“Chamber of Genius,” DeWitt Hardy Images courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art

The exhibition at the Bates College Museum of Art of works by watercolorist DeWitt Hardy (1940-2017) was beginning to take shape when the artist passed away. Consequently, “DeWitt Hardy: Master of Watercolor” has to be seen at least partially as a memorial overview of the great Maine painter. Hardy’s works took shape in the wake of his observations of the places and people of the coast of southern Maine – his family, himself, nudes, buildings and landscapes.

Hardy was a master of technique in the notoriously technical medium of watercolor. “Master of Watercolor” presents the artist on a level with few peers, and this resonates in Maine, a place where the medium has enjoyed long and deep resonance with its history of many of the nation’s greatest artists, including the Wyeths, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Church, Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley and John Marin, as well as contemporary masters such as David Dewey.

Yet Hardy’s approach to content was no less masterful than his technical prowess. This is a key point to “Master of Watercolor,” since with the vicissitudes of contemporary art culture we are now becoming more and more able to see drawing as a medium of conceptual heft and that watercolor occupies a significant portion of real estate within the realm of drawing.

Such a statement would have been no surprise to the professionally trained painters, sculptors and architects of a century ago, but with the postwar seismic shift of Western art from European erudition toward an American-led market practice, our national audiences have generally handed the keys to the commercial giants who have been largely been led by the muscularly masculinist machismo of the heroically-scaled American painters.

Hardy’s house-marked landscapes and figure-inhabited interiors, on the other hand, feature far more brain than brawn. His portraits are astounding in their clarity and personal poignancy. His 1977 “The Doctor (Robert Andrew Johnson),” for example, is an extraordinary, high-finished example of a traditional portrait in the wake of 19th century French painting – a horizontal canvas, masterfully realistic however quietly handled, with the soberly serious sitter relaxing in a Victorian chair, propped to the left but visually leaning to the right, crossed legged with one foot cropped. Yet Hardy’s 1964 “Portrait of Billie (Isabel Lewando)” is a gorgeous wisp of an image. A few deft but liminally soft pencil marks lay out the subject’s head, neck and hands so perfectly that we can’t help but see the rest of her on the Whistler-esque page. Hardy’s watercolor strokes only appear in her face and fingers, with just the slightest hint of mass and visual weight at the back of her elegantly short-cropped hair. However gossamer, the painting is almost deliriously beautiful, like an extraordinary memory that will insist on weathering the ages.

In contrast, we see a 1962 self-portrait in a profile of the 22-year-old artist looking more like a 14-year-old boy (and, indeed, we don’t know if this was done with a pair of mirrors or from a photograph). Here, the artist is all Adam’s apple, overbite, bowl-cut and soft chin. Hardy’s light-touch technique was solidly in place, but he was only on the cusp of the self-assurance we see in his work over the decades to follow.

“Woman on Sofa From Above,” by DeWitt Hardy

His figurative works such as “Seated Portrait of Pat” and “Woman on Sofa From Above” – both from 1966 – illustrate Hardy’s sense of shape as form. He finishes the pictured element to a high degree of realism, but with a limited sense of contrast and volume that allows the forms to remain contained as relatively flat shapes on the otherwise blank paper support. As viewers, we too often think that accurate drawing makes something highly realistic. On the other hand, an important quality of Modernist art is that the artist helps us remember that we’re looking at a painting or a drawing which, unlike the world we live in, is a flat representations. Hardy has the skill to make it clear he is doing both: His drawing is incredibly accurate, but he plays up the flatness of his pictures with color, line and design. I find Hardy’s internal game between high-focus realism and self-conscious Modernism to be brilliant, witty and almost endlessly entertaining. This brainy play is easier to sense in Hardy’s Wyeth-esque 1976 “Quaker Meeting House.” Instead of wit, however, we seem to be led to the machinations of architectural logic.

“Apples,” by DeWitt Hardy

In his 1968 “Apples,” Hardy uncannily shows his hand: He gives us a scene of apples in and next to a basket set on a coffee table. Because we see the legs of the table at the bottom of the image, we should expect the linear perspective to attenuate – if only a bit – at the top of the image. But Hardy has hidden the relationship between the hard-edged wooden table from the top of the scene by a blue cloth. Considering how exquisitely rendered the apples, cloth and wood textures are, we have reason to expect high-focus, accurate realism. But the table actually expands slightly. And to reinforce that he didn’t make a mistake, Hardy does the same thing with the apple basket. It is an extraordinarily nuanced bit of wit geared to pay off to the close observer: He suggests that accurate drawing, color, volume and contrast should be enough.

While his work most obviously plays to the structural visual intelligence of Degas and Cassatt, Hardy, for some reason, felt the need to tell us that Cezanne was his ultimate pictorial hero. Once this comes into focus, we can see it practically everywhere, such as in works like his 1970 “Pat Seated” in which the flat textures and still-life strewn table make undoubtable references and Hardy’s model clearly takes the form of Cezanne’s wife, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, who sat for 27 of his paintings, such as the Pat-like 1890 “Hortense Cézanne in a Red Dress” in the São Paulo Museum of Art.

Hardy also dug deep into masterpieces such as Velasquez’s portrait of King Philip IV’s family commonly known as “Las Meninas.” Hardy’s “Chamber of Genius” is hardly the binge of narcissism you could take from the title but an homage to a seminal masterpiece of Western painting. The painter, at his easel, sees us through his plastic hand-held mirror as he paints the scene of his painting his boys on an unbearably hot summer day with the neighbor’s house only feet away. While it took me a few minutes to unwrap the brainy and witty reference-filled picture, once I did, I found myself liking the painter immensely. Unlike the poignantly elegance Velasquez, Hardy is a balding middle-aged dad suffer-sweating in a T-shirt in the summer heat.

Some of Hardy’s finest moments are with his nudes. My favorite passage in the show comprises the virtuoso textures of a female model’s backside in his 2010 “Nude with Studio Light.” Another passage is part of a rather naughty picture of two female nudes with matching sex-play handcuffs (while 95 percent of the work would be amazing for kids to see, there are a couple of uncomfortably saucy images, like this one). To bring the two females together, Hardy paints them with the same hair – cut, color and crop – and yet one is slightly taller, slightly heavier and slightly older. To see this, you have to look at the echoed forms (as opposed to mirrored) very closely. The nearer figure has smoother, pinker skin. The other has freckles, maybe, or age spots. If there is a more nuanced complement of passages in American painting, I haven’t seen it; or, at least, I had never noticed it.

Hardy could tell stories and paint incredible portraits. But he also clearly loved painting within the historical currents of Western culture. While his skill in a fickle medium immediately sets him apart from the pack, what ultimately defines Hardy as the artist he was had to do with his observational genius – not only with his subjects, but as a painter and a consumer of Western art history.

We’re still mourning Hardy and his recent passing, but even now we can see that his work will only be better known and more valued as art moves forward through the ages.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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