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Home | Articles | View of the Schuylkill County Almshouse Property, PA

Olde Hope Antiques, Inc.
Sold at the Philadelphia Antiques Show, April 2001
Charles C. Hofmann
(American, 1821–1882)
View of the Schuylkill County Almshouse Property, PA
Signed and dated lower right,
C.H. Painter 1875
Original frame; descended in the original family.
Oil on canvas, 31 x 43 inches
Courtesy of Olde Hope Antiques, Inc.
Provenance: Descended in the family directly to the present owner

Literature: Tom Armstrong, American Folk Painters of Three Centuries (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), pp. 103–109, illus.

The nineteenth-century itinerant artist Charles Hofmann, was known to have been a frequent visitor and patient of almshouses, which served as shelter for the sick and destitute. According to Tom Armstrong, author of American Folk Painters of Three Centuries, who has delved into the obscure facts of Hofmann’s life, the artist regularly committed himself to the Berks County and Montgomery County Almshouses when drinking, and he painted views of these institutions for staff members, local tradesmen, and county politicians—often receiving a quart of whiskey as payment. Originally Hofmann’s paintings were most likely appreciated by their recipients, but later generations consigned them to the attic or donated them to historical societies as they tried to sever their past associations with the local poorhouse (Armstrong, 1980, v.i., p. 103).

View of the Schuylkill County Almshouse Property, PA is the earliest of five versions of the painting: in addition to this view of 1875, two are dated 1876 and two are from 1881, the year preceding Hofmann’s death. According to Mr. Armstrong, no records have been found to prove that Hofmann was ever registered at the Schuylkill County Almshouse. The provenance of the present picture suggests, however, that Hofmann may have been a patient or resident there at some point. While not exactly clear for whom the picture was painted, during the nineteenth century the present owner’s great-uncle was a patient at the Schuylkill county Almshouse, possibly around the same time Hofmann was painting his earliest views of the institution. The picture passed to the great-uncle’s niece (the current owner’s grandmother) who worked as a nurse at the Almshouse soon after the turn of the century. The connection between the family and the almshouse continued well into the twentieth century when the present owner’s father, the Commissioner of Schuylkill County, changed the organization’s name to Rest Haven in the 1950s or 1960s. The painting sat in the grandmother’s attic until a recent house cleaning. Conjecture raises the possibility that behind the closed doors of the almshouse the great-uncle, a tubercular patient, may have known or known of Hofmann, and commissioned this painting as a memento.

Compared to the later 1881 View of the Schuylkill County Almshouse Property, which is a somewhat formulaic rendition of an established composition, this earlier picture employs a more vivid use of genre details and incidents to enliven the landscape. At the right, a figure draws water from a pump and upon close inspection one can actually see the water flowing out of the faucet into a cup. Horses prance rapidly, dust rises from the wheels of a turning carriage, and small clouds of smoke gather above the pipes of the figures walking at left. This use of minute anecdotal detail generates a heightened sense of activity and reality in an otherwise highly ordered world. Most enjoyable and noticeably absent from the later work is the colorful detail of the apple picker perched on a ladder in the orchard in front of the almshouse, an abundance of orange and red apples scattered about him. Armstrong suggested that by painting a spotless world of sunshine and stability, the artist-inmate depicted life at the almshouse as he, or his patron, wanted it to be remembered, rather than as it was (op cit., p. 108).

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