Saint Joseph College Gallery
West Hartford, CT
The following essay is the Introduction, by Vincenza Uccello, M.F.A., Director, Fine Arts Collections, Saint Joseph College Gallery, from the catalogue for the exhibition titled "Eugene Higgins, 1874-1958: Artist of Honor," held at the Gallery in September, 1997. This essay is reprinted with permission of the author and Saint Joseph College.
Eugene Higgins was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1874. He began drawing at an early age but had very little formal training. His parents were Irish immigrants and his mother died when he was four years old. Eugene and his father lived in boarding houses in St. Louis. Many years later Higgins acknowledged that the earliest influence on the development of his artistic style was Michelangelo, whose works his father, a stonecutter, deeply admired and taught him to appreciate. Another early influence was the art of Millet, whose illustrations he discovered at age twelve in a copy of St. Nicholas magazine.
Most significant in those formative years, however, was the environment in which he grew up. St. Louis, Missouri, was the scene of yearly floods, bringing every form of human misery and often tragedy. What Higgins witnessed, experienced, and heard made an indelible impression and formed the basis of his artistic expression. From the very start and consistently throughout his life, he was the artist of the poor, the lonely, and the down-trodden, portraying them in the drama of their human existence but always with understanding, compassion, and Christian resignation. Years later when asked why he constantly painted the poor, his answer was " ... because they are most interesting and real ... the poor just appeal to me because of their dignity."
His artistic style having been established at a comparatively early age, it is not surprising that when Higgins traveled to Paris to broaden his knowledge and further his experience in art, he was relatively unaffected by the new art movements that were emerging at that time. Instead, true to his background and predilection, he sought inspiration in the companionship of the "poor" of Paris. In France, he studied at the Academe Julian and at the Ecoles des Beaux - Arts and learned the art of etching and monotype. When he returned to America he first gained recognition as a printmaker. An exhibition of his monotypes at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in 1912 was well received.
In 1923 Higgins married Anita Rio, a former concert singer. They traveled to Europe and he spent time sketching in Ireland. In 1932-1933 he executed two murals representing the movement West for post offices in Tennessee and Wisconsin. Higgins maintained studios in New York City and in Lyme, Connecticut, where he continued to portray laborers and peasants. In the 1930's he exhibited his works extensively and received many honors and awards. He was elected a full member of the prestigious National Academy of Design and later became a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Major museums including the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Institute and the British Museum in London acquired his works.
In 1933, when Higgins was sixty years old, Grand Central Galleries honored him with a large solo exhibition of his works in their new galleries. Malcolm Vaughn, reviewing the exhibition for the New York American, commented that Higgins's subject had not changed; however, the characterization was more intense and impassioned. "But he is still the old Eugene Higgins - simple, monumental, powerful, succinct, direct and always poetic."
In 1937, Reverend Andrew J. Kelly, founder of the Catholic Library and Pastor of St. Anthony Church in downtown Hartford, gave Saint Joseph College on its fifth anniversary a significant collection of American art. Most of the etchings, monotypes and the oil painting Bracing the Tree in this exhibition are from Father Kelly's Collection. 1997 is the sixtieth anniversary of this landmark gift.
Father Kelly and Eugene Higgins were friends and many times Father Kelly and his colleagues would visit the Higginses at their home, "Bally Hooley" in Pleasant Valley, Lyme. We like to think of them as kindred spirits. Eugene Higgins immortalized the poor. Father Kelly's foresight in giving his collection has fostered appreciation of these works and other great American art. He also believed, "Art for the average (person) is as necessary as bread, shelter and friendship."
1998 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Father Kelly's death
and the fortieth anniversary of the death of Eugene Higgins. We honor their
memory with this exhibition. Art and friendship -- both enrich our lives.
Read more about the Saint Joseph College Gallery in Resource Library Magazine
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
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