Widely recognized as the “Ashcan Artist of Appalachia,” Eugene Healan Thomason spent his childhood in a number of communities in the South. Though his artistic aptitude was evident early on, Thomason’s father insisted he pursue a business education at Davidson College near Charlotte, North Carolina. When World War I broke out, Thomason joined the United States Navy, serving on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, before being honorably discharged in 1919. Upon his return to Charlotte, the promising young artist was given the opportunity to execute a portrait of his father’s boss, James B. Duke. Duke was so impressed with the result—claiming to prefer it over the one John Singer Sargent had painted of the powerful industrialist—that he offered to underwrite Thomason’s enrollment at the Art Students League in New York.
Arriving in New York in 1921, Thomason fell under the influence of the leading members of the Ashcan School, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks. Luks would become Thomason's chief mentor and close friend; over the next decade, the two artists shared studio space and collaborated on various projects. It was during this time that Thomason honed his Ashcan aesthetic, developing a spontaneous style characterized by thick paint application and vigorous brushstrokes. In 1928, Thomason’s work was recognized at an exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists, in which he was a member. Inspired by Robert Henri’s Irish trek, Thomason traveled to Ireland in 1929 and painted numerous works of art featuring the inhabitants of the Irish west coast.
Thomason returned to the South in the early 1930s and established a thriving studio and school in Charlotte. By 1939, however, he and his new bride had moved to the rural Lake James area near Nebo, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Over the next decade, Thomason captured the spirit of Appalachia in both landscapes and portraits, the best known of which record the fictional Hankins Family. This series, considered the artist’s most significant work, foregoes stereotypical presentations of mountain folk in favor of vibrantly unique composite character studies. During his lifetime, Thomason's regionalist art was featured in exhibitions across the South at leading institutions including the North Carolina Museum of Art, South Carolina State Museum, Mint Museum of Art, and Asheville Museum of Art.
From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason, published by the Johnson Collection in collaboration with the University of South Carolina Press, is now available. Written by art historian Martha Severens, the monograph is accompanied by an exhibition of the artist's work which opened at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, in October 2014. The exhibition will also travel to the Spartanburg Art Museum, Asheville Art Museum, and Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina.