Hood Quarterly, winter 2014
Barbara J. Macadam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art
Paul Sample (1896–1974), Dartmouth Class of 1920, was Dartmouth’s artist-in-residence from September 1938 until 1962. During that unmatched period of time, he maintained a studio on campus and conducted informal art classes for both students and community members. He also pursued his own art and became one of the most admired painters of northern New England’s land and people. Sample’s choice of profession had been late in coming. As a Dartmouth student he took greatest pride in his reputation as a heavyweight boxing champion and jazz musician, and he did not take up painting until 1923, during an extended recovery from tuberculosis. Following his recuperation and brief art study in New York and Los Angeles, he began teaching art at the University of Southern California in 1926. By the mid-1930s, he was serving as chairman of the university’s art department and exhibiting his work nationally. When Dartmouth invited Sample to return to his alma mater as artist-in-residence in 1938, the prospect appealed to him both professionally and personally. He had tired of teaching formally and in 1928 had married a Vermonter, Sylvia Howland, from Montpelier. The many summers the couple had spent in the state through the 1930s had deepened his attachment to the region, where, as it turned out, he and his wife would spend the rest of their lives.
During his tenure at Dartmouth, Sample explored a range of subjects, media, and stylistic approaches. As he had in California, he continued to work frequently in watercolor, adapting his subjects and palette to New England’s rugged topography and varied seasons. The medium’s portability suited his practice of sketching and painting outdoors, often during fishing expeditions. As seen in Between Classes, he also created larger, more finished watercolors for exhibition and sale. Dating to 1938, Between Classes is one of the earliest works Sample created as artist-in-residence and an example of the winter compositions for which he would gain particular acclaim. Here he captures the bustle of students and professors traversing the snow-covered Dartmouth Green between classes. The arcing line of brightly colored coats leads the eye back toward the College’s most revered historic buildings, Dartmouth Hall and its flanking classroom buildings, Thornton and Wentworth Halls. Through this image and at least three other watercolors that he painted of this scene in various seasons, Sample paid affectionate homage to both the social and academic aspects of collegiate life at Dartmouth.
Sample built his early reputation not only through watercolors but also through an especially varied body of oil paintings that ranged from gritty urban-realist scenes and precisionist industrial compositions to regionalist paintings that celebrated the distinct qualities of rural life. He brought his regionalist sympathies to bear in Beaver Meadow, the first major painting to depict his new environs and one of his most highly regarded compositions. In this rendering of a hamlet in the township of Norwich, Sample celebrates qualities associated with a stereotypical Vermont village: the harmonious relationships between humans and nature, as reflected in the tidy fields and farm buildings nestled in the hills, and among the members of this apparently idyllic settlement, whose sense of community is strengthened through weekly worship. Its decorative composition, stripped of extraneous detail, recalls popular illustration, caricature, and American folk-art traditions, reflecting the populist sentiments of 1930s America. Yet the picture also evokes an undercurrent of reserve, and even suspicion, as suggested by the rigidity of the figures in the foreground and their detachment from one another. Like the work of his Midwestern counterpart Grant Wood, Sample’s depiction of his neighbors can be read as both admiring and mildly satirical.
During World War II, Sample took several leaves of absence from his position at Dartmouth to serve as an artistcorrespondent for Life magazine, which published several of his paintings of soldiers at work and at rest, on land and at sea. Sample’s postwar art reflects his deepening ties to the Dartmouth community and local surroundings, as well as a growing awareness of new stylistic approaches. From the 1940s through the 1960s, he painted several portraits of Dartmouth associates and continued to depict a range of identifiable landmarks, including the bridge leading to downtown White River Junction, the nearby railroad turntable, and innumerable scenes of rural life in New Hampshire and Vermont, especially in winter. Such images as Old Ledyard Bridge, 1954, have long held special significance and appeal for Dartmouth alumni and students. In fact, Sample painted the work as a demonstration during a Dartmouth Alumni Association fundraising event held in Chicago in January 1954, and that spring the College reproduced it as part of a fundraising mailing. One recipient wrote to the College in response: “I am sure all the Alumni will be overjoyed to see the folder with the wonderful picture of the dear old Ledyard Bridge—through it we trudged on up the hill to the grandest college in all the world.”(1) The painting also reflects Sample’s accommodation of the more abstract approaches to composition that surfaced following the war. In contrast to the rounded, Brueghelinspired figures of Beaver Meadow, here he takes a more angular approach to design, accentuating the thrusting diagonal of the bridge, the jagged edges of the ice floes, and the canted postures of the broad-shouldered students. Verbalizing this more internal, subjective approach to representation, he wrote, “My chief concern in painting is with my own reality. This extends beyond appearance. It is visual experience intensified.”(2) Fittingly, with large holdings of Sample’s art at the Hood Museum of Art and related archival material at the College’s library, Dartmouth serves as an important center for research on the career of Paul Sample.
1. Letter from Noble O. Bowlby, Class of 1906, W. Franklin, N.H., to Roger C. Wilde, Class of 1921, Chairman of the Alumni Fund Committee, Hanover, N.H., March 31, 1954. Dartmouth College Library, President’s Records, DP-12, box 7122— alumni fund.
2. Quoted in Sidney Chandler Hayward, “Paul Sample: Vermont Artist,” Vermont Life 14, no. 2 (Winter 1959–60), 47.