Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal

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Image:Elaine Hamilton ONeal Untitled(MexicoCity).jpg
Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal, oil on canvas, 48"X28". Date unknown (probably early 1950s or late 1940s). Title unknown (if any). Bearing in mind that Elaine Hamilton worked in Mexico as a muralist assistant to Diego Rivera, this would appear to be a surrealistic historical allegory of Mexico. The architectural forms along the top, with their flecks of stained glass in the windows to the left, clearly represent churches or cathedrals or simply "the Church" (or, by further extension, Spain, Europe, colonialism, etc.). These morph into a sinister, sinewy (or bony) kind of encrustation over a white, shroud-like ground which appears to cover pyramid shapes — notice what appear to be pyramid steps in the white area at the left. (This brings to mind Mexico City's Zócalo, where the Spanish built their cathedral literally on top of the ruins of a great Aztec pyramid complex which they had destroyed. At the same time, the white peaks suggest the two famous snow-capped volcanoes that dominate Mexico City's skyline.) Beneath this white shroud, to the left, is a blood-red, roughly heart-shaped, drape-like object, like a matador's cape. From under this, along the bottom of the canvas, emerges the muscular brown forearm and hand of a supine figure presumably representing the defeated or repressed native people of Mexico. Though evidently a very "readable" painting in terms of referential meaning, the piece nevertheless has a powerful abstract beauty without any need of symbolic interpretation. The strong gestural force of this work foreshadows Hamilton's later adoption of the "action painting" technique and aesthetic.

Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal, the American artist, was born Elaine Hamilton in 1920 in Catonsville, Maryland, near Baltimore.

[Please note: the primary source of information for this article is the article on Elaine Hamilton O'Neal at marylandartsource.com, a website maintained by and therefore carrying the authority of the following institutions: the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Enoch Pratt Free Library; Johns Hopkins University; the Maryland Institute College of Art; the Maryland Historical Society; the Maryland State Department of Education; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and the Walters Art Museum.]


[edit] Rolling stone: a cosmopolitan career

After graduating in 1945 from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, Elaine Hamilton went on to study with Robert Brackman in New York as a member of the Art Students League. Thereafter she worked as an assistant muralist under Diego Rivera in Mexico and received a mural commission for Mexico's Instituto Allende in 1952. She mounted a solo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951 and then won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Italy in 1952; the Fulbright grant was then extended for another year. She spent most of the rest of her career abroad. She was an invited exhibitor at the Venice Biennial in 1956 and again in 1958. Meanwhile she remained prominent in the Baltimore contemporary art scene, winning the Popular Prize in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Maryland Artists Exhibition in 1952 and again in 1959. During the 1950s and 1960s, she had solo exhibitions of her work in major galleries and museums all over the world, in cities including Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Mexico City, Tokyo, and Karachi (Pakistan), and she was featured in numerous multi-artist exhibitions in these cites as well as in Paris, New York (the Whitney Museum), Washington, DC (Corcoran Gallery), Osaka, and others. While in France, HamiIton gained the admiration and support of the influential critic and respected painter Michel Tapié. In 1971, Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal purchased a chateau in France, where she lived and worked for the next 30 years (though from 1952 on, she and her husband always maintained a residence in Birmingham, Alabama as well). She returned in 2001 to her native town of Catonsville in Baltimore County, Maryland (where she still resides). Today her work is in the collections of the Museum of the International Center of Aesthetic Research (Turin, Italy) and the Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art, as well as in many private collections throughout the world. Below, the reader can find external links to images of her work in a recent (May 2006) auction record from Paris, and in the bio at MarylandArtSource.com (the primary information source for this article). It appears that she is known exclusively as a painter of oil-on-canvas works (excepting the murals), there being no mention in the available sources of her having created other kinds of visual art (such as sculpture, for example).

[edit] Style: realism, then abstraction, and finally "action"

Stylistically, Elaine Hamilton passed through a number of stages, generally tending toward greater abstraction as time went on. Having won the prize for portrait painting at MICA, it was natural that she went on to study in New York with Robert Brackman, a master of realistic portraiture and other figurative painting. In the late 1940s to early 1950s, the influence of her mentor Diego Rivera is evident in the earthy textures and colors as well as in the heavy, sculpted forms of her increasingly abstract paintings (see the above example). Meanwhile, the scale of her work increases, also as a result of her study with the Mexican muralist (according to the MarylandArtSource essay). In the latter 1950s there are other canvases that show nightmarish, contorted, bloody-looking images suggestive of slaughtered but unidentifiable bodies or body parts, somewhat in the manner of Francis Bacon. In the 1960s, she took up a very personal approach to "action painting" (or "gestural abstraction", as it is sometimes called), and it is for her paintings in this later, abstract expressionist manner that she is probably best known. She is also sometimes classed as a "lyrical abstractionist".

The 2006 Benezit Dictionary of Artists is emphatic in its praise:

"A globetrotter who has scaled the heights of the Himalayas, Hamilton makes profoundly serious work. Clearly part of the movement known as 'lyrical gestural abstraction', her painting is full of verve and invention and manifests an extraordinary gift for colour and substance."

[edit] Life as she lived it: from a tent in the woods to a castle in France

The sources do not say precisely when during her dizzying peregrinations Elaine Hamilton married, taking on the "O'Neal" surname, but it was certainly no later than 1952 [see under "Note to researchers" heading below].

It is evident, judging from the fact that she purchased a French chateau in 1971, that at some point Elaine Hamilton became quite a wealthy woman; but she was not born to wealth. On the contrary, according to a 2002 interview (quoted in the context of a paper at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources on the history of the forest reserve), during the 1920s Elaine and her family (parents and two brothers) lived nearly half of each year in an "army-style wall tent" in Maryland's Patapsco state forest reserve (this interview can be found in the external link given below):

“ 'We had what we needed,' she later recalled. Her experience at the park was a blend of rugged outdoor living complemented with the trappings of the modern middle-class lifestyle. Her family, on the one hand, was forced to dig a privy, sleep on straw mattress cots, and make several trips a day down to the local spring for fresh water; however, on the other hand, they cooked on a modern oil stove, owned a piano, and had electric power wired in from Bloede’s Dam for lighting and a radio... O’Neal’s experience at the Patapsco was simultaneously rugged and refined."

According to O'Neal, it was because of this experience of making a cultured life in the wilderness that she “learned to be creative and inventive.”

The MarylandArtSource biography also mentions that over the course of Hamilton's travels in the Indo-Pakistan region, she made expeditions to K-2 and Mount Everest and eventually became a Buddhist.

For the researcher, this is a biography with many missing pieces, but it is clear that in her 86 years, Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal — having resided in New York, Mexico City, Rome, Karachi, Tokyo, Alabama, and Paris before returning to her native Catonsville — has led quite an adventurous life. She began in a kind of picturesque, sylvan poverty, progressed to high scholastic honors and artistic achievement, and at length arrived at a life of wealth, privilege, and complete artistic freedom. On the way, she sojourned in the midst of fantastically varied peoples, cultures, and landscapes.

[edit] Postscript: possible political intrigue — the painter who came in from the cold?

A tantalizing question comes up concerning the life of Elaine Hamilton: was she somehow involved with the CIA? At Britain's Oxford Brookes University, in September 2004, an academic conference called "1956: Legacies of Political Change" included scholar Rasheed Araeen's presentation entitled "The Cold War, Abstract Expressionism and the Presence of the American Artist, Elaine Hamilton, at the Time of the CIA’s Supported Military Coup in Pakistan in 1957". Unfortunately, the text of this provocatively titled paper (or perhaps it was only a presentation) is not available on line, so one must avoid leaping to conclusions. Yet it must also be noted that Frances Stonor Saunders's groundbreaking book, "The Cultural Cold War - The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters" reveals that the CIA was indeed involved in the funding and promotion of American abstract expressionist artists as part of its propaganda strategy. So the role of Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal in this - if any - might make a good subject for additional research.

[edit] Note to researchers

As so often happens with women artists, one sees this artist's name in many forms. The greater Baltimore telephone directory shows her name in the hyphenated form used at the top of this article, but other sources (such as Askart.com) call her simply Elaine Hamilton, as though she'd never married, while yet others list her as "Elaine Hamilton O'Neal", omitting the hyphen. Moreover, she signed her work inconsistently — sometimes signing herself (even after marrying) "Elaine Hamilton", sometimes "Elaine H. O'Neal", and sometimes simply "Hamilton". The 2006 Benezit dictionary lists her as "Elaine Hamilton", with no mention of the married name (which, to further complicate matters, is sometimes spelled without the apostrophe as "O Neal," "ONeal," or "Oneal"); yet the fully up-to-date MarylandArtSource.com article gives her name as "Elaine Hamilton O'Neal." She is listed among 2003 donors to Baltimore's Walters Art Museum as "Ms. Elaine H. Oneal" (no apostrophe).

[edit] See also

[edit] References

[Please note: where possible, these book sources have been externally linked to WorldCat's "Find in a library" service: simply follow the instructions there, using a zip code to find a copy of the book in a library within a given area.]

1. Benezit, E. Dictionary of Artists (Paris : Gründ, 2006) [see Benezit Dictionary of Artists]

2. Craven, David. Abstract expressionism as cultural critique : dissent during the McCarthy period (Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1999) (See page 23 on Elaine Hamilton.) ISBN 0521434157

3. Dunbier, Lonnie. North American artists : the artists bluebook (Scottsdale, AZ : AskART.com) [quarterly, every 3 months] OCLC 46913212

4. Hamilton, Elaine. Elaine Hamilton "exhibition of paintings" (Karachi, Pakistan, 1960) [solo exhibition catalogue] OCLC 39556032

5. Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with the Institute of International Education. Fulbright painters (New York: Institute of International Education, 1958) [exhibition catalogue] OCLC 3226790

6. U.S. Centre culturel américain, Paris. Trois américains : Art Brenner, Robert Colescott, Elaine Hamilton.- Exposition à Paris, Centre culturel américain, 26 février-26 mars 1969 [exhibition catalogue in French] (Paris, Centre culturel américain, 1969) OCLC 38695859

[edit] External links

[Please note: Marylandartsource.com is maintained by and therefore implicitly carries the authority of the following institutions: the Baltimore Museum of Art; Enoch Pratt Free Library; Johns Hopkins University; Maryland Institute College of Art; Maryland Historical Society; Maryland State Department of Education; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Walters Art Museum]

Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal

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