Charles Hopkinson (1869-1962)



The Innocent Eye

Essay by Carey L. Vose

Wind and Dazzle

Essay by Leah Lipton of the Danforth Museum of Art


Charles Hopkinson (1869-1962)

Charles Hopkinson (1869-1962)

A highly successful portrait painter with such elite clients as President Calvin Coolidge and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Charles Hopkinson was acclaimed by Time Magazine in 1948 as “The Dean of U.S. Portraitists.”[1] His success was evident early on when he received his training at some of the most prestigious local and foreign institutions. Born and raised in Cambridge, Hopkinson was a Harvard graduate who went on to study at the Art Students League in New York and at the Académie Julian in Paris.  In 1897, he received his first portrait commission to paint the then infant, E. E. Cummings. Later commissions resulted from the interest of his friends and neighbors, as well as from his Harvard connection, including a series of 45 portraits of Harvard presidents. Between the years of 1920 and 1950, Hopkinson went on to complete over 350 commissioned portraits.

[1] Charles Hopkinson: Moods and Moments, Vose Galleries of Boston, 1991, p. 3.

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After years of foreign travel, Hopkinson was ultimately drawn back to his home state and married his second wife, Elinor Curtis, of Manchester, Massachusetts, in 1903.  Working from the Curtis estate, dubbed “Sharksmouth,” Hopkinson spent summers painting by the ocean, often using family members and the picturesque surrounding landscape as inspirations for his oils and watercolors. Hopkinson’s five daughters, Harriot (Happy), Mary (Maly), Isabella (Ibby), Elinor (Elly) and Joan, and later his grandchildren, modeled for numerous paintings during their childhood, many of which were exhibited at Vose Galleries’ 1991, 2001 and 2013 solo exhibitions.

Following the death of Hopkinson’s wife in 1940, he entered a new phase of his art, dropping portraits almost entirely in favor of the bold land- and seascapes in watercolor that had established his reputation as an enfant terrible among his fellow Fenway Studio artists.  He had begun to publicly exhibit them in the mid 1920s with a group of Boston watercolorists.  Alternately calling themselves “The Four,” “The Five,” and the “Society of Watercolorists,” Hopkinson, Charles Hovey Pepper, Carl Gordon Cutler, Harley Perkins and Marion Monks Chase sought to increase the awareness of modern art in the Boston area, introducing a new visual language to a traditionally minded public.  William G. Dooley, a notable Boston critic, was so confused by these more abstract works that he described Hopkinson’s personality as “dual,” painting wildly in his watercolors and conservatively in his oils.

Hopkinson’s experimentations in color theory resulted in a modern, fauvist style of painting, drastically different from the earlier portraits, but of an equally notable quality. In a 1932 Boston Evening Transcript review, one critic wrote:  “As aquarellist, [Hopkinson] invites his artistic soul.  He tries out new schemes in design; he plays around with new color motives, he essays abstraction…less interested in fidelity to surface appearance of things in nature than he is in working out a design which has its own logic of color and mass.”[1] While Hopkinson received mixed reviews of these works, his efforts were rewarded with medals at the National Academy of Design, the Saint Louis Exposition, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. Enjoying a remarkably long and successful career, Hopkinson continuously challenged himself as an artist.  The resulting body of work is both refreshing in its daring and familiar in its praise of natural beauty.

References: Anne W. Schmoll, Charles Hopkinson, (Vose Galleries 1991). See also Erica Hirshler’s biography of Hopkinson in Trevor Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age (Boston: MFA, 1986).

[1] Charles Hopkinson,” Boston Evening Transcript (Jan. 9, 1932).


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