Art: Mudheads

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Charles Webster Hawthorne was 27 years old, had put in a few years as an art teacher, when he settled in Provincetown, Mass, in 1899. At that time Provincetown was a fishing village inhabited largely by Portuguese. A Chicago visitor said that Provincetown ladies decorated their hats with mackerel gills and swept their floors with halibut fins. But to Hawthorne, Provincetown's great natural resource was its summer light— brilliant and untempered, making houses, sand and wharves blaze against their backgrounds. In an old sail loft he established an art school. Before his death in 1930 it attracted 125 students each summer; Provincetown was more famous as an art colony than it had ever been as a fishing village; and Hawthorne had a reputation as one of the greatest of U. S. art teachers.

He was a forthright, plainspoken, sharp-eyed teacher who preferred playing the cello to painting, warned his students that he could read their thoughts from the colors they used. His method was to place a model on the beach, so that the brilliant background of sky and water forced students to see the head merely as a spot of color. He then gave students a big, broad-edged putty knife and a square of building board, and urged them to study color rather than drawing. "Painting is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot of color," he would say. "Go out like a savage, as if paint had just been invented. . . . Don't paint thinly as a student. . . . You are at an age when you are supposed to make mistakes. . . . Go after some heads and paint them as hunks of flesh instead of as pretty girls—after all, pretty girls are made out of hunks of flesh."

Disconcerted students, sunburnt, half-blinded, slapping mosquitoes, protecting their easels from Portuguese children, tried vainly to work eyes and ears into their pictures, complained that it was like painting with a trowel. They were embarrassed by Boston sightseers who, revolted by the "horrible, featureless, formless" shapes they painted, called them "mudheads." But they were impressed because Hawthorne seemed indifferent whether they stayed or left, spared nobody.

This week the proofs of a volume* of Hawthorne aphorisms, exhortations and technical advice, assembled from notes taken by his students, appeared with a warm introduction by venerable Critic Royal Cortissoz. Made up of brief, pungent essays on water color and oil painting, followed by paragraphs devoted to Hawthorne comments on specific work by his students, Hawthorne an Painting proved an excellent introduction for laymen and students alike.

To Hawthorne, a painter's job was to "show people more than they already see," and beauty in art he defined as "the delicious notes of color one against the other." To see things simply, he insisted, is the hardest thing in the world—"When a man is sixty or seventy, he may be able to do a thing simply, and the whole world rejoices."

*HAWTHORNE ON PAINTING—Pittman Publishing Corp. ($2). To be published Aug. 9.