CLAUDE RAGUET HIRST 1855-1942
Companions, c. 1895
Watercolor on illustration board, 10 X 141/2" (25.40 x 36.83 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 968-W-123
Claude Raguet Hirst, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, studied painting between 1884 and 1885 under Thomas Noble at the Cincinnati Art Academy. She continued her studies in New York City under Agnes Abbatt and George Smillie, taking a studio at 30 East 14th Street. Hirst first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1882 with two paintings entitled Gathered Beauties and Pansies and continued to exhibit similar floral still lifes each year through 1886. After a four year hiatus, Hirst once again exhibited at the National Academy. However, in this year the titles of her three entries, Bachelor's Solace, Crumbs of Comfort, and Ye Ancient Tale, no longer reflect her former interest in floral subjects but rather the subjects and style of the famous trompe l'oeil painter William Michael Harnett, who had set up his studio at 28 East 14th Street, just one door away from Hirst. It is most probable that the close proximity of working quarters exposed Hirst to Harnett's bachelor subjects and style, both of which she quickly adopted. Another factor credited for her change of subject matter was suggested in this account from the San Francisco Argonaut ....... Miss Hirst lent her studio to W[illiam]. C. Fitler, the landscape Artist, who left the studio cluttered with pipes and books. Miss Hirst was inspired to paint a group of the untidy landscapist's belongings, which sold immediately. Since the sale of that picture Miss Hirst has painted nothing but old books and pipes . . . . " While it may be true that Fitler's detritus gave Hirst the opportunity to paint "masculine" objects, only Harnett could have influenced her style so dramatically.
During the next twenty years Hirst enjoyed quiet success with her bachelor still lifes. While this may seem an unusual genre for a woman at this time, a contemporaneous account suggests it may not have been so: ". . . . the energetic, hopeful female art student, abreast with the most advanced theories, and differing from her male fellow workers neither by her choice of subjects nor her manner of execution, is, as a class, essentially a product of to-day [sic]."
Hirst exhibited yearly at the National Academy from 1890 to 1905, missing only 1892. She also exhibited frequently at the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was there, in 1895, that she exhibited Companions. On the back of the work is an old label, quite possibly her own, that bears this title. However, the work is often listed as Books, Pipe, and Tobacco Sack, as it was retitled this for a time before being purchased by the Butler. The original title may refer to the companionship between the objects depicted, or it is also possible that it refers to Fitler, the apparent owner of the objects, Hirst's own companion and, later, her husband.
Whatever the titles reference, Companions is a fine example of Hirst's trompe l'oeil still lifes. The meerschaum pipe, tattered books, matches, tobacco sack, and ceramic vase are objects common to many of her works and comprise a theme from which she seldom strayed after 1886. The painting is small, as are the majority of Hirst's works, and her "fool-the-eye?' effects are softened by the use of watercolor rather than oil. Her composition is straightforward, showing less interest in the virtuoso trickery and abstract relationships used by Harnett and other artists of his circle. The shallow space draws attention to elegant details such as the smooth reflections of the objects on the highly polished wood shelf and the delicate draping of the tobacco sack string over the pipe stem. A companionship between the objects and their owner is subtly indicated. The ashes appear to have been knocked from the pipe bowl as it was laid aside, possibly after a relaxing evening of reading. The pipe stem has been handily whittled to fit the bowl, and the glass of extra matches anticipates yet another evening of use. It is this attention to delicate detail that instills in Hirst's work its unique charm.
M. MELISSA WOLFE