James Roy Hopkins: A Primitivist in Appalachia?

In 1915, American painter James Roy Hopkins was invited to visit Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls area by coal magnate Robert S. Stearns. The genre studies and portraits that emerged from the subsequent summers Hopkins spent in the region were well received and attracted national attention, including references in such notable art publications as International Studio. While it is tempting to analyze Hopkins’ work in the tradition of Shapiro (1978), Batteau (1990), and the seminal essays in Billings, Norman, and Ledford’s Back Talk from Appalachia (1990), the painter had spent the previous 12 years living and working in Paris, at a time when the Impressionist, Pont Aven, die Brücke, and der Blaue Reiter artist movements were seeking refuge from the industrial revolution’s pollution, squalor, and labor unrest in the rural landscapes of Europe and the romanticized lives of pious peasants (Connolloy, 1991; MoMA’s classic “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” exhibit of 1984, and Goldwater, 1986). At the outbreak of the world war, Hopkins returned to a country where the balance between rural and urban life was tipping in the latter’s favor, and a significant threat was emerging to what Bowers has termed the “agrarian myth.” Self-reliance, strong families, Christian faith, and vigorous health were traits that resonated not only with Americans critical of an urban immigrant population they viewed as licentious, but also with Europeans longing for their own bucolic past. This presentation explores the relationship between Appalachian stereotypes and European primitivism in Hopkins’ work.