Soul and Light: the paintings of Louis Welden Hawkins 1

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Solitude (c 1890), oil on canvas, 57 x 26.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the painters who exhibited in the Salons de la Rose + Croix in the mid 1890s who you may not have seen before, is Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910). One of the many popular artists of the time who has now been almost forgotten, I look at his work in this article and tomorrow’s.

Hawkins was born in Germany, the son of a British Naval Officer and an Austrian Baroness. He grew up near London, and at the age of fifteen followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Royal Navy. He then decided that he wanted to be a painter, so left the Navy and settled in Paris in around 1870, to begin his training. That started at the Académie Julian, where he was taught by Jules Lefèbvre and William Bouguereau, and in 1873 made friends with George Moore, an Irish writer who also attended the Académie.

Hawkins seems to have been quite poor at the time, and had to work painting porcelain in a factory to make ends meet. He persevered, apparently painting in a conventional academic (Salon) manner, as would be expected given his teachers. In 1876, he was admitted to the Académie Nationale des Beaux-Arts, where he was taught by Gustave Boulanger.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Portrait of Camille Pelletan (c 1880), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Image by Abedel, via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Camille Pelletan (c 1880) is an early portrait of this left wing Republican politician who was born in 1846 and died in 1915. At the time he was the editor of Justice, and had worked hard to get reductions in the sentences of many of the Paris Communards of 1871. Pelletan also appears in Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting By The Table from 1872, and Hawkins lived with the politician for a while in 1888.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), A Peasant Woman (c 1880), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

By about 1880, when he painted A Peasant Woman, Hawkins had left Paris for Grez-sur-Loing, which is close to Barbizon and was still very rustic at that time. There he painted rural scenes in a style strongly reminiscent of Jules Bastien-Lepage, who was only slightly older than Hawkins, and making a name for himself at the Salon.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Orphans (1881), oil on canvas, 125 x 160 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Hawkins’ first success came with Orphans (1881), which shares Bastien-Lepage’s muted colours, usually attributed to the light said to be peculiar to Grez. A young brother and sister are in a neglected graveyard, looking together at a pauper’s grave, apparently of one or both of their parents. This painting was awarded a third-class medal at the Salon that year, and marked the start of a run of his paintings exhibited at the following three Salons. This work was purchased by the state in 1887 for 10,000 francs, and was also exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Portrait of a Young Man (c 1881), oil on canvas, 57 x 44.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of a Young Man from about the same year is a curious and plain painting of an unknown figure wearing the cloche hat of a country bumpkin.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), The Last Step (c 1882), oil on canvas, 129.5 x 83.8 cm, Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, Canada. The Athenaeum.

Hawkins continued this style in The Last Step (c 1882), which shows an elderly woman walking slowly with a stick in what may be the same graveyard. In the distance, a gravedigger is digging a new grave through the stony soil. The two engage in conversation, probably discussing where she will be buried in the not too distant future.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), The Priestess (c 1890), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

During the late 1880s, Hawkins turned away from the naturalism of Bastien-Lepage, who had died suddenly in 1884, and became more Symbolist. In 1887, he asked Pierre Puvis de Chavannes if he could work in his studio, but was turned down. The Priestess, from about 1890, shows the dramatic change which had occurred in Hawkins’ themes and style over those years.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Solitude (c 1890), oil on canvas, 57 x 26.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Solitude, from about the same year, is a bridge between his Naturalist paintings of the rural poor and his Symbolism. Read at face value, it shows a young woman reading her Missal or Bible in an overgrown churchyard, in quiet piety. But it’s late autumn already, the leaves have fallen from the tree behind her, and two black crows are above. Are they harbingers of death, or symbols of magic? The intense quiet is slightly sinister.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Self Portrait with Palette (c 1890), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Hawkins seems to have been quite a dashing figure when he was younger, as seen in this Self Portrait with Palette also from about 1890. It was about that time that Hawkins met Raffaela Zeppa, an Italian woman; the couple lived together, their daughter being born in 1892. They married in 1896, after Hawkins had adopted French nationality (in the previous year). Her undated pastel portrait is shown below.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (date not known), pastel, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras, Arras, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1891, Hawkins broke with the ‘official’ Salon de la Société des Artes Français, and switched to its counterpart, the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a move which brought him renewed success at last.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849–1910), Les Auréoles (Haloes) (c 1891-94), oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In the mid 1890s, Hawkins exhibited at the Salons de la Rose + Croix. I suspect that his Les Auréoles (Haloes) from about 1891-94 was one of his works shown there. This is conventionally read as depicting the duality of woman as both femme fatale and femme fragile.


Lucas Bonekamp (1993) Louis Welden Hawkins, 1849-1910, Van Gogh Museum. ISBN 978 90 6630 442 0.