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Homecomings
The life-changing legacy of Martha Visser’t Hooft
By Dean Brownrout

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Martha Visser’t Hooft (c. 1978)
Photo courtesy of Martje More.
In 2002, after a twenty-year New York City-based career in the music industry, I’d returned to my hometown of Buffalo. I had no idea how I’d make my living here, but one thing was certain: my days as a music business executive were behind me.

Upon my arrival I frequently filled my time at local museums, including the Albright-Knox. While there, I was repeatedly drawn to a painting entitled Wheels of Chance by an artist named Martha Visser’t Hooft. I was later to learn that Visser’t Hooft was from Buffalo.

A quick Internet search revealed a 1991 Visser’t Hooft biography. I ordered a copy and was lightning-struck by the breathtaking color images in the 123-page monograph. The book detailed Visser’t Hooft’s extraordinary body of work, informed by Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art.

That the city had produced such a remarkable talent was a complete revelation. The discovery would lead directly to my self-education in the rich history of art produced in Western New York throughout the previous century. And that discovery would lead me to a new career path.

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Wheels of Chance, 1952, oil on canvas,
25 x 30 inches. Albright-Knox Art Gallery Collection.
Born Martha Hamlin in 1906, Visser’t Hooft was the daughter of Chauncey J. Hamlin and Emily Gray Hamlin. The Hamlins were one of Buffalo’s oldest and richest families. As an impressionable teen, Visser’t Hooft was sent to France. She traveled the continent, absorbing 1920s European life and culture and forming a lifelong passion for the arts.

Being from a wealthy family afforded her many other opportunities; she became WNY’s own cultural Zelig. In lieu of a traditional college education, her parents sent her to New York City to study stage design. There, the blossoming art aficionado prevailed upon her obliging father—unacquainted with modern art—to buy her paintings by such artists as Modigliani and Chagall. While there she befriended the painter David Burliuk, an integral figure in the Russian avant-garde movement. Visser’t Hooft had an affair with Russian artist Boris Grigoriev, who painted her portrait. She followed Grigoriev back to Paris.

Miss Hamlin’s adventures continued. In the City of Light, and at the center of a flourishing Russian ex-pat scene, she attended Ballet Russe rehearsals and was introduced to Igor Stravinsky. She went to a party where Pablo Picasso was holding court. Visser’t Hooft was in Paris as Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic conquest.

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Tumblers and Pigeons, 1950, oil on canvas,
34 x 48 inches. Burchfield-Penney Art Center Collection.
She returned to Buffalo, and in 1928 married Franciscus “Doc” Visser’t Hooft, a successful young Dutch chemist. Over the next decade, they had three children. She didn’t find much time for painting but taught local art classes and joined artistic organizations. Her social opportunities remained undiminished. On one adventure she traipsed up a mountain in Mexico with fellow artist and socialite Louisa Robins to be introduced to the famous muralist Diego Rivera.

In the early 1940s, Visser’t Hooft began to take her own painting more seriously. She received much encouragement and guidance from artist-friends Virginia Cuthbert and her husband Philip Elliott, the director of the Albright Art School. Visser’t Hooft’s growing skills as an artist, combined with her strong desire to pursue an artistic career, saw her represented in the late 1940s/early 1950s by Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York City. Right at that moment, the city was the focal point of a bold new artistic movement, Abstract Expressionism.

Now married and a mother, yet determined to be an artist as well, Visser’t Hooft exhibited extensively. And people started to notice. Her painting Tumblers and Pigeons (1950), now in the collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and featured in Life magazine. Cry of the Juke Box (1951), another masterwork of this period, was purchased by the Whitney Museum.

Albert Michaels, a personal friend of the artist and author of the Visser’t Hooft biography (Visser’t Hooft, the Poetry/Rare Books Collection, SUNY Buffalo, 1991) knows her work intimately, and judges this period to be her finest.

“If you look at her really great paintings, like Wheels of Chance, Medium’s Table, and Cry of the Juke Box,” Michaels said, “they are clearly her most interesting works. One of the things that makes them so interesting is the angst that she was going through at the time, which is translated onto the canvas.”

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The Firewalkers, 1958.
Collection of Mr. David Voorhees.
This angst was primarily derived from conflict; her desire to paint and immerse herself in the artistic milieu collided with family duty and rigid social obligations. Visser’t Hooft preferred the company of bohemians and artists to society acquaintances. In her time, it was unusual for a woman to pursue a career, particularly in the arts. The pull of domestic responsibilities may have been a contributing factor to her lack of greater recognition on the national stage.

Visser’t Hooft’s daughter, Martje More, lives in Buffalo. She says that her mother “put away her paints while we were growing up and took care of us.”

“She had a lot of other obligations besides being a mother,” More says. “My father was a rather demanding man. And together they had a lot of social responsibilities.”

More says that Visser’t Hooft’s health also played a part in her not achieving a greater reputation outside of the region.

More was her mother’s art dealer beginning in the mid-1960s. With More arranging frequent commercial gallery shows in Buffalo, Visser’t Hooft’s artistic output increased, and her regional artistic profile remained high. Her paintings found their way into many corporate and private collections. Visser’t Hooft was honored with a show in 1973 at the Charles Burchfield Center (now the Burchfield-Penney Art Center). A career retrospective was held at the Anderson Gallery in 1992 shortly before her death in 1994.

Visser’t Hooft’s abstract work, rooted in Surrealism, is part of a postwar art movement that has been neglected in favor of true abstract expressionism. Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in both scholarly and collector circles for American Surrealist art. The time is certainly right for a reevaluation of Visser’t Hooft’s art. I believe that her paintings will begin to be included among such retrospectives. Finally, her work may find the broader audience she deserves.

Exploring the history of this artist opened my eyes to the astonishing history of the visual arts in Western New York. Artists such as Alex Levy, Charles Burchfield, Virginia Cuthbert, James Vullo, and so many others worked and thrived in the region.

I now make my living as an art dealer, buying and selling regional art. My commitment extends to personally collecting and preserving this art and to creating a broader awareness of the area’s art history.

That viewing one painting and wanting to know more about its origin could lead me to a new vocation is a tribute to Visser’t Hooft’s legacy. More importantly, it is a remarkably practical example of the power of art.

Dean Brownrout is the president of 20th Century Finest (www.20thcenturyfinest.com), a company specializing in the sale and purchase of vintage WNY artwork. The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Albert L. Michael’s files and taped interviews with Martha Visser’t Hooft.


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