A student of William Merritt Chase and an influential teacher in his own right, Charles Hawthorne worked in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for much of his career. Inspired by Renaissance painting, Hawthorne aspired to revitalize traditional artistic practices by using them to depict American subjects, notably his family and the rugged fisher folk who were his neighbors. The dark tones, carefully applied layers of glaze, and wood panel support that the artist used for Mother and Child reflects his admiration for Titian and other Venetian masters. The theme of the mother and child became prominent in Hawthorne’s work following the birth of his only son in 1908. The tender expressions of the figures suggest the artist’s interest in his subjects, while the triangle formed by the central figures shares affinities with historical depictions of the Madonna and Child.
Charles W. Hawthorne Mother and Child, around 1908–9 Collection of the Akron Art Museum Today the figure paintings of Charles Hawthorne seem predictably traditional, even to the point of being stilted and sentimental. Why then did the renowned abstract painter Hans Hofmann, a confirmed modernist, write a laudatory essay for a Hawthorne catalogue in 1952? The answer is that Charles Hawthorne, now almost forgotten, was once regarded as one of the country’s greatest art teachers. Growing up near the Maine coast, Hawthorne moved to New York in 1890, performing manual labor by day and painting at night at the Art Students League. In 1896, he studied with William Merritt Chase (see pp. 62–63) and the following summer became his teaching assistant. After Chase closed his famed summer school on Long Island, Hawthorne established his own summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1899. For three decades art students from across the country repaired there for summer instruction and camaraderie. In Europe Hawthorne fell in love with the art of the old masters, in particular sixteenth-century Venetian painting and the atmospheric works of Titian. In Mother and Child, Titian’s influence is felt in the deep greens and moody brown of the background and especially in the carefully applied layers of glaze (an old master technique) that meld the colors, gently fusing the foreground and background into one sensuous surface of delicately modulated tones. Hawthorne commented that what collector Duncan Phillips termed the “lustrous mellow paste” of his surfaces may have come less from the old masters than [from] ‘Italy itself—the familiar look of it as I lived there day after day, the texture of the stone and of old fresco.’”1 Hawthorne’s devotion to the Italian Renaissance is clearly reflected in his choice of a wooden panel as the painting’s support rather than canvas, which supplanted panel as the choice of artists in the seventeenth century. Equally indebted to the old masters is the subject of mother and child, which directly recalls the myriad versions of the Madonna and child that pervade Renaissance and Baroque art. The artist consciously thought of himself as an heir to those traditions, which he hoped to modernize by portraying the inhabitants of his beloved New England. The fishermen of Cape Cod and their families were Hawthorne's most frequent subjects, but after 1908, when his only child, Joseph, was born, images of mother and child became common. This theme allowed the artist to combine an emotional, personal subject with a motif central to the history of Western painting. He decided to paint the clothing with few details, resulting in timeless images at once ancient and modern. Although the museum’s painting depicts the artist’s wife and son, it is less a portrait than a symbol of the sanctity of motherhood.2 In fact, the words “Motherhood,” “Adoration,” and “Madonna” appear frequently in the titles of similar paintings by Hawthorne. The artist's goal was not to repeat the old masters but to use their lessons to “express something about the humanity of my time that will live.”3 While there is a lack of emotional variety in Hawthorne’s pensive figures, his sincerity is irreproachable. The painter, Hawthorne wrote, “must show people more—more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it was as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory.”4 - Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001 1. Quoted in Duncan Phillips, “Charles W. Hawthorne,” International Studio (March 1917): 20, 22. 2. The sitters were identified in a letter from Richard Mühlberger to Barbara Tannenbaum, June 27, 2000. Hawthorne’s wife, Ethel Marion Campbell, was a painter. While continuing her own career as an artist, she also helped her husband in his professional endeavors. 3. Letter from Charles Hawthorne to his dealer, William Macbeth, February 20, 1914, quoted in Sadik essay in University of Connecticut Museum of Art, not paginated. 4. Hawthorne in Hawthorne on Painting, 17. Hawthorne on Painting, From Students’ Notes Collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne. With an appreciation by Royal Cortissoz. 1938. Reprint, with an introduction by Edwin Dickinson and an appreciation by Hans Hofmann, New York: Dover Publications, 1960. McCausland, Elizabeth Charles W. Hawthorne, An American Figure Painter. New York: American Artists Group, 1947. Mühlberger, Richard. Charles Webster Hawthorne. Chesterfield, Mass.: Chameleon Books, 1999. University of Connecticut Museum of Art, Storrs. The Paintings of Charles Hawthorne. With an introduction by Marvin S. Sadik. Storrs: University of Connecticut Museum of Art, 1968.
Signed LR: "C W Hawthorne"