Treasures from the Vault: Morris Henry Hobbs

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

There are works of art filled to the brim with busy detail, while there are others so simple that you almost pass them by. At first glance, today’s treasure, Penelope, falls into the latter of these two camps.

Penelope is a 1937 dry point print by Morris Henry Hobbs. Born January 1, 1892, Hobbs was a jack of all trades: he was an etcher, engraver, painter, illustrator, woodcarver, teacher, and architect. Despite studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, before starting his art career Hobbs joined the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. During his service he lost the majority of his hearing. After returning from Europe, Hobbs settled in Toledo, OH to practice architecture. In 1930 he returned to Europe to work and study printmaking, traveling extensively through England and France. While Hobbs would go on to be a master printmaker, teacher, and founder of the Society of Louisiana Etchers in New Orleans; Penelope hails from Hobbs’s trip to Europe.

A nude woman sits on a sand dune, her back to the viewer, as she looks at the ocean in the distance. Seagulls fly in the air above her, and two boats are on the horizon.
Morris Henry Hobbs, American, 1892-1967. Penelope. Dry point, 1937. Franklin B. Mean Memorial Collection, 1951.21. Photo by FWMoA.

Though the print itself was struck in 1937, it’s likely that the sketch or plate for Penelope was created during Hobbs’s 1930 trip. A little sleuthing in our records indicates that the subject of this print, Penelope, was English. While we don’t know exactly where in England this print is set, we can see that she’s on the coast. Hobbs has depicted a nude woman lounging on a mound of sand, gazing out to sea with a flock of birds and ships on the horizon. Simple enough. What’s intriguing about this print, however, is how little detail Hobbs has actually depicted.

Hobbs restricted himself to minimal lines in his portrayal of Penelope on a sandy beach. While her right side is well defined through shadows – we can see the muscles in her back, the arch of her spine, and her legs tucked under her – the left side of her body is barely there, implied with the softest hints of shadows and highlights. Compositionally, the reason for this is because the sun is coming from the left-hand side of the canvas, making her shoulder, arm, and shin the brightest spots on her body. Through the use of minimal shadows and soft lines, essentially on just one half of her seated form, Hobbs has clearly portrayed an entire person. He’s used the same minimal approach to the birds in the sky and the ships on the horizon.

Through the use of such a limited range of value and minimal line, both implied and distinct, Hobbs created a hazy, almost dreamlike scene. The effect of Hobbs’s technique creates a relaxing mood. Penelope’s skin and the sand she’s seated on appear soft, and we can feel the heat of the sun on these surfaces. Both of the areas contain little to no line or shadow, making them the visually brightest, or hottest, areas of the composition. This visual heat, however, is dampened by the soft shadows on the rest of Penelope’s form. This is further emphasized by Penelope’s relaxed posture and small tendrils of hair blowing in the breeze. We don’t need to see her face to know that she is at peace. All of this is accomplished through Hobbs’s strategic use of the simplest element: line.

Penelope is the perfect example of “less is more.” Hobbs has given us all the detail we need, no more and no less. We know what sensations we’d feel if we could step into the composition – hot summer sun warming our hair and skin combined with the soft brush of the gentle sea breeze. While we can’t physically enter the scene, Hobbs has given us a visual vacation in which we can enjoy a mental reprieve.

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