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Robert Hopkin

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Robert Hopkin
(Glasgow, Scotland, 1832 - 1909, Detroit, Michigan)

Most successful American painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought out some level of professional art training, even when they were geographically removed from the urban centers where such training was available. Typically, these individuals would acquire local informal instruction that stimulated their innate talent or interest; then they would pursue training in a metropolis such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago. The most adventurous (and ambitious) went to the European art capitals, where established academies and curricula honed the skills of young artists and taught the conventions of the Western art tradition. Painter Robert Hopkin, based throughout most of his life in Detroit, Michigan, is a notable exception to this pattern of development. More than forty years after the fact, he recollected his first exhibition, which consisted of a painting of a wrecked ship displayed in a grocery store: “I didn’t get much for that picture…it was sold…to a dry goods merchant…. I got for that picture just enough cloth to make me a coat and vest. And I didn’t get it in money either, but in the cloth…. I painted pretty much everything, but I never received any instruction or took a painting lesson.” (1) Despite the fact that he was self-taught and came to art through apprenticeship in the craft tradition, Hopkin achieved recognition and patronage to rival the most schooled of his contemporaries. (2)

The Hopkin family immigrated to the United States from Scotland, settling in Detroit in 1843. At age fourteen, Hopkin apprenticed to a carriage painter and acquired the skills necessary to paint signs, banners, and steamboat interiors. Eventually he built a career as an ornamental painter, decorating the interiors of churches, theaters, and other public buildings. He transferred these skills to his fine-art compositions and expanded his subject matter over time to include landscapes and genre scenes. Except for a brief period in Chicago, Hopkin spent his entire life in Detroit. (3) Over the course of some fifty years, he established a reputation as the city’s best-loved and most prolific painter. Contemporary records indicate that he produced at least 390 oils and watercolors, and his work was widely collected in the community. (4)

Marine subjects predominate in Hopkin’s fine-art oeuvre. He sought out lakes, rivers, and ports in order to render their environs and atmospheric conditions. When he painted nautical equipment or sailing vessels, he transcribed the details with meticulous care. Hopkin’s grandson claimed that the artist had himself lashed to a stanchion under a ship’s smokestack in a fierce storm during an Atlantic crossing so he could directly experience the effects of wind and water. (5)

Hopkin was instrumental in organizing and actively supporting a large number of professional societies that fostered the arts in Detroit. He founded the Art Association of Detroit in 1874, which held regular exhibitions and had a permanent gallery. He also supported the Western Art Association, which was an art-union lottery organization that also sponsored exhibitions. In recognition of his efforts, his fellow Detroit artists founded the Hopkin Club in his honor. It sponsored an annual exhibition that eventually became open to all Michigan artists. In 1912, the Hopkin Club became the Scarab Club, and evolved into a social organization for Detroit artists. Hopkin died in Detroit in 1909.

(1) Interview published in the Detroit Tribune (26 February 1893), as quoted by Sylvia Krissoff, Entry for Robert Hopkin, "Artists of Michigan from the Nineteenth Century: A Sesquicentennial Exhibition Commemorating Michigan Statehood, 1837–1987," by J. Gray Sweeney et al. (Detroit: Detroit Historical Museum and the Muskegon Museum of Art, 1987), p. 90.

(2) The term “self-taught” has a different meaning now than it did when Hopkin described himself in this way. Today, self-taught artists have no formal art education, and their works are seen as rising from an intuitive need to express their ideas visually. In Hopkin’s day, those fine artists who did not train at an art academy were described as self-taught, although most of these artists, like Hopkin, apprenticed in a craft setting, which provided significant training in technique and the use of materials.

(3) Arthur Hopkin Gibson, "Artists of Early Michigan: A Biographical Dictionary of Artists Native to or Active in Michigan, 1700–1900" (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975), p. 135. Most of this work was in Detroit, but Hopkin also painted interiors in the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, and the Grand Opera House in Denver, and ceiling frescos for the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans.

(4) 4. Hopkin moved to Chicago in 1870 to pursue his art career in the larger city, but after the great fire of 1871 destroyed his studio, he returned to Detroit. Krissoff, p. 90.

(5) Ibid.

Initial research -Letha Clair Robertson, 3/10/04-rev. MLA 7/25/08

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