Born in Blacksburg, South Carolina, but raised in a number of southern communities, chiefly Charlotte, North Carolina, Eugene Thomason began drawing and painting at an early age. After completing his primary education at Major Bard’s private school for young men, he expressed the desire to move to New York to study art. His father, manager of the Piedmont and Northern Railroad, encouraged him to instead “do something practical” and enrolled him in the nearby Davidson College. A year later, in 1917, Thomason left school and joined the Navy. After training at the submarine base in New London, Connecticut, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in New York. In 1918 he received an honorable discharge and returned to Charlotte.
During his absence, the elder Thomason had spoken to his employer about his son’s interest in art. Impressed with the quality of Thomason’s work, James B. Duke became the young man’s patron. In 1920 Thomason began classes at the Art Students League in New York under George Bridgman, Frank Dumond and John Sloan. He also attended evening classes at the Grand Central School where he worked with Wayman Adams and the colorist Dimitri Romanovski, and studied privately with George Bellows, whose influence may be seen in some of his works.
During his second year at the League, Thomason was befriended by George Luks, who invited the younger painter to join him in the operation of a school for advanced students. For the next twelve years, the two artists lived together intermittently, shared a studio, and jointly administered the school. Thomason was fascinated with the unconventional lifestyle of Luks and his circle, and some of his paintings depict their antics. In one of the most amusing, Aunt Emma with Baby, Luks, clad in female attire, gazes tenderly down at a baby clasped in his arms (family history, as related to Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., 2001). Woman with Black Cat (c. 1931; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.), painted by Luks around the same time, shows an individual who appears to be Thomason, wearing the same clothes and in the same pose, gazing down at a black cat licking cream from a white bowl.
According to Thomason’s widow, besides using each other as models, the two friends occasionally collaborated: “Gene did about half the painting on Luks’ Miner, a very famous work,” she said. “George had a hangover and one morning said, ‘Tom go out and finish up that Miner for me. It has to go out in a week. ’Gene finished the painting. Luks liked it and immediately signed his name to the work” (James, 1987, p. 11). On another occasion, when Luks had failed to meet a deadline for a painting to be exhibited in Chicago, Luks and Thomason responded with a “team effort” in which they used three young friends as models for a composition entitled Three Top Sargeants (1925). “Luks painted the general outline of the work in forty-five minutes,” she said. “Thomason and some students who had dropped in for other reasons added much of the background to give the composition balance” (ibid, p.14). The painting was acquired by Clyde Burroughs, Curator of American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, who saw it the morning after it was painted and had it shipped “wet” to Detroit.
In the late 1920s, inspired by the example of Robert Henri, Thomason spent four months painting fishermen and waifs on the west coast of Ireland. The Irish Market is the largest of the pictures painted there, and Thomason’s indebtedness to Luks is clear. Despite the stylistic and compositional parallels between it and earlier examples by Luks,---e.g., Hester Street---Thomason never drew slavishly from his mentor. While singly and collectively the series of vignettes presented in the Irish scene are typical Ashcan subjects, Thomason’s approach is more formal, static and picturesque. It is one of his last Ashcan works.
In 1932, recognizing the need to establish his own artistic identity, Thomason left New York, moving first to his father’s summer home on Lake James in the mountains of North Carolina, then in 1934 to Charlotte, where he opened a studio and organized an art school. Five years later, he married a musician and returned to the Lake James region. The couple settled at the foot of the Appalachians near the village of Nebo. There, Thomason built a studio and discovered the subject that would occupy him for the rest of his life---the local landscape and the mountain people, which he assigned composite characteristics and designated as the “Hankins” family. Dubbed “The Ashcan Artist of Appalachia,” his post-New York pictures share stylistic similarities with the contemporaneous works of Thomas Hart Benton, the leading interpreter of rural America.
Like other Regionalists, Thomason traveled extensively exploring the back roads and hidden corners of his native state. A favorite destination was the area along the Blue Ridge Parkway (under construction from 1935 until the early 1980s), where he tramped early and fished late. Blowing Rock, Linville Fishermen, and Lake Lure are all products of summer vacations the artist made in the early 1950s. Another haunt was the coastal region around Kure Beach and Carolina Beach where scenes like the smoothly brushed Carolina Dunes, a work of 1947, are commonplace. After Hurricane Hazel presents an entirely different view of the region. Painted in 1954, just after one of the most horrific hurricanes of the twentieth century, the nearly abstract canvas, filled with stick figure drawings, swirling rhythms and passionate brushwork, is one of Thomason’s most accomplished works.
A rapid painter, Thomason always used large brushes, and was equally at home using dissonant colors at their most intense, thickening his canvas for the sheer glory of the pigment, or working out a smoother surface, depending on his subject and mood. According to Thomason’s widow, he was sometimes careless with the surface of his pictures, and “once a person or subject was finished to suit his taste, he put most of his canvases aside and sometimes forgot about them” (James, 1987, p. 23). The “Hankins” series, composed of The Hankins Family, Tootsie Hankins, Uncle Zeke, R.F.D. Welfare (a depiction of a “Hankins” matriarch waiting for her welfare check), and various other characters are considered his most unique and significant works. Painted in bold browns, grays and tans, their expressive faces and elongated forms evoke the spirit and character of the Appalachian people. Nancy Rivard Shaw, 2002
James, A. Everette, Jr., et. al. Eugene Healan Thomason: The Ashcan Artist of Appalachia. New York: Vantage Press, 1987.
James, A. Everette, Jr. Eugene Healan Thomason, 1895-1972: The Ashcan Artist of Appalachia. Exhibition Catalogue. Knoke Galleries, Marietta, Georgia. No date.
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