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 Bern Hill  (1911 - 1977)

About: Bern Hill
 

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Lived/Active: Connecticut / Canada      Known for: railroad illustration, New England scene

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Bern Hill
An example of work by Bern Hill
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A free-lance illustrator and painter, Bern Hill is known for his aesthetically innovative and historically important railroad illustrations and for his regional scene painting of Connecticut where he lived for much of his career.  Of him it was written that he had a "running love affair with New England and its 'magnificent architecture.' His clean, precise technique is as cool as a Connecticut morning." (Meehan)

For an illustrator of the mid-20th century, he had a unique style that combined abstraction with realism and challenged viewers with philosophical complexities that were unfamiliar in advertising art.  Using contrasts of light and dark and vast, unusual visual perspectives and panoramic landscapes either in harmony with or threatened by human-made objects, Bern Hill challenged his viewers.

He had well-known clients including General Motors, American Airlines, Reader's Digest and Saturday Evening Post.  However, his name is most associated with his depictions of trains that appeared on the packaging boxes of model railroads and on the covers of railroad magazines such as Railway Age.  The biggest project of his career was a series of 65 posters depicting Rock Island Railway trains traveling across America.  His client was the electromotive division of General Motors.  The first magazine cover with Hill's painting was the February 18, 1950 issue of Railway Age, and the last one appeared in 1956. Because of the limited audience, the fact that few of the magazines remain, and the fragile nature of the paper used for the originals, Hill's train work went through a period of relative obscurity until the early 1970s, when his train paintings were reproduced on the covers of Trains magazine.

In the series created for the Electro-Motive Division, the viewer invariably was positioned at a far distance from the moving train and usually had birds-eye-view perspective that conveyed total silence, physical distance, and compelling fascination with the progress of the human-made sleek object that was cutting across the quiet, panoramic landscapes of mountains, bucolic farm scenes, outskirts of cities and precariously high, steel-girder bridges.

An illustration assignment that brought regional attention to Hill was for the cover of the 1968-69 Southern New England Telephone Directory of his home town area of Clinton, Connecticut. He did a montage of seven typical New England scenes that fit the Directory theme of "Connecticut, a good place to visit . . . a good place to live".  From these paintings, the Connecticut Development Commission created a 70-foot mural that was displayed at the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Massachusetts.  The Directory paintings were exhibited in Hartford, Connecticut as the opening exhibition for the gallery built to feature Connecticut paintings located in the Hartford Insurance Group building.

Bern Hill was born in Toronto, Canada and studied art at the Universities in Toronto and London, England.  He served a five-year apprenticeship in the Toronto engraving house department, and in 1936, moved to London where he worked for three years in the business and publishing industry for J. Walter Thompson Co. and for a year at Century Press, which published trade journals.

In 1940, Hill went to New York City, and in 1955 moved to Connecticut, living successively at New Canaan, Killingworth and Clinton.  He and his wife, Ruth Sonnichsen of Madison, Connecticut, had three children.   They later divorced, and he remarried in the 1970s, and moved to Dallas, Texas, the home town of his wife, Joyce Kelly.  However, several years after this move, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died in December 1977.

Generally eschewing modernist art but painting in a leading-edge, non-traditional style for an illustrator, Bern Hill was a great admirer of Andrew Wyeth and felt that much of the success of the increasing popularity of total abstraction was good promotional technique, a device he well understood from his perspective as a commercial artist. As a fine artist, he tried to keep an open mind towards non-representation, saying that "It may be that I just don't understand what these contemporary artists are trying to say. An artist is never through learning with the rapid change of trends and ideas." (Meehan)  In this context he cited his own changing appreciation of jazz, which transitioned from the conservative music of the 1920s to the more modern innovators.

Also as a landscape painter, Hill preferred tempera paint, which he described as "a fancy name for kids' simple poster colors" (Meehan).

Sources:
Information submitted July 2005 by Peter Hill, the son of the artist. Included were:

An undated article titled "Bern Hill: The Master of 'Feeling" by Greg Palumbo, employee of Electro-Motive Division and writer for Railroad Heritage and other magazines.

An undated clipping from the an article published in the Clinton Connecticut newspaper by James Meehan.  The title is "Work of Clinton Artist Reflects Love for New England Countryside".

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