Hubbard as an artist

His artwork is influenced by
Post-Impressionism featuring
riverboats, simple surroundings

By Judy Bullington
Special report

Judy Bullington
Judy Bullington

(August 2000)

Harlan and Anna Hubbard are widely known today for the solitary existence they chose to lead on the banks of the Ohio River. They rejected the use of modern conveniences in both their Shantyboat home on the Ohio River and, later, in the rustic cabin they built at Payne Hollow, Ky.

But the most striking aspect of their lifestyle was defined by abundance rather than absence. The routine of daily chores was always balanced by cultural interests in the form of music and art. Anna expressed her creative nature through music. For Harlan, it was art.

Harlan was born in Bellevue, Ky., in 1900 and spent most of his 88 years actively making art in the form of paintings, watercolors and woodcuts. More than 1,000 works are known to exist today, but little has been done to assess their historical importance.

The sketchy appearance and many of Harlan’s works of art suggests a rustic character frequently associated with untrained artists. Handmade frames fashioned from found materials, including driftwood gathered from the river banks, add to this effect. However, Harlan did receive preliminary instruction in studio art at the National Academy of Design in New York between 1919 and 1921, and later in 1925. He also enrolled in a life drawing class at the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1919.

Several stylistic influences can be seen in Harlan’s works of art. Among them is late 19th century Post-Impressionism. Post Impressionism is a term used to categorize art that retained the shimmering light effects and outdoor palette of the French Impressionists during the 1870s and 1880s, but moved toward more structured compositions. Harlan often used dark lines to counterbalance soft color effects and to bring out the underlying structure of forms found in nature.

This synthesis is found in many of the riverboat paintings for which Harlan was best known. But it is also clear from Anna’s list of books she and Harlan read together that Harlan had other interests. These included Romanticism, Expressionism and Orientalism. Despite his familiarity with a wide range of artists and movements, Harlan never copied any one style exactly. He chose instead to create a blend of many different approaches that gave his work a distinctive character.

A more complete picture of Harlan’s art can be drawn through comparisons with several 20th century contemporaries. For example, the paintings and murals he completed in the 1930s for the Works Project Administration, known as the WPA, resemble the realism of Depression Era regionalists, such as John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. Harlan completed commissions for the Covington and Newport libraries, as well as the Carnegie Center in Covington, under the auspices of the WPA. These works are realistic in that the figures and scenery are easily recognized for what they are and what they symbolize.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Harlan was also working on the other end of the stylistic spectrum. He created works that emphasized design, flatness and abstractness instead of realism and detail. This work was comparable to that of Arthur Wesley Dow, a noted art educator who was teaching in New York when Harlan first arrived there as a teenager.

Like Dow, Harlan preferred landscape subjects over depictions of the human figure. Both found the work of Hokusai, a 19th century Japanese artist, inspiring. They were particularly drawn to Hokusai’s emphasis on the beauty and harmony of pictorial elements based in nature.

The hundreds of watercolors that Harlan made, some serving as sketches from nature and others as finished works of art, have a spontaneous quality that evokes the work of another 20th century contemporary, John Marin.

Just prior to the mid-20th century, Marin was hailed by influential critics as the No. 1 artist working in the United States. Although Marin worked in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Maine, he maintained important ties with the New York art market. His work would have been accessible to Harlan, who frequented art galleries and museums in New York when he lived there as a budding young artist, and later during visits with his brother, Frank, who worked in this urban center as an illustrator.

Both Harlan Hubbard and John Marin preferred landscape subjects and painting directly from motifs they saw in nature. The earthy and expressive qualities of their images were carried through in the rustic framing processes they developed.

Early in his career, Harlan set his mind to achieving a Thoreau-like existence through a synthesis of the things that were most important to him – life, nature and art. His commitment to that ideal is evident in his art work. But his journals convey how that translated into feelings of estrangement from the contemporary art world.

The difficulties he experienced in gaining admission to juried exhibitions supports this perception. Nevertheless, the importance of his limited academic training, travels and readings in the field of art should not be underestimated. These afforded Harlan the opportunity to draw insights and from an art world that followed the beat of a different drummer while remaining true to his own personal vision of what art should be.