CHARLES WEBSTER HAWTHORNE
Girl in Yellow Scarf, 1904
Oil on canvas, 40 X 30" (101.60 x 76.20 cm.)
Signed, upper left
Museum purchase, 967-0-142
Perhaps Charles Hawthorn's greatest contribution to art in America was his gift of teaching. In 1899, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he established his own summer school, the Cape Cod School of Art, which flourished under his direction until his death thirty years later. In this first outdoor school of figure painting he gave weekly criticisms and instructive talks, advising his pupils and setting up ideals, but never dictating his own techniques or method. One of his students, the American painter Edwin Dickinson, said that Hawthorne was "The best teacher I ever knew; better than Chase, who was ... very good .... " While Hawthorne was a teacher par excellence, he was also highly esteemed as a painter whose superb craftsmanship and personal vision earned him a most respected position among American artists. While he rejected the exotic tones of the European avant-garde, Hawthorne embraced a more traditional style of painting, yet always experimented with technique, light, and color, and built upon a structural solidity that reflected the rugged and hardy natures of his subjects, the fishing people of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
When he was eighteen, Hawthorne went to New York and studied painting at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. Among his teachers were Frank Vincent DuMond and George de Forest Brush. But Hawthorne declared that the most dominant influence in his career was William Merritt Chase, with whom he worked as both a pupil and assistant. Both men were naturally talented teachers and figurative painters who were drawn to rich color and the lusciousness of oil paint as a medium. Chase passed on a Munich tradition of tone values and tone painting, and Hawthorne learned all he could.
Chase's influence is evident in this early work, Girl in Yellow Scarf, with its bravura brushwork and rich tonality. This is one of several small portraits painted in the early 1900s of young women bearing impersonal titles and painted from an almost idealistic angle. Reveling in the fluidity of his pigments, Hawthorne displays a myriad of subtleties within the folds of the girl's white gown. Following the advice that he gave to his students, Hawthorne allows color to create contour. "Painting," he said, "is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot.... Let color make form, do not make form and Color it."
At first glance Girl in Yellow Scarf appears to belong to that world of international high society reflected in similar paintings by Chase and John Singer Sargent, but a closer look reveals her to be far less sophisticated. She is less fashionable than old-fashioned. Her gown is quite simple and it isn't too far fetched to suggest that her elaborate yellow scarf might have been borrowed from the artist's studio.
Hawthorne's women reflect his own sincerity and reticence. Unlike Chase's world of drawing-room sophisticates, Hawthorne's world was filled with hardworking, simple people with whom he never stopped being fascinated. He was always able to penetrate the surface and reveal his subjects' aspirations, longings, hopes, and fears, and a glimpse of such private sentiments is afforded in Girl in Yellow Scarf. Shortly after this picture was painted, Hawthorne left Providence and spent two years in Italy where he was deeply impressed by the painters of the Renaissance. He admired their use of highly simplified outlines, broad, flat planes of slightly modulated color, and the noble calm that cloaked their humanity. In paintings executed after 1906, Hawthorne revealed a new clarity in ideas of style, but more importantly, he instilled in his subjects a quiet dignity that reaffirms the beauty and glory of human experience.