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Charles Hopkinson

For the Examiners Club
October 1947

[Submitted by the artist's daughter, Isabella Halsted]

When I found I was to give a talk here, I asked one of our members what I should talk about. Said he: "Tell us what a portrait painter thinks about and does when he is at work. We don't know at all". So here goes, and if I use the word "I" too often, it is because I remember what Professor Lebaron Briggs wrote on the margin of my daily theme: "Nobody is interested in what 'one' does or thinks, tell us what you do and think".

I wish I could convey to you the excitements, the temptations, the satisfactions of an artist's life. It is full of adventure, disappointments and assuagements. The artist at his worst is an exhibitionist, at his best a seeker after truth, and never satisfied with what he has found or accomplished. What are his motives, what makes him become an artist? A desire to set down in his own sight, so that he can enjoy them again, the sensations he had when he was impressed with what he calls beauty. The wish to have his work admired leads to exhibitionism and to conceit in his achievement. To balance this is a true reverence for the beauty he sees, a humbleness before Nature, a wish to be the servant of beauty.

What makes an artist? The normal human being looks at things for utilitarian purposes; he has elements of the artist in him if he takes pleasure or pain from the appearance of things and only secondarily notices what may be called their utilitarian qualities. The normal human being enjoys repetition. He is comfortable with the familiar. The artist enjoys the repetition of line or form in a design-perhaps for the same reason? The primitive man, when he was an artist, as you remember, made designs on his pots full of repetition.

How much does the layman, as I will call him, appreciate why he enjoys what he calls the beauty of a tree, or even a pretty face? It all lies really in the matter of design. The tree has symmetry, either obvious or irregular; again, all its leaves are the same shape, but with enough difference to destroy monotony. If the pretty girl, the curve of whose nose is the reverse of her chin and her jawbone, but is the repetition of the curve of her eyebrow, has curls in her hair which repeat the curve of her nose, so much the more is the pleasure of the sight of her.

The Western World thinks of pictures as representations, as subject matter, which, if it is familiar, gives pleasure; if not, does not please so much. But no picture is really good which has not the element of design.

When I had finished a portrait not long ago the artist who had lent me the studio looked at it a good while, then made comments on it as a picture, and finally said: "And it is a good likeness, too," evidently not the most important part of it. But who, of the lay world, who knows the sitter, does not first speak of the likeness? Of course we all know Sargent's description of a portrait: A likeness in which there is something wrong with the mouth. I think a portrait must be a likeness; I take that for granted. But no portrait will live which does not have a fine pictorial design, regardless of subject.

A portrait painter, as much as a landscape painter, should be a maker of pictures. No portrait that is not interesting aesthetically has stood the test of time. It should please, interest and move the observer by its design, as a piece of music does. It should have a pattern of shapes and areas and lines, of gestures and masses and contrasts of light and dark, of harmonies and contrasts of color. It should have, not a facsimile of the person represented, but a description of him or her made with intense emotion. The matter of design, I rather think, is chiefly an intellectual proceeding, but when it comes to the delineation of the sitter, then the artist must become almost an emotional actor. It is not that he tries to imagine what sort of a person his sitter is, but he must feel in his whole nervous system the gesture of the sitter's body, the grasp of a hand, the curve of a mouth.

The painter for his own satisfaction is an observer. He must make himself so sensitive to his visual impressions that his feelings of pleasure and pain are affected. This habit has a marked effect on the artist's character. He may become so much in the habit of letting himself be moved by what he sees that he becomes cowardly and shrinks from unpleasant experiences. He is a poor kind of help in a sickroom. On the other hand he is made happy and moved to an ecstasy of feeling akin to a religious experience by something in the visible world that the layman perhaps never even sees.

I am not scornful of the layman; I am one half the time. I can go my way like a layman and can understand why he acts as he does. I can look at the harmonies of color on my plate and not see them; they are only things to eat. I have arranged flowers at home as if I were painting a picture, and then can go out to dinner and never see the centerpiece my hostess has arranged with such taste and care because I am interested in what my neighbor is saying and what she may think of me. I am reacting to life as a human being is intended by nature to react, not as an artist who by some natural idiosyncrasy and by cultivation has learned to act as he does.

An artist must see everything as a picture. His picture must be made by choosing among the innumerable characteristics of what he is looking at those he is going to use to make his picture. He may emphasize the color and hardly make any form at all. He may make the form in monochrome. We are all familiar with the convention of the black and white. Why not accept any other convention? A red chalk drawing of a landscape with trees is accepted, why not a head done in green chalk? When an artist makes a landscape where objects are only suggested with swift strokes he may be painting with all his might, all his soul wrapped up in trying to state the particular beauty he sees which can be suggested in no other way. It is called a hasty sketch but it is really a greater work of art because it has more spirit than the care-taking finished large painting he may make from it.

He has made his picture and the ideal layman who looks at it should be moved as the artist was moved. He should take it for granted that the artist knows his job as well as the doctor knows his, but how is the layman, preoccupied with business and life, to do this? I don't know, but at least he should humbly try. Probably one of the best ways to learn is to become an amateur artist, and to become accustomed to describing sensations vis-a-vis to nature by symbols; for after all the shapes an artist puts on canvas or paper are symbols to describe what he feels. In what is called modern art a new set of symbols is used. I think we should take for granted they are sincere expressions and learn them in order to enjoy the pictures.

What I understand to be the Academic procedure is the copying of the aspect of the subject, all the accidents of light and shade, everything, just as an unthinking camera would do. To imitate nature, however, is to make use of the principles by which objects seem to be made and recreate an image according to the laws of nature. Imagine a white candle with the lights shining on it from two sides and in front, so that there is no shadow or shading on it. If you copy it faithfully as it looks, you will succeed in making a flat oblong white shape. If you imitate nature using what your two eyes tell you about that candle, you will make it look round by artful means, by putting lighter and darker areas upon your oblong shape. A portrait should be a re-presentation of the sitter. The person in the picture should exist in the world of Art, not in our world in a mirror. The illusion of space in the background should be designed in depth as much as it is designed vertically and horizontally. The illusion of solidity of the figure should be obtained by artful means based on the phenomena of light and shade and color on form. In that way the artist can make the illusions of existence in space, whereas if he copied what was before him he would find certain forms camouflaged by accidental reflections, so that they are flattened out, as in the example of the candle.

I will diverge here by asking if this making the illusion of form in space, which is expected as a matter of course in most of Western art, is perhaps only a parlor magician's trick? When a Japanese or Chinese was first shown such a picture, he touched it with his finger, saying, "You can't fool me. That is only a flat canvas." I am fascinated by this illusion when I see it in a Rembrandt, or Hals, but a great Chinese painting appeals to a more subtle and rare and finer perception in me.

Now the sitter comes into my studio and there begins the adventure I have looked forward to with so much excitement and such great hopes. Here is my chance to compete with the great men whose pictures I have pored over-who are my heroes. That challenge, as well as the challenge to create life is one of the chief incentives. If the sitter is a friend, I have preconceived ideas about him, a multitude of them. If he is a well known person I have preconceived ideas about him. If he is a total stranger, the first impression his looks and his presence makes upon me probably will dominate my portrait. My habit of making myself sensitive to the present moment comes to the fore. In any case I treat the sitter as a new experience. I move him around the studio looking at him in different lights, looking for the salient characteristic shapes. The vividness of the likeness depends on the forcefulness with which the salient characteristics of form and color are described in the portrait. I watch for what may be a characteristic pose all the time looking for the elements in that pose, perhaps a crossed leg repeating the diagonal line of a shoulder against a light background, perhaps the tilt of a head echoing in the reverse direction the gesture of a hand, or the slant of the body. As I said, all this is half impersonal, half having much to do with the man's character.

Tom Girdler, the steel magnate, came to be painted. What I had read about him gave me the idea that he was a rough, overbearing person, and so I was delighted when he sat down, crossed his knee and grabbed it with his hand like a claw, with all four fingers extended. By putting a table behind him I could get his other hand to repeat the action on the edge of it, and so I had a repeat of abstract design and what I thought was a gesture descriptive of the man. At his first rest, he walked about the studio and said: "This is the most disorderly room I ever saw." When we said goodbye at the end of the last sitting, be said: "I'll never get myself into this sort of thing again." Perhaps if I had known him longer I should have done him differently; but the portrait as a portrait would have been no more vivid.

The quality of a caricature to an extremely subtle degree, which may be more pleasantly called emphasis, is very important in portrait painting. I remember President Eliot asking me why I did not measure his height exactly. "Because", said I, "I want people to say 'What a tall man!'"

If I am to tell what goes on in this artist's mind I must give examples. There was the case of Calvin Coolidge. When he stood before me I saw a commonplace Yankee face, with features not salient, with nothing for my mind to grasp. Making myself impersonally sensitive to my first impression gave me nothing like a President of the United States. You can judge whether I was an honest man or not. Tarbell had painted him the way he appeared in a mirror. I said to myself "I am painting a former President". By arranging him in strong light and shade I found he had more nose than had at first appeared. I found he had evident cheekbones, and so I emphasized these characteristics. His mouth looked narrow and set. I didn't slight that characteristic, and by emphasizing the slight oblique set of his eyes (presumably inherited from an aboriginal American ancestor) I made a man who looked like Calvin but also like what I thought was a man of some force.

Having decided on a possible pose, next I make pencil sketches to enforce it on my mind. Then I make an oil sketch of the head and another of the pose. I make this sketch of the head as forceful and simple as I can, with no detail, but the large relations of light and shade and the mass of the head. This may look to some like a caricature. But often it has (though not so much like in detail as the finished portrait) so much vitality that it is liked by the sitter in after years better than the finished one. That is because vitality is the most important attribute, after design, in a portrait.

People react very differently to these sketches. Some of you remember Professor Joseph Beale of the Law School, not a handsome man, far from it. He was intensely interested in all my processes, including the caricature sketch of his head. That helped me to make one of my best portraits. It went easily. Another gentleman in a high position, a scholar and a brilliant man, on seeing the study of his head, said: "I was willing to sit to you, supposing you were going to make a dignified portrait, but if you do a thing like this, I will not!" I finally made him see my point of view, but all that didn't help the portrait!

There are many influences which make me paint portraits. There is a certain amount of exhibitionism of wishing admiration from one's fellow men. I imagine I would rather paint purely to please myself. I said to Professor Kilpatrick, teacher of pedagogy, as I started his portrait: "Now, for the hundredth time I am going to try to paint to please only myself." "You can't do that," said he, "Why not?" "Because you are using a means of communication." I am sorry to say he is right; but most of the time, at my best, I am only interested in making the best work I can in order to fulfill the challenge. For there is a great challenge. To create a sensation of life. To do a first rate job, to vie with the great and splendid painters of the past, to try to make beauty, and to try to find new ways of doing it. You remember Justice Holmes used to say that one should do a job as well as one could, and then not advertise it.

So far, I have spoken only of painting men. How about portraits of women? A newspaper critic in New York, writing of an exhibition of my portraits, once said I was good at business men and academic sitters, but when it came to women, "No; he makes them look good, and not dangerous". As I think back, I can't remember any woman portrait at that particular show except that of old Miss Lizzie Putnam, who was certainly one of the saints of the earth. But if emphasis of peculiarities is necessary to making a likeness, how is a painter to emphasize the feminine beauty that Nature has already put in the woman? It is there already in its perfection. Think of all the portraits of beautiful women that artists have tried to make. How much finer and more moving are the plain women by Rembrandt. And look at the magazine cover girls. Sir Thomas Lawrence came pretty close to them. And can you imagine Lord Nelson throwing away his reputation for a woman who was only Romney's version of Emma Hamilton? Emma was a good deal more than that, I wager. So often what is called beauty is only nature's way of continuing the human race. The beauty the artist sees in a woman's face may be far more dependent on what her spiritual nature has done to that face.

Awhile back I was telling about experiences with sitters. Perhaps I can entertain you with more. Painting the portrait of Mr. Justice Holmes was one of the exciting experiences. He was very old but very vital with a face of great architectural beauty animated by a gallant spirit. He would change suddenly from mischievous ribaldry to an earnest, statement far up in the region of ideals. He asked me to stay to lunch one day and after he had been rested by having his secretary read to him Confessions of a Chorus Girl, the conversation at table between him, Felix Frankfurter and Professor Cohen was so far above my head I couldn't possibly reach it. Another time not so long after he had handed down the dissenting opinion on the Rosika Schwemmer case, quoting the Sermon on the Mount, when he heard his secretary and me congratulating the world on what the League of Nations had just done toward peace, he said, "You young fellers don't know what you are talking about. Once in a cavalry charge a Reb slashed at me. I pointed my pistol against his chest. The damned thing didn't go off. I wish to Hell I'd killed that man". Did I put an extra twirl in his cavalryman's moustache after that?

One of the very pleasantest commissions was naturally enough the portrait of Bliss Perry, and the more difficulties I got into on the shadow side of his face the better I liked it for he had to keep coming until it was right, and that meant hours of pleasant talk.

I wish every one could have as much training in drawing and painting and learning to see as he has in reading and writing and arithmetic; for all around us all the time are millions of combinations of form and color and subtle relations of one to another, all of which to the understanding mind make beauty. It is all there for the taking. The portrait painter is especially blest, for his interest in people brings him close to his fellow man. It may bring him temptations to feel a false superiority. "Here is this great man before me but I am his master here with my brush and palette to depict him as I want to." That is comforting to the inferiority complex. The more the portrait painter is humble before the wonders around him, the nearer he can come to seeing the beauty that the fine nature can give to what is casually known as a plain face he can finally perhaps come into real communion with the spirit of his fellow man.

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