Today’s post comes from Carolyn Nims, Vassar College class of 2011 and Art Center student docent.
Student art is everywhere on the Vassar campus. We weave through the crowded College Center beneath their towering sculpture. We view it in the Palmer Gallery, and a performance piece can gather an impromptu audience on the Library lawn. Vassar’s Studio Art majors and all artists that the college has turned out owe at least a small debt to the American artist Clarence Kerr Chatterton.
Although his friends and contemporaries, like Edward Hopper, may be more well-known, C.K. Chatterton—or “Chatty,” as his students called him—is nevertheless a seminal figure in the art of his moment. Just as important, he was the founder of Vassar’s Studio Art program.
Clarence Kerr Chatterton was born in Newburgh, NY, on September 19, 1880, and died in 1973, at the age of ninety-three. Chatterton attended the New York School of Art, with the intention of being an illustrator, where he studied under Robert Henri. Here he also met Edward Hopper, who interrupted Chatterton’s illustration class one day, handed him a palette and brushes, and said, “Chat, it’s time you started to paint.” And so began Chatterton’s long, long successful career as a painter.
Chatterton worked for some years teaching in the Newburgh public school system, but his job allowed him little time to paint, so he sought a position at Vassar in the fall of 1915. Robert Henri advised him to stay only a year or two, and many of his painter friends thought this would be the end of his painting career. However, Chatterton became Vassar’s first artist-in-residence and stayed at the college for thirty-three years. He completely transformed the Art Department. He was the first art instructor to demand that the administration allow his students to paint and draw from nude models. Up until that point, art students only painted and drew from still life and plaster casts.
Chatterton was a realist. He painted small-town life and its community. His landscapes featured points in the Northeast, especially in Maine where he spent most of his summers. He painted, simply, what he liked. He believed that “…an artist should express himself with as little fuss as possible in a frank, uncompromising manner. I paint sunlight, blue skies houses because I like them.” He was critically acclaimed in his time. The New York Times wrote:
Chatterton must be reckoned among the indigenous—and important—American painters. Unlike many artists to whom the subject is merely an excuse for technical exercise or esthetic experiment, Mr. Chatterton sees the white houses, the tall elms and dusty streets of New England towns as the important things in a picture … this sentiment of place is supported by a strong, forthright technique.
He favored the dramatic light of afternoon. He could depict the slanting light filtering through the trees with simple flecks or strikes of paint.
The Art Center owns some twenty-five Chatterton paintings. He is currently on view at the Cigna Museum in Philadelphia, and in the Chapellier, Sotheby, and Christie galleries in New York City.