Monthly," October 1955.
One of the most distinguished portrait painters New England has
produced, CHARLES HOPKINSON painted the leading
lights of Harvard during the administrations of Presidents Eliot,
Lowell, and Conant -- and with such success that his fame spread
far beyond his beloved Cambridge. Now in his eighties and still
painting -- he had a very successful showing of his portraits and
water colors at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last
-- winter -- his mind harks back to those days when Cambridge was
a country town and when he, an aspirant in his early twenties, was
just getting his start in Paris.
PORTRAIT PAINTER AND HIS SUBJECT
by CHARLES HOPKINSON
am going to ramble as an old man and tell some of the things which
in these days may seem quaint or amusing, and which will lead
to some of the mild adventures of a portrait painter. In the seventies
and eighties, I should say that the winters in Cambridge were
always white with snow and the air was filled with the sweet tingling
of sleigh bells. A horsecar rushed down Craigie Street with a
big man in a buffalo-skin driving four horses at full gallop,
disappearing in the whiteness of the distance. On a warm evening
in May, the silence of Brattle Street was hardly broken by the
faint trilling of the creatures who dwelt in Smith's Pond, and
then perhaps one heard the romantic sound of young men's voices
singing as they walked out from the College, first faint in the
distance, then growing louder, and then dying away far up the
street. Then silence again.
first professional adventure (to call it so) occurred when Miss
Nathurst, who lived next door, seized a portrait of mine, made
perhaps at the age of six or seven -- a drawing of the "Old Man
with the Cows." The man in the portrait used to pasture his three
cows by letting them walk slowly from East Cambridge through Craigie
Street to Mount Auburn and back. It was good pasturage all the
way in the 1870s. Those were happy days when a horse and buggy
could be driven up Brattle Street on either side with not a care
in the world -- unless the horse ran away! For a runaway horse
tearing along wIth dragging reins and a wide-eyed terrified woman
on the front seat was not an uncommon sight.
Nathurst's cousin, who also lived next door, was Denman Ross,
one of the quaint characters of Cambridge. He had a gentle way
of talking, but had a force in his teaching of art and taste which
was quite remarkable. He painted for his own pleasure and instruction,
and, so far as I know, was the first man hereabouts to formulate
the colors of the spectrum into a language and system which could
be taught and could be employed by any intelligent artist; but
woe betide a pupil who used the stimulation of his teaching to
think for himself and make any change in the system! His monument
is the remarkable Ross Collection at the Fine Arts Museum of Boston.
Other quaint characters in Cambridge were Mr. William Newell,
who would sit at a dinner party with an open umbrella behind him
to keep off the draft, and Mr. Carr, who walked up Brattle Street
with the help of an Alpenstock.
Street was either deep in mud or deep in dust, but the fine houses
of Tory Row stood almost alone from Hawthorne Street to Elmwood.
At high tide I used to see the salt water in the grass on the
southern edge of the sidewalk, or watch the tall masts of a Maine
lumber schooner being towed up the river to Watertown. The deep-sea
hooting of the tugboat's whistle echoed among the elm trees and
brought the ocean close to one.
Boston, at T Wharf, where the fishing schooners lay three deep,
you could look over the harbor at the big square-riggers anchored
in the stream, or at East Boston, at the delicate tracery against
the sky of the masts and yards and cordage of a full-rigged ship.
Or perhaps, as you glanced to the left, up the harbor you might
see the clipper barque Sarah, with her topsails aback,
sliding out stern first from her wharf for the voyage to the Azores
-- with passengers surely going to visit the Dabneys at Fayal.
At the next wharf, one day, I saw a small foreign looking schooner
unloading salt cod, evidently a French vessel, named the Helene,
and hailing from a place I had never heard of. Five years later
I saw her again at a little seaport town in Brittany as she came
home from the banks of Terre Neuve.
that brings me to France and the Art School. It was Julian's,
where M. Bougereau (who now remembers his waxy nudes?) would come,
sit down, say "C'n'est pas mal, mais c'n'est pas assez," and go
on to the next student. One learned by working every day, and
by going to the Louvre. If the studio grew dark, and then the
light came again, the students broke out into the Russian National
Anthem. (That's all I knew about Russia then.) It was really at
the Louvre that one learned -just by being there. I can sympathize
with people who only care for pictures as illustrations of what
interests them, for I was like that even at the age of twenty-one
when I had been drawing and painting marines and landscapes for
many years. At the Louvre a small Dutch picture of a ship was
the only thing which interested me. I went through Holland and
never saw a painting by either Hals or Rembrandt (my present idols),
nor did I enter the National Gallery in London. Then suddenly,
only three years later in Paris, I saw Titian's "Man with a Glove."
(I had probably looked at it often.) The next year the picture
I sent to the Salon du Champs de Mars (the "New Salon" as it was
called) made quite a hit, and the following year there were four
of my pictures there. This seems to me, to whom works of art are
such a great part of my life, a strangely slow development. The
glamour of the world of art in Paris was very strong. One saw
the respect shown the artist even by the shopkeepers, at least
in the Quartier Montparnasse -- yes, and even In far-off Brittany,
where the proprietor of one of those little traveling theaters
in a tent respectfully showed me, a long-haired, beret-capped
youth, a seat reserved "pour les artistes." That was in Roscoff,
a little stony town full of houses built in the sixteen-hundreds,
where Mary Queen of Scots had embarked and disembarked and was
remembered by a ruined chapel dedicated to her.
the glamour of Paris came life in Cambridge and Boston once more.
The first real portrait I painted was of the poet E. E. Cummings.
He was a baby just old enough to toddle about on the lawn of his
father's house on Irving Street. A boy perhaps seven years old came
across the street to watch me work. When I asked him if he thought
he would ever paint pictures like that, he replied, "I have already
painted pictures which the neighbors consider excellent. I made
a knight in armor which I gave to Professor Norton." "Do you go
to school?" said I, making conversation. "No, my mother teaches
me at home. I used to go to a school where they taught in the phonetic
fashion, so that I spelled nice n-i-e-s." Now I, having heard something
about a Royce boy, asked, "Are you Christopher Royce?" "No. my name
is Edward. Perhaps you have seen in the neighborhood a half-grown
lad in knickerbockers. That is Christopher." Then from across the
street came a mother's voice, "Edward, Edward," and he had to run.
It was a good Cambridge send-off for me.
in Cambridge and Boston included, of course, the instruction and
influence of Denman Ross, and here and there a portrait to paint.
One by one, by painting them, I became accustomed to the characteristics
of Harvard professors; and as a consequence, after some years came
a one-man show in New York.
a result of this show, I believe, I had the honor to be chosen as
one of a group of artists to paint celebrities connected with the
Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. Each artist was to paint three,
and as I was the least well known artist in the group, three of
the lesser lights were assigned to me. This was a piece of good
fortune, for they were the most picturesque and could more easily
be induced to pose. Oh! that lovely afternoon in the Paris sunlight
as I walked through the Champs EIysees on my way to meet our Ambassador,
Mr. Henry White, who had kindly agreed to act as go-between for
the artists and their sitters. At the Embassy, when I told him that
I was in a great hurry to get to work, my fellow painter Johansen.
who was in the room, said, "I have had only one sitting from Joffre
in three weeks." Mr. White went with me to call on M. Bratianu,
the Premier of Rumania, my first victim. When he saw Mr. White,
the United States Ambassador. he thought something fine was coming
to him, but though he , was disappointed he agreed to sit next day.
He was a picturesque, sensual-looking man with large red lips and
iron-gray hair cut a la bross -- what we call a paintable
subject. I got ten sittings from him.
at an interview with the son of Prince
Saionji. the Japanese statesman. I was told that the English
artist asked for only three. So things were until, at the second
sitting of Saionji, his charming daughter (sitting in the room in
costume) said, apropos of nothing, "I think the English artist had
four sittings." So I got four. Prince Saionji, posing stiffly
in his cutaway coat and striped trousers, said "Non" when I asked
him if he spoke English or French. So in silence I worked with furious
speed. Some time later I read, perhaps in the Paris edition of the
New York Herald Tribune. of an interview by the reporter with Saionji,
who, having been educated at Oxford, replied in excellent English.
When I finished the portrait in Boston, I painted him sitting in
a Chinese chair copied from one in the Museum, which seemed appropriate
to what Japan was doing in China just then.
that came the portrait of M. Pashich. the Premier of Serbia. "Well,"
said Mr. White. "when I last saw him, he was in handcuffs!" So,
you see, I did have somewhat picturesque and dramatic subjects.
Pashich lived in a lowly and shabby little hotel guarded by two
sloppy, friendly soldiers who reminded me of New England "hired
men." Perhaps Serbians are like that. Pashich was a large, handsome
man with a long square-cut beard which looked as though it were
hooked on over his ears. He was apparently much flattered to think
that his portrait was to hang in Washington. The job went off in
four sittings, just as I could wish. So there I finished, while
my fellow painters were struggling with distinguished diplomats
and generals who would pose only now and then.
Peace Conference portraits were all exhibited in New York, and the
one of Saionji seemed to "put me on the map," so that commissions
began to come to me. "Whom are you painting now?" said my uncle,
President Eliot. "Mr. So-and-so," said I, "but I have not yet decided
on the pose." "Ah," said he, "from now on you may have more work,
and I advise you to make your decisions quickly." He was an administrator,
poor man, so how could he understand a mere painter's problems?
now, who were these sitters? One was Barrett Wendell, who had taught
me English in college, and upon the model stand he became simple
and almost youthful, telling stories of ghosts he had seen and revealing
other confidences. I have often found that a portrait sitting brings
out the most friendly traits in my sitters. Another portrait I painted
was of Charles Eliot Norton. This was what we call a post-mortem.
I'm sorry I couldn't have done it while he was alive, but I remember
distinctly many of his sayings as he gave his courses in Fine Arts
3 and 4, such as: "When I look down on you gentlemen here before
me, I see in many of your cravats a horseshoe. What more degrading
symbol!" And when he was presiding at a dinner given at the Tavern
Club to the architects of the Chicago World's Fair, he said, "It
is a great honor to us to have with us you who have made an oasis
in the Sahara of American civilization." Up spoke Mr. Adams S. Hill.
"I think it very unfair of Mr. Norton to speak of American civilization
as a Sahayra." "I said Sahara."
Girdler was a different sort of man. The commission to paint him
came to me beause I had made a successful portrait of a most delightful
gentleman in Cleveland, Mr. William Mather. He was a steel man,
the leading citizen of the city, head of the Symphony Orchestra,
and a refined, handsome gentleman. His office was in the same building
with that of Tom Girdler, another steel man. Evidently Girdler's
people had seen the Mather portrait and wanted the same artist to
do Girdler. We disagreed on almost every topic of conversation.
When I gave him a rest he walked about the studio saying, "This
is the most disorderly room I have ever seen," and when we parted
he declared, "I'll never get into this sort of thing again."
Calvin Coolidge wrote, asking me to paint his portrait, he said
that since it was to be hung in an important place he hoped I would
"use the best of materials." He told me how to get to Northampton,
where he was living, by the only train. When I arrived at his house
at 6:20 P.M., he came to the door saying "Hed your supper?" "No."
"Wal, Mrs. Coolidge and I have hed ours but I guess we can git some
for you." He was a good host. He was a good sitter, also, but not
a vain man, for he said of the picture, in which, I must say, he
had a rather sour expression, "Hed fourteen po'trets painted, and
that's the best maouth anybody ever done of me." He was so perfectly
Yankee -- of the same stock as my own -- that I couldn't help liking
him, and so the painting went well.
my sitters was a man of learning in a very important position in
the world, who, when he saw the preliminary sketch I had made for
my own instruction, emphasizing certain peculiarities, got down
from his seat, indignant, saying, "I thought you were going to make
a dignified portrait. If you do a thing like that, I shall certainly
not sit." Surprisingly naive? A very different attitude from that
of Professor "Joey" Beale,
an almost grotesque little man, who was delightfully interested
in every preliminary sketch and caricature I made of him.
were a good many college professors and presidents who fell prey
to my brush, and it was great fun traveling about and doing my "big
game shooting," as I call it. The biggest game I shot, and the most
beautiful man who posed for me, was Mr. Justice Holmes -- my most
exciting commission, perhaps. He must have been about eighty-seven
years old, with a shock of white hair over his high forehead, and
a fine white cavalryman's mustache, which he could not forget.
One day after he had asked me to stay to lunch, as his secretary
and I walked into the dining room together, he heard us congratulating
the world on some decision toward international peace which we had
seen in the newspapers. He said, "You young fellers don't know what
you are talking about. I remember how, in a cavalry charge, a Reb
slashed at me with his sword. I put my pistol right against his
chest. The damned thing didn't go off. I wish to God I had killed
that man." Now this was very soon after he had delivered the momentous
dissenting opinion favoring the giving of citizenship to Rosika
Schwimmer, a noted pacifist.
day, after asking me to stay to lunch with Felix Frankfurter and
his wife, he went off to be refreshed by listening to his secretary
reading to him "The Confessions of a Chorus Girl." Thus stimulated,
he kept the conversation at luncheon on the high plane of philosophy
and other subjects so far above my head that I could only sit in
silent awe. I am told that when Frankfurter took him to see his
portrait in the Harvard Law School, where he wanted it to hang,
opposite that of Chief Justice Marshall, he said, "that is not I,
but perhaps it is just as well that people should think it is. How
did the damned little cuss do it?" The last time I saw him, a few
months before his death, he was lying on a sofa, weary with old
age, but spick-and-span in dress, with a rosy but very old face.
He said, "I wish you would tell me something about this painter
me now tell you an anecdote which shows the power of the paintbrush.
I was painting the younger John D. Rockefeller. He sat for me in
his office at his table, far at one side of the room, looking a
little past me to the left. One day he said, "Some men are coming
this afternoon to talk about some very important matters. I hope
you will be very discreet." I told him I should be very busy and
didn't understand anything about money matters, anyway. When the
four men arrived and sat down in the empty part of the room, after
introducing them to me he said, "I am in the hands of my artist
and am sorry I cannot look in your direction, but we may begin."
Presently a preposterously large sum of money was mentioned, perhaps
a hundred million dollars and at that he turned his head toward
them. Silently I waved my paintbrush at him and he was back in his
chief theory is that a portrait should exist in the world of art
and should not resemble a reflection in a mirror. In the first place,
its shapes and outlines should as much as possible (still keeping
a human resemblance) be in a geometrical pattern in harmony with
the dimensions of the canvas on which it is painted. It should have
a color scheme derived from an arrangement of certain tones chosen
from the colors of the spectrum. I keep in mind the advice of a
member of the Royal Academy, Fuseli, who told his pupils not to
copy but to imitate Nature -- that is, to re-create. The
painter should not try to reproduce the colors he sees in his sitter.
Nature's range in light, and therefore in color, is from brightest
light to darkest dark, while the artist's range is only from white
paint to black paint. Therefore the artist must organize his colors
in imitation of the way they are organized in nature. Yellow is
the lightest color, and violet blue or violet the darkest. Perhaps
you could think of it as the keyboard of a piano -- high notes
and low notes with almost innumerable modulations. In darkness we
see nothing. When light falls on a solid object, part of that object
is lightest, another part of the object is darker, and finally the
part farthest away from the light is in shadow. Those tones must
all be arranged in order, in the painter's mind and on the palette.
is an excitement in portrait painting. The thing has to be done
with all the tension that one uses in a violent game, keeping this
up for the two hours of a sitting. You have to think and feel at
the same time. Now what is feeling, as the artist uses the word
? I think it is making yourself into the person before you, not
reasoning what sort of person he is, mentally or spiritually, but
being that person as he appears to your eyes -- feeling yourself
resembling him in his gestures, in the way he sits or stands. If
he is a person you don't like, the portrait may be a good likeness,
but it will lack the something which unconsciously gets into a portrait
of a person one is attracted to.
you may ask, "How about painting women and children?" A child, yes.
That is like painting what is lovely in landscape or in a flower.
Perhaps women are too mysterious. Perhaps it is too difficult to
become one as I tried just now to describe "becoming" one's sitter.
I have made two good portraits of women. One was of an elderly philanthropist,
Miss Elizabeth Putnam, and the other is of Dr. Sara Jordan, of the
Lahey Clinic. But both of them had characteristics put there by
great achievements. I am speaking of "lovely women" in quotation
marks -- the kind Romney tried all his life to paint with not great
success. Perhaps the obviousness of feminine attractiveness is disconcerting
and cannot be described by me in terms of painting and the language
(as I like to call it) to which I am accustomed. John Sargent, when
asked why he had not made a better portrait of a lady he had painted,
replied, "What could I do? She is a beautiful woman!" He meant that
there was nothing in her face to emphasize or exaggerate in order
to make a likeness. Nature had made her too perfect.
difficulty perhaps is summed up in the comment made on my New York
one-man show by the Art Editor of the New York Sun. " He
is enough of a Yankee to portray a shrewd business man, is at home
with his academic clients, but when it comes to the ladies, he makes
them look good and not dangerous."