Thomas Hovenden

Thomas Hovenden: His Life and Art

With Patricia Smith Scanlan
Foreword by Elizabeth Johns
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Thomas Hovenden
    Book Description:

    After studying under Alexandre Cabanel at the École des Beaux Arts, Thomas Hovenden (1840-95) began an exemplary career as a painter and teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Along with his contemporaries there, Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anschutz, Hovenden acquired a reputation for being both an influential instructor and a talented artist. A realistic genre painter and recorder of everyday activities such as those involving home and family, Hovenden had a particular gift for choosing subjects with wide recognition and appeal. His work reflects a Victorian ethos; unlike many artists of the time, however, Hovenden's work featured African American subjects in domestic settings. His firm belief in sentiment and beauty as the goals of artistic pursuits is evident in the nostalgic paintings for which he is best known, such as The Last Moments of John Brown, in which Brown is depicted stopping on his way to the gallows to kiss a young black child. This first full-length study fosters a greater understanding of Hovenden's gifts as a painter and of his stylistic contribution to art. Chronologically organized, it is both a retrospective of Hovenden's work and a critical biography of the artist. The volume features many of his paintings, studies, and sketches, some reproduced for the first time. A Barra Foundation Book

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0887-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. [Illustration]
    (pp. xii-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Elizabeth Johns

    Acclaimed during his lifetime but slowly forgotten after his early death, the painter Thomas Hovenden (1840–95) took an artistic path quite different from those of his peers who are well known today. He specialized in narrative scenes of domestic rural life. Most of his pictures addressed issues important to viewers with rural roots whose family rituals anchored their lives—defining moments such as choosing a mate, leaving home to seek one’s fortune, proudly pursuing a hard-learned craft, and reading the Bible in the evening of life. Hovenden’s picture Breaking Home Ties (see fig. 108), exhibited at the World’s Fair...

  7. Chapter 1 Becoming an Artist
    (pp. 1-30)

    Thomas Hovenden’s calling to become an artist and the themes of transition and the cycles of life that permeate his work stem from his childhood in Ireland. Orphaned at a young age, Hovenden experienced loss and longing from which he would draw inspiration for many of his most successful genre paintings; his recurring motifs of family life, the continuity of family ties, and shared values undoubtedly reflect his own need for a reassuring sense of permanence and stability. In turn, Hovenden’s themes resonated with late nineteenth-century audiences at a time when increasing industrialization and urbanization threatened family bonds and traditional...

  8. Chapter 2 From “Picturesque” Brittany to Paris: Painting Courage and Romance in History and Legend
    (pp. 31-67)

    After studying under Cabanel and working in Paris, Hovenden felt prepared to meet the highest artistic standards and, having reached his middle thirties, some urgency to pursue his career as a professional. In the summer of 1875, he went to the Brittany farming village of Pont-Aven, joining the colony of artists (fig. 23) there led by the American painter Robert Wylie (1839–77), whose influence was vital for Hovenden in forging a mature style and thematic focus. Hovenden discovered he could live simply, explore new subjects, find willing models to sketch and paint, and enjoy the fellowship of other artists;...

  9. Chapter 3 “What Shall American Artists Paint?”
    (pp. 68-94)

    The years following Hovenden’s return to the United States from France in 1880 were filled with major life changes for the artist, both professional and personal. Hovenden was a prominent member of a group of artists who came home in the late 1870s and early 1880s and made decisive changes in the New York art world that altered the aims and the look of American art. Arriving in New York with several years of European training and art practice behind him, he was ready to face an increasingly sophisticated American art community. Hovenden altered his pictorial strategies to accommodate a...

  10. Chapter 4 Painting the “Good Ole Times”: Scenes of African American Life
    (pp. 95-125)

    Among his popular American themes of the 1880s, Hovenden created a significant group of paintings of African Americans. His subject matter, working methods, and compositions parallel the artist’s endeavors in his earlier Pont-Aven works as well as in his other domestic genre pictures of the decade. Selecting men and women from in and around Plymouth Meeting as models, Hovenden staged scenes of picturesque poverty reminiscent of his Breton peasant paintings: in humble, often careworn interiors, African Americans engage in typical everyday activities such as cooking, mending, and ironing, or simply enjoy the pleasures of home and family. A number of...

  11. Chapter 5 Images to “Appeal to the National Mind”
    (pp. 126-150)

    While most of Hovenden’s works from the 1880s and early 1890s center on domestic genre themes, the artist also explored subjects from American history in several significant paintings of the period. Writing soon after the end of the Civil War, the art historian Henry Tuckerman called for painters to “scan our history” for national themes. “Our Colonial, pioneer, and Revolutionary eras,” he suggested, could offer possible subjects with broad appeal. Remembering America’s past might unite an increasingly fragmented society and renew a sense of nationhood after the upheaval of the Civil War.¹ Although the earliest of his three key American...

  12. Chapter 6 Home Life: Center of “Our Joys or Sorrows”
    (pp. 151-181)

    Hovenden’s interest in depicting the home life of ordinary people culminated in the production of some of his best-known and most popular paintings in the early 1890s. Nearly half of Hovenden’s major works—his most complex in figural and compositional treatment and most important in scale—engage domestic genre themes, including a number of important paintings completed before his untimely death in 1895: Breaking Home Ties, 1890 (fig. 108); When Hope Was Darkest, 1892 (fig. 117); Bringing Home the Bride, 1893 (fig. 121); and Jerusalem the Golden, 1894 (fig. 127). Of these, Breaking Home Ties won fame and extraordinary public...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 182-192)

    One windy winter afternoon following a snowstorm in early February 1895, Hovenden gave a lecture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts titled “What Is the Purpose of Art?” It followed a series of lectures given there by John La Farge, extravagantly hailed in advance publicity as being “the most important delivered on Art since the Ruskin lectures at Oxford.”¹ In the large Exhibition Gallery, surrounded by paintings that a Philadelphia newspaper art critic called “impressionistic bits,” Hovenden delivered a paper in which he expounded his belief in the moral value of art and of the role of the...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 193-268)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 269-276)