Saturday, October 29, 2011

John Hauser- Cincinnati Painter of Indians.

 I was recently asked to write an essay for a new book on the life and works of John Hauser, an Indian painter from Golden Age of Cincinnati art.  The painter's house and studio are just a few blocks from where I live. The current owners of the Hauser house and studio are a lovely couple that have become champions of the painter, and have organized shows, given talks and finally, Mr. Harris has written a much needed book on the artist.
He recently sent me an email that the book is going to print soon. I thought as a preview I would share my essay here. You can see more information about the project and book here.

John Hauser in his studio.

We are very pleased to tell you that our book is now complete and in the hands of the publisher. It is scheduled to appear under the title:

*Straight White Shield* A Life and Work of John Hauser (1859-1913) with a Catalogue Raisonné
a preface by Phyllis Weston and an essay by Richard Luschek
xiv + 308 pages

In addition to being the first biography of this forgotten artist, it also offers a survey of his reception within the art world and a source book of the complete newspaper citations, a page of sample signatures to help authenticate and date his work, a section on the studio where he worked with a full set of photographs, an annotated bibliography and such extras as family trees.It is also, of course, richly illustrated with countless previously unpublished works.

/Straight White Shield/  will appear in early February, 2012, in conjunction with a major exhibition of the works of John Hauser at Cincinnati Art Galleries, 225 East 6th Street, in downtown Cincinnati. You’ll have ample opportunity to see and purchase the book.
For further information, please contact

A Critical Look at John Hauser

By Richard Luschek

Having lived in Cincinnati as a painter for twenty years, I have great admiration for the wonderful collection of painters from Cincinnati’s Golden Age. When we study the outstanding artistic heritage of this city, an impressive group of painters can be assembled, most notably Duveneck, DeCamp, Sharp, and Farny. One name, however, which is often absent from this discussion is that of John Hauser. This book sheds light on this forgotten Cincinnati painter.
I have been given the humbling task of critically analyzing the work of John Hauser, specifically his dependence on photographs rather than live models. I have chosen to begin with an observation taken from the brief biography of Hauser issued by the Altermann Gallery in Santa Fe: “. . . Hauser tended to model his subjects rather heavily, which could very well have resulted from the artist's over reliance on the photograph as a resource tool.” This quotation sets the tone for my discussion of Hauser’s work. This book offers a fascinating look at one of Cincinnati’s most neglected painters. Hauser captured the nobility of the American Indian, painting quiet scenes of them in their own environment. To quote the authors of this book, “Hauser’s output is uneven and many of his pieces left his studio that probably should not have. . . . His work is often derivative in the choice of subject matter and composition and he falls into the cliché trap often. That being said, however, he is clearly capable of creating an occasional masterpiece.” (p. 123)
This book offers a wealth of illustrations of Hauser’s work and you may judge them for yourselves. A complete view of the artist from my perspective can best be presented by discussing a few deficiencies found in Hauser’s work. In particular, I will offer some insight into his “uneven” output. Let me start by saying I believe any of Hauser's deficiencies are less a question of talent than that of his limited training and subsequent overuse of photography.
It is a myth that great artists are born geniuses. Most successful artists have studied long and hard to develop their craft, most often having studied under a master who was trained similarly. The techniques of a painter have been passed down through the ages from teacher to student since the Renaissance. The students learned these techniques through intense study of classical sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome, copies of great works of art, and intense study of nature. This worship of nature joined with a love of beauty helped guide understanding of a visual truth—a truth that could be represented in paint.
The advent of photography forever changed the art world. Artists had not only new competition in visual representation, but also a versatile tool at their disposal for closer study of the visual world, if they could avoid its pitfalls.
Many great artists welcomed photography as a means to aid their perception. They could explore new compositions and poses difficult to capture from mere observation. The additional motifs allowed by the camera aid the artist’s memory of a natural scene. Poses that a model or animal would be unable or unwilling to hold can now be captured with the camera.
Naturalists of the nineteenth century such as Jules Bastein-Lepage (1848–1884) and Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929) used photography to great effect along with their rigorous academic training. Their understanding and mastery of the rapidly developing craft allowed them to use photography as a tool rather than something to slavishly follow as the sole means of creation as is often done today.
Problems with Photography
Rarely does a photograph have the mood and atmosphere admired in history’s great paintings. What accounts for this difference? Painting's most manifest definition is the interpretation of form. The painter, when representing the visual world, directs the viewer into believing a two-dimensional surface is depicting three dimensions. Since a painter typically has been blessed with two eyes, when he is working from nature he is simultaneously able to see two views of the same scene. This dual view from slightly different perspectives allows for understanding form and spatial relationships.
I am sure you have heard it suggested that the camera adds ten pounds. Unlike human vision, a camera is monocular, offering only a single view. This flattens out the image, making it formless. Conversely, when we look at things with both eyes we see the shift in perspective known as parallax—background features hidden from one eye can be seen by the other. Our brain is able to blend these images into one. We see more of what is behind the object when using two eyes, making the object appear smaller. Thus, a binocular view is slimming. In seeing around an object we have more of an idea of an object’s form; a monocular view does the opposite.
In addition, and again unlike a camera, our eyes have a limited focal area. Outside that area of focus, objects can be perceived but not studied in detail. This area is our peripheral vision. A camera has the tendency to put everything into equal focus. Even further, a camera is just not as sensitive or accurate in perceiving half tones, shadows, and minute changes in color.
As if that were not enough, there is yet another problem involved in the overuse of photographs for painting reference. Photography is static. An artist can rely too strongly on the photograph as the final word. Happenstance events while painting from life can not only increase the painter’s understanding of the visual world but can improve the final work. A portrait model can move slightly; a fold of clothing shifts or a curl of hair may fall into the face, offering artistic possibilities the painter had not initially considered. When painting outdoors, a shadow under a tree will move with the sun, presenting the painter with variety. A camera does not study a scene through time or capture the dither and vibration of life.
Photographs are flattened, fully focused images which can cause the artist
to “model his subjects rather heavily,” missing the atmosphere and beauty found while standing before nature.
John Hauser and his Camera
There is little doubt as to the talent of the artist we are discussing here, but I believe that his limited training and overreliance on the photograph accounts for his spotty output. While he did travel to some of the best schools at the time, his studies appear to have been cut short for financial reasons. Upon returning to Cincinnati, he went to work with the tools he had at his disposal and, certainly by 1893 and his fascination with the West and the American Indian as his subject matter, he began relying on photography as a means to execute his paintings. Working in Cincinnati as a painter in this milieu, he was forced to use the reference photos he had taken during his trips west. This reliance on photography was a limiting factor on his growth as a painter. In working this way he missed the vibration of life, his work often appearing static and overrendered. He was left to repeat compositions from his collection of photos and drawings. Photos are copied, quirks and all. Some of his compositions are not explored as carefully and as thoroughly as one might when working directly from life or from memory. Assembling a scene from a variety of photographic and sketched sources can give a painting a harsh and cut-out, illustrative appearance.
Hauser’s “Laguna Pueblo” paintings (p. 159) offer a fine example of this effect. He began as early as 1895 to produce variations on a theme that could be modified only slightly and still claim to be an original. (He was not the only painter of the period to adopt this “business plan.”) In one case, Hauser found an appealing Pueblo background, a downward-sweeping main street leading into the old Laguna Pueblo which widens into the main plaza of the village, with the picturesque multi-level adobe structures stacked to the horizon. In the foreground he shows a variety of Pueblo Indians carrying out everyday chores: a woman with an olla on her head, a man bearing a bundle of sticks, children on burros, or sitting on an abandoned cart, all of which were taken from photos from the 1893 Pueblo album. (p. 158) It seems a safe assumption that he painted a number of identical background scenes, generally in an oblong 18 x 12” format, emphasizing the verticality of the scene, then filled in the foreground with a seemingly random combination of assorted figures modeled on the photographs as shown on the following page. Works in what we can call the Laguna series begin as early as 1895 and continue as late as 1905. Some of the photographs and four examples of the series are given on the following pages.
On page 160 is another example which may or may not have anything to do with photographs, but does illustrate a key problem with Hauser’s approach. The first two paintings have a group of Indians on horseback evenly arranged like paper dolls on a painted background. If we examine the image as an arrangement of light and dark shapes, each of the parts, while meticulously painted, is done without enough consideration of the image as a whole. Close tangents should be avoided in a composition. In the first painting the hand of the chief is just touching the tree at a right angle. At the center of this painting, the horses feel uncomfortably close with their noses just about to touch.

“Indians on the Trail,” 1902
If we examine a variation on this subject within the same year in the painting at the bottom of the page we see a much more successful grouping and arrangement of these mounted Indians. We now see a painting with variety, rhythm and atmosphere.
“War Party,” 1902

Lastly, we have to consider the young age at which Hauser’s career ended. Most well-trained artists will continue to improve and hone their craft as they age. One can easily see continued growth in the works of Joseph Henry Sharp after the age of fifty. As we examine Hauser’s work chronologically we can see gradual improvements in his working methods up until his final years. We can only imagine how his work would have developed had he lived a long and full life and not been plagued with poor health.
In this essay I wanted to explore some of the problems in his work, put them in context, and give explanations for them. John Hauser produced a number of fine paintings. A Western artist, living in the Midwest John Hauser faithfully illustrated the dying culture of the American Indian. He did so with reverence, attention to detail, and studied execution, portraying his subjects with dignity.


Sandra Galda said...

Very interesting subject and written very well!

Anonymous said...

Indians on the Trail is actually based on a REmington painting.


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