The Johnson Collection holds the single largest body of the work of Eugene Healan Thomason, widely recognized as the “Ashcan Artist of Appalachia.” A son of the South, Thomason spent his childhood in a number of communities in the region. 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 1918. 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 1920, Thomason’s instructors included Maurice Prendergast, Arthur Bowen Davies, William Glackens, and George Luks. Recognizing the young artist’s potential, Luks invited him to be his teaching partner at the National Arts Gallery; over the next twelve years, 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.
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, such as Hankins Family and Pig Hankins.
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