Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009 with permission of the author and the Woodmere Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Woodmere Art Museum:


Thomas Hovenden: American Painter of Hearth and Homeland

by Michael Schantz


"Life is too real, too brief, too buoyant, too serious, to be expended in a mere endeavor to reproduce the beautiful, to set forth a color scheme, or to put upon the canvas a mystical study, a symbol, an ideal grasped by but a few. If we must draw a distinction between art for art's sake and art for humanity's sake, let us be bold enough to choose the latter. If there is such a thing as a genre composition, a storytelling picture, which reaches down and lifts men up, which ennobles him who paints and them who view the painting, why not accept this type? Why not embody in it all the beauty, sincerity and simplicity possible?"

The preceding quote is taken from Reverend Ernest Pfatteicher's January 1907 article in Book News Monthly and defines the attributes of the work of an artist who had died twelve years earlier. In particular, it applauds a painting by Thomas Hovenden (1840 - 1895), one of nineteenth-century America's premier genre and figurative painters.

Reverend Pfatteicher, who later befriended the artist, attended the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a young man and viewed first-hand the popular American icon, Hovenden's Breaking Home Ties. Pfatteicher was struck by the moral tone of the painting which captured the imagination of thousands of other visitors. It was, in fact, one of the most revered paintings at the Exposition.

A humanitarian and one who sought to be morally upright, Hovenden imbued many of his paintings with equal probity. Breaking Home Ties, and its pendant Bringing Home the Bride became popular symbols of the socio-economic realities in post-Civil War America. The first presents a son departing from home to make his way and his fortune in the world. It alludes to the dramatic shift in American society from an agrarian to manufacturing based economy which wrenched families apart. Generally accepted as a sequel, the second painting reads like the ending to a Horatio Alger story: the return of the proud and successful young man who introduces his new wife to his mother and father.

Though he was acclaimed for his superior talent as an artist and gained influence and respect as a teacher in his lifetime, Thomas Hovenden's significant reputation suffered a fate unlike the more lasting and formidable recognition given to his colleagues, Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz. Eakins and Anshutz have received numerous tributes by scores of scholars and museums. The same cannot be said of Thomas Hovenden; his art and life remain only partially explored.

The Woodmere Art Museum's exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are intended to substantially augment the existing body of knowledge about this skilled and humane artist. The confluence of special circumstances, geography, and chronology presented Woodmere with an enviable opportunity to honor a largely-forgotten nineteenth-century American master.

Hovenden emanated from County Cork, Ireland, where he was born in 1840, one of Robert and Ellen Bryan Hovenden's three children. He was orphaned at an early age when his parents succumbed to the ravages of the Irish potato famine. From an orphanage in Cork, Hovenden was propitiously apprenticed to a tradesman gilder and carver. Recognizing the young man's artistic capabilities, the tradesman enrolled Hovenden in the Cork School of Design. The fledgling artist excelled and was soon sufficiently trained to venture out on his own.

In 1863 Hovenden immigrated to America to pursue an artistic career. He joined his older brother, John, in Greenwich Village, New York, seeking additional education at the National Academy of Design. He also assumed an apprenticeship with Charles Parsons, the well-known New York lithographer. In the late 1860s, Hovenden put his earlier training to use, establishing a framing shop. At this time he also met Hugh Bolton Jones, a Baltimore artist, who would become a life-long friend. The two joined forces and moved to Baltimore where they shared a studio and concentrated on painting.

From this time onward, Hovenden consistently submitted paintings to the National Academy of Design Annuals and began building his reputation as a figurative artist. His Self-Portrait (c. 1873) is a wonderful document that clearly proclaims Hovenden's high ambitions and serious intentions. Surrounded by works of art, an easel and other artistic paraphernalia, Hovenden sits with focused gaze on a work in progress. There can be little doubt of his pride in the occupation he chose.

Hovenden's flight to Baltimore commenced a lucky turn of events. His talent was recognized by renowned art collector William T. Walters and business partner John W. McCoy. Their combined encouragement and patronage allowed Hovenden to travel to Paris and pursue further study with the eminent Ecole des Beaux-Arts instructor Alexandre Cabanel during 1874 - 1875. From Cabanel's atelier, Hovenden ventured to Pont-Aven, Brittany, joining the artist colony under the leadership of Robert Wylie (1839 - 1877), former Curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Hovenden met his future wife, Helen Corson, a fine artist in her own right.

At Pont-Aven, Hovenden developed his first, major painting theme: images that documented the life and history of Breton inhabitants. The rich environment of Pont-Aven stimulated the creation of one of his early works, The Vendean Volunteer, also known as Breton Interior. The painting was accepted into the 1878 International Exposition in Paris. Measuring 38 1/4 by 54 inches, it alluded to the Bretons loyalty to the monarchy during the French revolution. The painting was the first of future works with similar dimensions that helped usher large-scale figurative painting into the mainstream of American art.

Hovenden temporarily terminated his Pont-Aven stay in 1878 and set up a studio in Paris. He painted scenes of cavaliers and acts of gallantry, such as The Favorite Falcon. He began, as well, one of his most ambitious and complex figurative paintings, Elaine. During the summer of 1879, Hovenden returned to Pont-Aven and produced a tour de force painting, In Hoc Signo Vinces, which was accepted in the 1880 Paris Salon. It too shows Breton inhabitants preparing to combat the revolutionary regime in Paris.

With this favorable recognition, Hovenden returned to America and New York City, the acknowledged center of American artistic activities. He again shared a studio with H. Bolton Jones in the Sherwood building, one of the most vibrant artists' studio buildings in all of Gotham. Hovenden took an active part in the New York artistic scene and was elected a Member of the Society of American Artists and an Associate Member of the National Academy of the Design.

In June of 1881 Hovenden married Helen Corson. He and his bride resided at the Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, homestead of Helen's father, George Corson, a Quaker and staunch abolitionist. The Hovendens lived here until Thomas's death in 1895. As in New York, Hovenden was active in local artistic matters. He become a member of the Philadelphia Society of Artists and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and developed close ties with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

In 1886 the Academy selected Hovenden to replace Thomas Eakins as Professor of Painting and Drawing upon the latter's controversial dismissal. Although he was an instructor for only a short period, from 1886 to 1888 and again in 1890 to 1891, Hovenden was instrumental in launching the careers of numerous would-be artists, among them Henry Ossawa Tanner. A special bond developed between the two that proved mutually beneficial. Years later Tanner and Hovenden exhibited in a two-man show at the Earle's Galleries in Philadelphia.

During the 1880s and early 1890s, Hovenden produced a series of works which established his American reputation. In 1882 he exhibited Elaine, a romantic piece which illustrates a passage from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. A monumental painting measuring 46 x 71 inches, it portrays the death of the fair maiden who died a victim of the unrequited love of Sir Lancelot. King Arthur and his court surround Elaine's death bed. It was one of the most formidable and complex figurative paintings ever executed by an American painter.

Elaine was followed by an equally immense work The Last Moments of John Brown (1884), commissioned by New York businessman Robbins Battell. The painting confirmed Hovenden's prodigious talent and inaugurated a series of paintings dealing with American history and culture. In 1889 Hovenden exhibited In the Hands of the Enemy (1889) at the National Academy of Design, New York. The painting presents a wounded Confederate soldier being cared for with warmth and kindness by a Union family; it was a plea to heal the nation, for rapprochement between North and South.

The painting that must surely be considered Hovenden's magnum opus however, is Breaking Home Ties. This piece had a magnetic appeal and became a favorite with the general public. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were familiar with this image, through exhibition of the original and the many reproductive etchings that made their way into parlors across the country.

Hovenden also produced a series of smaller pieces featuring ordinary people at home and at work. Common occupations such as blacksmith and cabinetmaker were typical. Included were a fine group of paintings devoted to African-American subjects. These were honest, straightforward renderings and rather exceptional for their sensitivity. Hovenden's foray into such subject matter probably reflected a combination of market demand, abolitionist sympathies spawned by his wife and her family, and residential propinquity. It was Hovenden's habit to use as subjects and models those around him, including family, friends and neighbors.

The African-Americans depicted in images such as Dem Was Good Ole Times, The Old Shaver (1886), and Their Pride (1888) emerge from his personal experience. They are remarkably compassionate representations for a time when racial harmony was rare. Their Pride is surely his finest painting of this type. It is an intimate glimpse at the love of a family for a member who is soon to be wed; the painting is infused with parental pride and hope for the joyful future of the betrothed.

At the apparent height of his success a tragic accident ended Hovenden's life. On August 14, 1895, returning by trolley to his Plymouth Meeting home, he disembarked from the trolley and was struck and killed by another train. It was reported that Hovenden died trying to save the life of a fellow passenger, ten year old Bessie Pifer, from the on-rushing locomotive. The artist's death was proclaimed in newspaper headlines across the country. Among the pall bearers at his funeral were artists Thomas Eakins and Samuel Murphy.

Discussions of Hovenden's art often deals with iconography and thematic interpretation, but these considerations tend to divert attention from the analysis of his painterly technique. The Woodmere's retrospective provides an opportunity to examine first-hand his finest works. The exhibition demonstrates that Hovenden was colorist of distinction. His palette is far more vibrant than expected. Hovenden will be appreciated for more than just his ability to inspire sentiment; he will be appreciated, as well, for his facile management of pigment and hue. Hovenden's training was the finest to be had and it will be apparent that he learned his lessons very well. His ability to successfully orchestrate complicated compositions is astonishing. He superbly integrated complex subject matter into a unified whole.

The Woodmere Art Museum invited three art historians to contribute essays to the exhibition's catalogue. Their aggregate contributions add considerably to the current scholarship on the artist. Anne Gregory Terhune, a noted Hovenden scholar, shares some of her research developed over nearly two decades of study. Dr. Terhune's essay, "Thomas Hovenden: Images of Heritage and Hope," precedes her upcoming book on Hovenden, to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and under the auspices of The Barra Foundation. She presents an overview of Hovenden's life and times and considers the socio-economic context that shaped and affected his artistic oeuvre.

As Dr. Terhune notes, "he believed in honesty, humility, plain living, and trust in God. He believed in the goodness of life, especially life close to nature, in the importance of family and in the validity of sentiment." Hovenden's paintings portray the "close familial bonds and continuity of generations within the protective security of domestic interiors" that "suggest a sense of identity, place, and community that was reassuring" to the public of the post Civil War era.

While Dr. Terhune's essay deals with the meaning and context of Hovenden's art, her colleague Sylvia Yount, Curator of the Museum of American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, provides details of Hovenden's works and investigates their popular versus critical appeal. Dr. Yount's essay, "A Pennsylvania Artist: Thomas Hovenden and the Philadelphia Art World," explores "Hovenden's activities in the Philadelphia area, from his teaching experience at the Pennsylvania Academy and his representation in the institution's special and annual exhibitions to his larger role in the local art world" and investigates "the tension between critical and popular approbation that shaped Hovenden's contemporary reputation...."

Ironically, Hovenden's art never achieved the official acceptance its tremendous popularity seemed to imply. Dr. Yount concluded that: "Apparently unable to dissociate Hovenden's work from populist aesthetic and public acclaim that defined it during his lifetime, the critical establishment could not, in the final analysis, discern the breadth of the artist's rich talent and he disappeared through the cracks of canonical art history."

"Home, Hearth, and Humanity: The Triumph Over Racial Stereotyping of African-American in the Genre Paintings of Thomas Hovenden and Henry Ossawa Tanner" by Naurice Frank Woods, Jr., Director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, is the catalogue's third and concluding article. Dr. Woods discusses racial stereotypes and investigates important links between the art of Thomas Hovenden and that of the black artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.

African-American subject matter had a detrimental visual legacy to nineteenth-century art. Few black artists in America had an opportunity to develop and mature, and those that did avoided genre with black imagery to avoid identification as an African-American artist. "Genre painting... became an unacceptable option for both aspiring and established nineteenth-century African-American artists."

It is very likely that Hovenden influenced his pupil Henry Tanner to portray the African-American experience. Together, Hovenden and Tanner "rescued the black image from the grip of racial stereotype and overt condescension. Both artists presented people of African descent with an unquestionable sense of dignity and warmth; a quality sorely lacking in the work of many of their contemporaries."

In this regard, Dr. Woods posits that "of all the artists who committed the African-American image to canvas, Thomas Hovenden and Henry Ossawa Tanner clearly stood at the apex of the push to visually define the black experience.... In their work is found confirmation that the black presence could be imbued with an overwhelming sense of home, hearth, and humanity."


About the author

Michael William Schantz is The Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, a position he has held since 1981. Dr. Schantz received his M.A. in art from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. in art history (emphasis: American art and history of prints; dissertation title: "James David Smillie and the Evolution of American Printmaking") from UCLA. He has curated over 100 exhibits while at Woodmere, and has authored numerous articles and exhibition catalogues, serves on several boards and committees, and is an accreditation reviewer for the American Association of Museums.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 22, 2009, with permission of the author and the Woodmere Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on April 1, 2009.

This article appeared in the October - November 2005 issue of American Art Review and pertains to an exhibition, Thomas Hovenden: American Painter of Hearth and Homeland, which was on view at the Woodmere Art Museum in the fall of 1995.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Diane Pastella of the Woodmere Art Museum and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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