P.S. has a beautiful oil pastel on paper that’s signed F. Hopkinson Smith (1838-1915). It is a canal scene in Venice, but look closer and you will see an amazing rendering of perspective. This is called “forced” perspective, when the painter deliberately bends the optics of the painting to convince the viewer he/she is in the scene itself. See how the gunwale of the boat is larger than if it were real, like a modern-day photo shot with wide-angle lens?
This is a painting executed in an era when new artists used photography to show the visual world how to widen a composition at the “entry” to the piece in mechanical terms. (The entry, in this case, is the boat — we picture we are standing upon it to see down the canal.) This painting represents a merging of the two worlds: The world of the painter, and the world of the technician. The realism photography availed actually led to the artists of the era to rethink perspective and the uses of color. This was before the first color photo; the oldest known color photograph was taken by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1872.
This piece was completed around 1870-1880s, as painters began to know the mechanical language of photography. In fact, they were learning how the eye (with the camera) could foreshorten or widen “angles.” Color emphasizes this perspective (notice the grays of the boat fading).
Now to my mention of the word “technician” in reference to this painter. When I see the expert use of angles in a composition, I immediately think of the artist as a bit of an engineer. Hopkinson Smith obviously knew mathematical perspective, how to widen the plane so that the eye was fooled into thinking that a two-dimensional space was a “deep” three dimensions.
I suspect Hopkinson Smith had some engineering background in addition to art training.
I have seen this coupling of technical skill and color in my own life: My grandfather Herbert (b. 1902, Leipzig) was an engineer who painted with perspective in his younger years.
So who was F. Hopkinson Smith? He was a contractor in naval engineering in New York City after the Civil War who created the foundation for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. He designed many breakwaters, including Block Island’s. He designed the sea wall around Governors Island. When he wasn’t building lighthouses and bridges, he was traveling and sketching Cuba, Mexico, Constantinople, Venice and Holland. He wrote novels and travel books, and illustrated them. P.S. might have a sketch of “The Venice of To-Day 1897” or “Gondola Days of 1897.”
What this painting teaches us is that artists are often Renaissance men and women. Hopkinson Smith was an engineer who understood hydraulics, a painter who understood perspective and color, and even a fiction writer. He wrote 20 novels, two of which, “Tom Grogan” (1869) and “Caleb West” (1898), were best-sellers in the years they were released.
As he traveled, wrote and sketched, he realized he loved the arts more than New York City civil engineering and he retired from his position. Born in Baltimore, he had a kinship with the American South. He became famous for his novels of the antebellum South, and his “Colonel Carter of Cartersville” (1891) was staged for the theater, playing to sell-out audiences in the larger Northern cities.
Recently (2015, Sotheby’s), a Hopkinson Smith painting sold (for $8,000) that I would have loved to buy: “Under an Umbrella: Inn of William the Conqueror.” This inn in Normandy marked the setting off point of William’s crusade. But for Hopkinson Smith, it marked a place where he reveled in the company of genteel artists and writers who gathered at that inn each tourist season, telling stories, painting, visiting the nearby chateaux, eating, drinking and walking together.
Yes, idyllic. Yes, moneyed. Yes, the “haves” entertained each other. Yes, the “cultivated” of the era gathered. The artists in the world of the late 19th century were divided, and the arts were showing the rift: In Hopkinson Smith’s painting, we see the placid without political overtones; at the same time, artists began painting the growing world of the slums and downtrodden of the great cities, the disillusioned, who were also shot by the world’s first documentary photojournalists.
P.S. has a treasure on his hands. This mixed media piece, a pastel on paper with gouache, would sell for $7,000 to $8,000 today.