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26 June, 2013
Howard Chandler ChristyIf you've ever prowled the halls of the Capitol building in Washington,
D.C., you've no doubt climbed the grand staircase and seen the largest canvas
painting in this country. It depicts The Signing of the Constitution of the
United States. It measures a stunning twenty feet tall and thirty feet
across. It was unveiled on May 29, 1940. The artist was Howard Chandler Christy.
He was born in 1873 near Duncan Falls, Ohio, about 20 miles from my hometown.
During his lifetime, he was probably the most famous Ohio artist alive and would
certainly rank amongst the best the state has ever produced. A precocious farm
boy, he painted his first watercolours at the tender age of four. By the time he
was ten years old, he earned his first ten dollars painting a sign for a nearby
merchant. As a teenager, he would hop riverboats passing near his family's farm
and ride upriver to Zanesville, Ohio, turning out drawn portraits of the
passengers to earn spending money, which he saved to study art in New York at
the Art Student's League and as a student of William Merrit Chase, who called
him the finest pupil he ever had.
Initially at least, Christy was a
disappointment to his mentor and teacher. He began illustrating novels rather
than fulfilling his potential in becoming a "fine" artist. Christy remarked that
he'd rather have his pockets full of money than his studio full of unsold
paintings. With the Spanish American War, Christy followed the action to Cuba
from whence he sent back dispatches full of news and illustrations to such
prestigious periodicals as Harper's Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, and
Leslie's Weekly. When the war ended, he returned to New York to find he'd
become a nationally known illustrator. In the early 1900s he illustrated books
by American novelists such as James Whitcomb Riley, Jack London, Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, and English authors Alfred, Lord Tennyson and H.G. Wells. He also
illustrated for William Randolph Hearst's' Cosmopolitan. During the First
World War, his Navy enlistment posters were credited by Navy Secretary, Franklin
D. Roosevelt, with having recruited thousands. One in particular, which has
since become a collectors item, depicts a plucky "Christy Girl" decked out in
navy blues with the words, "Gee, I wish I were a MAN, I'd join the NAVY." Though
somewhat sexist by today's standards, the thousands of Navy enlistees were no
doubt glad she wasn't a man.
After the war, Christy found his true
calling as a portrait artist, painting such notables as President and Mrs.
Coolidge, Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, and President Warren G. Harding. In one
year alone (1921) he completed a staggering 30 painted portraits. His years
working as an illustrator, pressed hard against deadlines, came to serve him
well. Admirers loved the "suavity" of his brushwork and fresh spontaneity
growing out of his illustrative painting techniques. However, in spite of his
portrait success, and his numerous, massive history paintings, the New York art
world never embraced him. One critic, while admiring his likenesses, called his
work "thin and brittle." By the same token, Christy never had much good to say
about Modern Art either. Publicly, he remarked, "...if the stuff I see
represents their thoughts, all I can say is, if I felt that way I'd keep pretty
quiet about it." Privately, he labelled abstract art with a four-letter term he
learned as a boy in cleaning stables on the family farm. He died in 1952 at the
age of 79, the greatest artist to ever come out of Morgan County, Ohio (so
Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 July 1999