopper, dug in his The clash of Hopper’s maturing Realist work and the growing push from

heels and remained true to his subject’s original inspiration. In his amazing

Europe of the non-objective and abstract artists that manifested into

triptych at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Monet’s water lily garden sweeps

something called “New American Painting” enraged him. Kandinsky and

around the walls in the dedicated white gallery; the walls compel the

the Cubists had done nothing for him nor the works by Pollock, Rothko

viewer to turn in place, taking in Monet’s abstraction of shimmering colour

and de Kooning, who put their emotions directly on the canvas instead

and vaporous shapes before settling in on the individual panels.

of transferring emotions from the subject and its treatment to the viewer though recognition. At the great art museums in New York, painting

Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room appears to strike immediately as

shows relegated the Realists to the upstairs galleries while the choice

something very familiar, an abandoned room stripped of identity, or – just

main floor rooms were home to Expressionist works. Hopper wrote that

as viable – a new room awaiting the touches that will bring it to life. But

“New American painting was an attempt to create ‘pure painting’, that

the echoing rectangular shapes broken only by the prying gaze of the

is, an art which will use colour and design for their own sake and

tree outside the window shift forwards and back towards and away from

independent of man’s experience of life and his association with nature.

the picture plane offering only the geometry of barren space.

Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940. Oil on canvas, 66.7 x 102.2 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund.


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Edward Hopper, Two Comedians, 1965. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 101.6 cm. Collection of Mr and Mrs Frank Sinatra.


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By the 1930s, people began to be featured more prominently in

When they were not dealing with life in the fourth-floor walk-up

Hopper’s oils. While they had always been nearby as nudes in

studio, dining in neighbourhood restaurants or visiting galleries and

bedrooms, now they stepped into the sunlight and became mystical

the Whitney Museum that was collecting Hopper’s work, Jo and

participants in his visions. And they all looked alike. With few

Edward went to movies. The big Hollywood year was 1939 when Gone

exceptions, the men resembled Hopper and the women were

with the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Roaring Twenties,

variations of Josephine. Nothing unusual there since she was the live-

Mr Smith goes to Washington and other big movies were launched.

in model, always available when Hopper needed her, altering her

Hopper made sketches in a Manhattan movie theatre and then had Jo

hair, adding a few pounds, making herself taller or changing her Irish

pose as an usherette in an alcove lost in a reverie. The painting New

features into more of a Nordic maiden, unkempt stripper or

York Movie became part of Hopper’s pantheon of people leading

bored secretary.

quiet, desperate lives, to each their own.

Edward Hopper, Summertime, 1943. Oil on canvas, 73.6 x 111.8 cm. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, gift of Dora Sexton Brown.


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It is hard to say if Hopper had contempt for people, but there was always a

planning stages to become the mouthpiece for those Realist and

self-loathing or denial that seemed to dog his characters. People became

objective painters who felt particularly threatened by the action painters’

props, trying to express the inexpressible. In Nighthawks, his most famous

encroachment on their traditional turf, the Whitney Museum of

painting, the prow of an all-night diner cuts through the dark, its bow a

American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Galleries around town

brightly lit hard edge of fluorescent illuminated space both transporting and

were also hanging the works of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning,

protecting the passengers waiting for the counterman to reheat their coffee

Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett

or serve up the last slice of ossified pie. The image is ripe for its many parodies.

Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko. These New York School artists raised Hopper’s hackles as well. When asked to attend editorial meetings

In New York, the war against the abstract expressionists had heated up.

and contribute to Reality, he willingly complied. While they planned the

A new magazine, Reality: A Journal of Artist’s Opinions, was in the

first issue to be published in 1953, he wrote:

Edward Hopper, New York Office, 1962. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 139.7 cm. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection.


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— American Realism —

Edward Hopper, New York Corner (Corner Saloon), 1913. Oil on canvas, 61 x 73.7 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund.


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— Edward Hopper —

“Great Art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist,

Hopper continued to attend meetings with the younger Realist artists and

and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No

bathe in their deference. To them, his laconic silence was seen as quietly

amount of skilful invention can replace the essential element of

approving wisdom. This looming wisdom was no less a haunting

imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is

presence than that depicted in the painting People in the Sun from 1960.

the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a

Here, the crowd waits, as do most of Hopper’s people, but they look less

pristine imaginative conception.

like sun worshippers than commuters waiting for the train to the city.

“The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and

They are not real people, but painted people, just as the rolling hills on

does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of

the near horizon more closely resemble sets of combers in the ocean,

colour, form and design.

wave on wave, passing in review. Why does the bald man in the grey suit

“The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in

wear white socks? Though the people are the focus of the work, they are

contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is

prisoners of its geometry as though captives on a cruise ship sailing on a

to react to it and not to shun it.

mythical canal.

“Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”56

As his eighth decade rolled around, Edward was in and out of surgery for a number of ailments, mostly concentrated around the prostate, and his

Hopper’s championing of the Realist painters put him in touch with a

energy had been sapped.

younger crowd as his own contemporaries were dying off. Kenneth Hayes Miller, one of his earliest instructors, had recently died. John Sloan, another

Josephine had fallen, injuring her hip, and was gradually going blind from

contemporary and member of Henri’s original Eight, passed away in 1951.

a combination of cataracts and glaucoma. Still, they managed to navigate the seventy steps to the fourth floor when in New York. Jo did the

At home, Josephine’s inferiority complex was further fuelled by a lame

shopping and their presence was noted at museum shows when he

apology from Lloyd Goodrich, curator at the Whitney, for excluding her

received an award or was a featured exhibitor. In 1953 he produced only

from the last Annual Show where Edward had become a fixture. She

one oil painting and his output diminished as infirmity took its toll. One

retorted with a snide letter to Goodrich in which she stated:

of his final paintings was one of his most poignant.

“Over the years I’ve learned that my poor little bastards – are little bastards and their very existence unmentionable.”

Two Comedians, painted in 1965, shows a theatrical stage and in the footlights, two harlequins hold hands and take their final bows to the

However, her churning feelings of rejection were removed when the

audience. They are Edward and Josephine. After forty-three years of

Whitney’s 1953 Annual Show opened on 14 October. Hopper’s Hotel by

marriage, on 15 May 1967, he died sitting in his chair in the New York

a Railway had been hung and next to it was Josephine Hopper’s oil

studio. She followed him ten months later on 6 March 1968 just before

Convent across the Square through Fire Escape. The next day New Yorker

her eighty-fifth birthday. All of his remaining pieces were given to the

magazine’s Robert Coates singled out Edward Hopper, Jo Hopper and

Whitney Museum of American Art and Jo’s diaries and letters are also

Henry Varnum Poor as three realists he found acceptable. One of her little

archived there to guide future generations in grasping the strange and

bastards had found a home.

melancholic life of this American Realist.


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Thomas Hart Benton, The New Fence, 1945. Tempera on canvas laid down on plywood, 22 x 31.5 cm. Private collection. Art Š Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas hart benton (1889-1975) Little Tom Benton was the miracle child, the firstborn of Maecenas Eason

numbing routine of living off the land. His father took it for granted that

Benton, strong-willed politician and lawyer from Neosho, Missouri and

Tom would read law as all the Bentons had through the history of the

his pretty, cultured Texan wife, Lizzy Wise. Her first act after their

family. The United States was mired in the post-Civil War transition from

marriage was to throw Benton’s three siblings, Fanny, Dolly and Sam out

an agrarian economy to the industrial revolution that spread after

of the house before she moved in. Following Tom’s arrival on 15 April

winning the war for the North. In many communities cash money was still

1889, he became the family’s shining star eclipsing the three children

overruled by the barter system and industries flourished along the inland

who followed him, Mamie, Nathaniel and Mildred. From then on, his life

waterways and growing rail network. Maecenas Benton was a populist

would always be at an epicentre.

and kept his farmer constituents close. As Tom grew up, he frequently accompanied his father on hunting and fishing trips to farms in the

During the first six years of his life, the messy years, Aunt Maria Watkins, a

district. At an early age he became acquainted with the precarious and

hired nurse who was the offspring of a white doctor and a black slave girl,

hard-working lives of rural Americans.

raised him. Among Aunt Maria’s other accomplishments, besides her statewide-recognised medical skills, was her adoption and raising of the

All the stumping and fence-building paid off for M.E. Benton when he

black scientist, George Washington Carver. Each spring, his mother packed

was elected to the House of Representatives and the family moved to

up him and his siblings and left Neosho for Waxahachie, Texas where her

Washington D.C. Lizzy Benton thrived in the Washington social life of

father Pappy Wise lived in retirement on his cotton farm. Lizzy’s parents

parties and teas and young Tom often accompanied her on trips to

made their money from the soil while the Bentons read law, but curiously,

cultural high points in the capital, especially the Library of Congress.

the cultural sensitivities surrounding young Tom were reversed.

There his literary needs were met by sneaking a copy of The Arabian Nights – for the racy stories of sexual encounters – and discovering the

Elizabeth was refined, played the piano, sang, dressed in gentile styles

large murals that decorated the walls.

and appreciated the finer things in life. Maecenas (“M.E.” to his friends) was a rough cob, short, thick, red-bearded and hot-tempered. He

During this time, Tom developed a desire to draw trains and Indians,

dominated the court, confidently led men in political decisions and

eventually becoming fascinated with drawing caricatures of senators and

supervising in the fields. His political cronies such as William Jennings

other politicians in his father’s acquaintance. His life as the family’s

Bryan and Champ Clark often visited the Benton house, puffing cheap

miracle child built into him an aggressive, self-centred attitude that his

cigars and downing glasses of bourbon after gut-busting meals.

opinion should always prevail despite – or maybe because of – his

However, M.E.’s living large ended at the parlour door. Elizabeth ruled the

diminutive one metre sixty height. He and his father were continually at

home and called his bluff, keeping Maecenas always off-balance and

loggerheads over young Tom’s future and though M.E. did love his son,

unsure of himself.

he did everything he could to dissuade the boy from a career as an artist.

Tom was small for his age, slight of build, and avoided the inevitable

This constant tug-of-war was played out between winter spent in

clashes between his parents by stealing off to be by himself to read books

Washington D.C. and summers in the rural backwater of Neosho,

or draw pictures. Elizabeth seized on his drawing skills as a way for the

Missouri. At no time, however, was there peace at home. Elizabeth

boy to escape the rough and tumble of farm country politics or the mind-

insisted on bringing her Washington elitism into the spit and sawdust


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small town, parading in her fashionable sun dresses and glowing at teas

Tom drew some audition cartoon drawings and was hired at $14 a week,

where her own sisters were not invited so she would be the dominant

which was considerably more than his pay as a surveyor, so he spent the

female among the male guests. Her refinements extended to Tom’s

summer in Joplin as a cartoonist, doing comic caricatures of local

wardrobe, which frequently consisted of a silk shirt, white flannel trousers,

worthies and politicians over his new professional signature, Thomas Hart

pearl buttons and colourful ties. The local farm lads felt the sissy needed

Benton. This adventure in Joplin had many facets for a young boy earning

a good pounding and frequently called him out. Tom did not disappoint

wages at liberty in a city with every sin available: drinking, gambling, sex

and showed up for the bouts despite being fined by the local constabulary.

and their consequences.


His schooling had offered classes in boxing and wrestling so he gave as good as he got, and soon the local boys grudgingly left him alone.

Feeling his life as an artist was moving in the right direction, Tom Benton requested additional schooling at the School of the Chicago Art Institute.

Fortunately, he was able to dodge the culture battle at home and the

As usual with his father, the request became a negotiation. He would first

fisticuffs in the street by taking a surveying job offered by a relative living

have to study for a year at the Western Military Academy and if he

in Joplin, Missouri. Though his parents wrung their hands over his leaving

graduated, he could begin studies at the Art Institute to become a

home, Tom was anxious to find his calling. After settling in Joplin, he

newspaper artist – a practical application of his abilities. Tom took up the

began exploring, wandered into one of the city’s landmarks, the House

challenge and in September 1906 marched off to the regimentation of

of Lords Saloon, and bellied up to the bar for a schooner of draught.

the military academy. Of course, he hated it.

Above the bar hung another landmark, a particularly risqué mural of a nude lady in a scene depicting murder and incest. He peered intently at

He flunked geometry because its principles contradicted the way he

the draughtsmanship with an artist’s eye. Some barflies nursing their

thought. He raged over the restrictions of his ‘freedom’. The only highlights

drinks noticed his intensity and began to kid him about his scrutiny of the

were starring at left end in the football team and illustrating the school

painting, asking “You an artist or something?” He wrote of his reply in

magazine, The Reveille. He also discovered a champion on the teaching

his book An Artist in America: “I don’t really remember the conversation

staff; his English teacher, Mrs Dodge, buoyed up his sense of worth as an

that followed, but those kidding roughnecks with their good-humoured,

artist and even wrote impassioned letters home to his family praising his

amused faces, lost as they are to me in the vague memory of the shining

artistic skills. Of course, young Benton was in full accord. He wrote: “I am

bar at the House of Lords, with its bright lights, glittering silver and

bound to be successful. I have the fullest confidence in myself. Ask anyone

glassware, determined, in a way, the life I would follow. Their bantering

capable of judging my work what he thinks of my genius. He will tell you

scepticism about my claims to artistry tied together the loose strings of all

that the greater artists’ work done in their boyhood does not equal mine.”58

the purposeless activities of my adolescence. They threw me back on the only abilities that distinguished me from the run of boys, those abilities

Benton served his time in the military school and took the train to

which I had abandoned for more active things. By a little quirk of fate,

Chicago, arriving in February 1907. On exiting the train station, he took

they made me a professional artist in a short half-hour.”

his first horseless carriage ride to the home of a business acquaintance of his father’s where he would board with the merchant and the man’s son.


One of the bar’s patrons mentioned a job opening for an artist at the

From there he took a trolley over the ten kilometres from the near South

Joplin American newspaper across the street. After meeting the editor,

Side to the Art Institute at Adams Street on Michigan Avenue. Once

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— Thomas Hart Benton —

Thomas Hart Benton, Engineer’s Dream, 1931. Oil on panel, 73.7 x 106 cm. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, The Wreck of the Ole ‘97, 1943. Egg tempera on gessoed masonite, 72.4 x 112.1 cm. Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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— Thomas Hart Benton —

there, he discovered the work regimen was firmly embedded in the

mocked. He dressed in pegged pants, wore his hair long, affected

antique European curricula of art instruction and he was plonked down

elaborate bow ties and was never wanting for an opinion, sought or not.

in front of dusty plaster casts of classical sculpture to learn to draw.

In classes crowded with students drawing on boards propped on overturned chairs when all the benches were taken, he often made a

It was no surprise that Benton rebelled once again. His breezy style defied

spectacle of laying a line, slapping on paint, vigorously rubbing out,

classical lines and the lifelessness of the casts offered little inspiration to

shading with a stump, calling attention to his work. The acting out, the

someone used to seeking out expressions, postures and quirks that

effete clothes and his air of superior genius gave off misinterpreted signals

defined real people – if only in a comic sense. He transferred in and out

that caused at least two of his close chums and a male friend of his

of classes searching for a sympathetic eye and some respect for his

mother’s to make sexual advances on him, which he repulsed with disgust.

‘genius’. Finally, he wandered into a painting class and discovered colour; not just colour, but ways of using it that he had never imagined. He was

By the time he had graduated in his own choppy fashion through the

thunderstruck and wrote: “From the moment I first stuck my brush in a

classes at the School of the Art Institute, he felt himself ready for the

fat gob of colour I gave up the idea of newspaper cartooning. I made up

great pilgrimage to the godhead of fine art. He knew only Paris, the City

my mind that I was going to be a painter.”

of Light, could polish the genius he had hacked out of the insufficient experience Chicago had offered him. He wrote: “Of course I don’t expect

As was his way, he flung himself into this new world and on field trips

to be hailed as a remarkable artist for eight or ten years yet, even more

with friends he made at the Institute discovered the joy of painting

than that, fifteen comes closer to it. But I am building now the

outdoors. Watercolour in particular seemed to obey him as he struggled

foundation of my real work, which is to come later on and then I expect

with intensities and values. In the summer break he returned to Neosho,

to be successful, to have fame and money, to know and be friends with

immersing himself in rural life, but not discussing his artwork. With his

the world’s greatest of men.”59

batteries recharged, he returned to Chicago and plunged not only into his art studies, but into the bohemian life of self-abuse and debauchery

Not a bad boast. He only missed his apogee by ten years.

after shifting his living quarters to a shared room on Michigan Avenue that became a hangout for booze-ups, card games, trysts, parties and

With French language lessons under his belt – his vocabulary was

debates. He indulged himself in every shade of experience including

adequate but his accent was appalling Missouri Brush Jumper – Thomas

playing semi-pro football for five dollars a game and sparring with

Hart Benton embarked for France on the liner La Lorraine in June 1908.

professional boxers. Benton arrived in Le Havre and took the train up to Paris where he Not everything in Chicago was rosy. Tom Benton would always be The

secured a cheap and simple room in the Passage Guibert, stocked it with

Miracle Child in his own mind and his ebullient self-confidence translated

basic furniture and headed for the street-side tables of the Café du

beyond his thoughts and ideas to his wardrobe, his unabashed use of ‘I’

Dôme. There, with a dark coffee on a saucer, he began meeting other

in conversations and his boasting about his work. With certain

American artists. His drink of preference soon switched to hot rum with

underachievers – of which there were an abundance in most classes of art

lemon, a sort of Navy grog, and he settled into rounds of pub crawling

students – he diminished in status from annoying to shunned and

with his new friends. His initiation was accomplished by usually getting


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Thomas Hart Benton, Going West, c. 1930-1934. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Art Š Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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drunk and being tossed out. At this time and through the 1920s, Paris

managed to skirt the periphery of actual working artists and never,

was crowded with artist poseurs who seemed to think talent could be

according to witnesses, produced so much as a sketch. The sometime

achieved by osmosis, by endlessly talking about art, staring at paintings

consultant to the Louvre had heard of Benton’s ‘clever’ works and asked to

in the Louvre and absorbing the heady atmosphere of Paris cafe society.

see them, which dazzled the young artist. On viewing the body of work,

After following this regimen for a few months, Benton enrolled in the

Carlock pronounced them “awful” and proclaimed that everything Benton

Académie Julian.

knew about art was wrong. After a few of these wrenching confrontations, Carlock sent a humbled Benton off to study the true master drawings at

After seeing some student work from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Benton

the Louvre and to quit wasting time on slick academic exercises that were

realised his groping about was actually terrible. He had no sense of

hollow demonstrations of technique without substance.

proportion, composition or control of line required to make good on his boastful self-predictions. He and an artist friend chipped in to hire live

Benton started again at square one, but began to see what he had been

models and, gradually, his drawing improved, with success mostly

missing in the details and skills of the masters. His sense of form

attributed to his ability to quickly produce a likeness of his sitter. His

sharpened, as did the relationship of forms to composition. He began to

sketches of friends and models earned him some recognition among his

see past the aping of styles to the visual expression of ideas.

peers (who were also struggling with the oblivion of anonymity), but when he switched to a colour painting class at the Julian, he discovered

About this time, as his painting was showing signs of coming together,

how superficial his talent was in this medium.

the wheels came off his personal life. He met a young lady named Jeanette at a party and was riveted. Until that time, his experience with

Despite coming up hard against his shortcomings, Benton’s supreme self-

women in Paris had been humiliating brushes with prostitutes. His

confidence time and again brought him back to the centre for another

loneliness must have been crushing in a city where everyone seemed to

attempt. He found the rather shabby and cheaper Collarossi sketching

be so happy and filled with joie de vivre. He felt her attraction to him, but

studio where there was no instruction, but always a live model available.

did not know that this was her livelihood – finding well-off young men

While attending sessions there, he began seeking out different styles of

to support her for the sex and companionship she offered. While he

paintings and copying them, from Pissarro pointillist scenes to Japanese

sorted out this relationship, he met Stanton MacDonald-Wright.

prints purchased cheaply from the stalls along the Seine. While his volume of work increased, it was a hodge-podge of experimentations

Hardly a superb physical specimen, Wright always looked near death with

without any seeming direction. Among his peers, his work was seen as

a pale countenance, mismatched features and an apparently sour

‘clever’, which he saw and described in his letters home as a compliment,

disposition. He possessed three attributes that helped foster his

but was in fact a condescending dismissal in fine art circles.

friendship with Benton: Wright spoke fluent French, had money, and said good things about Benton’s work. Their friendship took hold even though


While Benton railed against the lesser lights of his circle who did not

Wright was hardly popular among the café artists because of his frank

consider him a gift to the fine arts, one such acquaintance did have a

disdain for their lack of any redeeming talent. When Benton saw Wright’s

jarring effect on his direction as a student of art. George Carlock had an

paintings for the first time, he was quite stunned with the early exercises

encyclopaedic knowledge of what it took to correctly study art, but

that would become the Synchromist movement in 1913.

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— Thomas Hart Benton —

Thomas Hart Benton, Sugar Cane, 1943. Oil and tempera on canvas, 78.7 x 121.9 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Plowing It Under, 1934. Oil on pre-primed linen, 49.6 x 61 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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MacDonald-Wright had moved to Paris years earlier, had studied at the

send some pictures home to Joplin for exhibition prior to an American tour.

Sorbonne and the École des Beaux-Arts and had met Morgan Russell at the

Of course, he didn’t mention to Mother that the Paris galleries wouldn’t

Academie Collarossi. They worked together to begin the Synchromist

touch him so the first show had to be in his studio. That rebuke by the

Movement, which attempted to create emotion with colour. He left for New

galleries pertained to most of the legion of hopeful novice artists taking up

York in 1915 during World War I and ended up in Los Angeles. His early

table space in the cafes and bistros. In his case, following his one-man

experiments in what became ‘Modern Art’ resulted in the first exhibition of

show, that situation would not change. He had cards printed announcing

non-objective work in Southern California. His affect on Benton was one of

the opening and had them widely circulated to artist friends, cafes and

a fabulous, if dyspeptic bon vivant who knew everything and disdained just

other word-of-mouth art hangouts. He and Jeanette had new clothes

about everybody, so Wright’s friendship and respect counted for a lot.

made and the studio was lined with his pictures. Coffee and cakes were set

Benton even went to pains to conceal the fact that he had a mistress on the

out, using borrowed cups to make sure the crowd would be satisfied.

string, fearing Wright would be shocked and cut him off. The door was set to open at four o’clock. At three, Jeanette’s nerve failed Jeanette despised MacDonald-Wright, detecting the streak of misogyny

and she dashed from the apartment leaving Benton as the sole host. Four

in him. She had a sister in the south of France and suggested a visit so

o’clock came and went. By five o’clock, two friends showed up and

that Benton could paint and leave the tense atmosphere of Paris for a

peered at the walls in subdued silence. Then Wright appeared. Neither of

short time. He agreed and they packed up for Saint Augustin. During this

the first two approved of Wright so they cut him and left. By now, the

adventure, Benton rediscovered a direction he had visited before, but not

afternoon light had gone and the room was left in virtual darkness.

in the bright light of the south: painting in the fresh air and trekking through the fields. Only one painting has survived from the Saint

“Great stuff,” MacDonald-Wright said into the deepening shadows. On

Augustin series, titled Contre Soleil.

the sideboard, the coffee cooled and the cakes hardened.

The years have not been kind to this work, because Benton used calcium

Cloaked in gloom, Benton shelved the American tour and cobbled fancy

oxide mixed into his painting medium to remove moisture and speed the

frames onto a pair of his works for submission to the Paris Salon. Shortly,

drying process. It is the only pointillist work based on paintings by Signac.

he was informed he could collect his entries at the Salon’s reject stack. At

Though darkened by time, the original deep blues and purples of the

this time, Morgan Russell attached himself to Wright, who had offered to

shadows and brightly coloured highlights are suggested. His other

help Benton financially, but Benton had been slow to accept. Russell was

canvasses made during this trip were also worked through to completion

not so reluctant and joined Wright to create the Synchromist Movement.

rather than serving as studies to be finished later. He needed material for

As Benton’s life in Paris began to crumble, he discovered his father’s

his first one-man show planned for his triumphant return.

unsuccessful bid to remain in political office had severely depleted funds earmarked for Tom’s art education. The free ride was over.

He returned from the south brimming with confidence and wrote to his mother that his friends had been complimentary when they gazed upon his

Elizabeth Benton’s father, Pappy Wise the cotton farmer, chose this time

latest efforts. He envisioned his first show to be a modest affair in his studio

to die and leave Lizzy a considerable inheritance allowing her to be

and armed with sales from this event and kudos from the critics, he would

independent from Maecenas’ support. Tom’s education was saved.


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Thomas Hart Benton, Cradling Wheat, 1938. Tempera and oil on board, 79.4 x 99.7 cm. St Louis Art Museum, St Louis, Missouri. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934. Oil and tempera on canvas transferred to aluminium panel, 104.1 x 132.1 cm. Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Laurence, Kansas. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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However, always a shrewd investor, Elizabeth was on her way to Paris to

He tried painting, but Maecenas Benton was revolted by the colour

visit her son and assess his future. Benton was on the edge of collapse

splotches Tom produced. To placate the family he painted realistic

when he realised the potential calamity of her reaction to Jeanette’s

portraits which appeared much more commercially viable. Sadly, just as

presence. His mortification became evident to the girl who berated him

Tom was drawing an unstressed breath, he managed to get a young

and stormed out in a tearful rage. Benton did his best to hide any

Neosho girl, Fay Clark, pregnant. Near the boiling point, M.E. Benton

evidence of a female life form on the premises before his mother swept

assayed his son’s prospects. The result amounted to a $150 bribe to leave

into his studio, but Elizabeth’s motherly sensors were on full alert and

town and a one-way train ticket to New York.

with one horrific discovery after another she unearthed the truth and, as was her habit, collapsed in a swoon on the couch.

His head still spinning with misfortune, at the age of twenty-three Benton skidded to a halt at the Lincoln Arcade in New York City at Sixty-fifth and

With very little ceremony and ruthless efficiency, Thomas Hart Benton was

Broadway. This fly-blown, cockroach-infested antique pile was home to a

wrenched by his mother from his Paris life, encapsulated in a steamship

variety of types from round-heeled prize fighters to thespians, artists,

cabin like a foreign bacillus and transported across the sea to Boston and

scribes and astrologers. Still clad in his shabby-at-the-cuffs French haute

then shipped by train back into the forested hinterlands of Neosho, Missouri.

couture, he fitted right into this strange stew of misfits. His life in New York began to follow the same pattern as Paris with his search for

After three years of being infused with Parisian manners, morals, fashion,

acceptance, living off his parents’ largesse, and scraping by, shuttling

speech and disdain for the rest of bourgeois society, Thomas Hart Benton

from one cheap studio to a cheaper one as his fortunes rose and fell.

was welcomed back to mid-America with all the panoply accorded a two-


headed goat in a carnival side show. Local newspapers lampooned him,

His paths crossed other artists such as Stuart Davis, who had been

citizens peeked at him from behind lace curtains, his family trotted him out

studying with Robert Henri along with Glackens, Sloan, Luks and Shinn,

to be petted, poked and pitied for his strangeness. The only clothes he had

and his work showed Henri’s influence. Unfortunately, Davis caught

were his French suits with long coats, pegged trousers and negligee shirts

Benton at a bad time and was put off when Tom suggested he “go to Paris

which he covered with his flowing black bow tie. He wore either his round

and try to learn something”. Davis did finally travel to Paris and there

brimmed hat or floppy beret over long hair and his youth failed to carry off

found his metier in the work of the Cubists, but Benton’s cutting remark

the silver-headed cane he employed as a prop.

– however life-changing it proved for Davis – was never forgotten.60

A former Chicago chum who now headed the Kansas City Art Institute

During the years of the Great War, Benton persisted. His main supports

suggested Tom come to teach there since a “real Paris art teacher”

was his massive egoism that shouted from his letters home: “My outlook

would be a refreshing change. Desperate to do anything that would get

at present is far from bright… If I have not genius, I am utterly worthless…

him out of provincial Neosho, he took the job. Almost at once he found

The illustrators are not artists, they are rarely men of anything more than

himself to be a magnet for the growing homosexual population of the

mediocre intelligence, but they have certain clever tricks… I can’t even get

city, who gravitated to the art classes. They took one look at him in his

a job as a scene painter… Isn’t it awful to have a son so practically

Paris get-up and sensed a new comrade had joined them. Benton bolted

worthless? I would be willing to do anything – even hard work – for the

back to Neosho.

sake of my own living if I could find something to do. Anything that

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Thomas Hart Benton, Threshing Wheat, 1939. Oil and tempera on canvas mounted on panel, 66.1 x 106.8 cm. Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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doesn’t degrade my artistic ideals… I am sure every day that I am a great man. There is no young man here who can do what I can.” He studied Cézanne and made paintings in the master’s style that showed understanding rather than just aping technique. His shapes and forms took on an individual flair as he tried to reach beyond Cezanne’s shifting planes. In Upper Manhattan, painted while he was splashing together black and white background scenes – his first murals – for movie studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he managed a vertical landscape of climbing forms and bright autumn colours that tied the entire painting together with a naked tree trunk in the foreground. He also used a diffused light that gives the buildings a glow as though seen after rainstorm has passed. He dabbled in Constructivism. During the war, it was impossible to ignore all the manifestos floating about from the rigours of the Synchromists, Orphists, Cubists, Rayonists, Dada, etc. Benton chose the Russian import, Constructivism. This exotic flower was pollinated by theories borrowed from Suprematism (Malevich) from the Ukraine, De Stijl (Neo-Plasticism) from Holland, and architectural bits from the Bauhaus in Germany. Benton cobbled together models made of wood, wire, paper and metal and painted still-lifes of them, adding the prismatic colours of the Synchromists. He applied this analysis of shapes and colours to some future paintings using architecture, forest scenes and other images built out of simple shapes and their compositional analysis. With major projects, he would continue this sculptural pre-conception method for the rest of his career. Absent during his mother’s illness in 1913, Benton had missed the New York Armory Show that had turned modern art on its ear, admitted a vast invasion of foreign and independent artists into the mainstream and exposed artists to painters and sculptors who were new, fresh and aggressively outré. He got his chance to make up for that miss by

Thomas Hart Benton, Corn and Winter Wheat, 1945. Oil varnish glazes on fabric. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Fire in the Barnyard. Oil and tempera on board, 72.3 x 114.3 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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participating in the 1916 Forum Show. This exhibition was more selective

moved out to Great Neck, Long Island. Without any money coming in

than the Armory hanging, but no less avant-garde in its message. Benton

from jobs or paintings, Tom Benton moved in with her. He waited to be

unloaded his most recent and cutting edge works.

drafted into the army, which mattered little since no one wanted his paintings. In a burst of resignation – and a desire for good food and a

In his work Three Figures (1916) he combines three voluptuous, muscled

warm bunk free from the horrors of the Flanders trenches – he joined the

figures linked as though part of a puzzle, but separated by form, black

Navy with every hope of using his drawing skills in the service of his

line and bold unreal colours. What first appears to be a blocky mass is

country. The Navy immediately saw his potential, and after basic training

actually a seething motion of forms existing in air. Exaggeration of the

in Norfolk, Virginia, they sent him to a coaling station and handed him a

anatomy emphasises each twisting bulk. This exaggeration of human

shovel. Thomas Hart Benton’s life did not improve.

form would be developed over the next decades. Being clever, he managed to demonstrate his skills and drew pictures of During and after the Great War, as he persisted and refused to go away,

buildings, produced some watercolours during urban canoe trips and

a bit more serious notice from his peers began to attach to Thomas Hart

became a camoufleur, painting camouflage designs for warships. Before

Benton. Even as he continued to grope for his own personal styles and

entering the Navy, while living in New York, he had shared a tenement

expression, what he turned out – in all its random variety – belied the

studio that had no plumbing with Tom Craven, an old chum. One of the

usual struggling novice. The desperation seemed to wear off while he

jobs he held was teaching art classes in Chelsea and he found himself

searched through the catalogue of ‘ists’ who pushed their theories. He

intrigued by one of his students, a beautiful Italian teenager named Rita

also sought out Alfred Stieglitz, gallery entrepreneur, photographer and

Piacenza. When he was discharged from the Navy and returned to New

self-styled seer of modern art.

York, he looked her up and fell into the habit – along with Craven – of dining with her and her family.

The Forum Show, though refreshing and invigorating for the New York art scene had created its own form of avant-garde by lifting art out of the

A show of his Navy watercolours produced some buzz, yet once again he

control of second-hand Impressionists and Francophiles to restore

was chastised by Stieglitz for “painting inside the lines”, but found no

‘American’ social themes and strengthen the school of realism. Abstraction

satisfaction practising the splashy watercolour art of Marin or DeMuth,

and non-objective works had lodged a beachhead, but there would be no

two Stieglitz heroes. Instead, Benton once again tried creating small

real breakout until after World War II. Stieglitz was of the opinion that fine

sculptures of his subjects in clay and then moving on to a pictorial

art was only for refined folk who could appreciate the nuance of

treatment of the scene or person. This “blocking in” allowed him to see

abstraction, the poetry of juxtaposition, the edges of free-range colour

his work in light and shadow.

spread beyond the lines. Thomas Benton had developed a deaf ear for such ramblings as Stieglitz poured over his besotted acolytes whose work hung

His figures and objects began existing in space under a particular diffused

on his walls at Gallery 291. Benton parted company with the great man.

light from above, a stage lighting that often belied the darkening sky as in Construction (1923), an active composition bathed in this light. It is a

In October 1918, the Benton house in Neosho burned to the ground

sculptural light, separating planes, defining beams and limbs and tools

taking with it all of Benton’s Paris and Chicago paintings. His mother had

with light and dark values.


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Thomas Hart Benton, Cotton Pickers (Georgia), 1928-1929. Egg tempera with oil glaze on canvas, 76.2 x 90.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, George A. Hearn Fund. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Deep South, from America Today, 1930. Distemper and egg tempera on gessoed linen with oil glaze, 233.7 x 297.2 cm. The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Rita Piacenza invited the starving artist to spend the summer of 1920 with

poverty of their situation. As, bit by bit, Tom’s work lured patrons and

her on Martha’s Vineyard. Tom, Craven and another artist, Rollin

mentors she kept the books and rescued paintings he would have

Crampton, arrived in July and the three camped out in the barn while Rita

customarily thrown away. She challenged his blockages and always

stayed in the farmhouse. He arrived practically a nervous wreck and was

talked up his “genius” to which she became totally committed.

overcome by the possibilities of the location. For the remaining decades of his life, he returned to the Vineyard every summer. Their lives were spartan

In 1924, Maecenas Benton, living alone and practising law in Missouri,

over the first ten years as she did the cooking and they travelled by foot

died of throat cancer. His last years had been lived in lonely depression.

everywhere since no one had money for a car or its upkeep. The place and

Tom Benton had been virtually estranged from his father since 1912, but

Rita’s support changed him. On the Vineyard, among the islanders, his

M.E.’s death brought in friends and neighbours and political cronies who

interest in small town America was rekindled from Neosho days. He found

revived the small town memories that had been blurred by life in Paris

subjects everywhere, deeply-lined faces rich with character: farmers,

and New York. After a visit to Missouri, Benton’s exposure to those

fishermen, retired old men who played board games down at the store,

memories caused him to paint a series of watercolours of old friends from

little old ladies whose beauty had been scoured by the salty sea winds. He

his past, a sort of rogues’ gallery of caricatures. These folksy, exaggerated

modelled their heads in clay and then tried out combinations of black and

colour sketches of mid-American types shown under the title

white values in tempera on the small sculptures.

“Missoura”, (sic) achieved some favourable critical notice. They staked out the territory he would return to again throughout his career and

There is a cartoon look to the pictures if only the exaggerations are

include him under the category of American Regionalist.

counted, but there is also a truth as the lines echo furrows in the soil, or the wash trailing behind the fishing boat. Clothes are softly rumpled, not

During the 1920s, Benton had launched into a study of structured form and

starched and new, and all the sitters, despite some El Greco stretching of

composition in abstract shapes that used every element within the frame as

anatomy, are alive within their characters. The theatrical gesture would

part of the whole. These were sharp-edged elements, not the insubstantial

come from the exaggerated pose and the fluid integration of the

creations of the Pointillists and gauzy Impressionists. Though he continually

background and foreground into the frame. All his dabbling seemed to

spoke out against the broad concept of abstract non-representational art, he

come into focus at once on the Vineyard because of its rich panoply of

employed these shape paintings as learning tools to incorporate pure form

textures, vistas and weather.

relationships without regard for subject matter or surface treatments – and not as an end in themselves. The mechanics of form organisation within a

The Piacenza family had emigrated from a small town north of Milan

frame related directly to the composition of representational painting. These

during the early 1920s and was enjoying American prosperity, but neither

earlier studies now combined with this new rich vein of American subject

they nor the Bentons approved of marriage between Tom and Rita, who

matter as he moved forward into the 1930s and 1940s.

was barely out of high school. Regardless, they were married in February


1922 and moved into Tom’s barren, cold-water flat on Twenty-first Street

To this study of form he ascribed three basic principles of compositional

between First and Second Avenues. Later that year, Rita located a fifth-

structure upon which he elaborated in an essay: “The Mechanics of Form

floor flat in Union Square heated by coal lugged up from the basement

Organization”. The first is equilibrium, which examines the stable and

bin and lighted by oil lamps. She was made of hearty stock to endure the

dynamic forms and lines within the static and immutable frame – how

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Thomas Hart Benton, Arts of the South, 1932. Tempera with oil glaze on linen mounted on panel, 20.3 x 33 cm. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut, Harriet Russel Stanley Fund. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri, 1936. Mural for the Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City, Missouri Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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they relate and balance each other, especially the support of diagonal

painting, that knowledge unlocks a greater intellectual pleasure in

movements by opposition, or the balancing of many small objects by one

realising what he managed to create. The wonder is, with all the shabby

or two large elements. His second principle involved the shifting of the

twists and turns of his early life up through the 1920s, that he managed

eye from point to point throughout the composition by means of

to use almost every creative tool he had learned to manipulate along the

sequence or connection. He discovered that the eye doesn’t necessarily

way. Like an athlete’s muscle memory, once learned, the lessons

follow the dynamic direction of a line but skips ahead to where lines meet

remained with him. Despite the many personal wounds – many of them

forming junctures and interactions. Finally, he determined the principle of

self-inflicted – Benton persevered and was reshaped by the friends who

rhythm – repetitive elements and elements that create an asymmetric

put up with him.

dynamism, adding energy to an otherwise static balance. All three of these principles relate to compositions created either on a flat surface, or

Taking his compositional discoveries from the abstract to the

to one that presents the illusion of depth.

representational was realised in Benton’s first major planned series of paintings titled The American Historical Epic, completed between 1924

His exploration of depth and the use of a rhythm of forms organized

and 1927. Conceived when he was a student, the series presents high

around a single vertical pole can best to shown with human anatomy. The

(and low) points in America’s “manifest destiny” – a history of conquest

natural flow of bones and muscles flex and contort as movement takes

of the elements, the people and the wilderness. They depict

place, revealing rhythmic patterns built around the central vertical core.

interpretations of real events featuring Americans of every stripe in

Compositionally, paintings organised, in a vertical frame flow best when

dynamic compositions, but they are more modern art than examples of

that central vertical pole is established, as with a piece of figural sculpture.

Realist painting. They adhere to Benton’s principles of creation around

In a horizontal composition, the painter has an advantage over the

central poles and the balance and rhythm of forms careening against

sculptor in that several vertical poles can be established and referenced to

each other. That theatrical light suffuses every muscle, sinew and fold of

each other by horizontal elements to achieve a visual whole.

cloth without regard for reality. Lithe bodies sinuously entwine with rocks, trees, clouds and wagons, and every frame seems barely able to contain

Later, during his teaching days in Kansas City in the 1940s when Benton

the masses of writhing forms.

took on Jackson Pollock as a pupil, the younger artist embraced Benton’s compositional







While The American Historical Epic came from his imagination, the

representational art. Even though Pollock pursued abstract art, he never

death of his father rekindled memories of wandering off with the old

quite left those principles behind in the gestural drip paintings for which

man into the back woods of Missouri in search of votes. Those

he became known.

meanderings gave young Tom a taste for the countryside and the people who survived there, bred families and worked until they died. Benton

As Thomas Hart Benton’s art moved into the modern era, reviewers

began to take walks with his sketch pad. Soon the walks became trips

placed him firmly in the Regionalist camp if only they judged his subject

where he just disappeared for up to three months at a time. Rita became

matter and its execution at that level. With a deeper understanding of

used to the long summer absences, but she resented them and he never

his years of experimentation in modern forms of expression, his attempts

spoke of what he did, where he went or what he saw. She bore up

to create a rich translation of forms and compositions into the lexicon of

stubbornly and stayed with him.


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Other motivators that got Benton out of the studio were the watercolour

composition was unique. The Abstract Expressionists would adopt this

paintings of Charles Burchfield, an Ohio artist who began showing his

type of unified approach two decades later. Only Stuart Davis, Benton’s

work in New York in 1924. Like Burchfield, Benton found himself

sworn rival, raged against them and, as a Communist, he continued his

compelled to start on down the road and record snapshots of the

foaming tirades against all of Benton’s work. Though Benton was a life-

American Scene, often covering 24 to 32 kilometres a day.

long Socialist, his political roots did not run very deep.

In 1930, Benton received a commission to do a room of murals on the

The rush to finish the murals devastated him and when they were

theme of America Today in the New School for Social Research building.

finished he was out of business for weeks, creatively and emotionally

At the time, he was turning over about $500 a year for his paintings and

spent. Meanwhile, his reputation soared and Rita kept busy selling off his

while the job offered no pay for the murals other than compensation for

huge stock of unsold work. They moved into a larger apartment and

expenses and a loft to create the panels, the resulting exposure had great

enlarged their Martha’s Vineyard home. They even managed to buy their

value. Also designing a room in the new building was muralist José

first automobile, a huge Stutz LeBaron purchased on the cheap from a

Clemente Orozco, whose theme was revolutionary movement. Their

tycoon who went broke in the stock market crash of 1929. As the Great

approach to each project was considerably different.

Depression deepened, Benton’s stock shot up as did his spending habits, and he quickly ran out of paintings to sell and owed money to the bank

Orozco chose classic fresco technique, spreading sections of the wall

on the Vineyard home mortgage.

surface with wet plaster and painting with a mixture of ground pigment binder and water directly into the still damp surface so the painting

Non-stop parties had depleted his cash as he became the toast of the

became part of the wall. Rather than bind his paintings to the future of

flower of art society and its attendant weeds. Among the party set was

the building, Benton created heavy wall panels that could be removed

Juliana Force, who managed the Whitney Studio Club at 147 West Fourth

with a canvas base coated with gesso to a depth of 0.3 centimetre thick.

Street that had been started by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The club

His painting material consisted of an under-painting of pigment, water

became a social magnet and creative hitching post for many new artists

and casein binder over-painted with tempera mixed with a half and half

in its eleven galleries. Benton was one of those discoveries. When the

mixture of egg and water. Over the darker areas of the panels he over-

bottom fell out of Benton’s spending splurge and Rita needed $3,000 to

painted this application with oil paint glazes and then sealed the entire

keep the Vineyard homestead, she turned to Juliana Force and a deal was

painting behind a coating of wax that produced an overall soft gloss.

created whereby Benton painted a set of murals for the Whitney walls in return for the $3,000 plus expenses and $1,000 more on completion –

It took Benton six months to organize the scenes and only three months

the equivalent of $60,526 in today’s dollars.

to paint the murals, using many sketches he had brought back from his


long summer wanderings. The result was almost unanimous approval by

Benton accepted the deal and set about creating another tour de force

the press, critics and the 20,000 people who came to see them during

mural project, The Arts of Life in America, a melange of facets of

the first two months after the opening. Some of the avant-garde didn’t

American life, many of which were hardly flying the flag of art. It is

know what to think because though they were Realist in their subject

Americana with its vox populi volume turned up full as though Aaron

matter, their “restless vitality” and modernist use of “all-over” design

Copeland was being played at twice the speed. The people on the walls

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Thomas Hart Benton, Navajo Sand. Oil tempera on masonite, 47.5 x 60.5 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Jon Boat, 1973. Tempera and acrylic on board, 69.9 x 91.4 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Cave Spring, 1963. Oil on masonite, 29.2 x 37.5 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Thomas Hart Benton, Harbour Scene, 1918. Watercolour on paper, 26.4 x 36.8 cm. Kiechel Fine Art Collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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came from Benton’s sketch books, again gleaned from his wanderings:

eggs no more than twenty-four hours old delivered every day for the egg

old pals, town characters, cartoonish politicians, hillbillies, cowboys, black

tempera. When the Indiana bankers came up with the first $1,000 to get

men and women, horses, locomotives, aeroplanes and player pianos,

rolling, Benton promptly blew virtually all of it on a big party and set off

Indians, coal miners and dudes in boiled shirts and derby hats.

on a tour of the state, sketchbook in hand.

Instead of the sedate work of a Puvis de Chavannes, the accepted model

Of course the history and modern face of the State of Indiana was

for murals of that time, Benton’s restless chaotic sprawl virtually rumbled

incredibly diverse and, as before with his mural projects, the majority of

across the space. It sharply divided the critics and reviewers into two

time was spent planning the complex organisation of all the elements,

camps, one that praised his work to the skies for Americanising a

looking at agricultural, industrial and political subjects. With his usual zeal

heretofore bombastic medium dominated by political drumbeating of the

and popular interpretation, Benton carefully plotted out the distribution

Mexican Communists, Orozco and Rivera; the other camp wanted

of light and dark values, created each composition component in

Benton’s head on a pike. The upshot of the whole Whitney Mural affair

modelling clay, and photographed the models under different lighting

was messy in the extreme.

combinations. Eventually the compositions were transferred to the gesso panels with the help or art students and other helpers as well as using the

In a drunken fog at the opening party, Benton received the $1,000

six hundred drawings he had made in the field during his state tour.

cheque as promised on completion, but ended up trying to soak Juliana

Miraculously, the painting went quickly as he was always energised when

Force for more money now that the murals were a big hit. Bathed in gin

it came to the final stages of these projects, seemingly tireless and usually

and regressing to the oafish clod persona of his head-strong youth,

working late into the night.

Benton managed to insult everyone who had been his main supporters among New York’s social lions. His work was removed from the Whitney

Part of the painting studio building had to be knocked down to get the

and when the museum moved to a new location, Juliana Force fobbed

4.26-metre painted panels out and loaded into special trucks – that had

off the murals in 1953 to the New Britain Museum of American Art for

to be routed to Chicago along roads that had no low bridges – for

$500. Today, they are worth many millions of dollars.

installation into the Indiana display area at the Fair. Controversy swirled around the finished works as Indiana locals whined that only an Indiana

Following the Whitney debacle, Thomas Hart Benton was recruited at the

artist could have done the job properly and who were those naked ladies

last moment by a committee of officials convened to create the State of

and isn’t that the Ku Klux Klan? A Social History of Indiana was a huge

Indiana display for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Over the objections

creative success, of course, and stirred great press and publicity for the

of local worthies and politicians that an Indiana muralist should do the

state – and Thomas Hart Benton. After the Fair, the panels were stored in

job (though no artist from Indiana came forward) Benton took the

various dank warehouses until they were hung in the new auditorium of

commission because he needed the money. He was dismayed at the

the University of Indiana.

deadline for completion in six months’ time for the 4.26-metre high, 70.1-metre long mural. He billed $10,000 – equivalent to almost

Following the brouhaha at the World’s Fair and with money in his

$160,000 dollars today – for the task plus expenses and materials. He

pocket, he returned to New York. As the last of 1934 ran out, on

bought all new brushes, paints and equipment plus had two dozen fresh

Christmas Eve his self-portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine.


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After all those years of living in cockroach-infested tenements, eating

Alfred Stieglitz challenged the guru of abstract intellectualism and his

off the charity of others and thrashing about trying to find his own

influence on American painting. Benton was against non-objective

voice with paint and canvas, Benton turned the corner and would never

modernism, but did credit Stieglitz’s idealism and recognised him as a

look back. There were casualties, however, among his former friends

superb photographer. He dismissed Stieglitz’ windy rebuttal of his

and admirers, the kind of wounded egos and slighted benefactors who

article with a windy rant of his own that reaffirmed his genius and

could hurt his future achievements. He shook the dust of New York off

flexed his creative muscles.

his boots and headed for Arlington, West Virginia to visit and old friend, musician Carl Ruggles.

As he continued to paint in his instantly recognisable style he continued to anger Leftists, especially Stuart Davis, who seemed to be

Rural America called and he responded with a series of paintings based

consumed with vituperation towards Benton. And Benton’s

on the lives and culture of the West Virginia hill folks, where they lived,

association with the firebrand Craven kept the pot boiling. Finally,

worked, prayed and sang. Folk music and the bonds that cemented

Benton and Rita packed up and left New York for Missouri, where they

communities – good and bad – went into his canvasses. In his work Lord,

moved into 905 East Forty-seventh Street in Kansas City. Not long

heal the Child, an itinerant country preacher brings the congregation of

after his arrival, he was engaged to create a mural, The Social History

this mountain church into her prayers for the health of a small child. A

of Missouri, in the House Lounge at the Jefferson City Capitol for the

choir belts out a Gospel song accompanied by local musicians. Benton

sum of $16,000 plus expenses. State officials were trying to move the

knew many of the people in his paintings after spending time among

image of Missouri beyond its roughshod frontier roots to support

them. Harking back to his trips abroad with his father, he felt comfortable

institutions that were more gentile. To that end they turned native son

with these people and most of them knew nothing of his Jekyll & Hyde

Thomas Hart Benton loose on their state with his sketchbook and gave

reputation among his peers.

him space to work in at the Kansas City Art Institute. That same institution hired him to teach classes. He held that job – and was

One peer, good friend and creative ally, Thomas Craven, was busy

widely praised for his work with his students and relationships with

hammering the modernist movement in print back in New York and

the faculty – until 1941 when a typical candid appraisal got him in hot

building a pedestal for Benton as the vanguard of the American School.

water. On 4 April, in a casual interview with reporters, he labelled the

The 24 December 1934 issue of Time magazine was a solid supporter

typical museum “a graveyard run by a pretty boy with delicate wrists

of American Realist painters – in particular those from the Midwest –

and a swing in his gait… And the old ladies who’ve gotten so old

including Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper as stellar examples.

nobody will look at ‘em think these pretty boys will do.” Comments

The same issue put down French influences and declared America the

like these and a general on-going rant against homosexuals running

hot spot of the hottest art. With the country still deep in the grip of the

the Kansas art scene got him sacked.

Great Depression, patrons of the arts had zipped up their wallets and were looking for sure things and guideposts to make judgments.

In preparation for the State House Lounge mural he travelled over the

Benton felt confident enough in his new-found success to attack what

countryside sketching everything from sorghum mills to Missouri

he saw as the pretensions of Alfred Stieglitz. His article in Common

mules, single-bottom ploughs, honky-tonks and backwoods fiddlers.

Sense, favourite reading material of the Left, titled America and/or

He even sketched a portrait of political fixer Tom Prendergast and the

Thomas Hart Benton, Back Him Up, Winter, c. 1940. Oil on canvas, 122.6 x 88.9 cm. Private collection. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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city council, which would reside on the wall between a slaughterhouse

Cooler heads prevailed and the murals remained. Benton’s use of

and dancing can-can girls. His models included real people portrayed

rhythmic clusters of set-pieces moving around vertical axes divided by

at their jobs or at their recreation and other interesting faces he

pathways led the eye about as the river carried trade up and down its

dragooned into sitting for a time to capture their likeness. Benton

banks, and pulled the energy of a growing state out of the walls. He

ended up with over eight hundred drawings. When he returned to his

managed to illustrate nobility alongside the oppression of minorities,

workshop he made a plasticine clay model of the mural, 1.21 metres

venality of capitalism run amok, a painted autobiography of his own

high and 3.65 metres long, which he photographed to keep available

family, and the righteous toil of common labour. The Social History of

a consistent check on the values of light and dark. The mural itself was

Missouri murals remain among his finest achievements.

painted in the Lounge area on five-ply wood panels covered with Belgian linen in turn covered with a gesso-mix base. The scaled-up

Throughout his next decades of work, Thomas Hart Benton continued to

sketch cartoons were transferred to the panels where Benton did all

paint in his unique style, occasionally causing a fuss, as with his nude

the painting in egg tempera with glazes of oil. He began in July and

period in the late 1930s with its exploration of realistic skin textures, and

the heat began rotting the eggs that arrived daily giving the room a

muralesque compositions such as Persephone and Susanna and the

sulphurous stink. After a year of research, planning and sketching the

Elders. They got him into trouble with blue-nosed officials and the clergy.

painting went quickly. When it was done, most of the citizens of

He was so successful, his work was termed “lewd, immoral, obscene,

Missouri wanted to lynch Benton from a tall tree.

lascivious, degrading, an insult to womanhood and the lowest expression


of pure filth,” in St Louis. “I wouldn’t have a Benton hang on my shithouse door,” said one state official. The largest dispute was whether to paint them over with

He painted on into his mid-eighties, enjoying his longevity. “Old age is a

black paint or whitewash. On first entering the Lounge, an editor of

wonderful thing,” he said, “You out-live your enemies.” He was working on

the Jefferson City Examiner newspaper wrote, “Our first impulse was

a mural about the roots of country music for the Nashville Grand Ole Opry

to duck.”

when, at the age of eighty-five, he stepped back from his work and collapsed from a heart attack on 18 January 1975. Rita found him in his studio.

Entering the long narrow room with its red carpet and drapery surrounded by the murals can produce a giddy reaction as the

Thomas Hart Benton was a gasbag who had no quit in him. If he had not

tumultuous panoply of players and scenes drag your eyes around the

gone into the arts, he would have been a politician, an unparalleled

room. Coils of smoke, gaggles of people, swirling currents of the

boaster and tireless man of the people. But he was a painter with all the

Missouri River all thread their way across the walls. Bare backs, flexing

attendant agonies and insecurities of that lonely profession; he took that

muscles, drunks, gamblers, miners, steam drills, traction engines and

gift and built into something people recognized as greatness. If they

town halls are thrown together in such a compelling series of linked

didn’t recognize it, he would remind them of his genius. Many people

compositions that the eye cannot stay still for long. The idea of

today still think of his art as grotesque, and it was, as are we all at times.

legislators spending a relaxing few moments between debates and

Benton, too, was wracked with flaws, but he managed to give us a look

votes in that lounge over a tumbler of sipping whiskey and a hand of

at ourselves and the true American Scene without the gilded frames, and

cards was hard to imagine.

created an intense beauty in the process.

Thomas Hart Benton, The Year of Peril: Exterminate!, 1942. Tempera and oil on board, 250.2 x 189.2 cm. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri. Art © Estate of Thomas Hart Benton / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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grant wood (1892-1942) The story of Grant Wood’s life is an American tragedy in three acts: birth

home they lived in belonged to Hattie’s retired parents and the public

and values, fame and influence, betrayal and death. It is also the story of

school he attended had more than one room. Where before he did

an era in American history in which numerous tragedies were acted out.

chores around the farm because it was expected, now he worked at odd

While many Americans survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and

jobs to put money on the table and earn his keep. At the age of ten, he

resumed their lives, Grant Wood represents the mirror image of that

took on a man’s responsibilities and left childhood behind.

scenario in that he thrived during those years of hard knocks and then, as prosperity had just began to return, he found himself to be irrelevant.

If he spent lonely hours looking back over his shoulder at life in the

How he faced both the pinnacle and the depths is a very human story.

Wapsie Valley outside Anamosa, he also discovered a new way to express himself in his Cedar Rapids public school. Grant became the pupil of art

For the most part, it all happened in Iowa, corn country in the

instructor Emma Gratten, who encouraged his curiosity. When he won a

Midwestern United States, where the stalks grew as high as an elephant’s

New York art contest with a chalk drawing of some leaves, his vocation

eye and a farmer could see his nearest neighbour from the top of the silo

as an illustrator became fixed in his mind. Still shy and inarticulate, he

on a clear day. Small, quiet Grant was one of four children born to Francis

could speak and impress people with his pictures.

Maryville Wood and Hattie Weaver. Frank was the firstborn in 1886, then came Grant in 1891, John followed in 1893 and Nan was the last,

At high school, he drew pictures for the yearbook and designed sets for

arriving in 1899. Hattie had been a teacher and gave up that profession

theatre productions. At home he worked on a correspondence course

to become a farmer’s wife on Maryville’s (he always used his middle

subscribed to from the Craftsman Magazine – a journal of the popular

name) farm 16 kilometres outside Anamosa, Iowa. For the first ten years

Arts and Crafts design movement. Upon graduation he signed up for a

of his life, Grant was a farm boy: mucking stalls, feeding chickens,

summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicrafts. His

hauling wood and water, shucking corn for the table and milking the

ambition was to study with Ernest Batchelder, who had written the 1904

cows. Supervising the work was his stern, unbending, Quaker father,

book The Principles of Design, an Art Nouveau handbook of the period.

who loomed over the farm demanding obedience and withholding

Batchelder drew on the lessons of Japanese precision and minimalism that

approval. A believer in true things he could see, he distrusted anything

created abstract images still rooted in reality, but relying on decoration,

that emerged from the imagination. Books of myths or fairy tales were

repeating forms, the rhythm of lines and patterns for their power.

not found in the Wood home. On the side, almost surreptitiously, Wood’s mother provided scraps of cardboard and the carbon end of burnt twigs

For six years Wood sporadically jumped in and out of classes, absorbing

for his drawing. He was not aware that the memories he was storing

as much as he could in different media from oils and chalk to creating

away as he finished each day, washing his calloused hands in the back

copper jewellery. He had a pair of carpenter’s hands that were handy with

porch basin, would one day make him famous.

tools. During this time, he worked at odd jobs, one of them as a mortuary assistant. He and a student classmate, Harold Kelly, had the grim task of

He had little time to think of anything when, in 1901, his father suddenly

carrying cadavers to the downstairs chapel. Wood described his last job

died and Hattie sold the farm, packed up the essentials and moved to the

at the mortuary: “One night we were carrying down an old gentleman

big city of Cedar Rapids across the Wapsipinicon River. The jolt from

and his toupee kept slipping off. The fellow we were working for got a

farmer’s overalls to city clothes was enough to befuddle the mind. The

hammer and some tacks and tacked it on. That was too much for us.”

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Oil on beaverboard, 78 x 65.3 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. American Gothic, 1930 by Grant Wood All rights reserved by the Estate of Nan Wood Graham/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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This is an old mortuary joke that Grant ‘borrowed’ because it made a

His creative life was slow and orderly with brushes neatly stowed away in

better story than that they were fired because they refused to answer

shelves and racks he built in the house. He painted when inspiration

telephone calls to pick up bodies late into the night.62 Wood also tried

struck and made additional money building papier mâché models of

setting up shop as an illustrator with a photographer friend, Paul Hanson,

houses in settings for an estate agent. He created brochures and lettered

but it came to nothing.

programmes and advertisements, anything to turn a dollar with his artwork. As the war in Europe neared its bloody conclusion,

Gradually over that time his homesickness faded and he took classes in life

arrangements were made within the family to provide enough money to

drawing from Charles Cummings, an academic bound to the stodgy staff

Hattie and Nan to keep house, and Grant enlisted and shipped out to

of the University of Iowa. Trudging back and forth though the freezing

Camp Dodge near Des Moines, Iowa.

winter from his lodging to the University, nobody seemed to notice he was not enrolled and paid no tuition fee. His work did not impress Cummings.

Besides his salary, he made some pin money doing pencil sketches of

He drifted down to Chicago, and in 1916, after trying to earn a living

enlisted men for 25 cents and charging officers a dollar. Except for a

making hand-made jewellery while taking a few odd courses at the School

bout with anthrax that was almost fatal, he passed his army life in

of the Art Institute, he signed up as a full-time student and took life

pleasant circumstances. At least he had three square meals a day and

drawing classes. Finally, he ran out of money. Throughout his first six years

sent his pay home. Fortunately, by 1918 the war had wound down and

after graduation, he could not make a living with his art.

he was assigned to the camoufleurs in Washington D.C. to paint camouflage designs on artillery pieces. He also made clay miniatures of

In Cedar Rapids he tried teaching and he made jewellery and table lamps

field guns to demonstrate before and after his camouflage efforts

in the Arts and Crafts style, but once again family came first. His mother

were applied.

had gone through the farm sale money and to satisfy a bank judgement against her debt of over $5,000 the Cedar Rapids home was sold. It fell

Once out of the army, Wood went back into teaching and made a

upon him to support her and his sister Nan since his two brothers had

success of it from 1919 to 1925 in the Cedar Rapids school system. To

married and moved away.

save money he wore his army uniforms until he could afford new clothes during the first year of teaching and cut an unusual figure. He

Wood moved his mother, sister and himself into a shabby little shed that

was twenty-eight years old. A thyroid condition contracted in the army

had been built by some of his friends, and spent time fixing it up while

had slowed his already painfully slow speech. When unsure of an

mostly vegetarian meals were gleaned from what spending money there

answer or just insecure, he had a tendency to sway from side to side.

was. Eventually, partnering with a friend, Paul Hanson, who had good

His wide mouth and cleft chin were the main features of his round face.

credit and some money put by, they constructed a pair of bungalows in

However, he kept his army haircut – a low maintenance shaving the

the Arts and Crafts style with hipped roofs and latticed widows wrapped

sides close-cropped and leaving hair piled on top to cushion the steel

around the four walls in a band of woodwork. Entry was through the

helmet. This cut made his ears stand out like jug handles and the round

second floor living room that led to a downstairs kitchen-dining room. It

black rim spectacles he wore gave him a surprised owl appearance

was there he did his paintings, mostly landscapes and flowers, which sold

that compounded the effect. During his interview for the teaching job,

for five for ten dollars when they sold at all.

he got the hiccups.

Grant Wood, Self-Portrait, 1941. Oil on masonite panel, 35.8 x 31.5 cm. The Figge Museum of Art, Davenport, Iowa. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution, 1932. Oil on masonite, 50.8 x 101.6 cm. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio. Art Š Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Despite his odd rustic appearance and manner, he engaged his students

He grew a beard and moustache, which only served to heighten his odd

with a sense of humour and an ability to get them involved in the many

appearance. The trip exposed him to painters he had only seen in

crafts projects he conjured up. He even supervised forty-five students

reproductions back home. It gave him a taste of the exotic and planted

who produced a 45.72-metre long titled Imagination Isles that was 45.72

the need to return and, if only by osmosis, absorb the requisite ritual of

centimetres wide and wound up into a roll to be scrolled in front of a

passage through the Paris academies and salons.

lamp to musical accompaniment and scripted narration as a theatrical event. The script spoke of this imaginary place where artists freed the

When he returned to Cedar Rapids from his 1920 flirtation with Paris, he

thoughts of ordinary folk who had become “mental shut-ins”. The

shaved off his beard and settled back into teaching. In 1922 he bought his

spiritual journey that was led by the artist as a “spiritual guide” was at

first automobile, a disreputable wreck that caused people to ask him when

odds with the contemporary view of the artist as a champion of morality

he expected delivery of the rest of the car.

and creator of ideal beauty. The nineteenth-century Symbolists had

teaching supervisor, Miss Preston, often had to come and fetch him from

inculcated this concept of spiritual guidance into worlds of imagination

home when it would not start in the morning. Wood had a number of

and dreams into the mainstream of modern art. This was radical thinking

friends he could call on for transport and was not a very good driver. He

in the hinterlands of Cedar Rapids, Iowa and labelled Wood as a member

created one innovation that charmed his home town. He built a left turn

of the modern art movement.

signal for his car in the shape of a pointing hand which he raised with a tug



It was unreliable and his

on a wire. In the winter, he went so far as to paint a glove on the hand. For that first year, Grant Wood received $900 for his teaching services. With a few dollars in his pocket and not getting any younger, Grant

By 1923 the itch to return to Paris had become too great, and he

decided it was time for him and his old high school artist chum, Marvin

borrowed money from a number of Cedar Rapids residents who had

Cone, to make good on their boyhood dream to visit Paris. By living on

bought his paintings and hired him for decoration work. The school

the cheap and carefully planning their board and transportation, they

system granted him a year’s sabbatical leave, and near the end of summer

could just eke out a short summer vacation in the City of Light. He

1923 he returned to Paris.

explained to Nan that the trip was important because “the art critics and dealers want no part of American art. They think this country is too new

He enrolled at the inexpensive Julien Academy where the masters came

for any culture and too crude and undeveloped to produce any artists.

and went at intervals, as did the students. Models were available and the

You have to be a Frenchman, take a French name, and paint like a

students circled their easels each morning to paint the model du jour..

Frenchman to gain recognition.”64

Critiques followed if a master showed up that day. As with his first trip to Paris, Wood had no desire to learn the language. He pointed at items on

They were typical tourists except for renting a cheap studio on the Left

a restaurant menu and said “Donnez-moi.” This stubborn trait left him

Bank of the Seine where they set up their easels. They became

out of class discussions, or making any friends among the students. They,

boulevardiers, strolling among the Left Bank cafes where the post-war

in turn, tended to avoid him and gave him the nickname Tête de Bois –

legions of aspiring artists and émigrés were just arriving. Wood painted,

Wooden Head. He began to retreat from the daily classes and into himself

adopting the Impressionist loaded-brush and palette-knife techniques,

as the loneliness, unconcealed ridicule and diminishing self-confidence

turning out touristy scenes that bore no resemblance to his future work.

eroded his spirit.

Grant Wood, Woman with Plants, 1929. Oil on upsom board, 52.1 x 45.4 cm. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Grant Wood, The Sentimental Yearner, 1936. Pencil, black and white Conté crayon painted white around image, 51.4 x 40.6 cm. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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At one point, desperate to attract attention, he spotted red paint all over the

Cedar Rapids. He had purchased some of Wood’s Post-Impressionist

flesh of a standing male nude he’d just finished in class as if it had a

paintings to decorate the parlours and reception areas of his business.

spreading rash. The other students gawked at his heresy, but he made out

Out back, he had a hayloft above the multi-vehicle garage that could be

that he had created a new style. He brought the painting back with him and

turned into a living space for Wood in return for Wood’s artistic talents

painted over the red spots. It resided in his Cedar Rapids studio for years.

decorating the funeral parlour’s interiors and supplying art work. Grant accepted and moved himself and his mother into the space. He created

The brief fling of pay-back didn’t last, however, and he retreated to his

kitchen and bath areas and the beds rolled back under the slanting roof

loneliness once again. A fellow student, an Englishman, called at his digs

ceiling, leaving him a large space for his painting and storage of

to see why Wood was missing classes. The visit and the chance to unload

canvasses. He would call this location at the mythical address of “5 Turner

to a fellow English speaker caused the shaggy, listless Wood to unburden

Alley” home for the next eleven years. He advertised its location with a

all his woes to this stranger. Not long after, the man returned with an

wooden hand nailed to an alley post which read “Grant Wood’s Studio”,

armload of books, classics by Dickens, Shakespeare and Goethe, and

pointing at the outside stairway he had built to the front door.

remained to read passages and discuss them. This intervention reenergised Wood who later credited his literacy and any traces of poise he

So here he was back in Cedar Rapids, still living with his mother and

had absorbed to this man’s generosity. He could never remember the

living rent free off charity of David Turner and selling his French paintings

Englishman’s name.

to Turner and Turner’s customers right off the walls of the funeral


parlour. He had made the pilgrimage to Paris, studied and exhibited his Fleeing the winter, he journeyed to Sorrento with a motley collection of

work to the collective yawns of critics who saw yet another country

acquired friends and managed to sell enough of his paintings of Paris

bumpkin trying to fake fine art and peddle pictures to buyers who didn’t

scenes and portraits of local subjects to pay for the trip.

know better. To the greater art world he remained an anonymous public school art teacher in a prairie town of 45,000 farmers and small

He returned from Paris recharged, having sold Post-Impressionist

businessmen. His chief claim to fame was becoming the Town Character.

paintings and exhibited them – though they were ignored by critics. He

Wood tumbled into another depression.

was broke when he arrived in New York and checked through customs. With his slow speech and apparent difficulty with the language, he was

The town of Cedar Rapids needed a stained-glass window designed for

mistaken for an immigrant and herded onto a westward-bound train

the Veterans’ Memorial Building. David Turner was held in high esteem

with a ticket for Iowa gratis from the United States Customs and

as a businessman and an art collector and his support of Grant Wood was

Immigration Service. When he arrived home, his French wardrobe of

considered an imprimatur to the awarding of the commission. In 1927

peasant shirts was given away by his mother along with the beret he had

Wood was granted a prestigious commission from The Memorial

affected and he was swept back into Cedar Rapids society. He once again

Window Committee to create a design in stained glass for the frame that

took up his teaching job at the McKinley School earning $200 a month.

measured 7.6 x 6.1 metres. He was required to create six life-size figures of soldiers of every American war, beginning with the Revolutionary War

Wood’s domestic situation took a new turn when David Turner made him

and ending with World War I, which would occupy the bottom of the

a proposition he could not refuse. Turner operated a mortuary service in

window. Above them was a woman representing the Republic.

Grant Wood, The Perfectionist, 1936. Black and white crayon, graphite, black ink, and white opaque watercolour on brown wove paper, 65 x 50.7 cm. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, California. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Grant Wood, Portrait of Frances Fiske Marshall, 1929. Oil on canvas, 102.6 x 76.2 cm. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Wood was required to travel to Munich, Germany and supervise the

John B. Turner, David’s retired father. For a background, he hauled out an

fabrication of the glass in this old country where the guild tradition of

old map of Iowa he had kept in his paper drawer for years since retrieving

medieval artisanship continued. Grant Wood’s sketches were re-interpreted

it from an equally old farmhouse. He privately referred to the painting as

by the Munich glass makers into more traditional-appearing figures,

“Two Old Maps”.

changing Wood’s contemporary faces to those of antique knights and saints rather than the American boys being commemorated. Frustrated, Wood

John B. Turner – Pioneer was a success, even with the old man’s sour

tried his hand at colouring the glass and after trial and error concluded that

demeanour. Wood had captured the years of life in rural Iowa etched into

the job should be left in the hands of the artisans. After a year of dawdling

the pale face with almost photographic realism. With his excitement fully

over the design, then a long time in Germany ironing out the problems,

turned up, as Wood worked on the Turner painting he began testing

Wood returned with the finished window. Almost nobody liked it. Why did

paint and making preparatory sketches for his next portrait, that of his

it have to be made in Germany with the war still fresh in people’s minds?

mother, which would be titled Woman with Plants.

This was wrong and that was wrong. There was no hoopla, no dedication and the window was installed with only a curt nod of acceptance to remain

The one true constant in Grant Wood’s life was his mother, Hattie. Since

there until today with no plaque or designation.

his father’s death and selling the farm to move herself and the children into the town of Grand Rapids, she had been the one person who had

During Wood’s stay in Munich, he discovered the Alte Pinakothek

always stood by him. As one by one his siblings married and moved away,

Museum and fifteenth-century Northern Gothic painting that was

his bond to his mother grew firmer. Now, living together in the hayloft

growing in popularity in Germany during the 1920s as die Neue

room behind the mortuary, she was his greeter, his hostess when

Sachlichkeit. Wood admired the hard-edged precision and clarity of

company called and his sounding board when no one else was available.

the artwork by Jan Van Eyck, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. There

She had been a school teacher and had given that up for farm life, but

was an implied simplicity in Northern Gothic painting. He realised

she never gave up her bright intelligence, or the need to look after Grant.

there was nothing like it in the United States. This revelation directly

Most people who visited him noted the forever smiling, slightly wizened

affected his change of style away from the derivative Impressionist

old lady and described her as “quaint”.

works he had produced since his Paris adventures. It was as if he saw the decorative motifs of his earliest painting efforts finding a place in

Even though Grant was dissatisfied with the Turner portrait, he knew he

his new mature work, taking advantage of his new skills. He examined

was on to something. His next experiment with the Flemish glaze

the layering of glazes employed by these precise German and Flemish

painting technique was a portrait of his mother, sitting with a snake plant

painters. Each coating allowed the colour beneath to come through

or Widow’s Tongue.

and left a pristine surface. By nature, Wood was a slow and accurate artist and the slash and dab techniques of the Impressionists had never

The composition pays homage to the fifteenth century, looking more

seemed to be his calling.

like the Mona Lisa than a contemporary work. The straight fingers touching rather than holding the potted plant are iconic, as is the

After the debacle of the Memorial stained glass window, Wood hunted

rigid upright posture of this prairie widow and mother. A landscape

for an apt subject with which to try out this new technique. He selected

with globular trees and a graduated sky fill the background together

Grant Wood, Portrait of John B. Turner, Pioneer, 1928-1930. Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 64.8 cm. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Grant Wood, Sentimental Ballad, 1940. Oil on masonite, 61 x 127 cm. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Art Š Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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with the trace of a meandering river and a red brick house disappearing

The painting had a much longer life. Despite its technical flaws that were

into the woods. At her elbow are the leaves of an enormous begonia

obvious to local farmers – the hilly land that made crop planting

plant – resulting in Wood’s plural title. The snake plant, a very hearty

impossible, barns built near the river’s edge, and the imaginary structures

species, has no significance other than being a needed vertical

that never did exist – the painting won the landscape award at the 1930

element. She wears an antique cameo and a deeply scalloped apron,

Iowa Fair. Despite the head-shaking farmer who backed off from the

but her eyes looking off to the right are what capture all attention.

picture declaring, “I wouldn’t give thirty-five cents an acre for that land,”

Hattie Wood was ill at the time and it was evident to everyone except

Stone City became the property of the Omaha Society of Liberal Arts and

her painter son who saw the seams and wrinkles in her face as old

found a place on the wall of the Joslyn Memorial Museum.67 The painting

friends he had grown used to over the recent years. The small

also became the forerunner of a long line of rolling landscapes from

painting – only 43.2 x 50.8 centimetres – got bad reviews from most

Wood’s meticulous brush.

of the family, even Grant. He made a photograph of his mother and preferred it. She, on the other hand, loved the painting. After

Some would say Bible Belt satire was the target of Wood’s next major

painting the portraits of two children, Wood finished 1929 with what

work, others would claim it to be a tribute, and still others the image of

would be acclaimed as some of his best work, but at the time, nobody

heroism. Wood had in mind a double portrait, not of specific subjects

around him – except Mum – seemed to like the new style and his

but a composite of two pioneers – either husband and wife or brother

unyielding touch.

and sister – who represented a lifetime working the land. To pose for the picture he elicited the services of his sister Nan, only after reassuring her

The following year, Wood embarked on another of his seminal works in

he would lengthen her face and alter her looks enough so no one would

the new style, Stone City.

recognize her. For the elderly farmer he chose his dentist, Dr B.H. McKeeby. Here again a lengthy selling job was required, but eventually

When Stone City was exhibited for the first time, locals who trudged

he gave in and, despite the time away from his practice as the Great

up to the spot where Wood had stood to sketch the scene did not

Depression took hold, he marched up to Wood’s hayloft studio.

recognize what he had painted. Stone City was a former boomtown built around a large pink limestone deposit that was used to create

For a background, Wood had discovered a simple peaked-roof white

all the public buildings warehouses and even the workers’ huts. The

house with a second floor church-style window, but was run down in the

owner of the quarry, J.A. Green, built himself a limestone castle-like

back. In place of a dental pick, Dr McKeeby was handed a hay fork. Nan

estate on a hill overlooking the town centre. What Wood painted he

wore her mother’s cameo and a scalloped-edge apron, similar to her

would had to have seen when he was a child and the steam drills

mother’s apron in Woman with Plants, from a mail-order catalogue.

were still chewing away at the rock strata and the town nestled

Actually, the same snake plant and begonia from that painting appear on

among the rolling hills was all hustle and bustle where it straddled

the front porch of the house. Wood worked on the painting for three

the Wapsipinicon River with a single bridge. In 1930, Stone City was

months and titled it American Gothic.

a ghost town with only eroded remains of the great limestone


harvest, replaced as a construction essential by the invention of

The anonymity promised by Wood failed when anyone in town who

Portland cement.

saw the picture immediately recognised Nan and Dr McKeeby. Being

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Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939. Oil on canvas, 97.5 x 127.3 cm. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Grant Wood, The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa, 1931. Oil upon composition board, 65 x 100 cm. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, The John R. Van Derlip Fund, owned jointly with the Des Moines Art Center. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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individuals not used to putting themselves forward, this recognition

have “suffered tortures from these people who could not understand

was uncomfortable for them both. When the painting appeared in the

the joy of art within him and tried to crush his soul with their sheet

Chicago Art Institute annual show for 1930, and was a sudden

iron brand of salvation.”68

sensation, attracting crowds of people many of whom had never attended an art show before, their celebrity was sealed. Critics seized

With American Gothic, Grant Wood leaped from Town Character to

on the painting, claiming Wood was the discovery of the exhibition.

Nationally Acclaimed Artist. The timing of its arrival amplified its

American Gothic was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal,

appeal. As the Depression tightened its grip on the economy, this

as well as a $300 prize, and the Friends of American Art at the Institute

sturdy, severe farm couple represented the backbone of Midwest

quickly purchased it for another $300. Critical acclaim surfaced in art

culture, the bulwark against the farms gobbled up by bank

columns in Chicago, New York and Boston. The Chicago critic was

foreclosures and destroyed by failed crops due to poor soil

charmed and wrote that the painting was “quaint, humorous, and

conservation and prairie wind storms. They became defiant symbols

AMERICAN”. A Boston critic saw the couple as grim religious fanatics.

like the later portrayal of “Rosie the Riveter” rolling up her sleeves to

He knew nothing of the artist, he admitted, but guessed Wood must

build tanks and planes for World War II.

Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931. Oil on masonite, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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If there was a downside to this sudden fame, it was Grant’s exposure to

Students paid $40 for the six-week course or $7.50 by the week. He

the media, and to fellow Iowa citizens who had a bone to pick or a

offered a full menu of fees right down to the boards students used in

question to ask. Most of the controversy ranged around the concept of a

place of canvasses. To house the students, a collection of ten ice wagons

‘typical’ Iowa farm couple. Writers and critics outside Iowa who didn’t

was assembled from the Hubbard Ice Company. Formerly horse drawn,

know anything about Wood mostly saw him laying bare the rigid,

the motor truck had replaced them and they were presented free of

inflexible, dour farmers as hard-working hatseeds of the heartland. Many

charge to the colony for a named scholarship to be given to the best of

citizens of Iowa claimed Iowa farmers didn’t look like that and were

the student applicants each year. The wagons were strung out across a

offended at the stereotype. Wood was hounded constantly for an

ridge near the town and each resident was allowed to decorate the

explanation and finally refused further comment – to anybody.

wagon to suit his or her taste.

Suddenly, the art world could not get enough of his work, which made

A faculty of local art teachers was assembled as were nude models

his life difficult considering his very slow work habits and the time it took

from among the nearby farms; young ladies who wanted to earn a

the overlaid glazes to dry between coats. So, as American Gothic hung

few dollars while putting up with flies, mosquitoes and sunburn were

by itself in the Chicago Art Institute gallery, Grant Wood forged ahead.

often chaperoned by anxious parents. Once they were reassured, the posing was strictly for “art’s sake”, the parents usually went away

He tried an unusual point of view and some humour with his The

mollified. Grant was ‘faculty director’ and circulated among the

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Looking down on the sleepy village of

students in his overalls.

Lexington, Wood commandeered a child’s hobby horse to use as a model for Revere’s mount. The hill country of Massachusetts was more

Wood’s teaching style was a mixture of casual folksiness and strict

accommodating to his rolling landscape than flat Iowa.

regimen. Abstract interpretations were verboten. The painting had to sell an idea and the idea, or slice of life, had to come from what the student

He also painted the birthplace of Herbert Hoover – hardly a popular tourist

saw. The painting classes were conducted outside in various locations

destination as his desultory administration battled the plunging economy

selected by Wood. He always had a comment, observation or critique for

– and the painting, wherever it was hung, drew a larger audience than the

each student and sometimes he took the student’s brush and made and

President’s personal appearances. The painting has a more real landscape

dabbed something on the student’s work. All paintings were done on

than Stone City, but there is still an ideal dream sequence look to it as his

boards, not canvasses, and some students earned pocket money

mannerisms for trees and contours became more developed.

preparing boards ahead of time with a coat of white lead and linseed oil to seal the surface. He also reversed his loathing of instructors who


The hard part was that Wood painted steadily, slowly carving these hard-

directed him how to paint rather than guiding his own interpretation.

edged fantasies from Arbor Day to the Fruits of Iowa, but all around him

Wood laid down hard and fast rules for the painting medium (oil and

people were losing their money so his compensation away from the

linseed thinned with turpentine), pencil sketching directly on the board

major New York markets was constant, but small. He needed a steady

before application of paint, dividing the composition into thirds and other

income to fill in while he painted. To this end, he established the Stone

immutable guides. For sketching he only used brown butcher’s wrap

City Art Colony.

paper bought by the roll – the same material used by shopkeepers to

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Grant Wood, Overmantel Decoration, 1930. Oil on upsom board, 101.6 x 161.3 cm. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Grant Wood, Death on the Ridge Road, 1935. Oil on masonite, 81.3 x 99.1 cm. Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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wrap parcels. Wood claimed it was “pure”. He was not shy in his

Virtually every element of Dinner for Threshers is from Grant Wood’s life,

criticism, at one time asking a student, “Do you have a palette knife?”

from the date beneath the barn’s roof peak, “1892” (he was born in

On receiving the knife, Wood made three downward strokes, carved off

1891, but made himself a year younger in 1916) to the people

the student’s work from the face of the board and walked away.69

representing family members and the kitchen cabinet that had been built into the bungalow he had built for his mother. The scene is accurate,

As Wood matured, and especially following the huge success of

depicting men trooping into the farm where they have co-operatively

American Gothic, his attitude towards Regionalism and Realist painting

helped thresh the crop. Often threshing crews with steam traction

hardened. The return to rural values in the face of the plummeting

engines did the work helped by the farmer and his hired hands plus the

economy was the direction for art. Art had to return to the people, not

neighbours. This was the big midday meal since the work had been going

elitist critics and art experts and self-styled connoisseurs. His taste of fame

on since the dew had lifted in the morning.

earned him lecture dates around the country at $500 a talk, which celebrity he took in his stride. But he had no patience with anyone who

Dinner for Threshers was later voted the most popular painting at the

didn’t recognize him or his name. His paintings were often selling for as

Carnegie International Exhibition in 1934. Later Wood travelled to New

high as $7,500 (over $113,000 in modern dollars) and yet he was no

York where he was feted and passed around the art crowd as though he

businessman and was always in debt, often borrowing money at

was some kind of exotic plant. But among the massive egos, he fitted

exorbitant interest fees.

right in.

He embarked on Dinner for Threshers, his most ambitious painting, in

His lectures developed his feelings about Regionalism over time until

1933 following that summer’s session of the Stone City Art Colony. He

he made “building a native American art” his centrepiece. Budding

and his partners in the colony were making plans to develop the colony

artists climbing on the Regionalism bandwagon painted images aping

as a permanent fixture as he began laying out the 1.98-metre by 45.7-

the styles of Benton, John Curry or Wood and believed they were part

centimetre set of panels that would show the men coming in for dinner

of a ‘movement’. Regionalism, by Wood’s definition, grew from

in a typical farm kitchen. His work and his side interests became

familiarity with a geographical region and all its subtleties and moods

increasingly enmeshed. His mother and Nan were frightened that he was

and especially its people. He frequently lashed out at European

stretched too thin, neglecting debts to honour speaking engagements

influences when he spoke:

and forgetting to pay some bills why overpaying others. They believed his involvement in the Stone City Art Colony was too much of a drain and

“Art can be a significant form of expression, understandable to

he should shut it down. Even David Turner, Wood’s most staunch

virtually everyone, and still not violate basic aesthetic principles. Art

supporter, became frustrated with Wood’s stubborn streak. Eventually,

need not be the exclusive property of the intelligentsia, as so many of

Wood and his partners shut down the Colony and in 1934 he moved

the Surrealists and Post-Impressionists seem to think. They are very

himself and his mother and sister from the hayloft at 5 Turner Lane to

bitter about our work.”

Iowa City to be closer to the State University where he was lecturing regularly. He directed the New Deal’s Public Works of Art project (PWAP)

By this time, Grant Wood had become a monument like a statue in the

through the University.

town square to Cedar Rapids society. His next gimmick, escapade, or


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crackpot idea was always anticipated. Everyone was shocked, however,

was not new to Grant. He had been writing one, Return from Bohemia,

when the Cedar Rapids Gazette announced he was engaged to Sarah

a sort of artistic cautionary tale and sermon and would continue, but it

Sherman Maxon, a striking woman with experience as a professional

never saw print.

singer. Sarah was five years older than Grant’s forty-four. The news was not universally praised. Many of the people who literally looked after

In 1937, to achieve a wider market for his work, he followed the same

Wood – helped his mother, kept track of his debts and, like David

path many artists had tried, printmaking. He continued with lithography

Turner, sold his paintings, were opposed to the union. Wood

into the 1940s, but his most controversial work was copied from a

rationalised that since they were both artists they would understand

painting he had created of a farmer dumping a bucket of water over

each other’s needs and expressions.

himself out at the rainwater tank. He revealed the painting to a group of select friends and discovered the men were mortified at the full frontal

His honours now included being elected to the National Academy of

nudity while the women were curiously charmed by the idea of a male

Design and the National Academy of Mural Painters for the work he

nude. His puzzlement was increased when he made a lithograph of the

supervised with the PWAP. He bought a house in Iowa City for $3,500

painting and the U.S. Postal Service refused to send it through the mail.

(almost $53,000 today) with a mortgage, a move that strained his

Only one hundred were printed.70

friendship with mentor and supporter, David Turner, whom Wood suggested, “bought my paintings because he knew they’d be worth

With Sarah handling his social obligations in Iowa City with numerous

a lot of money some day.” In October 1935, he discovered he had

parties and teas, he was free to work on improvements to the house and

been passed over to paint the murals in the Cedar Rapids Courthouse,

grounds as well as his painting and teaching-lecture load. Sarah took care

the commission going instead to Francis Robert White. In a fit of

of the finances as well, freeing him from any money worries. He once

pique, he turned down a mural to be painted in the Washington D.C.

again had someone to take care of him.

Post Office even though he had done preparation work for it. He claimed he was too busy.

Gradually, life began to gnaw away at Wood’s perfect world. First, at the University, Grant became increasingly bitter over the curriculum

That same month, on 11 October, Frank Wood received a call from Grant

keeping students from actually lifting a brush until their third year,

saying that Hattie was sinking fast. She died a few hours later at the age

requiring two years of academic ‘preparation’ until they were turned

of seventy, watched over only by Grant. Illness had robbed her of her final

loose with paint and canvas. There was also an undercurrent of ill-will

active years and she was buried on the family homestead in Anamosa

being circulated concerning his lack of sophistication, his accreditation

next to her husband, Maryville.

to teach and his inability to compromise. Secondly, his marriage was falling apart. He was visited by Internal Revenue people and informed


He gave up his painting for some time after his mother’s death,

that no income tax report had been filed from 1935 to 1937. His

working at setting the new house in order, lecturing, teaching at the

standard of living had far outstripped his income. A nasty quarrel

University, and in the spring of 1936 working on illustrations for a

ensued which finally terminated in an uncontested divorce. Much of his

children’s book titled Farm on a Hill by Madeline Darrough Horn, and

time after that was spent trying to re-establish his old rhythms, his

another set of illustrations for Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Book work

former habits, to retreat back to what had stabilised him in Cedar

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Grant Wood, Stone City, Iowa, 1930. Oil on wood panel, 76.8 x 101.6 cm. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Rapids – but without ever admitting to his former neighbours that he

After a marathon effort painting for twenty-three straight hours, the

had ever been wrong in his judgement calls. He picked up his painting,

painting was shipped to New York and sold almost at once for

starting with watercolours he had used as a child.

$7,500 which brought Wood’s pay to over $20,000 for the year, a new record. He also took a two-year leave of absence from the

Parson Weems’ Fable came about during this time after Wood read a

University to have some time to pull things together. The house in

pamphlet by the Parson who claimed intimate knowledge of George

Iowa City became a must-see for every wandering artist, and Wood

Washington’s life – specifically the story about cutting down the cherry

continued his return to full-scale painting again while entertaining

tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” young George cried out when confronted by his

the visitors.

angry father. There is no historic provenance for this popular myth except


as a morality tale created by the Parson. Wood chose to illustrate this

He painted posters for the movie Long Voyage Home, an early

historical clunker by presenting Parson Weems raising the curtain on the

patriotic film about Britain’s struggle in the North Atlantic with Nazi

depiction of the drama of confrontation. He also chose to depict the six-

U-boats. Wood also managed a poster for British War Relief in 1941.

year-old Washington with the head of the mature president we see on

Spring of that year was particularly fine in Iowa and he set about

the dollar bill.

painting a series of spring pictures beginning with Spring in the Town

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and ending with Spring in the Country. He also put the finishing

On 19 December the surgeons quickly found that cancer had riddled his

touches on his self-portrait that he had been working to for years.

organs and settled in his liver. The doctor told him the situation was hopeless. On 18 December he had made a will leaving everything to his

Here is Grant Wood at the peak of his talent, relaxed, out from under

sister, Nan. His next task was to resign from the Iowa State University.

debt and a crushing schedule. At last he can revisit his roots. Once again

They rejected his resignation, which pleased him. He had time to

the land rolls with impossible hills and crops are laid out with meticulous

discuss his burial plot, which would be in Anamosa, but the stone was

perfection. Everything is clean and orderly in his Regionalist vision – as it

small and without an epitaph – but with his correct birth date, 1891.

almost never was in his real life. He had time now to travel and accepted some dinner invitations in Florida, with the idea of another one-man

Grant Wood died on 12 February 1942. At Iowa State University,

show in New York in 1942. He could really gather together a body of

memorial tributes were spoken and the best of these stated simply:

work. But as he travelled, he found his health getting worse with no appetite and constant fatigue. Finally, he returned to Iowa City and

“Grant Wood painted what he knew… and sometimes he had a

entered the University Hospital on 24 November 1941 for exploratory

little fun.”

surgery. Wood was sure he had gallstones.

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1934. Oil on hardboard, 49.5 x 201.9 cm. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, California. Art © Estate of Grant Wood/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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Page 207

charles burchfield (1893-1967) William Charles Burchfield and his wife, Alice Murphy, created six children

thicker; the winds roared until everything grew dim in the white rush

in Astabula, Ohio. The fifth of these, Charles Ephraim Burchfield, was

of snow…”71

born on 9 April 1893. There were no artists in either family, and shy little Charles just faded into the mob. When he was four, his father died and

That year of 1911-1912 also put into his hands the books of John Burroughs,

Alice packed up her brood and their belongings and moved to her

the literary naturalist whose lyrical essays earned him considerable renown

family’s home in Salem, Ohio. There, her two bachelor uncles bought her

in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in his essay, Birds and Poets,

a six-room house to live in rent-free.

he wrote: “The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet.

His childhood in the small town that had been settled by Quakers

A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and

was typical with barefoot summers and being doted on by his uncles;

intense his life… The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every

wandering across the fields and woods to the swimming hole and

grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds – how many

the baseball diamond. The major difference for Charles was his

human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives – and

obsessive need to draw and paint whenever possible. He began the

how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!”

practice of carrying a sketchbook before he entered first grade. His subject matter was the bounty of flowers, hills and woods, small and

This love of writing for a time threatened to steer him away from his art

large animals that filled the country landscape. The concentration

as he began building his library of journals. He had discovered the

required for drawing fitted his developing nature: quiet, avoiding

ability to evoke feelings and emotions through the rhythm and music of

crowds, remaining in the background whenever possible. He was the

words that was lacking in his pure representational art. He would spend

neighbourhood shy kid.

his lifetime in pursuit of illuminating the senses through his paintings and searching for evocative symbols in his art that were so readily

With a minimum of social distractions, Burchfield studied hard through

available in his writing.

four years of high school, graduating in 1911 at the top of his class and receiving a $120 scholarship for his scholastic efforts. After years

In 1912, Burchfield entered the Cleveland School of Art. His programme

of roaming the area with pencil and paintbrush, he wanted formal

of study included two years of basic courses followed by two years of

training at an art school and put the money away towards that end. To

studies directed at his goal of becoming an illustrator. Though he obviously

further build up his cash, he took a job filing sheet metal for the

had many of the gifts needed to become an illustrator, his greatest

Mullins Company. Typhoid fever knocked him out of that job, but

deficiency was drawing the human form – a prerequisite for commercial

when he recovered he took a clerical position in the same Mullins

illustration. It’s not that he couldn’t draw people – though there are no

Company. To earn more money, he produced calling cards, place cards

nudes from figure drawing classes in his school sketches, which may be

and calendars, using floral and natural intertwining elements as

explained by a deeply held sense of morality – he was just not interested.

decoration. At the same time, he kept lyrical journals about his

He loved nature and its intricate design. In the third year of his studies, he

experiences with an eye to writing for a living: “The storm came… the

abandoned the path to illustration and decided to become a painter, away

air was filled with flying flakes of snow, which constantly became

from the dictates and assignments of editors and publications.

Charles Burchfield, Ice-Bound Lake Boat, 1924. Watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper mounted on paperboard, 62.3 x 46.7 cm. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., gift of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation.


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Throughout his years of study at the Cleveland School, once he conquered

for all their manipulations of imagery were permanent, but silent.

the crippling effects of homesickness and made a few friends among the

Burchfield explored symbols of sounds to be employed in paintings to

students, he copied the techniques of Chinese and Japanese scroll

suggest the symphony he heard in nature during his ramblings. He had

painters, with their simple brush techniques and delicate decorative

not yet been exposed to the demonstrations of the Abstract

effects. He produced elaborately-rendered posters and calling cards to

Expressionists, Futurists, Cubists, Symbolists or Constructivists who

earn spending money while he supported himself working in restaurants.

sought similar translations stretching from natural phenomena to

His paintings of nature took on the quality of the Asian masters.

metaphysics. He followed his own path. Considering Burchfield’s isolation as a student from these influences, the sophistication of his work

The New York Armory Show of 1913 came and went without causing a

demands comparison with works by both Der Blaue Reiter group and

ripple in Midwestern Ohio. Burchfield was essentially ignorant of the

Kandinsky, when he was in transition between representational art and

modern movements introduced at that epic exhibition and yet his own

total abstractions. There was a complete lack of self-consciousness as

work, while representational, began probing the same questions

Burchfield strived to solve his self-created problems of seeing – and

Cézanne, Van Gogh and Picasso explored.

hearing – what was beyond the subject in front of him.

Reading the words of Burroughs and studying the images of Hiroshige

As with his high school studies, Burchfield was a grind at the Cleveland

and Hokusai, Burchfield produced surprisingly mature watercolour

School and graduated in 1916 with yet another scholarship, this time to

renderings that would have held their own at the Armory Show

the National Academy of Design in New York City. Just the concept of

alongside the masters. In The Ravine, painted in 1916, a water-carved

living and working in that overwhelming beehive made him blanch. He

creek bed flows beneath spring-bare branches and matted grass,

arrived in time for the autumn term, immediately visualized the horror of

flowing red with action around a small rock to puddle out in ripples at

earning a living in the huge city, dealing with demands, both social and

the foot of its miniature waterfall. The design is a natural balance of

academic, for which he felt ill-equipped, and borrowed $25 from his

stabilising forms with the dynamic overlay of the undergrowth. He also

brother Fred for the train fare home to Salem, Ohio. He fled New York in

succeeded in working with simple, less convoluted forms and linear

November 1916 ahead of what he perceived as looming failure, and

designs in The Lighted Window watercolour from 1917. The picture is a

never looked back.

simple rendering of a rough grey exterior wall of a cabin surrounding a window that holds a glowing oil lamp. There is snow on the ground and

As he wrestled with his decision and the stink of failure that clung to it,

above the slant of the roof, eerie tree branches gesticulate, stripped bare

he headed into the woods with his watercolours to regain his spiritual

by winter winds. The window is an island of warmth framed by clean

centre once again. As he worked alone, at the Cleveland School of Art

white curtains offering a haven within; all this with a minimum of

two of his teachers hung a number of his paintings constituting his first

strokes and colours.

one-man show.72

It was plain that during this time he felt that the shortcomings of sounds

Burchfield’s intensity released itself with a burst of 165 watercolour

and music lay in their ephemeral states – here and gone, while paintings

paintings in 1917 while he held down a full-time job in the Cost

Charles Burchfield, Street Scene-Sun and Shadow, c. 1933. 48.3 x 47 cm. Collection of James and Barbara Palmer.


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Charles Burchfield, Rainy Night, 1929. Watercolour over pencil, 76.2 x 106.7 cm. San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, California, gift of Misses Anne R. and Amy Putnam.


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Department at the Mullins Company that had welcomed him back. He

rotting pumpkin, which he labelled “Dangerous Brooding”. These

managed by working during his lunch hour, fleeing the office for a

sketches seemed to coincide with entries in his journals related to

fifteen-minute walk, chewing down a snack lunch and using the

childhood nightmares and feelings of unease, which he transferred to

remaining time to make a sketch of some natural phenomenon: a cluster

his paintings in cloud shapes and the writhing of wind-torn trees.

of leaves, a copse of trees, a gurgling brook. Including time to hurry back

Weather and wind lashed at or swirled around his works turning even

to the office, the entire sortie required forty-five minutes. The works that

simple cabins in the woods into hulking, brooding animals and queasy

emerged from this daily ritual have the slap-dash plein air intensity of a

shadow shapes. His mind seemed to run riot.

Van Gogh but the economy of Japanese brush painting. In some, such as Dandelion Seed Ball and Trees, the paper is filled with a cacophony of

The calligraphic, spidery ‘doodles’ he created, almost like automatic

dots, scrolls, lines, shavings, tanglings and grass that march across the

writing, seemed to reflect his work lettering calling cards with a nib pen.

bottom of the page in waves of jagged lines like a seismographic record

His strokes swept across the page in great swoops, perfect in their

of an earthquake.

copperplate splendour, but instead of illuminating capital letters, or penning a flowery introduction or invitation, the strokes left behind

His sunflowers loom like bystanders gaping into a window as he strived

buzzing insects of fantastic complexity. What had been painstakingly –

to codify his response to nature’s textures. His trees ranged from pointillist

copied flowers were now suggestions of buds, leaves, stems, languorous

dabs held aloft by shaggy bark to clumps on the horizon growing from

stamens and thrusting pistils. Fabulous birds with peacock tails cruised his

insubstantial grass like ice cream cones supporting frosted dollops that

skies, filling pelican bills with hapless creatures while all around curious

are sprinkled with coconut. Where his response clings to representation

seed pods spiralled towards the fertile earth.

of nature, the air around his subjects is often electrically charged by his brush to reveal sounds, breezes, birdsong, and the exhalation of oxygen.

This need for almost cartoon-like exaggeration developed more fully

He filled dozens of notebooks with his writings and sketches for later

over the next two years as Burchfield began to add more man-made

reference. As often as nature enticed him to linger and draw, the same

subjects to his nature meanderings. In July 1918, he was drafted into

nature frightened him with its sinister and relentless side as winter

the army and marched off to what was left of the Great War.

blizzards scoured the trees bare and torrents of rain caused floods.

Fortunately, they sent him to the Camouflage Corps to work under a lieutenant who was a Philadelphia portrait painter, and he was put to

His pure design explorations turned to creating symbols, on the one

work painting camouflage schemes for field artillery. He was also

hand a sort of shorthand he called “conventions”, and on the other

allowed time off to wander about painting as he had done before at

two-dimension doodling that was calligraphic in nature. The

the Mullins Company. He found isolated buildings and ruins in and

conventions were three-dimensional combinations of shading and linear

around Camp Jackson in South Carolina, which he roughed in, often

constructions that created shapes, not of things, but of emotions – from

leaving a melancholy feeling as a sadness seemed to come over him and

a shaded comma that indicated fear to a hovering amorphous shape

his work. His symbolism intruded into the most innocent of natural

that to Burchfield suggested “morbidness” (sic) or evil. Still another

scenes, transforming flowers into demon masks and coal mine

yawning black space appeared to be a toothless mouth carved out of a

openings into yawning pits.


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On departure from the army in 1919, he returned home to Salem,

a shaft hole waits in the shaded darkness away from bright sunlight

Ohio and his job at the Mullins Company. He arrived in turmoil,

spilling on the rocks and tailings that tumble down into its black

attempting to return to where he had left off with his nature

interior. This painting comes as close to total abstraction as any he

investigations, but came up short. His former living flowers, trees and

ever created. He worked as though exorcising demons and then one

swirling weather effects gave way to isolated and abandoned houses.

morning he awoke and felt better. Gradually the clouds lifted and he

Verging on deep depression, he gathered many of the paintings

found himself caught up in the human as well as the natural life

together and burned them.

around him.

His mood swings deepened, producing such works as the

The Kevorkian Gallery in New York started out in 1920 with a bang,

Abandoned Mine. It is an amorphous juxtaposition of shadows and

awarding Burchfield a one-man show in February that was critically

shapes, weighted from the top to the bottom of the composition, as

praised and sold enough works to allow him a three-month hiatus from

Charles Burchfield, Night of the Equinox, 1917-1955. Watercolour, brush and ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper mounted on paperboard, 35.6 x 45.7 cm. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., gift of the Sara Roby Foundation.


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the Mullins Company Cost Department to paint. He turned to houses and

eaves pierced by dead-eye windows, revealing nothing of life inside

buildings and man-made environments.

the slab-like walls. At times, among the dead structures, trees thrust up from the trampled soil and soften the blocky urban landscape with

Back in Salem, he now planned trips criss-crossing Ohio on the

their reaching.

interurban electric rail lines, stopping at small towns and villages. For company, he read volumes by Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather.

“Realism, intense realism. Crude barn-like houses in January sunlight are

People began to appear in his sketches and paintings, along with their

more beautiful than the wildest fairy tale,” he wrote in his 1920

activities – not as central characters of importance, but accompanying

Sketchbook Number Two.73

the structures and streets. As usual the weather was key to each scene, bitter snow turning the ground to iron and rain flooding down among

This intensity translated itself into his mantra: “Force, Power, Vigour!”

the rooftops and railway trucks. The structures were cubes and angled

On he plunged with his “conventions”, boiling skies and blasted

Charles Burchfield, Street Scene, 1940-1947. Watercolour, 99 x 134.6 cm. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas.


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landscapes laid bare by the elements. However, he was becoming a

paint. At work, his designs came to be considered “special products”

middle-sized fish in a very tiny pond, working away in Salem, Ohio. The

and it wasn’t long before he was in charge of three assistants. He

pinch came in 1921 when he lost his job with the Mullins Company.

considered his wallpaper designs to be for the most part “hack”

That spring he took a job for the summer on the Kenreich farm. There,

work, but his ingrained Protestant work ethic demanded his best

he met Bertha Kenreich and discovered love in the alfalfa field. He was

efforts for the reward of his pay cheque. The results were floral and

so smitten by her and was besotted with the feelings between them he

woodsy patterns that reflected both his former “conventions”

could not describe any of it in his journals. His Bertha became a silent

(considerably tamed) and his calligraphic doodles mingled with

partner in his life.

naturalistic studies of cattails, lilies and fronds of all types arranged across two-dimensional space in such a way that often produced the

With the need to once again cut out on his own, he thought of some

illusion of a third dimension.

advice he had been given by his instructors at the Cleveland School and considered wallpaper design for a full-time vocation. He contacted the

All this time, though they lived in a still fairly undeveloped suburb, he

firm of M.H. Birge & Sons in Buffalo, New York and sent some of his

was still surrounded by Buffalo and its industrial environs. His volume of

watercolours along with the letter. His journey to Buffalo and subsequent

work had slowed to a trickle, but he still managed to wander afield and

interview were a success and they offered him the job of assistant in the

find some old houses, many dating from the nineteenth century, that

design department, where he reported for work on the first Monday

had not yet tumbled into the street, and made some pencil and crayon

following Thanksgiving 1921.

sketches. Though he produced fairly straightforward renderings in pleasant compositions, his raison d’être was still vague. Why was he

Tepidly, he set up work while living alone in the city and making

painting? What statement was he making? Buffalo was an

weekend visits to Salem. Soon, Bertha accepted his proposal of

unsympathetic town, cobbled together by businessmen at the

marriage and he hurried back to Buffalo to rent a two-room apartment.

crossroads of the Erie Canal from the east and Lake Erie with its

They were married on 20 May and moved into their first home. The

gateway to the iron ore mines in north-west Minnesota. Was the

settled nicely into domestic life and their first daughter, Mary Alice, was

common man beaten down by the press of progress, by the tailings of

born in 1923 followed by Martha Elizabeth in 1924, Sarah Ruth in 1925

“manifest destiny”? People had vanished from his paintings once

and Catherine Esther in 1926. After a breather of two years, Charles

again, leaving the houses and buildings as though everyone had just

Arthur arrived in 1929. By 1925 they had moved into a two-storey

stepped away. Burchfield discovered he was one of those people. He

house on a narrow deep lot at 3574 Clinton Street in Gardenville, near

was no longer a visitor to his subject as he had been to the woods and

Buffalo Creek, the city’s namesake. To accommodate his painting, a

rolling hills of Ohio. He had become what he painted and needed new

small studio was constructed behind the house. On this plot of land, he

symbols to portray the life of which he was now a part.

and Bertha lived for the rest of their lives. It was with this push into depicting his urban and industrial surroundings What with moving, kids, construction and the hundred domestic

that Charles Burchfield entered his Regionalism period for which he

crises that arrive in any family, Burchfield scratched out less time to

became most recognized during the 1930s. He pressed on with his

Charles Burchfield, Houses in Late Autumn Sunlight, 1917. 54.6 x 44.5 cm. Private collection.


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paintings of Buffalo homes, mostly clapboard with deep eaves and

family a living wage and more. Still Charles hesitated. Back in

Palladian arched windows, Victorian mansard affairs studded with

Gardenville, supported by his wife pregnant with their fifth and last

dormers. He wandered down to the Lake Erie docks where the ore and

child, Charles Arthur, he took the plunge. On 1 August 1929 he

grain boats docked and the grain elevators shot up like giant

tendered his resignation at H.M. Birge and picked up his brushes for

tombstones above the flat and swampy landscape. Trains were

his new full-time career.

everywhere; large puffing steam locomotives with fifty goods wagons hanging off their drawbars, clanking and spitting oil with every stroke of

With Rehn as his new dealer, the second man came into his life.

their connecting rods.

Edward Hopper was also one of Rehn’s exclusive artists. Hopper’s career had begun to soar with his watercolours of lighthouses, ship

By the late 1920s more and more of his paintings were coming to the

captain’s homes and small-town streets. There was a definite

market and attracting attention. Two men came into his life: one would

resemblance in Hopper’s and Burchfield’s subject matter if not their

make his career, the other would be come a staunch and influential

styles. They were often compared by critics, which they both found

friend. His job at the H.M. Birge wallpaper factory began to drag him

to be distasteful. However they began to exchange letters and in

down. Coupled with the demands of his domestic situation, his

1928 Hopper wrote of Burchfield: “From what is to the mediocre

painting was being constricted as he conscientiously brooded over

artist and the unseeing layman the boredom of every day

problems at the office. He began to hate the nine-to-five prison. On the

existence... [Burchfield] has extracted a quality that we may call

other hand, he had been sending his works to the Montross Gallery in

poetic, romantic, and lyric... By sympathy with the particular he has

New York, which had been handling his paintings since his brief but

made it epic and universal.” 74

ugly scholarship foray back in 1916. His sales in 1928 had been encouraging, but not enough to live on. Frank Rehn got word of

In 1950, Burchfield returned the favour by noting in an article, “Cumulus

Burchfield’s desire to do better.

clouds would not attract him, perhaps because of their voluptuous, decorative character.”

Rehn with his New York Gallery was considered to be the best dealer of contemporary art in the city – handling only American artists. He

From the 1930s and throughout the 1940s, they remained

wrote to Burchfield with a proposition to represent him. Vacillating,

geographically ‘to each his own’, but of the pair, Rehn was most

Charles could not just dump Montross and that dealer refused any

amazed with Burchfield’s work. He seemed to come from nowhere and

compromise division of Burchfield’s work between the two dealers. At

remained nowhere, capturing the soul of the Midwestern landscape

this same time, Burchfield was contacted by Edward Root, a professor

without having followed the same route to success as his

of art at Hamilton College, who had one of his paintings and asked to

contemporaries. Even Thomas Hart Benton had gone to Paris, as had

see more to add to his collection. When he learned of the stand-off

Hopper – three times – and then he spent years trying to fob off those

between the artist and the two dealers, he invited Rehn and Burchfield

Paris paintings. Burchfield had not even studied in New York.

to his home in Clinton, New York. There, Rehn convinced Burchfield

Everybody who was anybody had studied in New York – the real New

that enough paintings could be sold to guarantee the artist and his

York City – not Buffalo.

Charles Burchfield, Over Porch Roof, 1933. 74.9 x 54.6 cm. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


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As Burchfield painted his way through the 1930s, he became disenchanted

In the 1940s, woodland scenes began appearing, each one dissolving

with being grouped into the Regionalist mould. In a letter he wrote to Frank

into the fantasy of symbolism as reality melted into tumbles of shapes.

Rehn, Burchfield moaned: “I am not an Ohio or a western New York artist,

Trees seemed to be in flames as their shivering leaves sent out vibrations

but an American artist – or should I say an artist who happens to be born,

into the ether and weather effects blossomed and bloomed in orgies of

living, painting in America. If I paint for an audience, it is to anyone,

clouds that surrounded recognisable objects. The works recalled the days

anywhere who happens to be spiritually akin to me. ‘Regionalism’ makes

of 1916-17 when his forests writhed with tentacles for branches and

me sick!”75 However, he did continue on as he discovered endless subject

moonbeams poured down from the sky, pecked and spotted with star-

matter for his work. He, Benton, Hopper and the Iowa farmer Grant Wood

dots and dabs. As he moved through this transition into the final period

gained their fame and fortune while other less fortunate folks saw theirs

of his work, his “regionalism” began to distort and shimmer, fading out

go down the rathole that was the Great Depression. It was the golden

of focus as his need to embrace the fantasies of his youth gained the

period of the American Scene painters. Those who bought and collected

upper hand.

their works seemed to yearn for simpler times. As the war in Europe chased a number of artists off the Continent and Burchfield’s success with his paintings translated into commissions from

into the United States, this influx of modern artists took root in New York

businesses and industries – and the magazines that put those businesses on

and Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Dada and other expressions of non-

their front covers and in feature articles. He found himself on assignment

objective art became the darlings of the galleries. American Scene

from Fortune magazine painting scenes in a sulphur-loading terminal then

painters, Regionalists and even the poor American Impressionists still

drawn into the black opening of a West Virginia coalmine.

hanging on, if not irrelevant, were suddenly pushed off museum first floors and gallery show windows. The offended Realists raised a huge

At the back of his mind, however, amid the images of structures and

bellow of protest.

industrial transportation, there lingered residual memories of those early days of discovery in the woods, the delicacy of flower petals, the whisper

As already mentionned, Hopper wrote that “New American painting was an

of fronds bending in the breeze, the ticking of pine trees and rustle of

attempt to create ‘pure painting,’ that is, an art which will use colour and

large – leaf oaks. He remembered the close-up world of bugs rendered

design for their own sake and independent of man’s experience of life and

in his delicate calligraphy. But heaps of architecture had rumbled into his

his association with nature. I don’t believe such an aim can be achieved by a

vision and now he found power in the slanting roofs, and rhythm in row

human being… We would be leaving out a great deal that I consider worth

upon row of windows piercing clapboard and brick walls surmounted by

while expressing in painting, and it cannot be expressed in literature.”76

thrusting chimneys. In his journals, he wrote of painting a house only to have a cloud’s dark shadow sweep across it and he looked skyward at

Edward Hopper’s huffing and puffing seemed unnecessary since his stark

the roiling mass of dark-bellied cumulus. The call back to nature was

management of forms, light and shadow combined with the

strong as was the nostalgia of his youth in Salem, Ohio. Even as Rehn

psychological malaise of his characters had already been embraced by

mounted shows of his moody industrial and architecture work,

many ‘modern’ painters as more than adequate for membership in their

Burchfield began to experiment.

revolution. Hopper was a closet modernist against his will.

Charles Burchfield, The Mysterious Bird, 1917. 52.7 x 45 cm. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, bequest of John L. Sexton.


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Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September, 1946-1956. 106.7 x 142.2 cm. Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, gift of the Benwood Foundation.


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Charles Burchfield, Summer Solstice, 1961-1966. 48.9 x 65.6 cm. Collection of Mr and Mrs Harry Spiro.


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Charles Burchfield arrived at that same status by dint of revisiting the

and Josephine Hopper – had learned to be happy with a frugal life.

fantasies of his youth. Going back in time for almost any artist, regardless

However, searching for a bit more security Charles farmed himself out

of medium, involves a resurrection of the good, the bad and the

as an art teacher to various institutions. For an artist, teaching requires

insufferable, as the egos born in simmering hormones must face the

feedback from the students in proportion to the artist’s deeply-felt gift

harsh reality of a more mature evaluation. “Almost any artist” applies to

of knowledge. This feedback is not always forthcoming. The ratio of

Burchfield. He was ecstatic over his past watercolours to the point of

truly gifted artists in a class to the ungifted grinds and the time-wasting

using the original paintings not as simple inspirations for new work, but

layabouts is a tiny percentage. Fortunately, as sales improved based on

as part of the new paintings. He actually pasted wings of paper to the

the Whitney show, his need to teach matched his diminishing desire for

sides of the small originals and stroked out the original concept onto the

the job.

larger field. He was as happy as a small child with the results. Frank Rehn was aghast.

As his financial worries went away so did his health, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s he was struck by low blood pressure, asthma and a

Ultimately, having Burchfield’s cobbled-together bits-and-tatters was

bleeding ulcer, which put him on a rollercoaster of recovery and illness

better than no Burchfields at all, so Rehn assembled a show of the

that severely cut short his ability to paint. He was almost seventy when

“reconstructions”. Burchfield would not see the exhibition though,

he was hit by a heart attack while sketching in the woods and added

because he had taken his paints off into the wilds of western New York

Digitalis to his pharmaceutical collection alongside Orinase for diabetes,

state, caught up in windblown daisies, lashing trees, heaving shrubs and

listing all his drugs in his journal. Charles came to rely on Bertha to help

the “impression of butterflies in motion”, he wrote to Rehn.

him through each day and help set up his easel in the field.

The more Burchfield’s fantasies took hold of his subject matter, the more

He laboured on with the same sure hand, turning out dozens of studies

metamorphosis took place. Wind zephyrs took shapes like sails catching

and building his paintings from what he saw, highly seasoned with what

the breeze, trailing from tree branches as inhabited cocoons that would

he felt and sensed and could codify with his brush. He did not just paint

detach at the next gust. In reversion to his past vocabulary of vibrations,

nature, he worshipped it, felt its tug in his vitals. Looking at his final

semi-transparent gauze-like membranes and the dancing calligraphy of

works is like observing living things through the eyes of the things

creatures humming, buzzing and devouring their kind, he transformed

themselves. His love had always been in communicating about nature

nature into his own private expressionism, a codex unique to translation

whether in words or drawings and he accomplished both. Burchfield was

of vision and sound.

almost completely self-invented and fortunately had the technical skills to release that ocean of creativity.

Of course, this fluctuation in styles and some uneven quality in the reconstructions caused cash flow problems at home. Honours and

On 10 January 1967, Charles and Bertha were in West Seneca at the

medals began coming his way as did retrospective shows, and in 1956

Chestnut Lodge having lunch when his seventy-three-year-old heart

a very comprehensive show of his work was hosted by the Whitney

finally gave out and he collapsed. He had been a gentle man who had

Museum. Never big spenders, Charles and Bertha – quite like Edward

found a homely niche in the Midwest and turned it into a garden.

Charles Burchfield, Eye of God in the Woods, 1949. 120.7 x 64.8 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City.


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Charles Burchfield, Glory to God, 1953. 119.4 x 69.9 cm (central panel), 119.4 x 24.1 cm. The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Charles Burchfield, The Four Seasons, 1949-1960. 141.9 x 121 cm. Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois.


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andrew wyeth (1917-2009) Christina’s World was not unlike Andrew Wyeth’s world. The metaphors are

also accepted the flip-side of his choice of visualisation – the critical

endless and have all been used. Only the breathless hiss of the long grass

condemnation that his work appeared ‘photographic’ in its stark realism.

and the distant flapping sound of the black shirt on the laundry line break

The months of work lavished on each painting are less spent in duplication

the stillness of this painting, until she moves again towards the distant

than in re-ordering the natural and man-made elements to conform to

shelter. She scrapes and struggles over every blade of grass, hauling with her

Wyeth’s personal vision. Wyeth’s textures, while resembling the exquisite

arms and dragging the baggage of her useless appendages behind her. But

surfaces explored by photographers Walker Evans and Edward Weston, are

she won’t move. Christina has been fixed to the side of that slope since the

skilfully used to hold the eye, to create tension where sunlight and shade

last brush stroke at the end of summer 1948. The execution of the original

meet, or whitewashed wood is draped with the tangle of fishing net. As

rough sketch had taken three and a half months. Wyeth’s flawless technique

William Harnett demonstrated with his exquisite still-lifes, the surface can

with egg tempera and dry brush could not be hurried. The painting sold for

tell a story of use and neglect, of artisanship and jury-rig. The textures of

$1,800 (about $15,500 in today’s dollars) – one of the great bargains in

faces suggest emotions beneath the skin planted there over a lifetime.

modern art history – to hang in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is a signature work, a painting Like Christina, Andrew Wyeth has not moved, either physically from the

forever linked to his name, just as Hopper has Nighthawks and Wood is

windswept coastal tidewaters of Maine and Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania

present in American Gothic. The painting says as much about the artist

or creatively from the internal movement of his own personal conjuring

as it does about the subject, because each painter’s biography can be

machine. As Charles Burchfield, another nature painter, tried to visualise

read in his brush strokes.

sounds, Wyeth has successfully painted stillness. As Edward Hopper attempted to portray both expectation and resignation, Wyeth has

Andrew Wyeth was born on 12 July 1917 in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania, the

created flashes of recognition that occur in the corners of our lives, in our

youngest of five children. Andrew was a sickly child and so his mother and

peripheral vision. While Hopper peered in through windows, the

father made the decision to remove him from school after he contracted

perpetual voyeur, Wyeth looks out from within. Grant Wood commanded

whooping cough and thereafter he was home-schooled in every subject

his tempera medium into fantasy compositions and into portraits who

including art. Andy’s father, Newell Convers Wyeth, was a giant in every sense

glanced away in the manner of the Flemish masters. Wyeth’s egg

of the word. In the Golden Era of illustration, ‘N.C.’ Wyeth’s talent towered

tempera compositions seem to be enticed from the surface, magically

over most of his peers and, as a big man beneath an unruly bush of curly hair

stroked up from, rather than painted down on, the panel as though the

with muscular shoulders and strong hands, he was the patriarch of his family.

scene had been there all the time just waiting to be released. From N.C. Wyeth’s brushes thundered the hereditary Knights of the As Christine had refused to use her father’s wheelchair he had needed

Round Table, galloping and clanking into fields of valour, great sets of sail

because of arthritis, choosing to crawl rather than admitting to her

billowed and cracked against Caribbean skies as cannons belched smoke

handicap, Wyeth discovered his tools of expression early on and stayed

and flame and hot iron crashed into Spanish galleons from ships of war

with them. He eventually explored the earth tones and ivory whites,

flying the Jolly Roger. Old Uncas stood over the fallen Magua, bloodied

textures that are part of the rock, clapboard, sand dune, pebbled shore, or

war club in hand as the Last of the Mohicans. All these scenes of bold

wind-scoured wood, not the surface of the panel or paper. Andrew Wyeth

adventure flowed from Andrew’s father. They flowed onto book covers,

Andrew Wyeth, Trodden Weed, 1951. Tempera on panel, 71.1 x 46.4 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.


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into magazines, onto posters and spread across advertising. The Wyeths’

breakfast and rouse the house. And not just porridge or cold cereal; he

lifestyle had escalated with two sons and three daughters to a level of

prepared pancakes beneath a liberal coating of sliced apples and bananas

wealth that demanded hard work and a constant income.

and grapefruit stuffed with powdered sugar in the centre. As he thrust himself into all their lives, never passing up a moment to deliver a lesson

Andrew’s mother, Carol, the former Carolyn Brocius, managed to keep a level

or a homily for success, Carol became a quiet, calming island refuge for

of calm amid the circus while N.C. provided the finest of everything: food,

the children before they were stampeded off into yet another adventure,

entertainment, cars, clothes and education – except for Andrew, who was the

another project, another object lesson by N.C. He gave the best and

runt of the litter and subject to illnesses. His home schooling in academics was

expected only the best of their efforts in return.77

sorely lacking compared to the endless stack of drawings that flowed from his pad under his father’s supervision. At the age of twelve he was turning into a

Andrew, by all accounts, was a charming little boy: cheerful, inquisitive,

fine artist, but he was not literate enough to find a word in the dictionary. His

disciplined and thoroughly spoiled by everyone in the family, but never

older brother Nathaniel had the organizational makings of a scientist, and his

seemed to take advantage of his exalted position. He was too busy,

sisters, Henriette, Ann and Carolyn, were all of individual temperaments that

always investigating something. His hands were never still. He also knew

kept the house lively. Ann wanted to be an artist or a musician and N.C. even

his audience and how far he could push the envelope before becoming

created a studio for her, but, despite the boy’s physical and nervous problems

the victim of his father’s “Wagnerian Roar”. Once he told a joke at the

N.C. had bet his money on Andrew as inheritor of the creative flame.

dinner table that convulsed his entire family, including the usually straitlaced N.C. “Who was the first carpenter in the Bible?” he asked. “Eve,”

Andrew drew for hours at a time. Being the smallest Wyeth he tried to avoid

he answered, “She made Adam’s banana stand.”78

being bothered by his siblings, ‘talked to’ by his father or fussed over by his mother. Drawing was an escape. Fortunately, by the time Andrew arrived, N.C.

While he developed this puckish personality and an ability to parry the hard

had backed off fatherhood a few degrees and everyone was able to breathe

moments of life, he also perceived that below the surface of his caring father

better without all the ‘fathering’ inflicted on them. But Andrew was a special

lurked an explosive flashpoint. N.C. Wyeth’s action drawings featured hacking

case. Illness dogged him at every turn. He suffered from anaemia, whooping

and stabbing pirates, blasting flintlocks, knives and tomahawks dripping with

cough, a double hernia and dripping sinuses, and was targeted by N.C. for

blood. Eyes blazed, muscles bulged and even young Jim Hawkins managed to

special treatment. When nightmares woke him, there was N.C. sleeping

empty two pistols into the face of Israel Hands in Treasure Island.

alongside, or sitting beside the bed ready to rub him down with cool witch hazel alcohol. The entire brood of Wyeth children was racked with sickness at

Unchecked violence was never far away. Any manifestation of fear was

one time or another. Henriette came down with polio. Ann suffered from

held in contempt; nor was turning away from a fight tolerated. If Andrew

peritonitis and Nathaniel had bouts of internal bleeding and stomach seizures,

managed to avoid physical conflict through the charm of his personality,

so N.C. was everywhere, a live-in nanny, cajoling and administering to the sick.

or the ability to defuse a situation, the undercurrent of violence handed down from N.C. remained in Andrew’s paintings.

When he wasn’t reading the manuscripts he had to illustrate in the dead


of night, he was up at dawn, sketching in his studio, stopping in time to

If the youngest Wyeth had free rein for his imagination, his first brush

crash into the kitchen in a pandemonium of pots and pans to prepare

with academia was a blow. Thrust into first grade in a Chadd’s Ford public

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Andrew Wyeth, Maga’s Daughter, 1966. Tempera on panel, 67.3 x 76.8 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.


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school, the interaction with other pupils (survival was more like it) and the

him a limp that caused him to walk with an unusual hobbled gait with

long days almost shattered him. He begged to come home. His indulgent

his feet splayed out. He carried this affliction for the rest of his life.

father decided he was more capable of giving Andrew the best education and placed him in the hands of a succession of tutors. Unfortunately, the

Unlike so many artists who have had to go against their parents’ wishes,

boy manipulated his tutors and some of the home schooling was largely

or at best not count on them for inspiration to enter the arts as a

a failure. It wasn’t until he was twelve years old that people discovered

professional, Andrew Wyeth literally vibrated like a taut bowstring with

he didn’t know how to read, or recite his ABC.

hypersensitivity and alertness to everything around him. As N.C. thundered from project to project designed to set their imaginations

With a heavy schedule of classics and poetry, that fault was finally

alight, he saw to it that they had the proper tools to accomplish their goals

remedied. While the work on his mind progressed, there was little anyone

– at least the tools he deemed necessary. The youngest, spindly, sickly

could do about his body. At school he was an outsider, a queer duck on

Wyeth grew into a sturdy lad thoroughly enmeshed in his father’s universe.

the periphery. His illnesses had caused his hip to slide out of joint giving

During an interview with Thomas Hoving for the text in the catalogue of

Andrew Wyeth, Long Limb, 1998. Tempera on panel, 121.9 x 182.8 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.


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his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976-77, Andrew

Manipulating the characters he cast himself in the lead of the blond hero

remembered: “I played alone, and wandered a great deal over the hills,

who gets the beautiful blonde heroine in the end. In all, it was a

painting watercolours that literally exploded, slapdash over my pages, and

resourceful production.

drew in pencil or pen and ink in a wild and undisciplined manner.” His second task was the completion of his first fantasy picture. Andrew With Nathaniel clearly on a path to a career in engineering and Anna

had been making innumerable watercolours from nature showing a

steeped in music, Henriette and Carolyn became the focus of N.C.’s art

growing sophistication with the medium. This picture arrived fully

tutoring. Andrew, while loved and included in family events, was pretty

formed from his imagination; an antique castle loomed over a

much left to his own artistic devices until he reached the age of fifteen.

countryside as medieval knights hurled themselves against its walls and

The sudden emergence of his ascension to the mantle came when he

ramparts. The details, the rendering, everything was there in N.C.

created a toy theatre for the production of a performance of The White

Wyeth’s eyes. At last, his son and the heir to N.C.’s creative skills had, in

Company, a pot-boiler romance adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle.

fact, drawn the sword from the stone.

Andrew Wyeth, Spring, 1978. Tempera on panel, 61 x 121.9 cm. Collection of the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, anonymous gift.


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While this meant graduation to Andrew, it also committed the boy to a

tones. Here, he is lavish with his blue skies, water and clouds, suggesting

monastic existence under his father’s tutelage to report to the ‘lower

the sharp, clean breezes that swept the beaches and roiled the offshore

studio’ where N.C. worked on murals, for rigorous academic artistic

lobster beds. What would later become metaphor was now observation

training. Howard Pyle, the great illustrator, had driven Wyeth in these

and enjoying mastery over his medium.

academic studies so he knew their value to determine proportion and line control. Andrew immediately hated the exercises, drawing cones, cubes,

Also at this time, N.C. attempted to test Andrew’s mettle as an illustrator

plaster casts, wax still-lifes, the eerie Lincoln death mask and the classic

and subcontracted some jobs to him. A few Andrew completed with

bust of George Washington. The mantra of drawing teachers everywhere

N.C.’s name affixed, but his heart wasn’t into the interpretation of

pursued Andrew through these pitiless examinations: “You must know

manuscripts that often did not appeal to him. Finally, N.C. gave in and

the rules before you can break them.”

backed away from his son’s development.

N.C. Wyeth subjected his son to a constant pattern of construction and

Andrew’s confidence in his watercolours was given a boost when, in the

deconstruction, complimenting, then tearing down, diminishing his character

autumn of 1936 the Philadelphia Art Alliance hung twenty of his paintings.

for sloppy habits and then building it back up. At this time, Peter Hurd,

Using that show and an introduction from one of N.C.’s associates in New

another student of Wyeth’s and Henriette’s boyfriend and eventual husband,

York, Wyeth approached the MacBeth Gallery for an exhibition. This gallery

began to mentor Andrew. He showed the younger Wyeth the egg tempera

had built a reputation for exhibiting American artists, especially Realists

technique that Andrew would seize upon later and carry to brilliant lengths.

such as Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer and Ashcan School painter George Luks. The gallery was impressed and promised him a one-man

For a change of climate, the Wyeths spent their summers away from the

exhibit the following year. Spurred on, Andrew packed up his father’s car

Chadd’s Ford farming community to travel to a summer camp in New

and drove it to Maine the following June and plunged into his work. He

England, first in Needham and later in Port Clyde, Maine. Along the sea-

made no studies; he just painted. If a painting failed in any way before it

scoured shores, rocky coasts and dark pine woods he roamed with his old

was finished, it was abandoned and he moved on. When he finished, he

scarred tackle box and fresh water to squat among the stones and paint.

sent his collection to his father who made a selection, had them matted

He most admired Winslow Homer, even going on a pilgrimage to Prout’s

and sent along to the MacBeth Gallery. He wrote to Andrew in part:

Neck and visiting Homer’s cabin to stand before his easel and soak up the

“They look magnificent, and with no reservations whatsoever, they

resonance of that large room still crowded with memorabilia.

represent the very best watercolours I ever saw! This remark from your old dad may not mean much to you, but I believe what I say

His watercolours of this period reflect Homer’s influence and, considering

and I am certain I am right.”

Wyeth’s age, they also reflect the sophistication in his work. Many of these were painted en plein air – on location in front of the scene. The

In his later years, Wyeth has been able to remember that letter word for word.

harmony of his colours and suggested shapes splashed on in the wet reveal incredible pre-visualisation and interpretation with a minimum of

The entire Wyeth family except for Peter and Henriette Hurd, who were

brushwork – classic watercolour technique. Also his colour choice at this

in New Mexico, breezed into New York for the show opening on 19

time shows nothing of his later warm palette of browns, greys and earth

October 1937. For Andrew, the situation did not bode well. Nobody had

Andrew Wyeth, Witches Broom, 1990. Tempera on panel, 67.6 x 55.2 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel, 81.9 x 121.3 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York.


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any money because of the Great Depression. Who would want paintings

As his career moved along through the late 1930s, Andrew Wyeth’s

by an unknown kid from Pennsylvania? That opening night was quiet as

cheerleaders, his family, began drifting into their own lives and goals. One

a few invitees straggled through the two rooms. One painting sold. The

constant always remained. N.C. Wyeth was still the patriarch, but even the

Wyeths returned home with encouraging pats on the shoulder. Andrew

family’s long-time guiding hand was showing some unsteadiness. Since

stayed behind and busied himself the next morning until curiosity and

the 1920s, N.C. had struggled with his desire to a achieve recognition in

embarrassment finally brought him back to the MacBeth. Maybe

fine art equal to his reputation as an illustrator. Most of his greatest

someone had bought another painting…

illustrations were behind him and had sealed his place in the continuum of illustrative art. But all his creative life he continued to experiment with

Both rooms at the MacBeth Gallery were crammed with people and

both Impressionism and the use of broken colour bordering on the garish,

when they left there was nothing left but the nails in the walls.

and keeping an eye on ‘modern’ concepts. He searched for the Holy Grail that might hold the solution to his fine art aspirations.

Following his triumph, Wyeth headed north to Maine, following in the footsteps of his idol, Winslow Homer. But once he was there, he was

His change of fortune did not lie with technique as Andrew saw it. N.C.

swept by feelings of homesickness and a crushing mental block with his

would hold court for hours discussing, talking and venting his mental

watercolours. An exchange of letters with his sympathetic father pulled

energy until there was little left to apply to a painting. While Andrew saw

him back and he turned to his second creative tool, tempera. He had

complexity in the simplest subjects, his father was held prisoner by his

painted his first tempera painting in 1936 and had sent it along with his

own bigness, his own bombast. To seek wisdom within himself, he pared

watercolours to the MacBeth show, but the work never reached the

his ideas down to the bone, which had the same effect as saying the

walls. He brought his temperas up to Maine and used them to achieve

same word over and over until it lost all meaning.

greater detail and more meticulous effects. He discovered he needed more technical training with the medium and headed back to Chadd’s

When Andrew’s 1937 show at the MacBeth Gallery sold out, N.C. was

Ford to work alongside his father.

ecstatic for his son, but as he beat Andrew’s drum, his own inability to achieve a like triumph as a fine artist dragged down his self-esteem. The

Andrew had already developed a dry brush technique with watercolour

arrival of the 1940s and World War II only continued N.C.’s depression.

where the water is squeezed from the brush and the individual bristles

He wrote in 1941: “All sense of serenity and security has crumbled away,

are used to stroke on colour and crosshatching. Peter Hurd had adopted

and all I can do, when I think about it all, is to gawk stupidly at the

egg tempera from Renaissance painters and demonstrated it to Andrew.

retreating pageant of my dreams and hopes.”79

Using pure mineral pigments, the yolk is separated from the white of the egg and the clingy clear albumen removed by rolling the yolk around in

The war also complicated the Wyeth clan’s life. As naval gunnery tests

the palm of the hand. The yolk is pierced and mixed with distilled water.

and training rattled the dishes in their Port Clyde home, ‘Eight Bells’, to

Pigment is added and the thickness can be adjusted from thin, like a

N.C.’s horror, the military draft reached out for Andrew in 1943. His

glaze, to a firm impasto. This range gave Wyeth a 180-degree change

arthritic hip saved him from a trip to the Solomon Islands. That near-miss

from the showy and splashy watercolour, but avoided his distaste for

was only one shaky event that shook N.C.’s world. John McCoy, one of

“greasy” oil paint on “important” pictures.

N.C.’s students, had married Ann Wyeth in 1935. But N.C. was not losing

Andrew Wyeth, Distant Thunder, 1961. Tempera on panel, 121.9 x 77.5 cm. Private collection.


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Ann. She was setting up their home in Chadd’s Ford where she would

All of these marriages bled away N.C.’s children and this change of

pursue her music studies. Carolyn, always strong-minded, defied her

interaction removed his direct influence on their world and allowed them to

father who had no use for her intended, a part-time N.C. student,

come into their own. This was a huge change for all of them, stepping out

Francesco Della Donne, known to the family as ‘Frank’. After knowing

of the bear-hug reach of their father, and it came at a time when N.C. Wyeth

each other for only four months, the couple eloped to be married in

was going through his own agonising transition. He realized the work that

Arlington, Virginia in 1941. N.C. never did like Frank and when an

had made him famous was well behind him and he had yet to achieve his

accident caused Carolyn to break her ankle and walk with a limp for the

overriding ambition to make a name as a fine artist. To Andrew, however,

rest of her life, N.C. flew at Frank for not taking care of his daughter. Still

the release proved a godsend, because Betsy stepped up into N.C.’s place.

crushed by that rebuke and feeling like an outsider, Frank joined the Air

She did not paint, could not cook and had to learn many domestic jobs from

Force and returned in 1945 only to abandon Carolyn shortly thereafter

scratch, but she had a grand intellect, instinctual and questioning that, as

and an uncontested divorce followed.

she learned more of Andrew’s world, was able to challenge him.

In 1936, Nat defied N.C. to court and propose to Caroline Pyle, the niece of

Andrew Wyeth shifted gradually to egg tempera as he had learned from

a famed illustrator and N.C. Wyeth’s mentor. She was a pretty young poet

Peter Hurd. In 1941 he created a high key landscape titled Dil Huey Farm

who had been stranded by a financial situation. N.C.’s objections cooled and

with blue skies and lavenders in the shadows, not unlike his earlier

he gave the pair his blessing and they were married in January 1937.

watercolours but in the new medium. It is a simple enough scene with the tree occupying the centre of the wide shallow board, but it has an

By this time, Henriette Wyeth had already been married to Peter Hurd for ten

uncharacteristic shimmer that goes well with his later egg tempera work.

years and they lived in New Mexico where he was establishing himself as a

That same year, Peter Hurd and Andrew Wyeth held a two-man show at

painter and had collected well-heeled patrons. The nest was almost empty.

the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the picture was displayed. It impressed the director of the Museum of Modern Art in their

Andrew had met Betsy James in 1939 when she was seventeen and he was

1943 American Realists and Magic Realists show.

a gangly twenty-two-year-old who had come over to see her father, Merle James. Andrew was impressed by both the girl and the stark simplicity of

The painting was a success, but, according to Andrew, Betsy did not like

their home, compared to the overstuffed ostentation of Wyeth’s Maine

it. She hit on the similarity to his early flamboyant watercolours. The

compound. After a year of courting, they decided to marry in May 1940.

painting might have been painted anywhere, not in the valley of the Dil

N.C. was dead against it. He had seen it before, promising talent married

Huey Farm. What was more important, painting colour or the telling the

and then ruined by a wife who made demands when all that was important

truth? His Impressionist tendencies, inherited from N.C.’s experiments,

was to paint. He even offered to build Andrew a studio and back him until

began to erode away. As he continued, Betsy began to see where his

he was established. Andrew and Betsy were equally stubborn and were

fascination with detail began to edge into obsession. She cautioned him

married at the James home in East Aurora, New York on 15 May 1940. As

that spending excruciating amounts of time on surfaces that have a

the service concluded and they were pronounced man and wife, it was the

minimum impact on the story of the painting was wasting his time and

son Andrew and the father, N.C. Wyeth that fell into each other’s arms

the viewer’s. She even struck out against his formulaic approach to every

sobbing, leaving Betsy to wonder what she had got into.

work, plotting out the composition in pencil or pen and ink and then


Andrew Wyeth, Weatherside, 1965. Tempera on panel, 122.2 x 70.8 cm. Private collection.


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“painting inside the lines”. He was painting with a safety net, taking

expression and the observer. To seek freedom of so-called free and

away the creative risk of discovery through an accident.

accidental brushwork… Not to exhibit craft but rather to submerge it; and make it rightfully the hand-maiden of beauty,

He found some interest in the Expressionists who were beginning to

power and emotional content.”

penetrate the more conventional, the more conservative art scene in the United States. The growing avant-garde and their non-objective visual

World War II caused the art market to slide and Andrew’s sales of his

translation of their manifestos, their exorcism of personal demons that

watercolours dropped to as low as $38 apiece. Shows returned

failed to trust in nature and the ability of the viewers to prise out those

minuscule amounts after the costs of catalogue printing, framing and the

demons held no future for him. In the Corcoran Show catalogue where

opening party were figured into the books. They had no bank account,

he was pigeon-holed under the ‘Magic Realists’ category, Andrew wrote:

practically no furniture in the old school house rented from N.C. where

“My aim is to escape from the medium with which I work. To leave

Andrew painted, Betsy sewed her own clothes, drapes and tablecloths

no residue of technical mannerisms to stand between my

while Andrew’s toy soldiers from his childhood went into a bookcase next

Andrew Wyeth, Master Bedroom, 1965. Watercolour on paper, 53.7 x 74.9 cm. Private collection.


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to the collection of works illustrated by N.C. Fortunately, as usual the

in colours, food, reading material, or just showing up every single day

Wyeth family chipped in with support: a wing-back chair, and dinner

for a ‘visit’.

invitations, and drew Andrew back into the family circle – N.C.’s family circle. While Betsy became accepted for who she was – Andrew’s wife –

Her critical job, as Andrew saw it, was to distract N.C. so Andrew

she preferred to remain on her own ground.

could work. His father practically set up Andrew’s palette each day, hovering over paintings in progress. It was the son’s method to

N.C. Wyeth, the patriarch, could not accept this chink in his command

disappear when he left the school house each day, to travel his own

of the family and treated Andrew and his non-conforming wife like a

path, make discoveries. Betsy, like him, had to adopt a secret life of her

pair of hunting dogs who would not come to heel and needed

own and the two of them shared moments when N.C. was not

constant training to measure up. Every day Andrew left the school

around. Like two speckled fawns crouching in a sun-dappled glade at

house to work and Betsy felt abandoned to N.C.’s next thrust at her

the edge of the great looming woods, they made their life outside

individualism, or stab into her intellectual level, or jibe against her taste

N.C.’s overpowering presence.

Andrew Wyeth, Overflow, 1978. Drybrush on paper, 58.4 x 73.7 cm. Private collection.


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By 1942, the younger Wyeths needed money and Andrew began

it into the smoke box sending it back down onto the tracks where the

accepting illustration jobs to Betsy’s chagrin. “You’ll be nothing but

process was repeated rolling over and over for 43.58 metres until the

Norman Rockwell for the rest of your life,” she pouted when he

roof had been smashed down. Newell’s small body had been flung into

painted a cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 for $500 and

the trackbed, his neck broken. The shivering locomotive vented steam

they offered him a contract. Cash was cash, however, and commercial

in hissing clouds from the cylinder cocks, while atop the steam dome

art illustration paid well. Andrew had not the skills but the Wyeth

the engine’s whistle screamed into the valley. N.C. Wyeth died as he

name to draw in clients.

had lived, spectacularly.

With the income, he could return to his long walks down the roads and

The death of the creative patriarch, the life force that had motivated

across the fields of the Brandywine Valley where he was born.

and driven the Wyeth children to their various callings, had a profound

Neighbours never knew when he might turn up at their back door. His

effect on the Andrew Wyeth household. They were in Maine when the

tempera, Soaring, that he began in 1942 and finished in 1950, literally

accident happened and packed immediately for the return to Chadd’s

shows a bird’s eye view of the valley’s topography. The buzzards pass

Ford. Andrew was stricken as though a curtain had been rung down

over the John Andress house, or curve to the right and pass over

on the first twenty-eight years of his life. A great oak tree that shaded

Mother Archie’s church in the black community started by the Quakers

the lawn had suddenly been uprooted and taken away and now the

in the nineteenth century, or they curve to the left passing over the

grass was laid bare to the relentless sun. For Betsy, the feeling was one

Kuerner Farm where he would spend many creative hours.

of relief. She explained to Richard Meryman, Andrew’s biographer: “I had an enormous sense of relief as though a terrific sense of

This would be his way for the rest of his life, wandering Chadd’s Ford,

responsibility had been lifted from me. I had never wanted the

the Brandywine Valley and then Port Clyde summers along the coast

responsibility of… playing this double game, being part of a cover-up

of Maine. His neighbours became his subjects. It was in the rolling

against his father. I was tired of that.”

farmland that N.C. Wyeth drove a woody station wagon along the Ring Road near the Kuerner Farm. Beside him was his grandson,

For the rest, even though they had scattered to their own lives each –

Newell, whom Carolyn had sent along with Grandpa for an outing.

except possibly Nat the engineer – remained to some degree enfolded

Near the crest of a hill, N.C. stopped and as usual had a lesson for his

in that huge embrace, so that even in death N.C. Wyeth was still part

young charge. He stopped the car and took the boy into a corn field

of his children and indelibly stamped on the remaining years of his wife

where farm hands were hand-shucking ears of corn. They returned to

Carol. From the turmoil of guilt, rage and sadness that stirred Andrew

the car and drove to the crest where the Reading Railway crossed the

Wyeth, he worked out an epiphany that he explained later that before

valley. The sun was bright into the windshield and N.C. braked,

the death of N.C.: “I just wanted to paint. The seriousness, the

squinting to get his bearings. He looked into the face of the driver in

dimension wasn’t there. I didn’t have much to say. Edward Hopper had

the cab of an unscheduled mail train bursting out of the sunlight. N.C.

an emotional reason to paint. Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Frost

raised his arm. The locomotive slammed into full reverse and the

had a reason to write poetry, but for the first time I felt a reason… But

brakes grabbed hold, screaming and smoking. But nothing could be

that didn’t dawn on me until after my father’s death, which put me in

done; the iron cowcatcher scooped up the station wagon and crashed

touch with something beyond me, things to think and feel, things that

Andrew Wyeth, Renfield, 1999. Tempera on panel, 87 x 73 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.


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mean everything to me. Then I needed to put them down as sharply as

The artist’s story is a personal reflection, not something anyone

possible – with the clarity of the north wind.”

viewing the painting could draw from its elements unless familiar with


the situation and time frame. Wyeth ran from his father’s death, but The painting Winter 1946 marks an important watershed in Wyeth’s

he ran back in time, not forward. He had never painted a portrait of

professional career as it was the first work following his father’s death

his father, and began to use neighbours as surrogates for that

and the first of what became a lifelong series of proxy self-portraits. This

omission. Always he looms within the painting as the rolling wind-

painting shows a neighbouring boy, Alan Lynch, running down a hill near

scoured landscape, the wall, the field, the rusting wagon box, the

a snow-spotted fence-line bordering a field of high grass. The slope

fluttering curtain.

reaches almost to the top of the painting and represents the crest of the ridge where the Reading Railway runs. Beyond the crest lie the tracks, the

He was there, too, in Christina’s World, painted at the house owned by Al

road and the crossing where N.C. Wyeth died in his car. Wyeth

and Christina Olson in 1948. Just as this painting marked a critical turning

commented, “…was me, at a loss—that hand drifting in the air was my

point in his professional career, her death in 1968 suggested a sea change

free soul, groping.”82

in his life and outlook. During the years of introspection that followed his

Andrew Wyeth, Adrift, 1982. Tempera on panel, 70.2 x 70.2 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1977. Tempera on panel, 41.9 x 52 cm. Private collection.


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father’s death, he had cast himself in many roles in his paintings, physical,

Painted in the Erickson’s sauna, the painting has Siri staring straight out at

spiritual and natural. He discovered he had begun to fall into a routine,

the viewer. The flush in her cheeks is natural and her expression is neutral

finding locations and returning again and again to those first twenty-eight

as though frozen in the act of exposure, a recognition of vulnerability

years sheltered by and attached to his larger than life father. In the autumn

before either laughing seductively or covering up. The picture was a total

of 1967, as they prepared to leave their home in Cushing, Maine for Chadd’s

departure for Wyeth. He painted her again in 1977 at the age of eighteen

Ford, Betsy and Andrew stopped at a house owned by a Finn named

and it is easy to see how she was becoming a beauty, self-possessed and

Erickson to look at an old shed he had attached to the rear of the building.

unafraid to show herself in a full-length nude against a vaguely shaded

As they followed him around the main house Wyeth saw Siri Erickson

dark wall and floor. Once again, Wyeth bowed to Betsy’s insistence that

standing in a woodshed door. She was thirteen years old, wearing a bikini,

he take the leap and paint the girl without a stitch on.83

and holding a black cat. Her blonde hair straggled down onto her shoulders and her fair lashes barely blinked as she watched Andrew and Betsy pass.

Although Siri became an early subject of public exhibitions and cause for twinges of jealousy from a surprised Betsy, work on an even more surprising

Andrew asked if he could return and paint her. She assented as did her

– and secret – project had been under way for about five years. Karl Kuerner

father. Wyeth made a quick sketch, but her image became deeply

and his farm were frequent subjects in Wyeth’s paintings in and around

imprinted his mind. In January 1968, Christina Olson died and the

Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. In 1971, the elderly Kuerner needed help

Wyeths returned to Cushing for the funeral, a funeral that took away

around the farm and Helga Testorf arrived. She was thirty-two years old and

more than a person Andrew had come to cherish for her independence

had lived in Chadd’s Ford since 1961. Skilled in domestic work as well as

and stoicism, but also a subject, a house and a creative motivator that

music, baking and teaching, she became Kuerner’s caretaker. Struck by her

had returned satisfaction and relief to his internalised emotions. He could

fresh beauty, Wyeth painted her portrait at the Kuerner farm. However,

not get young Siri out of his mind. That summer he visited her again and

when it was finished, he didn’t take it back to Betsy. Instead, Wyeth stored

painted a water colour of her in the bikini.

it in a third-floor room at the farm. Soon, he began another picture of Helga and studies of her. He never spoke of this project to anyone, nor did she as

Betsy saw the painting and wondered why Andrew hadn’t asked her to

painting after painting ended up in the farmhouse room.

remove the halter top. The idea terrified Wyeth. Siri had just turned fourteen years old and was already a voluptuous young woman with that

Eventually, Kuerner’s infirmities forced her to leave the farm to be

frank, steady stare. But Andrew screwed up his courage and proposed

replaced by a relative who was also a nurse. At this point Carolyn Wyeth,

the idea to her and she, in turn, went into the house to ask her parents.

Andrew’s sister and family contrarian, stepped in and offered her small

Wyeth remembered himself thinking, “Oh shit, here’s where they’re

studio, still in place at the house. The creation of the paintings became a

going to get a shotgun.”

grand conspiracy with Helga moving into the Wyeth house as a nurse for the semi-crippled sister. Helga had never modelled before, but Wyeth had


To his relief and surprise, no shotgun was forthcoming and the girl had

a gift for putting sitters at ease, concentrating on them, often moving in

her parents’ permission. After making Wyeth close his eyes, she stripped

very close to peer at details as he worked and she found the experience

off the top and there she was, a sudden breath of life after all that death

of being scrutinised enjoyable. Sessions would go on for hours, but she

and stillness that had come before.

never complained even when her limbs became numb.

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Andrew Wyeth, Airborne, 1996. Tempera on panel, 101.6 x 121.9 cm. Collection of Andrew and Betsy Wyeth.


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His first Helga painting was Letting Her Hair Down, finished in 1972. The

The release of the Helga collection to the public was traumatic for

difference between the virginal Siri peering at the artist in the sauna and

both Andrew and Betsy as the “single fifteen-year painting” came to

this Prussian-born experienced woman with knitted brows and a set

an end. Many things came to an end with it. Chadd’s Ford and its

mouth is startling. The study in textures between her wisps of fine

wonderfully eccentric neighbours became something else and age

blonde hair, the clean set of her jaw line and the weight of her breasts

began shutting down Andrew’s peripatetic lifestyle. Betsy continued

resting on her crossed arms gives off a solid air of guarded expectation

her management of the Wyeth empire of shows, print collections and

and vitality.

gallery requests. Helga joined the family as a care-giver to the ageing Andrew, who had endured hip surgery. His personality evolved as his

He finally realised his dream of recording a person’s life over a long period

work circulating as prints and reproductions or the occasional show

of time. By 1985, the then forty-seven-year-old Helga posed in a winter-

further entrenched his iconic status. Interviews were few and far

scape against the harsh bark of a very old and scarred tree. She is in profile

between as he eased into his nineties. The work was still there,

encased in a heavy jacket and scarf, her eyes closed. There is the sadness

experiments, fiddling with technique for a different look, a different

that comes at the end of a journey, but also a resignation to a concluding

vocabulary, but he couldn't paint the indignities of age and the

chapter as the tree shields her from the harsh wind above the Wyeth

perceptions that lingered, the ever-present image of his father's dead

house in Chadd’s Ford.

face in the coffin. Abandoned, and yet a stalwart example of Nietzsche's quote: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Between 1971 and 1985 the work continued, building up a body of 240 separate pieces with 140 of those being full paintings and the

A large collection of his work hangs today in the Brandywine River

rest studies and sketches.

Museum, a converted grist mill in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania together with works by N.C. Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth. Andrew’s granddaughter,

Finally, at the age of sixty-eight, Wyeth presented the collection to his

Victoria, a clinical psychologist, spends time giving visitor tours that

startled wife. Betsy, who had always found security in her control of the

include inside stories about the works from when she knew them as a

household allowing Andrew free range for his creativity, suddenly

child. On occasion, Andrew and Betsy visited the museum, especially

confronted 240 pictures of this beautiful blonde girl, nude and clothed,

when one of his latest works was exhibited. At the age of ninety-one he

close-up and full-figured. She knew Andrew was faithful, but she also

still needed to see how the work looked "on the wall". When the Wyeths

knew he became who he painted, transported himself beneath their

arrived at the gallery, visitors were quietly and courteously shooed from

skin, explored every pore and hair, became intimate beyond love-

his presence since he no longer gave interviews or answered questions.

making. When the surprise became reasonably settled between them, a

He said, "Everything I have to say is on the walls.”85

single home for the collection was sought. In 1986, Leonard E.B. Andrews purchased the series and made it available for a coast-to-coast

The horror of being nailed down and defined can only be answered in the

tour organized by the National Gallery of Art from 1987-89. Some time

words of the productive patriarch, still bigger than life:

after the conclusion of the series debut, the Helga pictures came into the

“I’m not going to sit here and turn out nice temperas. ‘Oh, there’s

ownership of a private Japanese interest that still assembles exhibits of

another Wyeth! He ought to get a medal for popularity!’ Fuck

the works and allows access.

that! Really!”86


Andrew Wyeth, On the Edge, 2001. Tempera on panel, 123.8 x 124.8 cm. Private collection.


TS American Reallism 4C.qxp



Page 250

notes 1


Teresa A. Carbone, « Eastman Johnson », Magazine Antiques,November 1999


Groce & Wallace, The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America, Yale University Press, New Heaven, 1957


Österreichisches Central-Commitee von der Weltausstelung zu Paris 1867 (


Adams, op. cit., pp. 42-43


National Gallery of Art, Still-Life Five Dollar Bill, 1877,Philadelphia Museum of Art, Alex Simpson Jr Collection,


Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., “Sordid Mechanics” and “Monkey Talents” – The Illusionistic Tradition, edited by Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson and John Wilmerding, Amon Carter Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry Abrams, Inc. New York, 1992, p. 2


Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt : William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, University of Los Angeles Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1969, p. 29


Stanley V. Henkels, The William Michael Harnett Collection: His Own Reserved Paintings, Models and Atelier Furnishings, sales catalogue, Philadelphia, Februry 23-24 1893


« The Paris Universal Exposition of 1867 », New York Times, December 25, 1866


Sarah Burns, « The Courtship of Winslow Homer – Letters Reveal Relationship with Helena de Kay », Magazine Antiques, February 2002




Alfred Frankenstein, op. cit., p. 55


William Mullen, « Beneath the Colour, Secrets of the Artist », Chicago Tribune, Tribune Corporation, February 29, 2008, pp. 1 et 14


28 9

David Tatham, Winslow Homer and the Great Forest, in the Catalogue for the Exhibition Winslow Homer : Masterworks from the Adirondacks held at the Fenimore Art Museum June 21 – September 6, 2004 in Ressource Library Magazine (

Harold McCracken, Frederic Remington – Artist of the Old West, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York, 1947, p. 28


Ibid, p. 29


Peggy & Harold Samuels, Frederic Remington: A Biography, Doubleday & Co., Garden City New York, 1982, p. 36


Collier’s Weekly, « A Few Words from Mr. Remington », March 18, 1905


Frederic Remington, « On the Indian Reservation », Century Magazine, July 1889


William Innes Homer, Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, Abbeville Press, 1992, p. 36


Lloyd Goodrich, Thomas Eakins, His Life and Work, Vol.1 Ams Pr. Inc., June 1977, p.27


H. Barbara Weinberg, Thomas Eakins, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001 33



Henry Adams, Eakins Revealed – The Secret Life of an American Artist, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, pp. 3-5


Harold McCracken, op.cit., pp. 66-67


Ibid, pp. 36-38


Poultney Bigelow, Seventy Summers, Longmans, Green & Co., 1925


Jeff L. Rosenheim, “Thomas Eakins, Artist-Photographer, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” in Thomas Eakins and the Metropolitan Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994, p. 45


Harold McCracken, op.cit., p. 93


Ibid, p. 108


Ibid, p. 121


Garnett McCoy, “Reaction and Revolution 1900-1930” Art in America n°53, August-September 1965, p. 69


The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, January 27 – April 29, 2007 (




Neal McLaughlin, « Ashcan School » (


Edward Lucie-Smith, American Realism, Harry Abrams, Inc. New York, 1994, p. 35




Homer, op. cit., letter from Eakins to Edward H. Coates, September 12, 1886, p. 166


Elizabeth Johns, (PhD, Art Historian University of Pennsylvania),Thomas Eakins: Scenes from Modern Life, PBS (



Eastman Johnson, Paintings and Drawings of the Lake Superior Ojibwe,Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth, October 29, 2006 (

Darrel Sewell, Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982, p. 78

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Page 251


Jim Lane, « Everett Shinn, Biography », University of Phoenix, January 7 2000 (


Larry Jordan, « Grant Wood Revisited », Midwest Today, April-May 1996 (


Mark Thistlehwaite, « George Luks, The Cafe Francis » (


Darrell Garwood, op.cit., p. 73


Ibid, pp. 75-76


Judith Hansen O’Toole, « George Luks – An Artistic Legacy », September 1997 (


Ibid, pp. 116-117


Jim Lane, op.cit.

68 html, in: Wanda M. Corn, op.cit., p. 131


Peter Anastas, « A Walker in the City », July 20, 2007 (


Darrell Garwood, op.cit., p. 152


Dubuque Museum of Art, Dubuque, IA (


John I.H. Baur, The Inlander – Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 18931967, Newark: University of Delaware Press, New York, Cornwall Books, London, 1984, p. 24


Ibid, p. 57


Ibid, p. 111


Edward Hopper, « Charles Burchfield: American » The Arts n°14, July 1928, p. 5


John I.H. Baur, op.cit., Letter to Frank Rehn datée October 11, 1938



Erica D. Passantino, David W. Scott and Duncan Phillips, The Eye of Duncan Phillips – A Collection in the Making, Yale University Press, New Heaven, October 1999 Mary Sayre Haverstock, George Bellows, Merrell, London, New York, 2007, p. 16


Ibid, p. 25



Mary Sayre Haverstock, op.cit., p. 29


Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1995


Edward Hopper, Letter to Mrs. Frank B. Davidson of Richmond, Indiana, January 22, 1947


Brian Doherty, Edward Hopper, American Masters – The Voice and the Myth,Universe Books, New York, 1988, p. 14


Richard Meryman, Andrew Wyeth – A Secret Life, Harper Collins, New York,1996, pp. 32-36


Edward Hopper, Letter to Mrs Frank B. Davidson of Richmond, Indiana, January 22, 1947


Ibid, p. 39


Edward Hopper, Reality: a Journal of Artists’ Opinions, June 1952, courtesy : Francis Mulhall Achilles Library, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Ibid, p. 212


Ibid, pp. 157-160

Henry Adams, Thomas Hart Benton – An American Original, Alfred Knopf, 1989, p. 16


Ibid, p. 227


Ibid, p. 21



Ibid, p. 34

North Carolina University Show (


Ibid, p. 66


Richard Meryman, op.cit., p. 310


Ibid, pp. 258-266


Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures: An Intimate Study at Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, NE), May 4 – August 4, 2002


Darrell Garwood, Artist in Iowa – A Life of Grant Wood, Greenwood Press,Westport, Connecticut, 1944, reprinted in 1971, p. 31


Joann Loviglio, « Wyeth granddaughter gives one-of-a-kind museum tours », Chicago Tribune, Tempo, Associated Press, July 2, 2008, p. 6

Wanda M. Corn, Grant Wood the Regionalist Vision, Minneapolis Instituteof Arts, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1983, p. 8


Richard Meryman, op.cit., p. 411




TS American Reallism 4C.qxp



Page 252

bibliography Books Adams, Henry. Eakins Revealed – The Secret Life of an American Artist, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005. Thomas Hart Benton – An American Original, Alfred Knopf, 1989. Baur, John I.H. The Inlander – Life and Work of Charles Burchfield, 1893-1967, Newark: University of Delaware Press. New York and London: Cornwall Books, 1984. Bigelow, Poultney. Seventy Summers, Longmans, Green & Co., 1925. Bolger, Doreen, David Park Curry and H. Barbara Weinberg. American Impressionism and Realism. The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York,1994. Bolger, Doreen, Marc Simpson and John Wilmerding. William M. Harnett, Amon Carter Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry Abrams, Inc., New York. Carbone, Teresa A. and Patricia Hills. Eastman Johnson, Painting America, Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Rizzoli International Publications, 1999. Cikovsky Jr., Nicolai. “Sordid Mechanics” and “Monkey Talents” – The Illusionistic Tradition, William Harnett, New York: edited by Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson and John Wilmerding, Amon Carter Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. Classen Knutson, Anne. Andrew Wyeth Memory and Magic, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Philadelphia Museum of Art, in association with Rizzoli New York. Corn, Wanda M. Grant Wood the Regionalist Vision, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Yale University Press, 1983, New Haven and London. Dennis, James M. Renegade Regionalists – The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Dippie, Brian W. The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, Frederic Remington Art Museum, Ogdensburg, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 2001. Doezema, Marianne, Vincent Di Girolamo, Valerie Ann Leeds, Suzanne Smeaton and James W. Tottis. Life’s Pleasures –The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925, Detroit Institute of Arts, Merrel, London, New York, 2007. Doherty, Brian. Edward Hopper, American Masters – The Voice and the Myth, Universe Books, New York, 1988. Frankenstein, Alfred. Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, University of Los Angeles Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1969. Garwood, Darrell. Artist in Iowa – A Life of Grant Wood, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press,1944, reprinted in 1971. Goodrich, Lloyd. Thomas Eakins, His Life and Work, Vol.1 Ams Pr. Inc., juin 1977. Groce, George C., and David H. Wallace. The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564-1860, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1957. Gruber, J. Richard. Thomas Hart Benton and the American South, Morris Museum of Art Augusta, Georgia, 1998. Hall, Michael D. and Nannette V. Maciejunes. The Paintings of Charles Burchfield North by Midwest, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Columbus Museum of Art, 1997. Hodge, Jessica. Frederic Remington, Saturn Books, London, 1997. Homer, William Innes. Thomas Eakins: His Life and Art, Abbeville Press, 1992. Hopper, Edward. Letter to Mrs Frank B. Davidson of Richmond, Indiana, January 22, 1947. Reality: a Journal of Artists’ Opinions, June 1952, courtesy: Francis Mulhall Achilles Library, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Jennings, Kate F. Grant Wood, JG Press, 2003. Junker, Patricia. John Steuart Curry – Inventing the Middle West, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1998.


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Page 253

Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, University of California Press, California, Berkeley, 1995. Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism, Harry Abrams, Inc., New York, 1994. Martin, Alvin. American Realism – Twentieth-Century Drawings and Watercolours, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Harry Abrams, Inc., New York, 1986. McCracken, Harold. Frederic Remington – Artist of the Old West, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and New York, 1947. Mecklenburg, Virginia M., Robert W. Snyder, and Rebecca Zurier, Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York, National Museum of American Art in association with W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. Meryman, Richard. Andrew Wyeth – A Secret Life, Harper Collins, New York, 1996. Mowll Mathews, Nancy. American Dreams – American Art to 1950 in the Williams College Museum of Art, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 2001. Passantino, Erica D., David W. Scott and Duncan Phillips, The Eye of Duncan Phillips – A Collection in the Making, Yale University Press, New Haven, October 1999. Rosenheim, Jeff L. “Thomas Eakins, Artist-Photographer, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” in Thomas Eakins and the Metropolitan Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Samuels, Peggy & Harold. Frederic Remington: A Biography, Doubleday & Co., Garden City New York, 1982. Sayre Haverstock, Mary. George Bellows, Merrell, London, New York, 2007. Sewell, Darrel. Thomas Eakins: Artist of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982. Thomas Eakins. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001. Tedeschi, Martha, and Kristi Dahm. Watercolours by Winslow Homer – The Colour of Light, The Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008.

Periodicals Collier’s Weekly, “A Few Words from Mr. Remington” March 18, 1905. New York Times, “The Paris Universal Exposition of 1867” December 25, 1866. Burns, Sarah. “The Courtship of Winslow Homer – Letters Reveal Relationship with Helena de Kay” Magazine Antiques, February 2002. Carbone, Teresa A. “Eastman Johnson” Magazine Antiques, November 1999. Hansen O’Toole, Judith. George Luks – An Artistic Legacy, in the Catalogue of the George Luks Exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from October 25 through December 17, 1997. Henkels, Stanley V. The William Michael Harnett Collection: His Own Reserved Paintings, Models and Atelier Furnishings, sales catalogue, Philadelphia, February 23-24 1893. Hopper, Edward. “Charles Burchfield: American” The Arts n°14, July 1928. Loviglio, Joann. “Wyeth granddaughter gives one-of-a-kind museum tours“, Chicago Tribune, Tempo, Associated Press, July 2, 2008. McCoy, Garnett. “Reaction and Revolution 1900-1930” Art in America n°53, August-September 1965. Mullen, William. “Beneath the Colour, Secrets of the Artist” Chicago Tribune, Tribune Corporation, February 29, 2008. Remington, Frederic. “On the Indian Reservation” Century Magazine, July 1889. Tatham, David. Winslow Homer and the Great Forest, in the Catalogue for the Exhibition Winslow Homer: Masterworks from the Adirondacks held at the Fenimore Art Museum du June 21 – September 6, 2004, reprinted on July 20, 2004 in Ressource Library Magazine.


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Page 254

index Eakins, Thomas

Bellows, George Cliff Dwellers


The Agnew Clinic


Club Night


Between Rounds


Dempsey and Firpo (a.k.a. Brodie’s Revenge)


The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull)


Forty-Two Kids


John Biglin in a Single Scull


Outside the Big Tent


Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)




Benton, Thomas Hart

Singing a Pathetic Song


Arts of the South


Starting Out After Rail


Back Him Up, Winter


The Swimming Hole


The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley


Taking the Count


Cave Spring


Corn and Winter Wheat


Cotton Pickers (Georgia)


Cradling Wheat


Deep South, from America Today


Engineer’s Dream


Fire in the Barnyard


Going West


Harbour Scene


Jon Boat


Navajo Sand


The New Fence


Plowing It Under


Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri


Sugar Cane


Threshing Wheat


The Wreck of the Ole ’97


The Year of Peril: Exterminate!


Burchfield, Charles


Glackens, William At Mouquin’s


Harnett, William Michael After the Hunt

54, 55

The Artist’s Letter Rack


Cigar Box, Pitcher, and “The New York Herald”


The Faithful Colt


For Sunday’s Dinner


Job Lot Cheap


The Old Cupboard Door


The Old Violin


Still Life – Violin and Music (Music and Good Luck)


Trophy of the Hunt


Henri, Robert Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Dance




Snow in New York


Eye of God in the Woods


The Four Seasons


Gateway to September


Glory to God


Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)


Houses in Late Autumn Sunlight


Coast in Winter


Ice-Bound Lake Boat




The Mysterious Bird


Prisoners from the Front


Night of the Equinox


Rocky Coast


Over Porch Roof


Rocky Coast and Gulls


Rainy Night


The Signal of Distress


Street Scene


Summer Storm


Street Scene-Sun and Shadow


Two Figures by the Sea


Summer Solstice


Watching the Brakers


Homer, Winslow

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Page 255

Hopper, Edward

Shinn, Everett

Apartment Houses






Theatre Box


Chop Suey


Theatre Scene




Four Lane Road Gas

133 134-135

Sloan, John Easter Eve


House by the Railroad


Election Night

New York Corner (Corner Saloon)


Gloucester Harbour

New York Movie


The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue

New York Office


Six O’Clock, Winter



South Beach Bathers


Night Windows Nighthawks


Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

Office in a Small City


Travelling Carnival, Santa Fe

People in the Sun


A Woman’s Work

Summer Evening




Two Comedians


9 103

88 107 89

Wood, Grant American Gothic The Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, West Branch, Iowa

Johnson, Eastman


Daughters of Revolution

178 196 182-183

A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves


Death on the Ridge Road

Corn Husking


Dinner for Threshers

Cranberry Pickers


The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere


The Hatch Family


Overmantel Decoration


200 204-205

Negro Life at the South


Parson Weems’ Fable


Woman in White Dress


The Perfectionist


Portrait of Frances Fiske Marshall


Portrait of John B. Turner, Pioneer




Luks, George Bleecker and Carmine Streets


Roundhouse at High Bridge


Sentimental Ballad

The Wrestlers


The Sentimental Yearner


Stone City, Iowa


Woman with Plants


Metcalf, William Gloucester Harbour


8 Wyeth, Andrew

Remington, Frederic Aiding a Comrade Boat House at Ingleneuk

72 6







The Bronco Buster


Christina’s World

Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun


Distant Thunder


Buffalo Runners – Big Horn Basin



Long Limb


The Charge of the Rough Riders (Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill) 77

Maga’s Daughter


The Cheyenne


Master Bedroom


Coming Through the Rye


On the Edge


Evening in the Desert. Navajoes




Hauling the Gill Net




An Old-Time Plains Fight




The Outlier (preliminary version)


Trodden Weed






Self-Portrait on a Horse


Witches Broom




ealism is a monolithic, lockstep, strictly governed method of painterly visualisation shattered into nuances of interpretation. Where you paint can make you a Regional Realist. What you paint might label you a Genre Realist, while who you paint might classify your work as Portrait Realist—or maybe a Portrait Regionalist Realist if you paint Native Americans in the West, or sea captains on the East Coast. Of the variations cited, there are even further nuances that mock the concept of “American Realism” as an all-embracing style. What remains are American Realist artists, each facing subject matter that is part of the fabric of the American scene. The result of their efforts is determined by the filtering of their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets, training, regional influences, ethnic influences and basic nurturing. If there is any binding together it is within the tradition of Realist Art in the United States, which accepts such a range from Winslow Homer's poetic watercolours of the 1860s to the haunting minutiae of Andrew Wyeth and melancholy light of Edward Hopper in the 1950s and 1960s. This book presents a cross-section of American Realist artists spanning more than 100 years of art. It begins as some artists struggle with the influences of Europe and other home-grown painters bring their nineteenth-century American scenes to life, and ends as today's generation of Realist painters co-exist with American Modernism and absorb this new freedom into the latest incarnation of their art.

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