Painting alludes to Pittsburgh's working class
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Roy Hilton was new to town when he painted "Winter Day" in the late 1920s. As with many realist artists here, he was smitten with the rolling urban landscape even as it was transformed under a blanket of snow. "Winter Day" incorporates the traditional elements of a picturesque Pittsburgh scene: hillside houses, a bridge, a flight of city steps.
But did Mr. Hilton paint what he saw, or simply what he imagined?
For the fifth consecutive year, the Post-Gazette features a winter-scene painting on the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. This year's painting was selected by PG publisher John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman during a visit to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, which has owned "Winter Day" since 2000.
Touring as part of the museum's "Born of Fire: The Valley of Work" exhibit of 2006, "Winter Day" has been on the road the past three years, hanging in museums throughout Germany and in Zabrze, Poland.
"I included 'Winter Day' in 'Born of Fire' because it showed a typical neighborhood of Pittsburgh, alluding to the workers, and those steps leading to the homes on the hillside, sometimes the inhabitants' only access to them. I included it in a section called 'The Human Condition,' " said Westmoreland Museum chief curator Barbara Jones, who organized "Born of Fire."
Two weeks ago, "Born of Fire" came home; "Winter Day" is on view in the Westmoreland's lobby through Jan. 31, after which it will join the reinstallation of the major "Born of Fire" works in the museum's Barclay Gallery. The museum also owns Mr. Hilton's "Pittsburgh Mills," an undated painting dominated by a pair of towering blast furnaces.
Under gallery lighting, the hilltop snow in "Winter Day" takes on a luminous glow; the painting seems to have its own inner light. Still, it doesn't feel like daytime. The forces of darkness -- a glowering sky and Pittsburgh's industrial soot -- have residents already turning on their lights. Outhouses on the hillside are another reminder of how earlier generations lived here.
"The haziness of it made me think of the atmosphere in Pittsburgh at the height of steel production, when you couldn't tell the time of day," Ms. Jones said.
Pittsburgh's hills, mills and hardscrabble neighborhoods tucked into hollows must have been a revelation for Mr. Hilton. Born Feb. 24, 1891, in Boston, he grew up in a big Shingle Style house in a comfortable neighborhood in Winchester, Mass., north of Boston, and attended Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., before studying art and illustration at schools in Boston and New York. He worked as a freelance illustrator before moving to Pittsburgh.
Mr. Hilton's nephew, Stillman Hilton, an octogenarian and former librarian who lives in a Massachusetts nursing home, has a portrait of himself at age 5 done by his uncle, who left the state around the time he was born.
"I remember very distinctly he was always a welcome visitor in Winchester," he said. "He always had fascinating anecdotes to tell everybody."
Although his paintings rarely come up for auction here, Mr. Hilton was a productive American Scene painter, creating at least the approximately 80 known paintings for which titles can be gleaned from exhibit catalogs, news accounts and other Internet sources. He seems to have been most prolific in the 1930s and '40s.
A highly regarded artist and teacher for almost three decades at Carnegie Institute of Technology, Mr. Hilton arrived here in September 1928 to teach night classes in the school's Department of Painting and Decoration.
He painted "Winter Day," which measures about 28 by 35 inches, during his first winter here. It debuted in February 1929, on the eve of the Depression, in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's annual exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art. A photograph of the painting is included in the exhibit catalog.
"Winter Day" seemed to disappear, then, for the next 70 years, until resurfacing in 2000, when the Westmoreland acquired it from Ligonier's Gilliland Fine Art with funds raised by the museum's Women's Committee. Dealer Bob Gilliland purchased it from a private collection in the state of Washington.
"I believe it was a distant relative" who'd owned it, he said last week.
But did it really disappear for the better part of a century? Ms. Jones wonders if "Winter Day" is simply another name for "Winter Afternoon," a 1928 painting included in Mr. Hilton's 1941 show for the Greensburg Art Club and his 1943 solo show at Carnegie Museum of Art.
John O'Connor Jr., then the museum's acting director, described "Winter Afternoon" in the exhibit catalog as "a Pittsburgh subject -- houses on the hillside" and the first painting Mr. Hilton did on arrival here.
Because no photograph of "Winter Afternoon" has come to light, "it's difficult to say if it's the same picture," Ms. Jones said. "The date would lead us to believe it could be the same picture."
Mr. O'Connor also noted a change in the artist's style from the soft focus of "Foggy Evening," painted in Boston in 1928 and now in the collection of the Duquesne Club. It depicts Copley Square and Trinity Cathedral shrouded in fog.
"Foggy Evening" is typical "both in subject and in handling of the artist's Boston days," Mr. O'Connor wrote. With Mr. Hilton's next picture, "Winter Afternoon," "there is a decided change in technique. From that time on, with few exceptions, he has found his topics in this community, and his presentation of them has more and more adapted itself to his theme."
As in Boston, Mr. Hilton remained concerned with the formal aspects of composition -- form, light and shadow, and atmospheric effects such as fog and rain. In "Stormy Night," exhibited in 1934, the rain-slick corner of Murray Avenue and Darlington Road in Squirrel Hill reflects the movie theater's lights, which turn passers-by and trees into silhouettes.
Critics have compared the hard-edged style he sometimes employed here to the work of Charles Sheeler. Although he never achieved the same fame, Mr. Hilton was included in the Carnegie International in 1933 and 1935 and in shows at New York's Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. He also painted two murals -- "The New Stagecoach" and "Building of Westfield" -- for the Westfield, N.J., post office in 1939 and an agrarian scene for the Rocky Mount, Va., post office in 1938.
Mr. Hilton sometimes sought out unconventional, non-picturesque subjects, Mr. O'Connor wrote, such as the gated parking lot in "The Iron Fence" (1943) and the light standards over Forbes Field in "Night Game" (1942). In 1940, a similar nocturnal view of the ballpark made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
He often depicted Pittsburgh's industries and working-class neighborhoods, sometimes juxtaposed in paintings such as "Dead End," in which small frame houses overlook the river and mills. The dignity of labor was another recurring theme; he painted miners, construction workers, steelworkers, artists and newspaper pressmen.
But Mr. Hilton also took on domestic subjects, as in "The New Dress," showing a woman -- his wife Helen, perhaps -- cutting out fabric on the dining room table. The painting eventually turned up at a yard sale and was purchased for $28; the owner brought it, in 2006, to Concept Art Gallery owner Sam Berkovitz, who noticed the One Hundred Friends of Pittsburgh Art label on the back. The painting, it turned out, had been purchased by the friends group in 1934 and donated to the Board of Education for use in city schools. Mr. Berkovitz, who estimated the painting could sell for $10,000, facilitated its return to the school district.
Unlike his Carnegie Tech colleague Sam Rosenberg, Mr. Hilton wasn't an overt social realist; his commentary was more subtle, at least in those paintings for which images are known. Yet it was Mr. Hilton who never lost faith in the narrative power of painting, as Mr. Rosenberg did when he turned to abstraction.
Pittsburgh art critics and writers regarded Mr. Hilton as quiet and modest. One former student, Bennard B. Perlman, described him (in a 1994 Baltimore Sun article about Andy Warhol's college years) as "a man with impeccable manners and taste in clothes. We called him Mr. Tweed because of his three-piece suits, and assumed he was British; he was actually from Boston."
Mr. Perlman recalled how, in the drawing class Mr. Hilton taught, "it was perspective that became the bane of [Warhol's] freshman year. He did not subscribe to the class motto, 'If it's tiltin', see Hilton,' preferring instead to enlist the aid of his classmates."
"The study of art is both necessary and unimportant," Mr. Hilton told Pittsburgh Press writer George Swetnam in 1957. The student should "try to get a definite and complete knowledge of art -- and then forget it, leave the use of it to his subconscious."
For his outdoor scenes, Mr. Hilton seems to have assembled sketches and notes in the field, then painted in his studio. His source material for "Winter Day" has yet to be deciphered. None of the city's current or former concrete bridges, as seen on historic maps from the 1920s and '30s, have surrounding landscape and buildings similar to those in the painting. Perhaps the scene was assembled from several locations.
"I feel a line should be here, or there, in a picture," Mr. Hilton told a reporter in 1933. "If an artist is tied up with rules, inspiration and originality are apt to be checked."
He was known to create composite images, as in his "Composite Pittsburgh" painting of 1938, which came to market 50 years later. Perhaps a study for a mural, it shows the Cathedral of Learning, a steamboat, steel mill, workers and housing framed beneath the arch of a steel bridge. In 1936, he contributed to an Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibit a composite snow scene made from several sketches along the city's rivers.
Pittsburgh lost an adopted son and eloquent interpreter in 1963 when he died at age 73. In a remembrance, Ralph Brem wrote in The Pittsburgh Press:
"Art for him was neatness and order. Art for the looking; the search for a familiar scene that recalls past experience and sends the looker on his way a bit happier for the reminder."
First Published December 25, 2010 12:00 am