Cause Without A Rebel — Eugene Higgins And His Peasantry

The Black Cloud by Eugene Higgins from Smethsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design
The Black Cloud by Eugene Higgins from Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design

Eugene Higgins is the painter that came to my mind and research recently. He is almost forgotten now.  But he gained financial success and social recognition during the last twenty years of his life. By the time he died in 1958, his works were represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, the British Museum in London, the Bibiotheque Nationale  in Paris  and the Smithsonian Institute. Both Geo and I found his somber pictures have a tremendous quality of deep emotions.  The  graphic  massive planes unfolds the snapshots of the anonymous figures  in the middle of toiling. “To live” has never been so realistic yet so the soul searching.

On Dec 4, 1919, six years after Armory Show at New York City, the art note of New York Times included such a review:

The pathetic fallacy is not so easy to manage in painting as in poetry and it is rare to find an artist who can be counted upon to paint the tears in things. In the exhibition by Eugene Higgins at the Musssmann Galleries picture after picture emphasizes a despairing mood and suggests something amounting to a recipe for the effect of sadness without the aid of incident. It is one thing to show a broken pitcher and child in tears and quite another to show a despondent mountain and a grieving road. Mrs. Higgins has a way of silhouetting large masses with soft blunt outlines against a light space that seems to have a good deal to do with the mood of his painting. But Daumler used the same device and gave us joy. Aside from their mood the pictures by Mr.s Higgins are effective little compositions, sometimes charming, always free from constructive certainties, and rich in material substance.

Eugene Higgins, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0014556
Eugene Higgins, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0014556

It can be joked that Higgin’s paint brush is harder than a guillotine that seldom a figure in his paintings can have a recognizable face. He is essentially a figure painter without painting details. Yet on the other hand, the lack of conventional skin tones and facial expressions is redeemed with his sympathy and respect that are shown through his treatment of the lowly: face haggard and smudged, head dropped, or back bent, they are worn but not torn, meager but not mean, and humble yet not submissive. Higgin’s choice of subject matter links him closely to Jean-François Millet. But unlike Millet, Higgin’s didn’t romanticize the plight of peasantry, nor did he depict the tramp in mere factuality. His succinctness makes his art almost bear an overtone of political connotation, yet the relative small scale dictates the artworks more suitable for intimate study. Only beholding his pictures on site can one feel that the subject matter is not a political but an artistic statement. The heavier the life toils, the richer the experience, the more sincere the emotions.

Higgin’s style is bordering between old and new. Over the long span of his career, he had seen different schools and styles ebbing in and out, but he sticked to what he chose and didn’t evolve with the trend. He is a painter of values, possibly from his early training as a printmaker in France. The oil paintings, if stripped of colors, with their massive planes of valued patches, would still bear the same emblematic characteristics. His choice of colors can be traced back to his early exposure of French Barbizon, dark, warm with an aggressive tendency of favoring shadows: things that unseen yet can be felt. On the other hand, his arrangement of objects by using color patches (dark or darker subjects against bright or brighter backdrop) has a modern simplicity. To some degree, Higgins painted like Ryder with a realism tone.

More information of Eugine Higgins can be found from the website of Smithsonian Institute.

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