Thomas Hewes Hinckley (1813 - 1896)
Born in Milton, MA in 1813, Thomas Hewes HInckley spent his long life immortalizing the inhabitants both domesticated and wild in and around the fields, pastures and grazing lands of Milton and Canton from his backyard which featured the Blue Hills. He was born into a family whose ancestors were among the earliest settlers of New England, including a governor of Plymouth Colony; his middle name is that of his great grandmother’s family. His seafaring father, Robert Hinckley, captained a vessel that sailed between Boston and London and he eventually retired to Milton, MA to a home in which Thomas--but for brief travel locally and to Europe and California--lived his entire life.
Believing Nature to be the only necessary teacher, Hinckley’s formal art instruction was brief and took place early in his life. When still a young man, he was sent in 1829 to Philadelphia to apprentice with a merchant and while there, attended evening art classes which served to alter his life’s course. The training he received taught him painting techniques related to perspective, light and shade.
Upon returning to the Boston area in 1831, he at first became a sign painter and learned to use color. After his father’s death in 1833, he began in portraits and also painted landscapes, committing himself more seriously then to becoming an artist. Eventually those landscapes became backdrop to the portraiture that was his particular gift--the animals who were his subjects--prize livestock and favorite hunting dogs of local gentleman farmers who hired Hinckley to immortalize their cattle, oxen, sheep and fowl. Within a few years, Hinckley had sold the dog paintings that may have served to convince him of his own talents. Domestic and game animals became Hinckley’s forte, and for which he was steadily and handsomely commissioned.
The 1840’s brought the new technology of daguerreotype and its increased popularity negatively impacted portrait artists; Hinckley had by then abandoned human portraiture in favor of the animals he painted “as natural as life” in farmscapes that appealed to local country squires whose living rooms and parlors were outfitted with his oil paintings of their prized beasts. Not needing his work to be exhibited, he sold enough locally to afford a small studio next to his home and after sketching on scene, would return there to rework the subject matter on canvas.
Hinckley married Sally Ann Bent in 1842 and they lived on his Milton homestead, where they farmed and raised and sold chickens. His meticulous record books tell us much about their existence, including that Hinckley occasionally accepted items rather than money for his artwork. A gold watch is recorded as changing hands and at least once, a puppy as well.
Among Hinckley’s commissions was that of painting Senator Daniel Webster’s Ayrshire cattle and the other prize animals on his farm in Marshfield, MA. Hinckley’s travels included the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the NY Adirondacks, he spent time on Naushon Island at the Forbes estate and at Moosehead Lake in Maine; he also traveled to California.
A trip to Europe in 1851 over a period of several months was sufficient to allow Hinckley to arrive at the conclusion that there is “No place like home”, a sentiment he included in his account book of the experience. He had traveled not so much to paint, as to study the work of Sir Edwin H. Landseer and the English and Flemish artists whose work he admired. After seeing one of Landseer’s paintings, he wrote, “It was very fine, but did not frighten me to death.” A visit to the Hague and a view of a famous painting by Paul Potter elicited this written response to his wife: “I stood before the picture and wonder’d within myself how such a faulty thing could be so much praised. I do assure you I have a better opinion of myself than ever after seeing the above picture. I know I could paint a better one…”. His letters to Sally also included endearments such as, “You do not know how my heart leaps at the thoughts of being at home again…” and in reference to his well-worn travel clothing: “So if I come home a little shabby you must love me just as well…”.
Sadly, only a few years after this European trip, Sally (Bent) Hinckley died in 1857, just one month after giving birth to their fourth child, William Messinger Hinckley. Thomas’ mother, who had also lived on the homestead, died six months later and a note at the end of that year of only (10) completed paintings (which he records as all being “produced in pain and trouble”) says much of Hinckley’s state of mind: “Alas I am all alone and life is sad and dreary.” It would be twelve years before Hinckley remarried.
A foremost painter of cattle, Hinckley also excelled at capturing dogs--both hunters and house pets. The town of Milton can lay claim to two of his better-known works of each--”Miss Daisy” the beautiful bovine gracing the Children’s Room at the Milton Public Library and the “Dogs of Milton Village” which was gifted to the Milton Historical Society by one of Hinckley’s daughters.
The 1876 centennial celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence held in Philadelphia was this country’s first official World’s Fair and it included the work of famous artists through the U.S., among them Thomas Hewes Hinckley. “The most stupendous and competitive exhibition that the world ever saw” included Hinckley’s honored entry (perhaps aptly titled “The End of the Chase”), reportedly completed in 1869 and not (then) sold. By 1884 Hinckley’s account books list only four completed paintings, three of them destined for family members.
When he died in February of 1896, Thomas H. Hinckley left a body of work comprised of 478 signed paintings. They hang in public museums and institutions, on the walls of private estates, and in fine collections both locally and nationally and are still valued for their realistic depictions of contented cows, tranquil landscapes and serene settings.
The 1960 gift to the Canton Public Library by a local benefactor of an 1878 Hinckley painting gives the viewer as much pleasure today as it did when it was created more than a hundred years ago. This pastoral scene includes the familiar Blue Hills as backdrop with cattle in the foreground, standing peacefully or drinking from a small stream; it embodies a bygone era in American history of an unspoiled wilderness and a simpler mode of living. It is typical Hinckley in its composition and skillful rendering; after his death in 1896 it was remarked that he painted “with the greatest attention lavished on the smallest details of expression or attitude.” The Canton Public Library’s Hinckley painting hangs in the Large Print Room adjacent to the rotunda and is available for viewing at any time that the library is open to the public.
Clement, Clara Erskine and and Laurence Hutton. Artists of the nineteenth century and their works. Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1894.
Comeau, George T. “True Tales from Canton’s Past: Cows & Dogs.” The Canton Citizen 02 Feb 2016.
Shaw, Marjorie. Thomas Hewes Hinckley Artist to a Generation. Milton, MA: Milton Library and Milton Historical Society, 1985.