from an essay by Leah Lipton, Charles Hopkinson: Pictures from
a New England Past, Framingham Massachusetts, Danforth Museum,
Hopkinson enjoyed an active and successful painting career that
spanned more than sixty years and brought him honors and acclaim.
Today, his reputation rests largely upon the commissioned
portraits of prominent men which are now in public collections:
university presidents and professors, lawyers, bankers, philanthropists,
poets. Often called the "court painter of Harvard" because of the
thirty or more portraits he produced for that institution, he found
original and vivid ways to paint the conventional official portrait.
But Hopkinson was equally well-known in his lifetime for his bold
and innovative watercolors, and
his evocative portraits of children.
Both are virtually unknown to today's public because most of these
paintings are in private and family collections. This CSH Virtual
Gallery provides an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with these
two facets of his talent, and to reassess, in modern terms, an important
as early as 1900, Hopkinson's work was frequently exhibited and
widely reviewed, almost always in superlatives. His 1928 one-man
show at the Montross Gallery in New York was called "the outstanding
watercolor event of the year, and this includes the Marin exhibition.... the most dazzling conjuring of color and form in the new expressionistic
mode that any American artist has accomplished in this medium."
Henry McBride, the noted critic for the New York Sun, wrote in May,
1925, "It appears that he is our best... it would be difficult to
discover in our midst a portraitist of more all round competence."
Again in the Sun, in January, 1931, a second reviewer declared,
"About the strongest card we have to play against the avalance of
French art that confronts us this week is Charles Hopkinson, the
ace of American portrait painters." His popularity did not diminish
throughout his long life. In 1948, Time Magazine called him "the
Dean of U.S. portraitists," and Boston Globe critic Robert Taylor
echoed this phrase in 1953, adding that Hopkinson was, at the age
of eighty-four, "just as revolutionary, in his own way, as the
vanguard of the latest style."
he was not working on commissioned portraits, he painted his family
or himself. There are more than sixty self-portraits
still in the studio on the top floor of his Manchester house. He
seems to have used these not only as direct and honest records 'of
his changing appearance, but also as vehicles for problem-solving,
for testing ideas relating to light and shadow, brush techniques
or methods of modelling the human face. The self-portraits in this
exhibition include both the earliest known example, painted before
the turn of the century, and the last, a brutally honest work painted
in 1961, when the artist was in his ninety-first year. Although
not offered for sale, Hopkinson's pictures
of his children were a staple of his exhibitions in the first
decades of the twentieth century. One of the artist's children said
recently, "We all thought it was the duty of every child to sit
quietly while her father painted her." She recalled that her mother
would read aloud to them as they sat, and when they got too "wiggley," they were allowed to get up and move around for a while. The
sittings, she thought, lasted about an hour at a time.
legend gives credit to John Singer Sargent for suggesting the theme
Dancing Girls to Hopkinson, after seeing the girls dressed in
old-fashioned costumes, dancing on the rocks at Manchester. Sargent
visited the Manchester house in 1916 while he was in Boston working
on the murals at the Public Library. A postcard from one of Mrs.
Hopkinson's sisters to another, written on August 20, 1917, confirms
a second Sargent visit, in the company of Isabella Stewart Gardner.
Harriot Curtis writes, "John Singer [Sargent] admired it ex-tremely!
[a reference to the dress worn by one of the girls] He and Mrs.
Gardner, no less, came by tother (sic) day to see how the painting
he insisted on Charles painting came on. He likes it but says there
must be four, not three, children, and Happy must be definitely
curtseying." Although Hopkinson did not add a fourth child, there
is evidence in a study he made for the painting that he did change
the position of the child in the foreground in response to Sargent's
pre-eminently a portrait painter, Charles Hopkinson painted watercolors
all his life, for his own pleasure, as a relief from the pressures
of accomodating (sic) a client, and as an intense personal response to
the landscape and the sea. Although they were widely exhibited and
well received, he was reluctant to sell them, and most of them are
still in the hands of family and friends. Perhaps half of them were
inspired by the dramatic view from his house in Manchester and the
others document an equally strong response to nature in many places
around the world. Among the more than 700 extant watercolors are
scenes from California, Hawaii, Bermuda, Venice, Paris, New Zealand
expressed goal in painting the water-colors was to capture the "heart"
of the scene. Foreground details, he said, had to be seen "out of
the corner of the eye," while the focus in the center must be portrayed
with vigor and accuracy. His is a highly selective style which rejects
the non-essential and casts aside cliches. He painted very quickly,
making rapid decisions. Although some of the early works are factual
and descriptive, most of his watercolors are rapid distillations
of the essence of the scene. In Kite
Flying Day, Ipswich, for example, the gaiety of a crowd of people
is conveyed by a few swiftly applied flecks of color.
tried, he said, to see with the "innocent eye, not the intellectual
eye," that is, to allow the impact of the scene before him to determine
his approach. In 1928, he instructed his daughter Ibby that one
must have "nothing but humbleness before nature, an intelligent
humbleness, an emotional response...."