• U.S.

Art: Finding the Fine Things

3 minute read

The dean of U.S. portraitists is Boston’s Charles Hopkinson. But for all his fame and his 79 years, Hopkinson has never painted a portrait that holds a mirror up to nature. Even if that were possible, he argues, it would not be enough—”a good portrait exists in a separate world, it is not a mirror, and the artist who paints merely to hit off a likeness or, what’s worse to please his sitter, is lost.”

Among the best of Hopkinson’s portraits is that of Oliver Wendell Holmes (which succeeds in showing the living man as well as the leonine Justice) and the incisive, unflattering one of Calvin Coolidge that hangs in the White House lobby.

To please himself, Hopkinson does watercolors between portrait commissions. Last week Boston’s Margaret Brown Gallery was exhibiting the landscapes he painted on a trip to New Zealand last year. The work of a lifelong sailor, his watercolors are sometimes as taut with motion as a sailboat in a stiff breeze.

“In landscapes,” Hopkinson explained I’m concerned with the flow of line in a mountain or a tree—the gesture of the thing.” To capture it he works even faster than most watercolorists, using fluid and staccato strokes of vibrant color, but unlike more abstract moderns he never lets “the gesture of the thing” obscure the thing itself. “Being a sentimentalist, I want to get across the pleasure of what I see in nature.”

He also gets across his pleasure in people, and when it comes to portraits he can afford to pick & choose. Hopkinson’s sitters have included a score of college presidents, a brace of bishops, and such thinkers and men of letters as Alfred North Whitehead and John Masefield. Hopkinson hit an early peak in 1921 with his portrait of Charles W. Eliot, in which the late, great Harvard president’s ramrod back is tellingly contrasted with the folded gentleness of his big hands. A more recent painting of Harvard’s James Bryant Conant seems to show him searching lor the proper word.

As soft-spoken as his art is assertive, Hopkinson thinks his approach to portraiture “very oldfashioned. But just as on the stage it is easier to act a drunken man than a line character, it is easier to draw a caricature than to paint a face that denotes fine character. I’ve always tried to find the fine things rather than to make a sneering comment.”

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