After graduation from Smith College, Charlotte Cushman studied art with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summers of 1929 and 1930.(1) She then spent a year at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and became friends with Eleanor De Laittre. In 1932, Cushman and De Laittre moved to New York where they studied with George Luks. Cushman remained in New York for only a year. Responding to family pressure, she returned to Boston and resumed her studies, this time with Ernest Thurn, a Chicago native who had worked at the Académie Julian in Paris and the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, and had been an assistant in Hans Hofmann’s Munich school. Cushman herself first met Hofmann when he visited Thurn’s summer school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, following his first summer at the University of California at Berkeley.
Cushman first encountered Cubism and abstract art while studying with Thurn, although she did not develop her own variant of Cubism until after her return toNew York in 1937. She especially admired Georges Braque, whose paintings she knew primarily from books. Back in New York, Cushman supported herself by teaching part time. In the mornings she attended Hofmann’s classes. The afternoons were given over to a sculpture course at the Art Students League. Although her schedule left little time for her own independent painting, she began exhibiting with the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. In 1940, she joined the American Abstract Artists, although she did not play an active role in the organization and seldom attended its meetings. Instead, she, De Laittre, and Fannie Hillsmith, whom she had known in college, met frequently to discuss their work, current exhibitions, and the impact that European artists fleeing Hitler might have in America.
The decade that Cushman spent in New York was a fertile period. She put aside the landscapes and figural work rendered with rich, painterly surfaces that had been the focus of her student years and began to merge an interest in Analytical Cubism with new understandings of space and pictorial tension gleaned from Hofmann. Shells, Buoys and Bottle of 1944 exemplifies her mature artistic concerns. Still-life forms are dematerialized and three-dimensional space is dramatically distorted. The significance given the backdrop cloth and fish net represent a step towards the all-over compositional approach that played an important role in Hofmann’s discussions of pictorial balance. Despite their finished appearances, Cushman’s paintings began as highly realistic drawings from which she abstracted forms. Still-life arrangements are the predominant subjects, although Cushman did, on occasion, go beyond abstraction into completely nonobjective art.
In 1947, Cushman married and moved to Detroit. Finding little sympathy there for her modernist work, she stopped painting for ten years. When she again picked up her brushes, her technical and thematic interests had shifted. She did not return to the thin oils and egg tempera in which much of her earlier work was executed, but instead she chose watercolor as especially well suited to capturing the light and atmosphere of the Mediterranean area, where she frequently travels, in landscapes which are now her most frequent subjects.
1. Charlotte Cushman Evans, interview with Virginia M. Mecklenburg, 26 January 1989. I am grateful to Ms. Cushman for speaking with me about her art and life.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)