First published: Winter 2017
A striking feature of William Hawkins’ (1895–1990) oeuvre is that he so consistently worked in series. During the almost 20 years in which he was most artistically active, he created several versions of favourite themes, including animal paintings such as his Tasmanian Tiger, Eagle and Snake and Rhinoceros; action scenes, such as Alligator and Lovers, Red Dog Running and Buffalo Hunter; and architecture, such as the Neil House Hotel, the Atlas Building and the Huntington Bank. Yet the subject he seems to have returned to most often lay in an area in which he was not prolific: religion. For, of the (very roughly) 25 religious-themed works Hawkins completed, no less than nine were versions of the Last Supper.
Last Supper, 1986, enamel with cornmeal and collage on plywood, 48 x 48 ins. / 121.9 x 121.9 cm, courtesy of The Museum of Everything
Hawkins spent his adult life in Columbus, the state capital of Ohio, in the Midwestern United States. His roots were about 200 miles from there, in late nineteenth-century Kentucky, as he declared in a bold signature on most of his paintings. Growing up on his family’s prosperous horse-breeding farm, he received little formal schooling. Instead, he broke horses, hunted and trapped, and absorbed the natural beauty of the rolling hills. After he moved to Columbus at the age of 21, he came to appreciate the man-made beauty of his adopted city, which he immortalised in many architectural paintings.
Hawkins was raised in a typically Southern, church-going Protestant family. His early Christianity metamorphosed over time into a devout heterodoxy which, he claimed, encompassed all Protestant belief systems yet treated biblical pronouncements with skepticism. After moving to Columbus, he stopped attending church regularly. Religious subject matter made up a small proportion of his output, which seems to have been determined primarily by what he thought would sell best. Before he caught the attention of the art world, he painted at least three versions of Moses and the Ten Commandments; later, he painted three versions of Jerusalem of the Bible, in which biblical subject matter intersected with architectural landscape. And more than once he painted the Adoration of the Magi and the Nativity, along with single versions of a few other themes.
In 1984, he turned his attention to a piece of iconography that would come to be intimately associated with him and would display most of the traits and innovations that defined his development as an artist. Over the next four years, Hawkins would create nine variations of the Last Supper, all of them remarkably diverse and imaginative.