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From "Atlantic 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.



I 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.

My 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.

Miss 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.

Brattle 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.

In 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.

And 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.


After 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.

Life 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.

As 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.

Later, 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.

After 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.

The 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?

And 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."

Tom 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."

When 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.

Among 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.


There 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.

Another 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 El Greco!".

Let 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 pose immediately.

My 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.

There 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.

Now 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.

My 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."

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