Why This Matters: The Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts celebrates an accomplished Carolinas artist in an exhibition that connects to the history of Charlotte and North Carolina.
By Bernie Petit
“From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason,” on view at Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts location through March 27, 2016, is more than an exhibition of incredible portraits, landscapes and scenes by a native of the Carolinas.
The first retrospective of Thomason’s work in more than a generation is a look back at the Charlotte and North Carolina of yesteryear.
“It celebrates an artist who is probably one of the best painters ever to come out of North Carolina who happened to have really strong ties not only to Charlotte and living here but to Charlotte at the moment that The Mint Museum opening” in 1936, said Dr. Jonathan Stuhlman, senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art at the Mint. “Thomason was really a catalyst in Charlotte’s art scene in the 1930s.”
Born in South Carolina, Thomason moved around a lot in his early life between South and North Carolina. He attended Davidson College for a year, but “college really wasn’t for him,” Stuhlman said.
But he always had an interest in art and his father had gotten to know James Duke, the Durham-born tobacco baron and electric power industrialist. After seeing an example of Thomason’s work, Duke asked him to paint his portrait.
Duke was moved by the painting, Stuhlman said, calling it better than the portrait he had by John Singer Sargent, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation.” The industrialist became Thomason’s first and most important patron, sponsoring him to go to New York to study at the Art Students League with urban realists like Robert Henri, John Sloan and George Luks, with whom Thomason particularly bonded.
Thomason returned to North Carolina in the early 1930s; by 1934 he had become one of Charlotte’s leading artists, teaching students and organizing exhibitions of local artists while producing some of the best art ever seen in the city. One of The Mint Museum’s first exhibitions, in 1937, was one dedicated to Thomason’s work.
Two works on display in the Mint’s current exhibition illustrate the range of art Thomason created during his years in Charlotte. The first, “Boy with Chrysanthemums,” is reminiscent of Rodin’s famous 1880 sculpture The Thinker.
“Thomason was working in his studio and he came across this boy who was selling flowers and this boy kind of told him this sob story that he wanted to go to a baseball game but his mother told him he had to sell all of his flowers before he could go,” Stuhlman said. “Thomason said I will buy all of your flowers if you’ll sit for me for a few minutes for a portrait.”
The other prominent artistic link to Thomason’s time in Charlotte documents Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 “Green Pastures” stump speech at the city’s then-new Memorial Stadium.
“Thomason was known to have attended this speech and was so moved by it that he quickly went back to his studio and painted this picture memorializing the event,” Stuhlman said.
At the end of the 1930s, Thomason married Elizabeth Montgomery Williams and the couple moved out to Nebo, off Lake James in the foothills of the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. There, he continued to paint vigorously and directly, responding to what was in front of him.
He also documented the history of leisure-time activities in North Carolina, from hunting, fishing and bootlegging to college football and professional wrestling.
“He’s really interested in capturing all of the things that were special about North Carolina to him,” Stuhlman said, “not only the people and the landscape but all of the activities that make it a special place.”
Want to See It?
“From New York to Nebo: The Artistic Journey of Eugene Thomason” is on display through March 27, 2016, at Mint Museum Uptown at Levine Center for the Arts, 500 S. Tryon Street, Charlotte. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. General admission is $12 adults, $9 college students and seniors, $6 children 5 to 17 years old and free children 4 and younger and museum members. Free admission Wednesday nights from 5 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.mintmuseum.org.