Eugene Higgins — At The Dawn of Social Realism

The Gamblers by Eugene Higgins (1917), Oil on canvas, George A. Hearn Fund, 1935 (35.33) at Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Gamblers by Eugene Higgins (1917), Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 in. George A. Hearn Fund, 1935 (35.33) at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Eugene Higgins knew the experience of slums probably from the first hand. He lived with his father in a boarding house in St. Louis.

“A few days ago, I passed a man whose scant clothing was worn and ragged, whose bare toes protruded from his dilapidated shoes, and in whose eyes was the hunted, hungry look of the oppressed. He was looking in the shop window of a fashionable jeweller’s shop, resplendent with the costly trinkets with which the rick adorn themselves. For several minutes the man gazed as one spellbound, insufferable longing in his look. Then he turned suddenly and hurried off with bowed head. That was the slums. Later during the same day I came across another man – this time an old man. He was sitting on a street corner, playing a violin. He took no heed of the coins which every now and then stray passers-by tossed him. He was needy and dirty, a miserable creature; but the music which he was eliciting from his battered instrument came very near being beautiful. As his tremulous bow unfolded the strains the old seemed somehow exalted. All the misery of his life, all the unappeased desires, had slipped from him for the moment, and he was far away from the sordidness of reality – glorified, happy. And that was the slums. There is longing, envy, and unrest in the slums, and there is feeling, sentiment, and poetry as well. But considered in the bulk, the slums are hell – nothing less. There is struggle and strife, horrible suffering, livid agony of soul and body, want, misery and despair going on there in monotonous, killing repetition. To my mind the message of the slum is: ‘We know pain.’ Very little occurs to relieve this pain. Suffering is the normal lot of the slum people. They are the victims of conditions. But when suffering and pain are united with poetic feeling, as is the case in the slums, then the result is a great artist. I believe that out of this melting pot of the races, this caldron of affliction, will arise before long a true artist, a genius of supreme power who will show humanity to itself as it is, and beautify and purify the world in so doing.”

Geo and I did not believe his statement. Nowadays philanthropists have favored direct humanitarian efforts to eliminate poverty, famine and disease instead of art. But back in the first half of the 20th century,  art is a great asset  because it provideed the upper class a rare opportunity to taking part in humanitarian causes with an avoidance of alignments, fraction and slogans with the social injustice. In other words, though Higgins himself may paint with true feelings and experience, the critics absorbed his artwork as a medium to experience the life of the lowly with sympathy. The lack of fine details eased the anxiety of seeing the unpleasing and the ugly, and the solemn monumental scale gave figures a certain degree of dignity as what critics would expect. To some extent, he preceded the Ashcan School as who could be painted on the canvas; yet the movement of the social realism justified his artistic value so that a painter of 19th century style like him could still commend spotlights and exhibitions as late as 1940’s.

Today, the critics are more keen to the techniques of social realism than to the subject matter. Thus the rural peasantry and urban tramp would seem archaic to the taste of the younger generation. For me, his paintings have an immediately impact with their near abstract graphic design and dominant gloomy figures. On the other hand, they exude a deep emotion that eludes any possibility of  labels or description.

Further reading:  “The Message Of Proletaire” by Louis Baury published in “The Bookman” Volumn XXXIV

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


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