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Marie Hull - Hard Times: the 1930s

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Part of an ongoing series on Mississippi artist Marie Hull, showcased in this Fall and Winter’s celebratory exhibition, Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull.

Marie Hull (1890-1980), Annie Smith, 1928. oil on board. Collection of the Fielding Wright Art Center, Delta State University. Photograph copyright ©Will Jacks.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 began in October, while Marie Hull was still in Morocco. Once the Great Depression took hold, many aspects of life changed for most Americans. For the Hulls the Hard Times meant there was much less demand, from fewer clients, for Emmett’s architectural services, and for Marie it meant there was much less “spare money” to pay for little luxuries such as the classes she taught for both children and adults. Later she would recall that, with everybody in the same boat, friends and neighbors had to barter for goods and services and therefore she would happily exchange an hour of teaching for a gallon of gasoline for her car, or a peck of fresh okra. It is perhaps ironic that the dearth of paid commissions for portraits inspired some of her most memorable works, namely the portraits of her African American domestic helpers—Annie, Melissa, Sally, Mandy—and of the tenant farmers who had no other work and therefore were happy to be models in exchange for a little cash.

Marie Hull, Sharecroppers, 1938, oil on canvas. Collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art. Gift of Marie Hull. 1978.146

The decade of the 1930s had its own measure of success and happiness, to be sure. In the Spring of 1931 one of Marie Hull’s paintings was accepted for exhibition by the annual Paris Salon, a rare distinction for an American artist. Later, examples from the Sharecropper series were exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco and the New York World’s Fair, both of which opened in 1939 and closed in 1940. In 1935 Marie made a car trip, apparently on her own, to Charleston, South Carolina, and returned via Atlanta where she happily reconnected with family members. And in 1938 the couple moved into the house that Emmett had designed for them at 825 Belhaven Street in Jackson. In terms of style, this charming bungalow is a composite of the Spanish Colonial and American Craftsman idioms—hugely popular in California in the first quarter of the 20th century. It is surely not irrelevant that several of the sketchbooks used by Marie when they visited Southern California in the 1920s contain her beautiful drawings of private houses built in precisely the same or a very similar manner.

Marie Hull (1890-1980), House in San Diego, probably 1927. MMA 1981.279ap_p.21

A photograph of Marie Hull’s former home, taken in 2015.