I came across Jack Humphrey’s work accidentally and was quite taken by his rugged and honest style. I found his work quite captivating. Jack Humphrey was a Canadian Artist who spent time in his early career to master the techniques of watercolour and draughtsmanship. However, it was his oil paintings of people in his native St John that really inspired his generation. His depictions of his hometown during a time of economic depression effectively captured the mood and essence of hardship using a palette of subdued colour and effective compositional designs.
Early year as a developing artist Born in St John, New Brunswick, 12 Jan 1901, Humphrey was a natural artist with a long desire from early childhood to become a good painter. However from an artistic standpoint, Humphrey never really found St John to be an ideal place to learn about art and soon decided to travel south to Boston to endeavour to get a satisfactory artistic education. In the early 1920s, Humphrey studied under Philip Hale at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and then enlisted at the New York National Academy of Design where he studied under Charles Hawthorne. During these years Humphrey managed to get a thorough education in the basics of picture making. I believe Humphrey found Hawthorne to be a good teacher as he took extra tuition at Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art during the summer which spoke volumes to Humphrey’s commitment to become an excellent artist.
Life in Europe Driven by ambition Humphrey decided that after completing his formal studies in America he would travel to Europe to further his education as an artist. He left for Europe in 1929 going first to Paris to sketch some of the fantastic architecture and visit the many wonderful museums. While in Paris he also took modernist classes from the Cubist painter André Lhote. Humphrey eventually left France and travelled to Munich, where he spent 10 weeks studying modernist techniques under Hans Hofmann. Hofmann was one of the most celebrated artists of the time renowned as a fantastic teacher and modernist abstract expressionist painter. Following his tuition Humphrey spent time travelling around Europe studying some of the old Masters in Italy, Netherlands and Belgium an artistic voyage which many artists have undertaken over history.
Returning back to Canada Unfortunately when the depression of the 1930s hit Humphrey was forced to return to his native St John due to personal financial concerns. Humphrey’s concerns about the artistic isolation of his hometown where now obsolete as a trained artist he was now a fully capable painter and it was St John that brought out the inspiration and affection that Humphrey needed to create some remarkable work.
St John was hard-hit during the depression with many people homeless and starving in the streets. Employment was a rarity and desperation and poverty was around every corner. Humphrey decided to use these scenes as inspiration for his work making a record of this difficult time in his beloved St John. It was his paintings, especially his portraits of children which are incredibly moving and powerful. In many of his portrait paintings Humphrey was very careful to express the inner emotion and character in his subjects. Many of the people in his paintings fill the frame presenting an almost sculptural presence with his lavish brushwork and expertly modelled features overemphasising the anatomical features to create curves and shapes to meet an underlying abstract design. In many of his paintings Humphrey uses colour contrast putting the subject against a large dominant area of colour.
In addition to his character studies, Humphrey also did some incredible paintings of the local harbour, the streets and people around the city using a rugged honest approach to his work. Because his work was focused in New Brunswick, he soon became an established regional painter. I believe however that it was his approach to painting that soon won him respect among other artistic groups across Canada which included the Montréal Contemporary Art Society and the Canadian Group of Painters. Humphrey was invited to become a member of both of these groups.
National Recognition In 1933 Humphrey travelled across Canada to many cities including Vancouver, Montréal and Toronto exhibiting with the Canadian Group of Painters. It was at this point where Humphreys work started to become nationally recognised. In the years after 1933 his reputation grew rapidly as he steadily obtained commissions and sold work nationally. Humphrey travelled extensively exhibiting and working internationally returning to Europe during the 1950s where his work took on more of a modernist abstract style.
At the end of his career Humphrey was widely recognised across Canada as one of the best painters of his time. He was a member of the Eastern Group of Painters, Contemporary Art Society, Canadian Group of Painters, Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour, Canadian Society of Graphic Arts, and International Association of Plastic Arts. He was also a fellow at the International Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1951 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick.
Jack Humphrey died in St John, New Brunswick, 23 March 1967
After tracing Humphrey’s artistic development and journey, it was his work in the 1930s that struck me most profoundly. His raw depiction of his hometown was what really inspired me and made me think more deeply about the living people in St John during the depression.