PHILIP LESLIE HALE 1865-1931
Hollyhocks, c. 1922-23
Oil on canvas, 56 X 24" (91.44 x 60.96 cm.)
Museum purchase, 966-0-157
Hollyhocks is a particularly captivating example of Philip Leslie Hale's decorative Impressionism. Depicting healthy, sun-drenched young women engaged in genteel leisure activities outdoors, Hale, a well-known Boston painter, art critic, and unofficial spokesman for the Boston School, was drawn, as were many of his peers, to this theme and style. Hale's approach to this subject, however, varied rather dramatically throughout his career.
After study at the Boston Museum School with Edmund Tarbell and at the Art Students League with J. Alden Weir and Kenyon Cox, in 1887 Hale traveled to Paris. There he was profoundly influenced by what he learned as a student at the Acad6mie Julian and Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and observed as an art critic and regular visitor to Claude Monet's home and the emergent art colony of Giverny. Unlike many of his more cautious American contemporaries, Hale quickly adopted the most progressive aspects of the modern French art movements and by the mid- 1890s, was producing dazzling, Neo-impressionist scenes of diaphanous women bathed in golden light. In The Waters Edge (c. 1895, private collection) and Girl in Sunlight (c. 1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Hale dissolved the figures within an envelope of light in a classic French Impressionist manner. But he also gave the works an other-worldly, contemplative quality that relates to the frozen world of Georges Seurat's Pointillist figural landscapes and Symbolist painting. Of his Boston contemporaries, only Thomas Wilmer Dewing embraced such a rarefied, dreamy version of Impressionism, but, unlike Dewing, Hale used more dramatic, blazingly arbitrary colors to achieve his effect. This series of works culminated in an exhibition of Hale's paintings at Durand-Ruel's New York gallery in 1899.
Unfortunately, the largely conservative contemporary press was not supportive of Hale's visionary efforts. Their negative response, coupled with his marriage in 1902 to a more conservative figure painter, and the constraints of teaching at the strongly academic Boston Museum School probably led to his return at this time to a more academic form of Impressionism. Hale's The Crimson Rambler (c. 1908-09, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) is a well-known example of such an approach to the fully illuminated female figure. The figure, although bathed in light, is not dissolved by it, but fully modeled, with carefully delineated facial features. This blend of an academic treatment of the figure and Impressionist use of high-keyed color and broken brushwork represents the classic American Impressionist approach to such a subject and anticipates Hollyhocks. Shortly after completing this work, Hale once again adjusted his focus. From roughly 1910 to 1920, he became preoccupied with meticulously rendered, quietly lighted interiors, peopled with painstakingly modeled figures in the tradition of Jan Vermeer. Hale had completed a major book on Vermeer in 1913, and was largely responsible for a revival of interest in his work which came to virtually define the Boston School of painting. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Hale had been interested in Vermeer's style, but through the second decade he became even more focused on it, and imparted more detail and increasingly overt sentiment to its treatment, as in A Family Affair (Grandmothers Birthday) (c. 1912-13, private collection). Concurrently, Hale painted a series of allegorical scenes of idealized female figures, which today appear dated and overstated. Perhaps sensing that this drift toward overtly metaphorical and sentimental paintings was pushing an aesthetic extreme, Hale returned in the early 1920s to painting and exhibiting works such as Hollyhocks, which recall his earlier painting, The Crimson Rambler.
Hollyhocks, exhibited in Philadelphia, Boston, Worcester, and Venice between 1923 and 1924, is an excellent example of Hale's sun-bathed garden scenes. The artist not only captured the glaring white heat of a midsummer day through the careful orchestration of sensitively valued whites, lavenders, blues, and varying shades of green, enlivened by a bold dash of cherry red, but he also successfully captured the myriad textures of the scene. The girl's fine, shiny black hair glows blue in the bright sun. The old shutters have a mellow, scumbled quality. The tissuey petals of the hollyhocks have a short-lived, fragile delicacy, and the rich vegetation is well differentiated through the fluent handling of varied brushstrokes.
Hale centered the well ordered composition with an oval bounded by the woman's face and uplifted arm and anchored it with block-like forms in each corner of the canvas. After completing this work, Hale continued to exhibit, if less regularly, at national and regional institutions until the late 1920s, retiring from teaching in 1928.