Age of Heroes
A visit in search of a teacher, his students, and their muses.
The road to Robert Hamilton’s home and studio goes past Dragon Cement, through the town of St. George, past the iconic Knox Mansion, and later, a rusty sculpture of St. George battling a dragon in a front yard, all indications that one is heading into a land of legends. The Maine coast with its miles of crenellated shoreline has attracted artists over the decades. Robert Hamilton was one of them. He made his summer home into a year-round residence when he retired from 34 years of teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. Every summer Hamilton opened his outbuildings, the “Museum” and “Octagon,” to display his paintings for the public. Every July, he held a party with friends and neighbors, among them, artist Andrew Wyeth.
The Maine coast is a muse to many artists, but the setting does not figure into Hamilton’s paintings. His work reveals respectful debts to other artists: His drawings recall the graphic hand and satire of George Grosz, and his series of Homage Paintings tip their hats to his most valued sources. The Hamiltons spent two years living in Rome, where the history of art is a living force that becomes part of any artist who makes the pilgrimage. Hamilton’s predominantly black railway paintings, hanging in The Octagon at the time of my visit, recall Roman frescoes, especially The Black Room at the Villa Agrippa — a similarly seaside summer home created in 11 B.C. (Several sections of its walls are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art NY collection.) This Octagon, built by Hamilton, was most likely influenced by the famous Florentine Baptistery.
Robert Hamilton aspired to become the “Greatest Unknown Painter,” an unofficial title for which there is stiff competition, even in sparsely populated Maine — a title that cloaks a great ambition behind the American, post-war desire to be left alone. Hamilton’s resume reads like a Hemingway character. He survived 100 missions as a WWII fighter plane pilot. His friend, fellow artist Philip Guston, was in the same division, but did not qualify for pilot training. Instead, he made artwork for the military, illustrations of training excercises.
Maine is filled with Hamilton’s former students, including, David Estey, a painter who has produced a book and a website about Hamilton and his work. Hamilton is Estey’s muse, especially Hamilton’s jazz-inspired improvisational works. “What keeps you painting? I’ll tell you, Estey,” Hamilton once told him, “Surprise. If you don’t have a surprise every day, it’s a bad day.”
Former student, painter and educator George Lloyd, also rekindled his relationship with Hamilton in Maine.“He was a realist and romantic at the same time,” Lloyd told me. “He was an American in Rome, and travel is dreaming.” And it is my experience that artists can draw upon such lucid dreams for years, decades, often for a lifetime.
I asked Lloyd about Hamilton’s recurring images of airplanes — memory or muse? “Hamilton never stopped flying,” Lloyd said, leaning forward for emphasis, eyes wide, “You know what I mean?”
Max Beckman is included in Hamilton’s pantheon of Artists I Admire, a series of paintings depicting Hamilton’s muses and their muses as well. “Beckman was his god,” Lloyd said. Some of Hamilton’s paintings contain dream fragments, mythic riffs, jazz-inspired improvisation, glimpses of history and other artist’s work — often through the eyes of the children he paints. Hamilton followed the doings of Crazy Kat, but was probably not aware of the cast of South Park, a small gang of morally imbalanced children made from bright paper scraps who bear a resemblance to Hamilton’s children. In one large series of dark paintings, installed in the Octagon on the day I visited, children are looking at and through the windows of passing trains, a memory from the artist’s own childhood. Another poignant image from 2004, Same Old Dream, depicts a young boy holding an airplane. It is a portrait of the artist as a child holding the plane he flew as an adult.
Hamilton bought gallons of house paint for his paintings and often large scale canvas in bold colors — “Whatever was on sale,” explained Nancy Hamilton, Robert’s wife, an artist who was also his student and model. “You could tell the year by the colors he used.” The walls and floors of his house and “Museum” are painted in the same bright Mediterranean colors as many of the paintings displayed within them
Nancy has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is preparing for inevitable changes the illness will bring. I did not ask her about her own art, which is kept on the second floor, according to Lloyd, out of view. Our talk was all about Robert and his art — a legacy Nancy is proud to maintain, along with continuing the summer shows in his museum and octagon.
Another former Hamilton student has been partially influenced to make the airplane central to her work. Yvonne Jacquette, a painter and longtime seasonal resident of Maine, charters planes and makes direct pastel studies — in plein air — and takes backup photographs for drawing, not for color, for her paintings. A retrospective of her work was mounted at the Museum of the City of New York in 2009. Jaquette represents a different generation of artists from Hamilton’s. Stylistically, she was not bound to the generation of abstract expressionist painters who preceded her. Her career also represents a new freedom of choice for women artists. Whereas Nancy, a painter, was both staff and anchor for Robert’s life and work. But for Jaquette, the sky was the limit. On a peacetime mission, she got into a plane, and flew off in her own direction.
Age of Heroes was originally published in the UMVA Maine Arts Journal— Summer 2016 edition.
—Thank you to the artists involved for consenting to speak with me about Hamilton, and for proof-reading to insure the accuracy of this work. Thank you to the MAJ Journal editors for their comments, suggestions and careful reading.