From New York to Nebo
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A product of the industrialized New South, Eugene Healan Thomason (1895-1972) made the obligatory pilgrimage to New York to advance his art education and launch his career. Like so many other aspiring American artists, he understood that the city offered unparalleled personal and professional opportunities—prestigious schools, groundbreaking teachers, and an intoxicating cosmopolitan milieu—for a promising young painter in the early 1920s. The patronage of one of the nation's most powerful tycoons afforded him entrance to the renowned Art Students League, where he fell under the influence of the leading members of the Ashcan School, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks. In all, Thomason spent a decade in the city, adopting—and eventually adapting—the Ashcan movement's gritty realistic aesthetic into a distinctive regionalist style that utilized thick paint and simple subject matter.

Eugene Thomason returned to the South in the early 1930s, living first in Charlotte, North Carolina, before settling in a small Appalachian crossroads called Nebo. For the next thirty-plus years, he mined the rural landscape's rolling terrain and area residents for inspiration, finding there an abundance of colorful imagery more evocative—and more personally resonant—than the urbanism of New York. Painting at the same time as such well known Regionalists as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, Eugene Thomason embraced and convincingly portrayed his own region, becoming the visual spokesman for that place and its people.


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Date de parution 02 septembre 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611175110
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 14 Mo

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Exrait

FROM NEW YORK TO NEBO
FROM NEW YORK TO NEBO
THE ARTISTIC JOURNEY OF EUGENE THOMASON
MARTHA R. SEVERENS
THE JOHNSON COLLECTION IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS
The Johnson Collection, LLC
The Johnson Collection PO Box 3524, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304-3524 864.585.2000 thejohnsoncollection.org
David Henderson, Director Sarah Tignor, Collection Manager Registrar Lynne Blackman, Public Relations Publications Coordinator Aimee Wise, Collection Assistant Holly Watters, Collection Assistant
All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, all images are by Eugene Healan Thomason (1895-1972) and are the property of the Johnson Collection, LLC. All vintage photographs included in this volume are courtesy of the Thomason Family Archive in the possession of Lavinia Thomason Sauter.
Copublished in partnership with the University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, South Carolina 29208. 800.768.2500. www.sc.edu/uscpress
Editor: Lynne Blackman Design: Gee Creative, Charleston, South Carolina Photography: Tim Barnwell Photography, Asheville, North Carolina; Rick Rhodes Photography Imaging, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina Production: Printed in Canada by Friesens
ISBN 978-1-61117-510-3 (hardbound) - ISBN 978-1-61117-511-0 (ebook) Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at http://catalog.loc.gov/ .
23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
This volume accompanies the exhibition of the same title. Exhibition venues include: Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, Georgia Asheville Art Museum, Asheville, North Carolina Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina
Cover: Self-Portrait , 1959, oil on masonite, 30 25 inches (detail) Frontispiece: Three Chimneys , 1939, oil on canvas, 20 24 inches (detail) Back: Autumn , oil on canvas, 30 36 inches
CONTENTS
Foreword
Acknowledgments
From New York to Nebo
The Johnson Collection
Annotations
Index
FOREWORD
Not long after I arrived at the Mint Museum in 2006, I received a letter from the Charlotte Observer s longtime arts writer Richard Maschal suggesting that I might find it interesting to learn more about a late Charlotte artist named Eugene Thomason. As a newcomer to the region, I was not familiar with Thomason s work and welcomed the opportunity. Through Maschal s introduction, I spent an eye-opening morning with one of the artist s relatives who lives just outside the city. During that visit, I saw some fine examples of Thomason s work and heard first-hand reports of his career and character. Subsequent research in the museum s files revealed that Thomason had no fewer than three solo exhibitions at the Mint during his lifetime. The first, which took place in early 1937, occurred less than a year after the museum opened its doors; the next was in 1959, and the third in 1964.


Boy with Chrysanthemums , circa 1936-1937, oil on canvas, 41.38 32.25 inches (detail). Collection of The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina. Gift of Dr. A. Everette James, Jr. and Jeannette Cross James. See also page 58 .
Throughout his career, Thomason most frequently has been linked to his mentor George Luks, a rough-and-tumble member of the group of artists in Robert Henri s circle known as The Eight or the Ashcan School. The impact of the time that Thomason spent in New York collaborating with such artists as Luks (who became a close friend) can be seen in his embrace of everyday subjects painted quickly from life with vigorous brushwork and thickly-applied paint. These qualities are evident in the Mint s one Thomason canvas, Boy with Chrysanthemums ( page 58 ), and, as it happens, they factored into its creation. According to his late wife Thomason completed the picture in approximately half an hour after convincing the boy, whom he had found on his doorstep, to pose for him. Perhaps because of the spontaneity of the situation, Thomason did something that he was known, on occasion, to do: he used a canvas upon which he had already begun another painting. This fact was discovered only when Boy with Chrysanthemums underwent conservation treatment in 2008 in preparation for its reinstallation in the museum s new uptown facility in 2010.
Thomason s oeuvre is a fascinating one, and the Johnson Collection s publication and companion exhibition offer us the chance to reassess both its importance and its place in American art history. Rather than being considered an offshoot or country version of the Ashcan sensibility, I believe that Thomason and his work might more accurately be understood as a part of what Henri, Luks, and their colleagues made possible: the emergence of American Scene painting (often called Regionalism ) as a viable artistic practice. This movement was taking shape just as Thomason returned to his boyhood hometown of Charlotte in the early 1930s and as he turned his attention to the people around him (like the boy in the Mint Museum s painting or, later, to his neighbors in the Nebo area) as subject matter. Thomason s homecoming coincided with a particularly rich moment in Charlotte s cultural history, for despite the fact that the city was still struggling to recover from the Great Depression, it was also undergoing what one newspaper writer called a cultural Renaissance. This reawakening was led by artists like Thomason who invigorated Charlotte s art scene by encouraging aspiring local artists and facilitating large group exhibitions of their work, and by visionaries like Mary Myers Dwelle, who led the charge to repurpose the United States Mint building as the state s first art museum. Period newspaper articles, many cited by Martha Severens in her insightful essay here, document the burgeoning artistic activity in the city in the mid-1930s and the community s growing appetite for the arts. Considering this history, and Charlotte s continued emergence as one of the region s most significant cultural centers, it is particularly fitting for the Mint to be involved with this exhibition which takes place nearly eighty years after Thomason s work was first shown here in 1937.
Jonathan Stuhlman, PhD Senior Curator of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I wish to acknowledge and thank the many individuals who have contributed to the production of From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason. First and foremost are the people at the Johnson Collection who have shepherded the project with tact and grace. The generous support and vision of Susu and George Johnson have guided the development of the collection, which is now an outstanding representation of art of the American South. Under the avid leadership and acquisitive acumen of David Henderson, the collection has grown exponentially in both quality and quantity. Sarah Tignor coordinates myriad details with great care and finesse, and her colleague Lynne Blackman is a sensitive editor, concerned for every aspect from word choice to design. Collection assistants Aimee Wise and Kate Conner were ever ready to assist with a variety of administrative tasks that lightened my load.
The book would not have been possible without the considerable interest of Thomason s daughters. Lavinia Thomason Sauter is passionate about her father s work, has assembled a significant collection, and serves as the guardian of his archive of clippings, photographs, and miscellanea. Her sister, Jean Thomason Turner, is also keenly interested, as is Virginia Montgomery McMahan, Thomason s stepdaughter, who is a great raconteur. A niece of Thomason s wife, Katherine Gaston, provided additional illuminating insights. To all four, I owe a deep debt of gratitude.
In my research, I have benefited from the expertise of many, and I am grateful. Dr. A. Everette James, Jr., who was the first to study and write about Thomason, has been supportive and helpful. Edward Phifer was kind enough to introduce me to Helen Norman, a meticulous historian living in the Lake James area, who toured me around Nebo and tracked down specifics about the Thomasons properties. Stephanie Cassidy at the Art Students League in New York was graciously forthcoming with information about Thomason s studies, as was Jan Blodgett, the archivist at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. Staff members of the South Carolina Room at the Greenville County Library System, the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, and Patti Holda in the Abe Simmons Genealogy and North Carolina Room at the McDowell Public Library in Marion, North Carolina, were helpful with interlibrary loans, directories, obituaries, and census records. Matthew Wayman, Head Librarian of the Ciletti Memorial Library at Pennsylvania State University, provided elusive details about George Luks mural at the Necho Allen Hotel.
At museums, my research was furthered by the assistance of Kevin Grogan, Director, Morris Museum of Art; Jon Stuhlman, Senior Curator of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art, and Joyce Weaver, Librarian, Mint Museum; Cindy Connor, Registrar, Columbia Museum of Art; Ronni Smith, Registrar, Hickory Museum of Art; Frank Thomson, Curator, Asheville Art Museum; and Rachel Young, Registrar, Mobile Museum of Art. In addition, Jane Harper Hicklin and Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., of the Charleston Renaissance Gallery provided access to their extensive files. I appreciate the collegiality of all of them and their willingness to share information.
Conservator Colin Post of Asheville and his assistant Elizabeth Sanchez shared discoveries about Thomason s technique. Also of Asheville, photographer Tim Barnwell mastered the challenging task of capturing Thomason s paintings for reproduction. I am grateful to them all, and also to Steve Hankins, Dean, Seminary and Graduate School of Religion at Bob Jones University, who supplied valuable information regarding the history of his surname.
From his offices in Charleston, South Carolina, Richard Gee of Gee Creative has designed a handsome volume that ideally complements Thomason s aesthetic. On behalf of the collection, I also extend thanks to Jonathan Haupt, Director of the University of South Carolina Press, for that organization s enthusiasm for and partnership in this project. The collection is also most appreciative of the written contributions by Southern scholars Jonathan Stuhlman of the Mint Museum and Dr. William Ferris, Joel Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill. Finally, Kenneth Severens read an early draft of the text and made many useful suggestions. Without the assistance of all of the above, this book would never have come to fruition.
Martha R. Severens Greenville, South Carolina


Self-Portrait , 1959, oil on masonite, 30 25 inches
FROM NEW YORK TO NEBO
A PRODUCT OF THE INDUSTRIALIZED NEW SOUTH, EUGENE HEALAN THOMASON (1895-1972) made the obligatory pilgrimage to New York to advance his art education and launch his career. Like so many other aspiring American artists, he understood that the city offered unparalleled personal and professional opportunities-prestigious schools, groundbreaking teachers, and an intoxicating cosmopolitan milieu-for a promising young painter in the early 1920s. The patronage of one of the nation s most powerful tycoons afforded him entrance to the renowned Art Students League, where he fell under the influence of the leading members of the Ashcan School: Robert Henri (1865-1929), John Sloan (1871-1951), and, in particular, George Luks (1867-1933). In all, Thomason spent a decade in the city, adopting-and eventually adapting-the Ashcan movement s gritty realistic aesthetic into a distinctive regionalist style that utilized thick paint and simple subject matter.
For reasons perhaps more circumstantial than calculated, Thomason returned to the South in the early 1930s. Following a brief stint as a portrait painter and teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, he settled in a small Appalachian crossroads called Nebo. For the next thirty-plus years, Thomason mined the rural landscape s rolling terrain and area residents for inspiration, finding there an abundance of colorful imagery more evocative-and more personally resonant-than the urbanism of New York.
Painting at the same time as such well known Regionalists as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Grant Wood (1891-1942), Eugene Thomason embraced and convincingly portrayed his own region, becoming the visual spokesman for that place and its people. A singular, intractable, congenial, and relatively unambitious man, he functioned outside of the art world mainstream, working and exhibiting-with rare exception-only in the Carolinas, and without consistent gallery representation that might have promoted his career, provided financial stability, and generated critical acclaim. As a result, Thomason and his art have regrettably and undeservedly been overlooked. Yet, his story is a compelling one, well worth telling and long overdue.
WHEN EUGENE THOMASON WAS BORN ON JULY 15, 1895 NEAR THE BORDER OF NORTH CAROLINA IN BLACKSBURG, SOUTH Carolina, it was a small railroad town. His father, Edgar Thomason (1869-1937), was employed by the Charleston, Cincinnati Chicago Railroad as an agent-operator, but over the next several years, the family relocated regularly as he received promotions and worked for a short period at a carpet-manufacturing firm. Young Eugene s childhood, therefore, was peripatetic: at fifteen months of age he moved to Shelby, North Carolina; in 1900, the family returned to South Carolina, living in Gaffney, before being transferred to Atlanta for one year. A six-year period in Durham, North Carolina, followed before the Thomasons finally settled in Charlotte in 1911. 1
Edgar Thomason s career in railroads corresponded with the industrialization of the western Carolinas at the turn of the century. Textile manufacturing joined agriculture in driving economic progress. Though vastly different in operation and output, these primary industries required at least two common resources: energy and transportation. Under the leadership of several farsighted entrepreneurs, spearheaded by James Buchanan Duke (1856-1925), hydroelectric plants were built along the 220-mile-long Catawba River to spur commercial development, and rail systems were established, connecting the mills and small cities. Thomason s last position before his death was president of the Piedmont Northern Railway and the Durham Southern Railway, the former being powered by Catawba hydroelectric plants. A pet project of Duke s, the rail system was exceptional as it carried more freight than passengers, ultimately traversing 127 miles. 2 As a result of his success in railroads, Edgar Thomason provided a comfortable home in downtown Charlotte for his wife, Mary Ella Healan (1865-1928), and their six surviving children. A respected citizen in the community, Edgar was a member of Good Fellows, the Charlotte Country Club, and the First Methodist Church.
Like many accomplished artists, Eugene Thomason seems to have been precocious; as an eight-year-old, he painted a seascape based on a magazine illustration. While still a youth, he portrayed a multi-figure indoor scene of a farmhouse, again, probably copied from another picture. His view of the Gothic ruins of Trinity College, the forerunner to Duke University, following a disastrous fire in 1911 was rendered after a photograph. In a condolence note written years later upon the death of Thomason s mother, his sixth grade teacher in Durham, Maude F. Rogers, recalled her student in glowing terms:
I wonder if you remember your teacher when you were in the sixth grade at Morehead School. I can see you now sitting over near a window overlooking Jackson St. busily sketching some scene or plant or flower. I remember especially some work in oil that you did of which I was so proud. I remember also how you used to read my mind so accurately that you could get up and give an answer to a question I had just asked and give that answer in the very exact way my mind was framing it. I have thought of you often and wondered where you were and what life work you had chosen. 3
In addition to mentioning his early interest in art, Rogers remembrance of Thomason s perceptive powers is very revealing. Later in his career, both critics and family members remarked on Thomason s ability to divine and delineate the inner personalities of his sitters.
In Charlotte for the last two years of high school, Thomason-the third of the Thomasons four sons-attended Major J. G. Baird s School for Boys, where the headmaster prescribed strict military discipline. The school was in existence for about forty years and was later known as the Charlotte Military Institute. Fearful that his son was not a rigorous student, Edgar Thomason asked Baird to be lenient with Eugene. As a student, Eugene was an active athlete who played football, baseball, and basketball, and enjoyed gymnastics. Following graduation, he completed one year (1913-1914) at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, a well-regarded institution founded by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in 1837. As a member of the class of 1917 and a candidate for a Bachelor of Science degree, he took courses in English, German, Bible, geometry, and algebra at the freshman level, along with sophomore history.
College, however, does not seem to have suited Thomason. Davidson College offered no courses in art, and Thomason may have found the atmosphere too staid and parochial, as implied in the institution s catalogue: No young man who cheats on high school examinations, or who drinks or gambles, is wanted at Davidson College . The habits and traditions of the College are all in favor of purity, sobriety, and gentlemanly conduct. The students are a picked body of men, representing the finest home training of the South. 4 Disappointed that his son did not flourish at college, Edgar Thomason urged Eugene to learn a trade. Consequently, he worked for a while as a timekeeper and payroll clerk at the E. I. DuPont Powder Company in Wilmington, Delaware, and in a similar position at E. H. Clement, a contracting and building concern based in Charlotte. He was also employed as a bridge and construction inspector for his father s railroad, the Piedmont Northern Railway.
From his adolescence on, Thomason spent much of his leisure time fishing along the Catawba River, located north and west of Charlotte and flowing into South Carolina. His passion for the sport continued into his adult years and is reflected in several later paintings. In Linville , for example, two figures, placed near the center, are highlighted against the stream by lighter colors and touches of red. Their active poses while casting are mirrored by the stark branches of the surrounding trees. Like so much of Thomason s oeuvre, this painting is not meticulously detailed, but rather captures the essence of a favorite outdoor activity.


Linville , 1951, oil on canvas, 30 36 inches
Whether Thomason s fascination with fishing attracted him to the sea is unknown, but on July 1, 1917, according to his naval log, he decided to join the Navy, war on so knowing I would serve sooner or later I chose the navy, always having a desire to travel the seas. 5 He enlisted six days later. His two-year naval career as seaman second-class was as peripatetic as his childhood, with time spent in Newport, Rhode Island; New London, Connecticut; Norfolk, Virginia; and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. His log, evidently written at the end of his service, consists of six pages executed in a beautiful calligraphic hand that, ironically, offers scant detail. Occasional snippets reveal the young sailor s sense of humor: Night we were given hammocks and told to turn in, we did, and quite a few were turned out. Other comments deal with life ashore: had a great time at the Beach at Newport, good liberties at New London, and at Trinidad, Port of Spain, saw sights and plenty of Schlitz beer. While stationed in Brooklyn, he was especially fond of going to Coney Island. Snapshots pasted in the back of the book document many of these activities, as well as several pick-up baseball games. According to his official Navy record, Thomason received good marks for sobriety and obedience, and he never earned any punishments.
Thomason passed the examination for submarine service, took training as a radio operator, and was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania , a modern battleship based in Yorktown, Virginia. Powered by fuel oil rather than coal, the Pennsylvania was limited to wartime patrols along the Atlantic coast, remaining close to American shores. After the Armistice, it joined the fleet escorting President Woodrow Wilson to Europe for the peace talks. On December 18, 1918, the Pennsy docked at Brest, France, Thomason s only visit to the European continent. Subsequently, the ship sailed to Guantanamo, Cuba, and Port of Spain, Trinidad. Thomason spent the last few months of his service in radio school at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. He applied to be a pilot with the Naval Reserve Flying Corps, but was rejected for reasons unspecified.

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