Helen Hamilton (1889-1970)
Helen Hamilton was the daughter of painter Hamilton Hamilton (1846-1928). She was born with her twin sister Margaret in June of 1889, shortly after her father had been elected to full membership at the National Academy of Design. Helen showed artistic talent at an early age. At around the age of nineteen, she moved with her family to Pasadena, California. She received on-the-spot training from her father in the Sierra Madre Mountains and was initiated to impressionism. By 1910 the family was living in New York, where Helen enrolled at the National Academy. The Hamiltons also had a house in Silvermine, Connecticut on Buttery Road, near the home of D. Putnam Brinley, a leading spirit of the Silvermine artists’ colony. By 1912, Helen was taking part in the Silvermine group exhibitions. Her works from this period have all of the characteristics of impressionism: a high-keyed palette, blue and purple shadows, and juxtaposed strokes of contrasting color. Helen knew the latest art trends and personalities by exhibiting with her father and by being exposed to the activities of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the group of artists who sponsored the famous 1913 Armory Show. Although neither Hamilton nor his daughter exhibited there, works by Silvermine artists were on view among the sensational works of Duchamp, Brancusi, and Archipenko. It is here that Helen probably discovered Van Gogh, since fourteen of his canvases were on display: the modern Dutch master would become Hamilton’s major source of inspiration.
Helen continued to be moved by the world around her: moving water, old mills, and rocky banks. Like the other Connecticut colonies, Silvermine had its own Spirit of Place, which the artists strove to capture. For Helen, the natural features of the Silvermine region lent themselves to the creation of her own vigorous post-impressionist style. From numerous post-impressionists ranging from Van Gogh to the Fauves and Matisse, she borrowed stylistic features to form a successful American imagery.
During the years of the first world war, Hamilton developed a modernist style in which form was designed with color and subject matter was secondary. For Richard H. Love (1986, p. 28), Helen Hamilton produced an oeuvre that was “more advanced in form and color than that of other Americans who attempted to find new alternatives to impressionism.” Perhaps to counteract her small stature and shy personality, Hamilton attacked the canvas boldly with a palette knife, using energetic forms, bright colors, and thick pigment. Like Giulia Lama, who produced colossal, painterly murals in eighteenth-century Venice, Helen Hamilton serves as an example to refute those who still maintain that works of art by women are characteristically small, overly fussy or linear, and sentimental, decorative, or otherwise unimpressive.
After her father’s death in 1928, Helen received continuously favorable comments from critics. In the 1930s, Hamilton’s modernist watercolors are comparable to those of John Marin, for both artists “described shapes and space with an enigmatic mix of colorful arabesques and hard, angular passages, flat reflective surfaces, and deeply opaque patterns, all in all a subjective interpretation of the ever changing volumes of nature” (Love, 1986, p. 45). Hamilton’s subsequent powerfully expressive canvases, executed with a palette knife, belong to the history of post-impressionism.
Richard H. Love. Helen Hamilton (1889-1970): An American Post-Impressionist. Chicago: Haase-Mumm, 1986.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D., Art Historian