Charles Woodward Hutson (1840-1936)

  • Charles Hutson had a multifaceted career as a soldier, lawyer, professor, author, and writer before beginning, upon retirement, a new thirty-year career, at age sixty-five, making art. As a Southern gentleman of gentry and an erudite scholar, his art, while without formal art training, was sophisticated, and reflected his love of nature and knowledge of literature, poetry, mythology, and history.

    Born of patrician heritage in McPhersonville, South Carolina, Hutson enjoyed literature at an early age, reading Homer, Virgil, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott. After he fought for his beloved South in the American Civil War, he followed his father’s footsteps and studied law, but was admitted to the state bar only to find that practicing law was an unprofitable venture in the war-torn and destitute South. Following his studies of German, French, Italian, and Spanish, he began a lifetime career teaching Greek, metaphysics, moral philosophy, history, and modern languages at a variety of private schools, colleges, and universities throughout the South.

    Hutson moved his family to New Orleans at the conclusion of his teaching career and began making, at the urging of one of his children, pastel drawings, en plein air, of the southern Louisiana landscape, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and, occasionally, reminiscences of the countryside of states where he had resided and taught. He had an uncanny facility to abstract nature without compromising the reality of its elements and atmosphere. Later, he worked in the mediums of watercolor and oil, painting almost every day until his death in New Orleans on May 27, 1936. Begun in 1923, the oils incorporated Hutson’s vast knowledge of obscure subjects with mythological and literary references, often mischievously testing his viewer’s understanding of the baffling imagery.

    Hutson’s artistic career attracted the attention of the art world, the press, and the public. His artwork was first shown publicly in 1917, at the Society of Independent Artists in New York, and again in 1925. His first one-person museum exhibition was held in 1931 at the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans, where 47 oils were presented. Two other posthumous, solo exhibitions of Hutson’s work at the Delgado Museum were staged in 1948 and 1965; the latter was a full retrospective.

    The following is a review of a 2010 Hutson show by Karen Rosenberg of the New York Times:

    "Charles W. Hutson’s modest landscapes and shoreline views initially seem mild and soft, but they firm up fast. My response had climbed from a maybe to a definitely over the course of this exhibition of 40 works from Hutson’s last 25 years — he died in 1936 at 95.

    Born to a patrician South Carolina family in 1840, Hutson spent much of his childhood reading his way through the family library. He fought in the Civil War, tried to become a lawyer, like his father, and then spent 40 years peripatetically providing for a large family by teaching at 14 different schools, colleges and universities throughout the South.

    Retiring to New Orleans, he took up watercolor and pastel and, during his final decade, oil painting. His eldest daughter, an artist, offered to teach him the rudiments of perspective, but he declined, claiming that he had always been an amateur. She did, however, manage to garner attention for his work; it appeared in “They Taught Themselves” (1942), a groundbreaking book by the New York art dealer Sidney Janis that also showcased Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin.

    Hutson’s efforts are hard to categorize. The pastels and paintings are especially strong, with matte, powdery surfaces; rounded, sometimes clumsy shapes; and gently radiant arrangements of mostly blues, greens and yellows. His naïveté of form is balanced by an unwavering attention to light and space (and reflections).

    His atmospheres hold light, creating a generous sense of depth that is corroborated by trees, for example, that recede convincingly, in palpable layers of space. The fullness of light and control of space are especially evident in oil paintings like “Untitled (Two Boats)” and “Sunshine on Back Bay.”

    By the time he died, Hutson had become a celebrated local artist represented in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. In his fierce concentration on reality and perhaps his attention to other art, he is reminiscent of the itinerant painters of the 19th century and their portraits of small-town New Englanders. But he came later. Instead of looking to John Singleton Copley, Hutson might have been learning from Monet."

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