Editor's note: Art professor Judy Bullington was the
featured speaker at Hanover College during the June 3, 2000, Harlan Hubbard
Symposium, a one-day event marking the centennial of Hubbard's birth and
sponsored by the Friends of the Hubbards. The event attracted nearly 200
Hubbard enthusiasts from around the country. Bullington presented a slide
show and paper titled "Harlan Hubbard as an American Artist,
an overview of Hubbards art as it related to his academic training
and the context of late 19th and 20th century art movements. Following
is a synopsis of that presentation prepared specially for RoundAbout Madison.
Harlan and Anna Hubbard are widely
known today for the solitary existence they chose to lead on the banks
of the Ohio River. They rejected the use of modern conveniences in both
their Shantyboat home on the Ohio River and, later, in the rustic cabin
they built at Payne Hollow, Ky.
But the most striking aspect of their lifestyle was defined by abundance
rather than absence. The routine of daily chores was always balanced by
cultural interests in the form of music and art. Anna expressed her creative
nature through music. For Harlan, it was art.
Harlan was born in Bellevue, Ky., in 1900 and spent most of his 88 years
actively making art in the form of paintings, watercolors and woodcuts.
More than 1,000 works are known to exist today, but little has been done
to assess their historical importance.
The sketchy appearance and many of Harlans works of art suggests
a rustic character frequently associated with untrained artists. Handmade
frames fashioned from found materials, including driftwood gathered from
the river banks, add to this effect. However, Harlan did receive preliminary
instruction in studio art at the National Academy of Design in New York
between 1919 and 1921, and later in 1925. He also enrolled in a life drawing
class at the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1919.
Several stylistic influences can be seen in Harlans works of art.
Among them is late 19th century Post-Impressionism. Post Impressionism
is a term used to categorize art that retained the shimmering light effects
and outdoor palette of the French Impressionists during the 1870s and
1880s, but moved toward more structured compositions. Harlan often used
dark lines to counterbalance soft color effects and to bring out the underlying
structure of forms found in nature.
This synthesis is found in many of the riverboat paintings for which Harlan
was best known. But it is also clear from Annas list of books she
and Harlan read together that Harlan had other interests. These included
Romanticism, Expressionism and Orientalism. Despite his familiarity with
a wide range of artists and movements, Harlan never copied any one style
exactly. He chose instead to create a blend of many different approaches
that gave his work a distinctive character.
A more complete picture of Harlans art can be drawn through comparisons
with several 20th century contemporaries. For example, the paintings and
murals he completed in the 1930s for the Works Project Administration,
known as the WPA, resemble the realism of Depression Era regionalists,
such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. Harlan completed commissions
for the Covington and Newport libraries, as well as the Carnegie Center
in Covington, under the auspices of the WPA. These works are realistic
in that the figures and scenery are easily recognized for what they are
and what they symbolize.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, Harlan was also working on the other end
of the stylistic spectrum. He created works that emphasized design, flatness
and abstractness instead of realism and detail. This work was comparable
to that of Arthur Wesley Dow, a noted art educator who was teaching in
New York when Harlan first arrived there as a teenager.
Like Dow, Harlan preferred landscape subjects over depictions of the human
figure. Both found the work of Hokusai, a 19th century Japanese artist,
inspiring. They were particularly drawn to Hokusais emphasis on
the beauty and harmony of pictorial elements based in nature.
The hundreds of watercolors that Harlan made, some serving as sketches
from nature and others as finished works of art, have a spontaneous quality
that evokes the work of another 20th century contemporary, John Marin.
Just prior to the mid-20th century, Marin was hailed by influential critics
as the No. 1 artist working in the United States. Although Marin worked
in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Maine, he maintained
important ties with the New York art market. His work would have been
accessible to Harlan, who frequented art galleries and museums in New
York when he lived there as a budding young artist, and later during visits
with his brother, Frank, who worked in this urban center as an illustrator.
Both Harlan Hubbard and John Marin preferred landscape subjects and painting
directly from motifs they saw in nature. The earthy and expressive qualities
of their images were carried through in the rustic framing processes they
Early in his career, Harlan set his mind to achieving a Thoreau-like existence
through a synthesis of the things that were most important to him life,
nature and art. His commitment to that ideal is evident in his art work.
But his journals convey how that translated into feelings of estrangement
from the contemporary art world.
The difficulties he experienced in gaining admission to juried exhibitions
supports this perception. Nevertheless, the importance of his limited
academic training, travels and readings in the field of art should not
be underestimated. These afforded Harlan the opportunity to draw insights
and from an art world that followed the beat of a different drummer while
remaining true to his own personal vision of what art should be.
Judy Bullington, Ph.D., is the Assistant Professor of Art
History at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore. She wrote this
article for RoundAbout Madison. Contact her at (503) 838-8326 or via email
Copyright 2005 - 2012, Kentuckiana Publishing, Inc.