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Marie Hull - Painting Flowers

Sunday, October 25, 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), Magnolias (detail), 1953. oil on canvas. Collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, gift of the artist.

The floral still-life paintings of Marie Hull constitute a large and important component of her entire output; for many they continue to be the most easily recognizable (and most popular) of all her works. It seems likely she will forever be remembered as the most prolific painter of the magnolia, Mississippi’s state flower, and the sheer quantity of examples bears witness to the truth of her comment to Andrew Bucci that “painting magnolias saved my life” – by which she acknowledged there had always been an eager market for them. If they are occasionally boring it is because she was bored with painting them, out of necessity. But at their best the magnolias are magisterial: her sophisticated, mesmerizing drawings of them—preserved in her sketchbooks—demonstrate that she had studied the magnolia with keen powers of observation, deliberation, and apparent wonder. The paintings of comparable quality have a discernible “edge” to them that exposes her as an artist willing to experiment and take certain chances, even with the most revered of local icons.

It is likewise in Mrs. Hull’s hundreds of sketchbook drawings and watercolors of flowers and flowering plants that one finds the freshness and a certain spontaneity that she generally managed to impart to the highly finished oil paintings of flower arrangements, even as they evolved, stylistically, over the course of several decades. The mechanism for communicating her engagement with the subject is often some asymmetry or irregularity in the arrangement itself—the loss of blossoms; disparity in the sizes of blossoms; or what she described as the careful distribution of color, light and shade, and mass in an “unbalanced” composition. The floral still lifes in the exhibition trace the complete arc of her achievement in this genre, from the earliest which were executed in a Post-Impressionist technique and palette to one of the very last (Spider Lilies), of 1967, whose stylistic affinity to the late landscapes such as Bright Fields, from the same year, is especially obvious.

Along with her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Marie Hull was one of the great flower-painters of her generation; whether their paths ever crossed is a question that needs to be answered; why their posthumous reputations are so extremely incongruous is a question that may be worth asking.