Walter Haskell Hinton was one hell of a salesman. A magazine illustrator working in the waning years of the Golden Age of Illustration and the decade or so following it, Hinton was good, and he was prolific. And currently the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery is stuffed full with a selection of his works covering many decades and a variety of formats.
The gallery's introduction to Hinton is a series of medium-sized oil paintings, titled mostly after Native American tribes, members of which appear in varying degrees of costume and ceremony, but all of which well display Hinton's range of talents. Obvious are not only his abilities as a popular illustrator—vibrant colors, the intricacies of his paint application, complex compositional renderings of foreground and background—but also his treatment of subjects: the narrative detail in any given scene, depicting the foreign as majestic, if sometimes strange, yet ultimately welcoming and attractive because of the vast amount (and vivid nature) of information supplied.
This show is smartly hung, and it's not for nothing the foremost painting in the gallery, "Navajo," is of a Native American woman weaving on a large loom while a chubby-toed girl of around 4 sits to her side and uses the extra yarn to play with a—wait for it—small white puppy. In fact, dogs appear in no less than seven of the illustrations in the gallery, while a lone cat makes a self-serving appearance as a secondary figure where fish are being cleaned for dinner. Hinton knew what tugged at America‘s heartstrings and stroked its ego, and he worked accordingly.
Those first nine paintings should be enough to convince you of Hinton's talents, but not all the work in oil is so successful. The larger the canvases get, the muddier and duller they become, and one particular misstep sees Hinton far too close to his subjects, who chew the scenery to silly and jarring effect. But mostly the offenses are minor (his rosy-cheeked flapper is no match for Ellen B.T. Pyle's bold strokes and fresh-air exuberance) and they offer a simple explanation for why there aren't more large works in the hall.
In fact, Hinton made his living in small format. None of his John Deere advertisements, his best-known work, are available for viewing at Downtown Gallery, but there is a sizeable collection of comprehensive sketches from the early 1940s for the long-running magazines Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, as well as earlier sketches for Western pulp magazines, which belong (along with some of the paintings) to the permanent collection of UT's Ewing Gallery. These magazine covers reflect the same attention to detail, in turns focusing on the wildlife and the people who enjoy (read: hunt) it. While the scenes are stacked with clean-cut men wearing plaid, there are more aggressive images of nature, such as an Outdoor Life sketch in which a pair of lions stare menacingly, directly, at the viewer while standing protectively over a freshly killed antelope. (Never fear, the predators in question are a wholesome family, of course: one male, one female.) This confrontation feels far stranger than the one encountered a couple dozen pieces back, where in a Western pulp sketch the viewer stared down the barrel of a pistol.
Throughout the variety of perspectives, what Hinton clearly achieved time and again was the careful crafting of the promise of a lifestyle. These magazine covers, separated from the product they were once designed to sell, still carry a powerful allure of the fashion of hunting and suggestions of wealth that accompany it. (Especially indulgent is the sketch of one dapper gentleman, tidy red scarf tucked into the collar of his shooting shirt, lighting a pipe while standing in a field with his two eager spotted English setters frolicking nearby.) Effective advertising is its own seduction, and tying this recreation to a sense of style and accomplishment (nudged along by privilege) dipped in nostalgia still works—ask L.L. Bean. Or you could check out Mad Men, but you probably already do.
Similarly, the Western pulp sketches, though with more limited contexts, are exciting beyond nostalgia. They instead rely on dynamic posing and lush hatchings (these sketches are rougher than the covers for the slick magazines) to create a simple, powerful energy. That, and all those guns, of course. Even if firearms and fishing rods aren‘t your thing, this show promises to be a popular one. (It‘s about to become a touring exhibition for the Ewing, with a trip to Memphis planned after it closes here.) The gallery got crowded, and early, on First Friday, and for good reason. These illustrations are accessible, accomplished, and all in all, not a bad advertisement for the university.