Charles Webster Hawthorne, The Red Dress (c. 1915), oil on canvas; courtesy Babcock Galleries
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Charles Webster Hawthorne’s The Tree and The Apartment House (c. 1927-30), a watercolor ensconced behind the front desk at Babcock Galleries, is an off-the-cuff tour de force played in a minor key. Like the ten or so other watercolors included in Charles Webster Hawthorne: Paintings and Watercolors, it reiterates the considerable charm of the gem-like show, seen last summer at The National Academy, of the artist’s works-on-paper. At that time, I wondered what the rest of Hawthorne’s work might look like. As if on cue, Babcock Galleries has provided an abbreviated overview of the oeuvre.
Paintings and Watercolors is a dramatic study in contrast. Hawthorne’s watercolors are airy, light-filled and unfettered; their ease is refreshing. The oil paintings, on the other hand, are ponderous, their mannerisms swathed in an epic, soupy murk. I wouldn’t trade a watercolor for a baker’s dozen of the oils. But within the canvases there is, all the same, a compelling severity. The watercolors flourish on the surface; the oil paintings smolder with misplaced profundity.
Charles Webster Hawthorne, Waiting, oil on panel, 39-3/4″ x 39-3/4″; courtesy MacColl Fine Art
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Hans Hofmann, writing in 1952, generously stated that Hawthorne’s art “carries the entire signature of a great artist.” Perhaps Hofmann, that protean pedagogue, felt a kinship with Hawthorne as a fellow teacher–Hawthorne had, after all, founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. But Hofmann also notes that “when, in certain [of Hawthorne’s works], the demands of creative dimension over-reached capacity, it is to details . . . that we must look for realization.” This is where hyperbole is bolstered by the painter’s eye.
Note, for instance, how the amiably dowdy title figure in Portrait of Ms. Florence Waterbury is all but upstaged by a fish pendant, and that the inverted triangle of her décolletage makes a point of driving us there. Note also how flesh is rendered as a mask-like membrane, an attribute also seen in Mariella (1929). Elsewhere, Hawthorne give us The Captain’s Wife (1924) a penetrating portrait in a portentous setting and, in any number of paintings, fastidiously relishes the contours of his figures.
A variable achievement, to be sure, but Hawthorne’s art is also stern, strange and recommended.
© 2000 Mario Naves
A version of the article originally appeared in the December 4, 2000 edition of The New York Observer.