May 9, 2018

Focus on the Collection: “Hannah (Mood)”

Stuyvesant Van Veen, Hannah (Mood), 1930 – 1932, oil on canvas.


A woman in pin curls and a gauzy blouse sits before a landscape, gazing into the distance. Her expression is pensive. The black, cloud-like forms edging the scene suggest a gathering storm or impending misfortune. The scrawny tree on the right is stripped of its foliage, and it stands in an expanse of fields tinged with a dusty brown. The artist of this painting, Stuyvesant Van Veen (1910-1988), gave it the title Hannah (Mood). He left no record of who Hannah may have been, but the setting behind her provides a clue to her thoughts.

Van Veen depicted a relatively flat landscape with low mountains in the far distance. This terrain resembles the region of the United States called the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. In the midst of the Great Depression in the United States, the Midwest and the southwestern Great Plains experienced severe drought. Beginning in 1931, dust storms regularly swept across the country. The drought and resulting storms lasted until 1939, ruining roughly 35 million acres of farmland by 1934. These conditions prompted many to leave their land in search of work. The painting’s creation date of 1930-32 suggests a possible reading of the painting as a representation of a difficult situation Hannah or her family faced, which may have necessitated leaving a familiar place or abandoning a farm.

Van Veen was briefly affiliated with two programs designed to employ artists during the Depression: the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Born in New York, he studied at the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, and the Art Students League. At this last institution, he trained under Thomas Hart Benton, one of the most famous and controversial muralists in the 1930s. Van Veen is best known as a mural painter, and he created several large-scale works for the WPA and other federal and state organizations throughout his career.

In addition to commissions from federal programs, Van Veen received the patronage of Hudson D. Walker, who was the first curator of what we now know as the Weisman Art Museum (it was named the Little Gallery when Walker was hired in 1934). Walker and Van Veen met when they were both stuck on a delayed train, and they maintained a lifelong friendship. Walker showed some of Van Veen’s paintings in the inaugural exhibition at his newly opened gallery space in New York, the Walker Gallery, along with work by other artists now represented in the Weisman collection, such as Elof Wedin and Harry Sternberg. It is likely that Hannah (Mood) was one of the three Van Veen paintings included in the show. Although there are no photographs of the installation, an article from the September 27, 1936, issue of the New York Times describes one of Van Veen’s canvases as “a head against a chromatic landscape.” Hudson Walker purchased Hannah (Mood), and he and Ione Walker donated the work to WAM in 1978. It has never before been displayed in the Weisman galleries.

Nikki Otten, 2017-18 E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellow

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