Hyett's art evokes gritty muscle of Pittsburgh's industrial era

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Harshness and beauty co-exist in Will J. Hyett's 1912 Pittsburgh "River Scene." Beyond the snowy foreground towboats maneuver around ice floes to deliver their barges. Across the river, the bulky form of a steel mill blends into the hillside, almost obscured by the moisture-thickened atmosphere. Nature may have entered dormancy, but not so the laborers whose tasks continue on the water and in the factories that line its banks.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette features a painting of a winter scene on the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. This year's painting was selected by publisher John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman during a visit to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

Mr. Hyett has limited his palette to blues and the muted colors of shadow to conjure the relentless cold that is settled upon the city.

"Weather counts for nothing," wrote Arthur Parker in "The Monongahela: River of Dreams, River of Sweat." "Deckers [deckhands] still freeze their gizzards working and checking the barges in the middle of winter, when temperatures and wind chill seem so much lower on the front of a tow. In winter they work out on the slippery gunwales, risking their necks while handling chains and ratchets and wires that are colder than ice. They get the work over as quickly as possible, then go inside and throw off wet and stiff clothes as fast as they can."

Winter adds stress to the captain's day, too, wrote Mr. Parker, who was executive vice president of the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh from 1971 to 1993. "Ice on the river is always a hazard because of the danger to barges, which can be punctured and sink."

Two towboats, at least one of them a sternwheel paddleboat, herd their barges to an unspecified destination. Drifted wood lies in a mound of snow on the near shore, to the left of a set of vehicle tracks that curve out of sight to the river.

But there are few hard clues that identify this as a specific location. The boats are unnamed, the mill components undefined, the barge contents undistinguished. Even the time of day is obscure, the seasonal dearth of sunlight exacerbated by hovering smoke and soot produced by industry and by private homes.

Mr. Hyett's impressionistic brush strokes indicate that he was more interested in evoking Pittsburgh's river might than in representing an actual time and place. However, details that lend authenticity are apparent to the seasoned eye.

Vince Hammill identified the structure in the foreground, right, as an American Bridge stiff leg derrick, "made for heavy lifts" and used for bridge work. "American Bridge had turntables way up high, like in the painting," Mr. Hammill said. It, like the paddleboat, was steam propelled, as evidenced by the smoke curling away parallel to the river.

Mr. Hammill was an independent diver for 44 years, working on construction and salvage projects among others. Winter conditions that he experienced underwater included frazil ice (tiny ice crystals that form in extremely cold turbulent waters). "You can actually watch the ice freezing. If the water's dirty you get these, like, big puffballs. They start like a little, wee cotton ball. When you're diving in real cold water it actually freezes on your diving suit."

Mr. Hammill, 81, and his wife Janet, 74, own a sternwheeler, the Katie H, which they take on months-long river trips. Mrs. Hammill observed that the paddleboat of "River Scene" was "stopped and working. If it had been really moving there would have been more water flying off the wheel. It just flies off when they're running hard," she said.

Mr. Hammill dated the sternwheeler at sometime after 1910 based on the location and size of its tow knees.

"Towing knees, or tow knees," explained George Brkovich, are "located at the front of the towboats that push barges. These are two structures that are built into the boat's bow and support barges as they push. Plus they're used as a walkway for the deckhands to access barges when they are empty and at a higher elevation." Mr. Brkovich is a waterways inspector for the Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District.

As to site, Mr. Hammill suggested near Lock 2 on the Monongahela River as "a possibility," which would place the Edgar Thomson Works in the background. But that was a long shot.

But the conclusion of the Army Corps of Engineers staff was that it could be from any bend of the river, or it could be a composite of places.

That said, Mr. Hyett left us with a richly emotive composition that captures the essence of a significant period of Pittsburgh past.

Almost as little is known about the artist as is of "River Scene." He was born in 1876 in Cheltenham, England, and died of a coronary occlusion in 1952 in Pittsburgh. He is interred in Homewood Cemetery.

Mr. Hyett was a co-founder of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and was among the artists represented in the organization's first annual exhibition in 1910. His painting "On the Cotswolds," an English landscape that is also in the Westmoreland Museum of American Art collection, was exhibited in the 1911 AAP annual. Westmoreland Chief Curator Barbara Jones included that painting in a 2010 exhibition that marked the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh centennial year.

"River Scene" received international exposure as part of the exhibition "Born of Fire: The Valley of Work," which was organized by the Westmoreland Museum and debuted there in 2006. It traveled the next year to the Rhineland Industrial Museum in Oberhausen, Germany, and returned there in 2010. In between, "Born of Fire" was shown at the Saxon Museum of Industry in Chemnitz, Germany, and The Coal Mining Museum, Zabrze, Poland.

Ms. Jones' entry in the "Born of Fire" exhibition catalog for Aaron Harry Gorson, probably the most famed painter of Pittsburgh industry, was followed by the observation that Mr. Hyett organized a memorial exhibition of Mr. Gorson's work at J.J. Gillespie & Company Galleries, Downtown Pittsburgh, just four months after his 1933 death. She noted Mr. Hyett was a fellow Pittsburgher who also painted scenes of industry.

"Hyett's painting 'River Scene' ... was painted only a few years after Gorson arrived in the city," Ms. Jones wrote, "and reveals a similar use of impasto pigment and subtle color tonalities to capture the towboats along the river bank, the looming hillside, and the intensity of the city's smoke-filled atmosphere."

Mr. Gorson may have influenced Mr. Hyett, but they were not unique among artists drawn to the rough, almost mythical intensity of the mills and their support industries.

"Several artists showed industrial imagery" in the first annual exhibition of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, wrote Rina C. Youngner in "Industry in Art: Pittsburgh, 1812 to 1920." Some of the panel of award judges for the annual Carnegie Institute contemporary art exhibition, later named the Carnegie International, painted Pittsburgh industry, as did many jurors who came for the annual Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibitions, Ms. Youngner noted.

"River Scene" was purchased by the Westmoreland Museum in 1983 from. Beatrice Nash Marshall of Pittsburgh; earlier provenance is unknown.

Mr. Hyett's passions appear to have been divided between painting and administration.

He was curator in the Carnegie Institute Department of Fine Arts in the early 1900s, then lived for a while in New York City in the mid-teens. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1919 to join prestigious J.J. Gillespie Gallery as a partner, and in 1927 became president.

Mr. Hyett remained active in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, as officer or committee member, and as exhibiting artist. Noteworthy exhibitions elsewhere include the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, at which he was awarded a bronze medal, and at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1916.

"Will J. Hyett's three landscapes are all very charming in color, attractive in handling, delicate and suggestive in feeling," wrote Glendinning Keeble in 1913 for Art and Progress, a magazine published by the American Federation of Arts. The occasion was an Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual Exhibition held at the Carnegie Institute. Mr. Hyett's paintings were among 133 exhibited.

More recently, Sam Berkovitz, owner of Concept Art Gallery, praised Mr. Hyett's brushy impressionistic style and said the paintings he's seen by the artist have been of a "very high level." Mr. Berkovitz, also an auctioneer and certified appraiser who has auctioned three or four Hyetts over the past decade, said the artist's industrial scenes are "very scarce and desirable."

"Early in its history Pittsburgh attracted the attention of celebrated painters of the day," Mr. Hyett wrote in a 1922 essay for the Archaeological Society of Washington publication "Pittsburgh as an art center." "This is attested to by the large number of portraits of Pittsburghers by eminent artists which the Art Society was able to present at an exhibition in the Carnegie Institute in 1900.

"Not only did the artists come to Pittsburgh to paint portraits but they were attracted to the city by its great natural beauty. This also accounts in a measure for the fact that many of the early local artists were landscape painters. In this connection, the names of Alfred S. Wall, George Hetzel, Jasper Lawman, and Joseph R. Woodwell come to mind at once." (All of them were among the late-19th century artists who painted plein air near Johnstown and have come to be known as the Scalp Level School.)

Mr. Hyett, who found inspiration in both city and surrounding countryside, may well have been speaking about himself when he concluded, "The natural picturesqueness of the district has long since vanished but it still holds artists spellbound."

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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