Charles Hopkinson, Self Portrait (1910)
Charles Hopkinson was born in 1869, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard he began his formal artistic training at the Art Students’ League in New York. While at the ASL, he studied cast drawing under Twachtman and the figure under Mowbray.
In 1893, with his first wife, Angelica Rathbone, he moved to Paris. Angelica was an aspiring artist as well and both enrolled at the Atelier Julien. Bouguereau was their teacher.
Due to his long history with Boston’s elite and the sheer number of portraits he painted of Harvard alumni, he has been called the Court Painter of Harvard. In 1948, Time Magazine called him The Dean of U.S. Portraitists.
Charles Hopkinson painting George Eastman (1930)
One of the things I find interesting about this photo is that the man responsible for bringing photography to the masses is having his portrait painted. This shows that he was aware of the different results achieved between a photograph and a painting.1
Hopkinson and Sight-Size
Sight-Size has been defined as “simply a place on the floor.”2 It is a definition with which I agree. However, standing back, by itself, is only part of the story and does not necessarily prove Sight-Size. The image and the subject must also appear the same size when viewed from that place on the floor.
Using Photoshop to measure Eastman’s head and his head in the painting (as seen above), I find that they are the same size. The camera, though lower and to the left, appears to be the same distance from the setup as Hopkinson’s viewing position. That, along with the positions of the sitter and the canvas, relative to each other, convinces me that this painting was done Sight-Size. The written record of his procedures, as told by his relations (some of which is below), further strengthens my opinion. Nonetheless, we must remember that these kinds of photographs were often staged for the purpose of remembering the event but not necessarily as an accurate record of what the artist was doing.
Charles Hopkinson painting his daughter Mary.
Like many of his contemporaries, Hopkinson made ample use of his children and grandchildren as models. A number of them recounted tales of their sittings.
My mother once said that as a little girl she thought all fathers stayed home and painted pictures of their children. I don’t remember that anyone minded. Perhaps receiving his undivided attention made up for having to sit so still. He would walk back and forth to the easel, concentrating in silence. From time to time he would close one eye and hold a paintbrush at arm’s length before him, using his thumb to mark some measurement.3
Hallie Rive Appel, Charles Hopkinson’s granddaughter
Charles Hopkinson, Portrait of Mary (1918)
Hopkinson’s grandson, Charles H. Shurcliff, fondly recalls his sittings similarly:
“In my childhood memories my grandfather is forever painting . . . He would set his easel near us and in no time have his paints all set on his palette — beautiful globs of raw colors from the tubes (or mixed from powders) as well as subtler colors mixed from these. He blocked in the painting all over and then retreated a dozen steps to eye the painting and the sitter together. He almost always worked life size, which helped in this comparison. He would then mix just the right color on his brush and holding it at the tip end something like a fencer holding an epee, advance and apply it quickly to the canvas and then stand back again to judge and formulate the next color. He worked very fast. Sometimes he finished in a day but usually the portrait took several days, so we grandchildren would come over regularly to assess the progress.”4
Charles Hopkinson, Arthur and Charles Shurcliff* (1949)
Shurcliff became an artist as well. He remembers his grandfather’s teachings, while watching him paint a watercolor at the edge of the sea:
“Seeing us watching him, he would ask “What color is that distant part of the ocean over there?” “Blue,” we would answer. Then he would get up and show us how to look at it upside down through our legs — a trick allowing us to see the “real” color with a fresh eye, and sure enough, it was very different from what we had thought. “And which is darker, that headland or the water in front of it?” he next might ask. When we were unsure, he showed us how to squint our eyes to reduce the hodgepodge of different lights and darks in the scene to a manageable three or four gradations.”5
Squinting to better see values is a staple of atelier training. Looking through one’s legs, however, is something I’ve only seen one other artist do, Rick Kochenash. Maybe I need to get out more often?
Charles Hopkinson died in 1962, at the age of 93. Apparently, he painted consistently, right up until the end.
There is much more information about Charles Hopkinson than I can fit in this post. For more, see this site here, run by the husband of one of Hopkinson’s granddaughters.
1Charles H. Shurcliff, Hopkinson’s grandson, had this to say about his grandfather’s opinions on the difference between his paintings and photography: “These portraits were no mere portrayals, like the professional studio photographs of today, but again studies of character couched in a larger exploration of color and composition, gesture and vitality, full of “dash” and “go” to use his words. He loved this work.” As quoted in Charles Hopkinson: View from the Terrace, 2009, exhibition catalog, Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA.
2Attributed to Paul Ingbretson, noted artist, teacher and former student of R.H. Ives Gammell.
3As quoted in Brushstrokes of Light from The Christian Science Monitor, July 28,1987.
4Charles H. Shurcliff, as quoted in Charles Hopkinson: View from the Terrace, 2009, exhibition catalog, Cape Ann Museum, Gloucester, MA.
*Note that Hopkinson’s painting, Arthur and Charles Shurcliff, is not in the public domain. I found the scan through a Google search long ago but did not record from where it came. If asked by the owners I will be happy to take it down. My hope, however, is that this post and the images therein will help to promote Hopkinson’s work.