In 1896 Charles Hawthorne became assistant instructor to William Merritt Chase at his Shinnecock, Long Island outdoor painting school where the lessons of the French Impressionists were first brought to American shores. In 1899 Hawthorne opened his own outdoor school in Provincetown, MA – the Cape Cod School of Art – the first school to teach outdoor figure painting. By 1915 Provincetown would grow into one of the largest art colonies in the world, attracting such luminaries as Childe Hassam, William Paxton, and Ernest Lawson. Artists who sought Hawthorne’s instruction included Emile Gruppe, Norman Rockwell, Max Bohm and Richard Miller.
As a young student at the Art Institute of Chicago, Henry Hensche was enthralled with the strong, virile color in paintings done by some of his fellow students who had studied with Hawthorne in Provincetown during the summer break. Henry was 20 years old when he arrived at the Cape Cod School of Art, and he soon came to revere Hawthorne as a father figure. In 1928 Hensche became Hawthorne’s teaching assistant. He is listed in the 1929 brochure for the school – two critiques by Henry Hensche, Monday and Thursday – and a demonstration painting by Hawthorne on Friday morning, followed by a weekly critique on Saturday. The whole summer session lasted eight weeks and the cost was $50.00 for the season.
Hensche painted in the tonal academic tradition of the times, however, his continued study of light and color slowly gave way to paintings of breath-taking beauty. Many painters of Henry’s generation were influenced by the strong currents of Modernism that emanated like a shockwave from the Armory Show of 1913. Though initially intrigued with the shifting fashions of the art scene that predominated in New York at the time, Hensche came to see the history of painting as an ongoing development in the progression of man’s visual vocabulary. Some of his first figure paintings had a narrative element similar to the Ashcan School, derived somewhat from Hawthorne’s portrayal of the working Provincetown fishermen and their families, but early on the poetic character of light and color emerged as the twin themes that would guide his painting throughout his life.
As he told Robert Brown in a 1971 interview for the Archives of American Art, “Paintings are to teach man to see the glory of human visual existence”. For him art was, “…the arrangement of truth”. Hawthorne pointed the way to a greater realization of color in realistic painting yet it was for his student, Henry Hensche, to bring to fruition a complete transition from tone-based painting to paintings revealing the full spectrum of color.
In summer 2014, The Cape School returned to Charles Hawthorne’s original barn studio to teach a series of classes.