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Extracted from an essay by Leah Lipton, Charles Hopkinson: Pictures from a New England Past, Framingham Massachusetts, Danforth Museum, 1988.

Charles Hopkinson

Charles 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 Boston artist.

From 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."

When 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.

Family legend gives credit to John Singer Sargent for suggesting the theme of Three 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 suggestion.

While 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 and Ireland.

Hopkinson's 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.

He 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...."

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