Born in Canada in 1863, renowned Impressionist landscape and figure painter Joseph Henry Hatfield holds the curious distinction of being credited as much for his manufacture of paints, as for his richly creative use of them.
Hatfield’s talent and exhibition success showed itself early in life; in his mid 20’s he studied in Paris at the Academie Julien 1889-1890 and participated at the Paris Salon in 1891. A pupil of Benjamin Constant, Henri-Lucien Doucet and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre in Europe, he returned to Boston and shortly thereafter continued his success at the World’s Columbian Exhibition and other principal shows in the United States. Trained initially as a figure painter (though similarly skilled in landscapes), his early exhibits were predominantly thus--including one notable Boston Art Club exhibit of (140) of his canvases, nearly all of them figures.
The particular genre of figures which were Hatfield’s triumphs were those of young children; as with his depictions of Nature, he would say “You have got to take them as they are.” His love of and sensitive artistic treatment towards both children and Nature defined Hatfield’s work, and subsequent awards and notoriety through the 1890’s supported this artist’s unique talents.
In 1894 at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hatfield’s painting “Helping Papa” was exhibited and it was--and remains-- perhaps his single best-known painting. Hatfield’s spirituality and affectionate temperament, his appreciation of Nature’s beauty and his naturally sensitive inclination towards the unconscious beauty and virtue of children coalesced in this portrayal of a moment in his studio which might have driven mad any other painter.
Leaning in to the newly completed oil of a copse of birch trees is Hatfield’s daughter--a paint brush in her right hand and behind her back, a doll clasped in her left. With a contented smile upon her face, she is painting a stick figure in brown ochre over the trees, essentially ruining the entire work. Fortuitously, Hatfield managed to quickly sketch the entire scene before his presence was detected, his daughter then cheerfully informing him that she was, “Helping Papa!”.
No other of Hatfield’s work compares in notoriety or affection to this charming scene of mischief and youthful innocence, though several other well-known ones depict similar scenes of sentiment and nostalgic charm. “Helping Mama” is a soft, side-lit scene of a child peeling vegetables into a bowl; “Wash Day” depicts children laundering their dolls’ clothes in a basin on a piano stool; “Tangled Skein” captures a helpful child and mother coaxing yarn from a ball on the floor, a puppy’s antics nearby adding to their labors. Others include “Young Woman Fishing along a River”, a scene of quiet contemplation and “A Daughter of Eve”, an image of self-content reflected in a small hand mirror.
Shortly before his Chicago success, Hatfield began doing commercial illustrations for New England Magazine and other publications--lucrative employment for artists establishing their reputations. One of his better-known series accompanies “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman of a woman suffering from depression and seeking healing via a “rest cure”.
The mid 1890s through the turn of the century saw Hatfield recognized with a silver medal at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association and Second Hallgarten prize, New York as well as showing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy of Design, NY; Hatfield also won two medals at the St. Louis World’s Fair (aka the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904. The paintings of this “well known and respected resident” of Canton were displayed and purchased by the Boston Art Club and other regional art galleries for both public and private viewing.
At about this time, when Joseph Hatfield was in his early 40’s, he ceased painting and redirected his creative energies to that of problem solver. His awareness that the paints he and his contemporaries were using were chemically impure and thus their canvasses destined to grow increasingly dark as they aged, inspired him to transform from artist to chemist in a cause that captured his artistic soul. Near his house on Beaumont St. in Canton, Joseph Henry Hatfield build a small factory where over the next twenty years he manufactured the purest of pigments in an effort to forever promote the cause of art and preserve the work of his fellow craftsmen, both contemporary and future.
The Canton Public Library is most fortunate to have in its collection two Hatfield paintings, representing a broad range of this prolific and extraordinarily gifted artist. Both are located in the Augustus Hemenway Reading Room, adjacent to the library’s domed lobby. Over the fireplace is a large framed portrait of Easton’s Captain Thomas Conroy, a fine example of Hatfield’s well-honed portraiture. Across the room in the corner to the right is a much smaller sized landscape, executed with equal finesse, a generous gift from a most generous local patron. It is entitled “Fowl Meadow” and is one of the many Canton landscapes which Hatfield captured so well so many years ago, another example of how “Nature in all its moods played upon his spirit like wind in the grainfield”.
Joseph Henry Hatfield died at his home in Canton at the age of 64 on 12 Jan 1928 but the artwork that displays his joy for life, his love of nature and fellow man as well as the value of his service to contemporaries and the larger cause of art, lives on in glorious lasting color.
Comeau, George T. “A Postcard from Canton: Hatfield’s Colors.” The Canton Citizen 17 Mar 2013.
“Joseph H. Hatfield was Artist of Great Talent--Years Spent in Manufacture of Artists’ Colors.” The Canton Journal 20 January 1928, pg.