The impressionist artist,
Joseph Hatfield |
in his Canton studio on Beaumont Street in 1895.
The colors were beautiful, and the descriptions evoked romantic painting in sunlit galleries. Carmine, Alizaran Crimson, Rose Madder, Aureolin Yellow, Ox-Gall, and Smalt. In a small factory off of Beaumont Street some of the world’s best modern paints were developed and perfected by Joseph Henry Hatfield.
J.H. Hatfield was a prolific and extremely talented artist that travelled the world, yet called Canton his home. Born near Kingston, Ontario in 1863, Hatfield was one of America’s most prolific and well-known artists in the nineteenth century. Like many young artists of the time, he would find his influences in France. Studying at the Academie Julian in Paris in 1889-1890, Hatfield would hone his skills by working under Benjamin Constant, Henri Doucet, and Jules Lefebvre.
Hatfield returned to America in 1892, joining a growing group of expatriates who introduced Impressionism to a receptive audience at the turn of the last century. Hatfield was in the company of such artists as Whistle, Hassam, Sargent and Cassatt. In his early work he explored landscapes, figures and plein-air style. And his work at the Paris Salon of 1891 was critical to his success as an artist.
The Paris Salons were annual exhibitions of contemporary art, which were in essence a setting for the serious exploration of modern themes and imagery focused upon artists, critics, patrons and dealers. Through the acceptance at the Salons, an American artist would gain renown and an impact upon the art-world.
As Hatfield himself described it, he was not very successful at first. “I was completely discouraged. I said to myself, you old fool, you can’t paint anymore than a cow, you ought to give it up.” Packing away his sketch material, Hatfield decided to become a farmer. A few days into his malaise, he saw a “wonderful great cloud in the sky.” Hatfield exclaimed, “I’ve got to paint that cloud,” and ran to his studio to gather brushes and paint. In a sunlit meadow in an idyllic part of Canton, Hatfield labored for two hours in a state of frenzy, and through the afternoon he completed his work. Arriving home, he covered the painting and only returned to look at it the next day. As he told the story, “I went in trembling and turned it around where I could see it.” Hatfield had once again convinced himself he could paint.
The story illustrates the passion and the questions that coursed through the artist. A sensitive soul who “was responsive to the beauty down to his fingertips.” A writer described Hatfield as someone that “loved nature, not in her grand and cosmic aspects, but in her quiet moments of joy. He loved little pools of water in the woods where light flickers down through the leaves and throws patterns upon the lily pads.”
If you want to see the full embodiment of Hatfield’s work, a trip to the Canton Public Library is in order. There are two paintings that demonstrate the yin and yang - the shadow and light of Hatfield’s artistry – and they hang in the Augustus Hemenway Reading Room here in Canton. First and foremost, Hatfield was known as a painter of figures. In the late nineteen hundreds at a single exhibition of the Art Club of Boston, Hatfield exhibited one hundred and forty canvases, primarily of children. The painting at the Canton Public Library hanging over the fireplace is not a child, but instead a very elderly man by the name of Captain Thomas Conroy, of Easton, Mass. Painted around 1892, the 35-by-45 inch portrait looks across the room at another Hatfield painting. Tucked in the right-hand corner is “Fowl Meadow” and it is a gloriously somber snow scene that captures the winter light in an extraordinary way. It was said in his obituary, “he painted landscapes because he had to, because of the inner urge to capture one of nature’s moods and express it.”
Hatfield moved to Canton prior to 1895 and was likely inspired by the beauty of this rural landscape. “Fowl Meadow” certainly gives us insight into his passion for the place he called home. And collectors were just as passionate for his work; in fact there were at one time dozens of Hatfield paintings hanging inside Canton homes. Eugene Williams who lived on Pleasant Street had more than twelve “Hatfields” in his house. The Williams family, connected by marriage to the Draper family was quite close to Hatfield. And the paintings the two families collected were pure Canton; Pecunit Brook, Cemetery Pond, and Blue Hill from “Wetherbee”.
Helping Mama by Joseph
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society.)
It was, however, his portraits of children that were his hallmark. “He loved little children as he loved nature for their unconscious beauty, for their changing enthusiasms, for their responsiveness emotionally to their environment, whether of people or place.” There is a wonderful painting that was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1894 that captures Hatfield’s love of children. The oil on canvas shows a little girl standing in an art studio painting her own stick figure drawing on top of a study of birches. It turns out, the little girl was Hatfield’s daughter Doris, and indeed the incident happened as drawn in the portrait. “Sprawled across the freshly painted canvas, in brown ochre, was one of those nondescript line drawings that children call men, and with a cheerful helping, expression on her face the child was ruining the work.”
Hatfield quietly picked up a sketchpad, “and drew the mischievous little girl, with her quaint little knot and bright smiling face.” Hatfield was well into his drawing “when the little culprit became aware that she was the subject,” turning toward her father “with child-like confidence of approval she smiled and said: Helping Papa!” And so a masterwork was created. Helping Papa would eventually be owned by the Ricker Family of Poland Springs, Maine – the founders of Poland Spring Water.
In 1892, Hatfield produced a series of drawings to illustrate Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Victorian American tale of a woman undergoing a “rest cure” for depression entitled “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Between 1891 and 1893, Hatfield was a prolific artist supplying illustrations to the New England Magazine, the first publisher of Gillman’s story of mental derangement. It turns out that illustrating for magazines was extremely lucrative, and Hatfield would join the ranks of artists like Winslow Homer and dabble in commercially illustrating magazine articles while building a career in art.
In 1903, Hatfield ceased painting as a result of becoming increasingly aware that his early work was turning dark with age. The problem was that the pigments in the paints were failing, and he feared that most of the contemporary art would be forever lost to imperfect paints. Hatfield turned his attention to chemistry and began to grind his own colors. The experiment began with twenty-five cents of the finest yellow dry pigment obtainable. The Hatfield formula called for the purest of oils and fine marble grinding stones. At the time, pure dry colors were only made in Europe, and Hatfield turned to England, France and Germany to procure pigments for his paints that would create a “palette of pure permanent colors.”
In the basement of his house in Canton, Hatfield began producing the finest artists colors in America. Within a few years he contracted to build a 45-foot building behind his house near the Canton Junction. At the height of his business he largely gave up his love of painting and devoted the last twenty years of his life to the manufacture of pure colors. It is said that chemists questioned his claims of purity, but analysis in laboratories here and in Europe proved that Hatfield’s paints were 100% pure and would stand the test of time.
Joseph Hatfield at Third
Scituate, Mass. 1918 (Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society.)
Hatfield’s obituary ran in the Canton paper in January 1928, at the age of sixty-five, Joseph H. Hatfield died here at his home. “Those who knew Mr. Hatfield intimately, knew also the depth of his spiritual nature, his tremendous interest in metaphysical problems, his eager search for the ideal philosophy of life. In his fine art of loving came a fine art of living which is an art more difficult than the life of a painter.”