Harlan was an artist all his life. Over the course of eighty-eight years, he created thousands of woodcuts, sketches, watercolors, and oil paintings. Though he was formally trained at the National Academy of Design and the Cincinnati Art Academy, Harlan never conformed to mainstream expectations of style. His art was spontaneous and deeply personal, he only painted what inspired him. His most important muse was the world's natural beauty. Though his style evolved over time, his subject never did. Harlan’s passion for art is equally a passion for nature:
“But nature means so much to me; it's a religion, really. It isn't just painting to earn a living or painting to do something. It's the source of all my inspiration.”
Harlan pursued art despite his mother’s wishes for more financially stable work: “she thought that one artist in the family was enough.”
In 1919, after graduating high school, Harlan enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York.
“I never will forget, I just opened the door and walked in and there was a nude model on the stand; I had never seen a woman without any clothes on before. I didn't know what effect it would have on me but it had none at all. I was struck first by the radiant beauty of the coloring of the skin and it seemed like it was something beyond, certainly beyond everyday life; when you see people with clothes on they don't look that way.”
Hubbard’s art was not representative of any certain style. He respected realism, while also incorporating an impressionistic gaze. Harlan's style was spontaneous but passionate, a true expression of himself. The Academy of Design challenged these individualistic ideals but he never changed his style.
"In those days, you almost had to make something almost abstract; that's what they were doing down at the Art Students' League and what the more advanced painters were trying to do, but I hadn't gotten that far yet and I never did in a way because even to this very day I still respect proportion and construction and accurate drawing. But I'm thinking more and more about the formal side of painting, the relation of colors and the direction of lines and feeling the tension between the different forms, which have nothing to do with realism. Of course, it wasn't long before that they discarded realism altogether in the New York School. Abstract expressionists were just working in abstract form, Jackson Pollock and other well-noted men. But I couldn't follow that. In fact, I never liked it much either. I thought it was interesting, but I had too much love and respect for what I see; I wouldn't want to distort it or disfigure it in any way like they were doing. So that became quite a problem for several years in my life after this first year in the National Academy of Design. And I haven't really worked it out yet. I still think it's evolving.”
Though Hubbard refused to conform to his formal art training, his style was still formulated during his time in New York. Harlan regularly explored museums and galleries, where he was inspired by the greats.
"But my ideas of painting were formulated in those years very much while I was in New York, by the exhibitions I saw at the museums and galleries. And I picked up a pretty good understanding of the Impressionists and Cezanne and Van Gogh and Gauguin and what they . . . and that's about as far as I went. When you get into modernists stemming from Cezanne, like Picasso, I didn't go with them, because they were denying realism for abstract art and trying to make a work of art by abstract painting. But I don't think, I don’t think it can be done, at least no abstract painting has ever had much influence on me. It seemed like there has to be some connection with actual life, with what you see. But then it had to get away from the nineteenth century painters, who were making such detailed paintings, which were really nothing but photographs."
"Like John Singer Sargent?"
"Yeah. Sargent and the landscape painters, too. Some of the landscape painters were, like Twachtman and Ryder, were adding something besides just realism and that's where I got my foundation for what I -- my relation to the history of art. Since then I've made very little progress. Still where I was then, trying to do the same thing, trying to reproduce nature so it will satisfy me and my love for it and at the same time produce a work of art which will have something more, something that the camera couldn't give."
"When I started to paint, above all that purpose was to reproduce on paper or canvas what I saw. And the reason that I wanted to do that was that I didn't paint anything that I wasn't moved by the sight of it or very much interested in it so the picture of it would have great value for me. I went on that way for quite awhile and I began to see that there were lots of other ways to go about painting. I was in New York at the time, a young student. I went on under that principle for a long time. The first interest I ever had of something in painting beyond that was a show I saw at the Metropolitan Museum, it must have been a post-Impressionist show or maybe it was Impressionism. Anyway, when I first saw the paintings of Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and I knew at once that here was something different, something beyond just mere representation. I did not know what it was exactly and I didn't worry much about it. But something of that -- get into my work. I began to think of the design of the painting, apart from its representation. This is something quite different from the old idea of composition, which they just tried to balance the different parts of the painting, so it wouldn't look lopsided or so it would have some sort of center. It was a whole new idea and I began experimenting. I don't know as I tried to imitate any of the painters I mentioned, but I did try to sometimes make a formal design or make the painting into a formal design, which meant some tampering with realism. But I found that it wouldn't go; I found that the object that I was painting meant so much to me that I wanted it just as it was. I had such respect for it that I wouldn't consider distorting it to fit into any pattern or any arbitrary design. That was why my paintings looked, you might say, old-fashioned. There is no design to them. No formal design, which sometimes interferes, often displaces the realism. This is a problem that I've never solved, but I kept working with it, and then it suddenly dawned on me, I saw that the paintings that I had been making, even from the very beginning, had a formal design. It was very evident, with the masses, the lines, the light and dark, the color were all part of a scheme that was independent of the realism but didn't interfere with it in the least. In fact, it furthered it. Then I began to look at old paintings and they all had the same theme, long before the modern painters began to think of design as something separate from representation."
Hubbard in his studio, by Guy Mendes, 1983.
Later in his life, Hubbard received more success in his career.
"You stated once before that those paintings from that golden period seem to be appreciated by people more than what you do now."
"Yes, it's a strange thing. When I made them nobody was interested in them at all and as I've said before, when we went down the river in shantyboat I stored them all in my studio in Fort Thomas. But now people ask definitely, "Have you any more of your old paintings?" I think the tide is turning, though, because the things I did last winter, it’s not a great output, of course, but those things are beginning to be appreciated now for what they are. So I've great hopes of really doing something different. It'll be a continuation of the old, and faithful to the old ideas and conceptions, but it'll be more free, more lighthearted and more emotional, I think.
"And somehow more honest?"
"Yes, it is. The other was honest, too, but I've advanced into a new period in my life and you can't go on doing the same thing all your life, the same thing. You still have to be faithful to your old ideas but develop them and bring something new out of them."
Though Hubbard was always busy maintaining Payne Hallow, he continued to paint until the end of his life. He reflects that his life would not be complete without it.
"What is your routine for painting? Do you get up at a certain time and paint or do you just go in and start?"
"Oh no, painting is the last thing; everything else comes first and in these busy years that I've had living in Payne Hollow, there's so much to do, so much handwork and I kept piling it on, getting goats when I didn't have to and raising a lot of crops that could be bought. And for twenty-five years I cut all our firewood with a handsaw, worked all the gardens with a hoe. And that's one change I've made since I've gotten to my present condition; I felt that a life like that continued to its very end would be unbalanced and lacking in the essentials somehow. I feel that a time for leisure and thought and just enjoying yourself, enjoying animal life, enjoying the seasons and landscape and all that's going on around you. If you didn't have time for that, your life wouldn't be complete. And I feel like it's not dignified for an old man to be digging around in the, trying to get a lot of details done. Let somebody else do it. And somehow that scheme seems to work because somebody else is doing it really: I don't cut any wood any more, my friends come with their power saws and cut it; I've almost eliminated the garden; I still have an abundance of food, without buying very much of it."
Hubbard in his studio, by Tomas Henny, 1979.
Hubbard's art did not receive critical acclaim for most of his life. He reflects that this was expected, as his art was a true expression of self.
"There's something about the Ohio River and this landscape that's a part of me and I can't adapt to anything else. But when I look at my work and then look at this other book that you have about modern art or art of today, I can't see that mine has any place there; it's something entirely outside. Some of the earlier work, when it's realistic paintings of landscape, are something like mine but I feel I've added something more to it than just the representational part. It becomes so much a part of a critic's eye that if a painting doesn't fit into a certain style and be stylized, it can't rank as a work of art, and these things of mine, it's such a personal expression that I doubt if they ever do make their way and be considered as anything more than what they are considered today."
"Why haven't your works been placed in a major museum?"
"Museums are strange things in a way. They get a new building done in a modern style of architecture and then they see some of my work and say, "Well, that stuff is old hat. I want something more modern for this museum." And then they'll get Something, like the Metropolitan Museum spending something like twenty-five million dollars to build a new wing to house American art of the '20s and that period but, I don't know; life is really short and you're not changed much from when you're young and I think it's better to have a life that's a unity instead of having one that's full of abrupt changes and changes in direction and starting all over and following different styles and fads as they come up. And when you look at modern art today, you just can't see anything that's standard; it's all just a lot of individual stuff, and the artist's whole idea seems to be to make something that's striking and that will attract people's attention. They begin to use these brilliant neon colors and make paintings that have motion, you have to look through a hole in the frame to see the different colors change in shape and pattern. But I've just been plugging along on the same old ideas that I had when I was young, trying to do something better. It's discouraging in a way to find out that, in a way, some of the early things that were much better than you thought they were."
Hubbard's style did not change much over the years because his muse never changed. Nature was his religion, and his art was a way to worship.
"You stated before that your work hasn't changed drastically over the years in terms of your style. Why do you suppose that is?"
"It hasn't changed because it's based on the same thing, which is nature and my love and respect for nature; I wouldn't violate it by making an abstract work of art out of it just to make something striking in design or color. But at the same time I'm trying all the time to develop that inner design which nobody seems to credit at all or have any understanding of. So it has something that the early work didn't have although, as I say, that was in, that's the thing that is in a work of art. You go back even to the Italian primitives, it was very strong, and El Greco."
"Why is it that you preferred to paint landscapes and river scenes over people?"
"That's just my nature. It shows my inner nature. I don't like people."
"No, that's not it. But nature means so much to me; it's a religion, really. It isn't just painting to earn a living or painting to do something. It's the source of all my inspiration and people don't fit into it, you know? Sometimes a man working in a field in the distance is good but..."
"Where you don't have too much interaction with them."
"Yeah, they're just part of the landscape. Yes, I would go, when I'm out, used to be out for a walk I'd go around the side of the hillside to avoid passing close to a house. I've always been that way, I guess. But that's a significant question"
"But in the end it seemed like they haven't changed a great deal since I first started. The conception is the same and the subject matter; I'm still satisfied to paint the Ohio River and the Kentucky landscape. And the steamboat is still a major theme. I stick to that because I like it and because I feel that all the other paintings I see of steamboats are so grotesque.
"A lot are made by people who don't understand steamboats and sometimes they try to dramatize them and make them something else or they'll . . . they're so phony. They just copy a photograph and they have no life to them and they're not . . . and the setting is terrible in some of them. That's what I mean by grotesque."
"If you had – if you had grown up on the coast, on the ocean, do you think you would be painting lobster boats if you were in Maine?"
"Oh yes. I quite think I would. I think that's a very true observation because even now when I go, I spent a couple of weeks on Martha's Vineyard one time and I thought that would be a wonderful place to paint. There's something about the Ohio River and this landscape that's a part of me and I can't adapt to anything else."