(Providence, Rhode Island, 1850 - 1913)
Continuing a tradition started by Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart almost a century earlier, American artists sought training abroad. Part of the impetus for this practice was a lack of American art academies that taught up-to-date European styles and trends. Once artists arrived back in the United States, they often realized that they had to modify or abandon the current styles in which they had become highly skilled in their years of foreign training because of more conservative American tastes. As a result, in the late 1870s and 1880s, some artists were choosing to open studios and remain in Europe because they were able to create and sell works without having to alter or abandon their newfound style. George Hitchcock was one such artist, and was the first to establish a studio in Holland. Hitchcock painted Holland’s native flora, and Dutch peasantry. His works were awash with brilliant light and color, earning the artist the nickname “The Painter of Sunlight.”
George Hitchcock was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1850. Little is known about his early years; Hitchcock was born in Providence, Rhode Island, a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the man who founded Providence after being banished from Narragansett Bay with five others. Hitchcock graduated from Brown University in 1872 and from Harvard Law in 1874, and then practiced law in Providence and New York until moving to Chicago sometime around 1874 or 1875.
In Chicago, the artist was acquainted with a man named Waters, whom Hitchcock knew from Harvard. Waters was a picture dealer, who had collected poor English watercolors and was attempting to sell them. Hitchcock saw these paintings and they impressed him favorably. After seeing the works, he stated, “I can do better than those things myself.”(1) Not only was Hitchcock soon painting, but he also was selling his works through Waters. It was at this time that he decided to change his profession from attorney to artist.
Like many successful nineteenth-century, artists, Hitchcock traveled abroad to study art. In 1879, he went to London and studied at Heatherly’s School of fine art. Soon after, he traveled to Paris where he found the classes at the Academie Julien more rewarding and challenging. There he studied with Gustave Boulanger (1824-1888) and Jules Lefebrve (1836-1911). The artist studied at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany for a short time. He visited The Hague, Netherlands with Dutch marine painter and watercolor specialist Hendrik Mesdag (1831-1915). While traveling in Holland, Hitchcock established a studio in Egmond. Egmond was a cluster of three villages on the North Sea coast where Jacob van Ruysdael frequently painted in the seventeenth century. In the 1880s, Hitchcock, with colleague and friend Gari Melchers, founded a “school” of American art there.
Hitchcock and Melcher’s’ interest in Dutch culture probably stemmed from an increasing obsession with everything Dutch at the end of the nineteenth century in America.(2) First, in the last quarter of the century, new wealth founded in successful business culture led to new collecting—especially Dutch old masters such as Rembrandt, Hals, and Pieter de Hooch. Collectors saw a reflection of themselves in the older Dutch works, associating the paintings with democracy and republican ideals. Second, Americans wanted to discover more about their ancestors (and original colonists) who were not English. The Dutch society seemed to parallel the American—the Dutch fought for religious freedom from an overburdening crown, and were traditionally independent, hard-working, Christian individuals. The third, and perhaps most important reason, is related to America’s modernization.
Anti-modern sentiments were a recurrent theme in late nineteenth-century American art and life. Many believed that the United States had rushed into industrialization too quickly and now stood on the edge of altering the very character on which the country was formed. The population increasingly suffered from anxieties as a result of a fast-paced lifestyle and a failure to take time to relax. As a result, many artists rejected scenes of American life and sought out pictorial models in pre-industrial rural societies, such as Holland. The slow-paced lifestyle of the countryside fostered a healthy environment, and artists began depicting scenes that matched this lifestyle. Thus, more Americans began collecting American painted Dutch scenes.
In 1886, Hitchcock exhibited a painting entitled "Tulip Culture" at the Paris Salon.(3) The painting was praised highly by critics and won him an honorable mention medal. Inspired by the Dutch light and perhaps works like Botticelli’s "Madonna" at the Louvre, Hitchcock developed a subject type in which an elaborately costumed woman stands in full or partial sunlight against a backdrop of flowering branches or a hedge bordering field of flowers. From then on, critics singled him out for his unusual, vividly colored paintings of long, long straight rows of flowers, each row a different hue, and all in brilliant sunlight. He was then nicknamed “The Painter of Sunlight”. Hitchcock’s style of colorful, sunlit interpretation of the Netherlands is the Egdmond’s School’s primary contribution to American art. Until this point, no artist had yet captured the brilliant colors of their native flora in a manner such as Hitchcock’s. Native Dutch artists primarily worked in a Barbizon style with gray and silvery tones. As one critic described Hitchcock and his works:
"His pictures were not pictures of pictures. They embraced a new theme; gave to the world a picture of Holland unknown to it. A picture of a superfluity of flower gardens, of a culture or a commerce that catered to the fancy of the continent and not to its necessity. A picture, however, to be precise, that was nothing more nor less than a reflection of himself. For that he chose these flower gardens, with their regular lines and uniform colors, in preference to these flowers that grow as nature permits…Throughout his life the flowers remained for him the guiding light." (5)
Hitchcock painted and exhibited more paintings of a similar nature, and the art world was awakened to the rich subject matter to be found in Holland. Artists began to flock to Egmond in order to paint and study with the artist.
It is possible that Hitchcock was influenced by the great French Impressionist Claude Monet in creating his tulip paintings. He surely was familiar with Monet’s work, as he was wintering in Paris. According to art historian William Gerdts, Hitchcock never completely embraced the Impressionist style, as his works always retained an academic construction of figures. He turned to a high-key palette of unmixed tones that occurred just when Americans at home and abroad felt Monet’s influence. Monet had also painted a field of tulips, which offered a precedent for Hitchcock.
Hitchcock also painted religious subjects, following the example of contemporaries like Fritz von Uhde (1848-1911). Uhde generally concentrated on the simple piety of peasant life, “initiating a modern pictorial convention of placing a biblical Christ among the Dutch peasants in their traditional costume, presumably representing a religious scene as peasants would imagine it to appear.”(6) For example, "Annunciation Lilies" (c. 1887, The Art Institute of Chicago) is a painting of a young, beautiful woman strolling through a field of lilies. She is dressed in traditional Dutch peasant clothing and a brilliant gold halo encircles her head. Clearly meant to represent the Virgin Mary, the work is quiet and contemplative. Hitchcock continued to represent the Virgin Mary in works like "Blessed Mother" (1882, The Cleveland Museum of Art). In this work, Hitchcock painted a Dutch peasant woman holding her child, representative of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. Her head is surrounded by a golden halo. She sits in a chair in a field of flowers and looks directly at the viewer. Behind her and to the right is a lamb drinking or eating from a trough, symbolizing Christ’s role as sacrificial lamb.
Hitchcock also painted the peasantry as themselves, as in "Dutch Bride (In Brabant: The Bride)" (c, 1898, Los Angeles County Museum of Art). In this work, a Dutch peasant bride stands in her wedding gown amid a field of yellow and purple tulips. A row of trees forms a screen in the background. She holds a bouquet of tulips in her left hand, and arranges them with her right. She wears a decorative headdress, a part of Dutch costume that particularly fascinated Hitchcock. The sun shines down brightly in Hitchcock’s image, clearly defining the figure amidst rich colors. "Dutch Bride" is typical of the single figure costume studies Hitchcock developed in the 1890s. He combined a sense of abstract design through the tulip beds with accurate observations of the peasant dress. The figure was moved close to the picture plane and the background was filled with fields of vividly colored flowers. Often, a dense row of trees or bushes limited the perspective, enhancing the sense of flatness.(7) By the end of the 1890s, Hitchcock abandoned the religious themes to focus on the flower fields of Holland. It was around this time that the Museum’s "Field of Heather" was most likely painted.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to examine Hitchcock’s work after 1900, as no extensive monograph has been written on the artist. Most pieces in museum collections and galleries are either dated before 1900 or undated. However, there is one work that is dated 1902, entitled "The Siren" (Christie’s New York, 1988, present location unknown). It is a small oval picture of a nude woman, and is quite classical in composition. The siren, according the Greek mythology, was a beautiful woman who lived on an island. She played her lyre and sang beautiful melodies, luring sailors to her isle where they would never be able to escape. In the painting, the siren sits on the beach, waves crashing behind her. She is nude, save a white cloth that covers her legs and extremities. She turns to left and is holding a lyre, her face in profile. This work is a strong departure from Hitchcock’s paintings of tulips beds and madonnas, and one can only wonder what other subject matter he explored at the end of his career.
Hitchcock continued to exhibit at least until 1911, according to exhibition records at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, the exhibition catalogues only list the year of the exhibition, and not the date of the painting. Thus, it is unknown if his last paintings were new or if older works were exhibited. The exhibition catalogues also list Hitchcock’s address after 1908 in Paris. Therefore it is possible that he left Holland around this time and moved back to Paris on a permanent basis. The artist died in 1913.
1) Charles Henry Meltzer, “A Painter of Sunlight,” Hearst Magazine 22 (July 1912): 131.
2) For a more detailed study of the Dutch frenzy in nineteenth-century America, see Annette Stott, Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art & Culture (New York: The Overlook Press, 1998).
3) I was unable to find the location, a description or a reproduction of this painting. Presumably it was a field of tulips and was one of the first of Hitchcock’s tulip field paintings. Similar paintings, such as, depict rows and rows brilliantly colored tulips with a windmill in the background.
4) For Hitchcock’s own thoughts on Holland, see his article, “The Picturesque Quality of Holland,” Schribner’s (August 1887): 160-68.
5) Gerdts, 99.
6) Michael Quick, American Expatriate Painters of the Late Nineteenth Century (Dayton: Dayton Art Institute, 1976: 33.
7) Ilene Susan Fort and Michael Quick, American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991: 214-15. The catalogue authors explain that in 1898, Hitchcock contributed to the annual exhibition of the Carnegie Institute a full-length figure of a peasant bride, which, judging by the reproduction in the accompanying catalogue bears a strong resemblance to their painting. No full-length depiction of a Dutch bride has ever been located. Passages of the LACMA’s painting have been repainted. These changes and the disappearance of a full-length version suggest that LACMA’s painting was originally the full-length version. The date of the alterations and the reason for them is not known; equally problematic is whether the repainting was done by the artist himself or by someone else, such as his wife, painter Cecil Jay.
- Letha Clair Robertson, 5/27/04