A Painter's Painter: Charles Webster Hawthorne; The Influence of Provincetown and Henry Hensche on Sammy Britt, Gerald DeLoach, Richard Kelso, and George T. Thurmond
May 18 through August 8, 1999
At the turn of the last century, Impressionism was responsible for radically changing not only what Americans were collecting but also the academic approach to how painting was taught. Some one hundred years later, it is difficult to believe that Impressionism -- Claude Monet's beautiful mixture of light and color -- would ever have been controversial.
American Impressionism at the end of the nineteenth century was led by William Merritt Chase whose summer teachings at Shinnecock and studio classes at the Arts Students League were legendary for training many of this country's finest painters. Chase was admired for the beauty of his paintings as well as his success in passing his knowledge of painting and the technique of painting onto his students.
At the height of Chase's teaching of Impressionism, Charles Webster Hawthorne arrived in New York City in 1894 at the age of 22 and enrolled in the Art Students League as a night student while working days to support his dream of becoming a painter. Hawthorne began studying under Chase in 1896 and experienced out-of-doors painting classes at Chase's summer school at Shinnecock that same year.
After a brief stint as Chase's assistant, Hawthorne traveled to Holland in 1898, where he was influenced by the tonal style of Franz Hals. That year abroad inspired Hawthorne to return to the United States and open his own school, the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which would teach Chase's en plein air style of infusing outdoor light with a wide color range. Perhaps more importantly, Hawthorne replicated Chase's enthusiasm for teaching as he passed down the traditions which Chase had passed to him.
While Chase was the more cosmopolitan and gregarious of the two, both men were somewhat self-made as artists and both were drawn to color and the richness of oil paint as a medium. Hawthorne was never a New York insider, and it is rumored that Robert Henri rejected Hawthorne from The Eight.
Hawthorne was content with a simple life of painting and he was devoted to a friendly style of teaching which attracted students to his school in the small fishing village of Provincetown. Students learned from Hawthorne not only how to paint but also how "to see and feel their subjects." He would often tell his pupils, "Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision -- it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so."
Hawthorne's fascination at the beauty of his Cape Cod surroundings was influential in his early works, but more importantly the area increased his desire to paint the people who worked and fished in the area. The study of the figure, reflected in the harsh, brutal realistic paintings of Portuguese fishing families along the Cape, was his first love. In his figures, he was noted for the placement of the head and the gaze emanating from his subjects.
Even in subjects that were not pleasing to the eye, he saw beauty and, in painting that spirit of beauty, Hawthorne excelled and won numerous prizes including awards from the National Academy of Design, Art Institute of Chicago, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In addition to his year in Holland, Hawthorne traveled to Paris and Italy during his career and was made a full member of the French Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1913.
By 1916 the historic fishing village of Provincetown had become the largest art colony in the world luring such artists as George Ault, Gifford Beal, Reynolds Beal, Henry Demuth, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, Ellen Ravenscroft, Ben Shahn, Agnes Weinrich, and William Zorach to its shores. According to historian Ronald A. Kuchta, "Provincetown is the origin of many famous paintings in the history of the twentieth-century American art, not only the place where they were painted, but where they were first exhibited, discussed and sold."
The Cape Cod School of Art was the first outdoor summer school for figure painting and grew into one of the nation's leading art schools. Under thirty years of Hawthorne's guidance, the school attracted some of the most talented art instructors and students in the country including John Noble, Richard Miller, and Max Bohm. At his school, Hawthorne gave weekly criticisms and instructive talks, guiding his pupils and setting up ideals but never imposing his own technique or method.
Although Hawthorne is considered more of a realist, he managed to keep Monet's style and the flame of Impressionism going into the twentieth century when others abandoned his style, and he extended Impressionism to become somewhat structural in teaching his students to "differentiate between color and tone and to re-create the illusion of light without employing the Impressionists's formula."
In reflecting on Hawthorne's career, writer Duncan Phillips said Hawthorne was regarded as "both a great teacher and a great painter." Critic Leile Mechlin said, "There are those who believe, and with reason, that Hawthorne's largest contribution to art in America was through the medium of his teaching." This grand appreciation of Hawthorne's teachings by his peers and students and his aversion to self-promotion gave him the reputation of being a painter's painter.
The Hawthorne principle of teaching stimulated his school. Stephen Gilman wrote, "We came to Provincetown conceited, hoping to get a finishing course, and were literally dragged back to consider matters so elementary and so fundamental we had all forgotten the little we ever knew of them."
"This deliberate insistence of fundamentals was the thing that marked Charles Hawthorne as a great teacher," Gilman continued. "A lesser man would have been tempted to show off. A lesser man would have succumbed to the questions about trifling things. A lesser man would have wandered into verbal bypaths. But he was strong because of his simplicity. He was strong because he had the courage to repeat over and over again his fundamental concept of art, knowing full well that should his hearers once understand his meaning they would never be able to forget it."
Hawthorne had the enviable situation as an artist of being appreciated while he still lived by his fellow artists and by the general public. Early in his career, museums across the country collected his works including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Just as Hawthorne had learned from Chase, Henry Hensche absorbed all he could from Hawthorne. Hensche was born in Chicago in 1901 and arrived in Provincetown in 1919 from the Art Institute to study under Hawthorne. In 1927 Hensche became an assistant instructor at the Cape Code School of Art, and he quickly became devoted to Hawthorne. Besides gaining an appreciation for Impressionism and outdoor figure painting, Hensche experienced the joy of teaching and became the bearer of the torch of Hawthorne' s style.
Upon Hawthorne's untimely death in 1930, the Cape Cod School of Art closed. Seeking to continue the teaching tradition begun by Hawthorne, Hensche opened the Cape School of Art in Provincetown in 1935. Soon his reputation grew to surpass that of his mentor.
Hensche made sure that students who came to Provincetown knew Hawthorne's philosophy and principles, and he took it upon himself to keep Monet' s Impressionist tradition of seeing and painting color with the influence of light at the forefront of his classes. Hensche wanted to ensure that the twentieth century would recognize Hawthorne's talents. "Critics claimed Hawthorne's subjects stare blankly out of his pictures," Hensche said. "It is true, but his figures have a tenderness and refinement you will never find in a John Singer Sargent."
"Hawthorne did not belong to any group intellectually," Hensche continued. "I don't know of anyone who saw as many color changes in an area as Hawthorne. There is a rhythmic relationship evident in which Hawthorne never had any instruction."
According to Hensche, seeing is an important component in the success of a canvas and the art of seeing was instilled in him by Hawthorne. "The understanding and study of the color masses was Charles Webster Hawthorne's great contribution to the teaching of color," Hensche wrote. "Only the education of the art of seeing, unique as it is, supplies the possibility of continuous growth. As a good music teacher makes the pupil aware of finer sound tones and how to produce them, the good art teacher will make his student aware of finer color tones and how to put them together."
Hensche painted for over seventy years and taught for over sixty years in what he referred to as the color realist movement -- something he suggested would not be found in academics. His inspiration is felt even in students such as abstract artists Franz Kline and Hans Hoffmann, who swayed from Hensche's teachings but credit his influence.
The study of color in nature and the perception of light were important to Hensche, and he developed his style of teaching to ensure that his students could understand these concepts. His students became devoted to him and spent numerous summers learning not only what to paint but also how to paint. Students were encouraged to "see grandiose around you in simple things" and to "turn loose of preconceived knowledge and add to your understanding of the visual world."
Hensche was prolific as an artist sometimes painting similar subject matters dozens of times, and he is often credited with being a direct heir to Monet's tradition in the United States. While most of America's popular realist artists such as Winslow Homer and George Inness were from the tonal school, Hensche claimed that they never wanted to change. He appreciated the fact that Monet and Hawthorne questioned their early training and did not "limit their pigments."
Speaking of Monet at the turn of the century, Hensche said, "It was a rich age with endless expression of ideas most of which disappeared, and only the fundamental ones were kept alive. Monet changed man's vision - then his paintings. He showed God's world with all its beauty, with love." Hensche took Monet to a further stage in the twentieth century with what student John Robichaux refers to as a "sensitive eye."
"You do not paint what you see, you paint what you have been taught to see," Hensche constantly reminded his students. In Provincetown, students were challenged by Hensche to understand how they could make their paintings better by having a particular vision of color, whether in a still life, landscape or figure painting. Hawthorne's students used putty knives to paint, and Hensche added the tool of "color blocks" to his teachings to heighten the student's perception of color. To Hensche, all paintings could be reduced to block studies -- "light key, masses, and variations of masses are the essentials of all visual logic."
As a painter's painter, Charles Webster Hawthorne instilled beauty in his teaching. His prized pupil, Henry Hensche, carried on the Provincetown tradition as a master teacher until his death in 1992, touching countless lives including student Robert Longley who claims that Hensche "showed us that there was no shortcut to great art. His specific teachings on color and light are useful tools in the creation of art, but of greatest importance was Henry's relentless quest for beauty."
Today, Sammy Britt, who studied with Henry Hensche for twenty-five years, has been a major catalyst in plein air painting as a member of the art faculty at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, since 1966. Three of Britt's students and fellow Mississippians, Gerald DeLoach, Richard Kelso and George T. Thurmond, also studied under Hensche and share a similar stylistic approach in carrying Impressionism into the next century.
Images from top to bottom: Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930), Girl with Bowl, 1925, oil on canvas, 29.25 x 24.5 inches, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Worcester, Collection of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, 36.2; Charles Webster Hawthorne, Class Study of Henry Hensche, c. 1919-22, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, Collection of Dorothy Billiu-Hensche (1901-1992); Henry Hensche, Bayou Terrabonne, Afternoon, 1985, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Andrew Hoffmann, Jr.; Richard Kelso, Gourd Vine, Morning, 1998, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, private collection; Gerald DeLoach, Beaver Pond, 1994, oil on board, 19 x 19 inches, Collection of Dr. John and Tammy Cook; Sammy Britt, Still Life with Basket and Dishpan, Afternoon Light, 1994, oil on board, 30 x 36 inches, Collection of Ms. Debra Cole
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