Ohio artist gets renewed attention in retrospective exhibition at Columbus Museum of Art

Anne Davidson recalls waiting, as a young girl, in the family car across the street from the house where James Roy Hopkins and his wife, Edna, had lived in Mechanicsburg, Ohio. It was 1969, and Davidson knew that James, a cousin of her mother's, had recently died, but she was too young to be a part of the family gathered to attend to important matters, including the dispensation of some of both James' and Edna's artwork.

“I didn't really have any idea what was going on. My parents went into the house and came out later with several of [James'] paintings and some of Edna's woodprints,” Davidson said in a recent phone interview.

Davidson knew that James and Edna had been artists, but only came to learn their legacy in the years since. James Roy Hopkins, a native of tiny Irwin, Ohio, near Mechanicsburg, had been a well-known and important American painter in the early 1900s, and later made a significant impact as chair of the art department at Ohio State University, where Hopkins Hall, which houses the art department, bears his name to this day. His wife, Edna, perhaps enjoyed a higher profile as a working artist, her prints placing her among the leading lights in both the U.S. and Europe.

The 2017 100th anniversary of James Roy Hopkins' landmark series of paintings, collectively known as the “Cumberland Suite,” renewed interest in his pre-academic work, resulting, notably, in the “James R. Hopkins: Faces of the Heartland” exhibition, which opens this weekend at the Columbus Museum of Art, the first major retrospective of his work in 40 years.

Davidson was a source for the research, which happened as the exhibition was assembled. There had not been extensive cataloging of James Roy Hopkins' work, and many of his pieces remain in personal and/or other private collections.

“Here I am, and here are these people I'm distantly related to, but kinfolk nonetheless, and the artwork they created is of value,” Davidson said.

“It's important for the museum to do this kind of original curatorial work,” CMA Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes said. “He was very much an artist of the moment, but if you step back you see, in particular in the Cumberland pictures, maybe not what you'd expect.”

“Maybe it's taken us a few decades to realize he was doing things in the [1910s] that weren't popular until the '30s and '40s,” said DePaul University art professor Mark Pohlad, who has written an accompanying monograph on Hopkins for the exhibition. “But, in part maybe because of his associations in Paris, he moves American art forward as a transition between Impressionism and American Realism.”

The “Cumberland Suite,” in particular, Pohlad said, prefigures other art movements of later years, including Regionalism and American Scene, which deals with the depiction of rural life through its people.

“Those Kentucky paintings show a forgotten working class, the ancestors of people we're still talking about today in part because they tend to be Trump voters,” Pohlad said. “Here was Hopkins, painting these people who had never been painted before. This work was really progressive, and maybe the country wasn't ready for it yet. He did get a lot of attention, though, for the series, and his fame certainly rests on the ‘Cumberland Suite.'”

“It would be bizarre to think he didn't have some impact on the American Regionalism movement, given that he was, at the time, a well-known artist exhibiting these works next to his peers, but it's hard to say with any certainty” how much influence Hopkins had as an artist, said Jim Keny of Columbus' Keny Galleries, who helped assemble the exhibition.

In 1923, Hopkins was offered and accepted the job of chair of the art department at Ohio State. A dedicated teacher, he was also a staunch advocate and a persuasive diplomat for the department, which grew from a minor program to a significant art school under his leadership.

“He didn't promote himself or his work, and as he became immersed in teaching and administration, he kind of filtered out of the mainstream of American art,” Keny said.

“He definitely is deserving of more attention in the canon of American art history,” Pohlad said.

Davidson confessed that, while she is happy that additional light is being shed on the work of her family member, James Roy Hopkins' work remains, for her, fiercely personal.

“I'm the only person, really, who knew these people,” she said, explaining that she has kept the few works of both James Roy and Edna Hopkins that have come down through her family alongside other important heirlooms. “These were pieces that appealed to both of my parents. Their presence is my connection to my ancestors.”

“‘Woman With Flowers,' the one piece I have in the exhibition, is a beautiful piece, but I know that my father always said it reminded him of my mother,” Davidson added, her voice cracking slightly. “She was not the model, but it was a connection that he had to something of her family.”

“Faces of the Heartland” will be on exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art from Friday, Dec. 15, through April 22, 2018.