There can be no-one-sketch-fits-all when it comes to Robeson. He was a daunting intellect, stage and film actor, an all-star, two-time All-American athlete. He was a scholar and famed baritone of classical, spiritual and folk music. He was multi-lingual and a political activist. He was Valedictorian at Rutgers 100 years ago.
Five themes were given for artists to choose from. When Hoston began researching Robson’s life in depth “it was almost impossible to choose one,” he said.
“I did sketches of him as an athlete and actor and could have kept going.” He submitted the required color 24″ x 12″ sketch of Robeson as an athlete, but the category had been chosen. Museum Director of Rutger’s Zimmerli Art Museum, Tom Sokolowski, suggested Hoston complete a color sketch of his original submission. “It was a fantastic way to go” says Hoston.
“It’s of Robeson in one of his most famous roles as Othello,” says Hoston. Robeson appears at the top of the composition and at the bottom with co-star Uta Hagen as Desdemona. “The two acted together at the world-famous Shubert Theatre here in New York, in 1943-1944. With this sketch Hoston became one of six finalists to show their work.
“I added the red Poppy and purple Mandragora flowers to complete the Shakespearian quote in Othello” says Hoston.
“‘Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou owedst yesterday.’
Those flowers were known for their opioid effects even back then! That quote personified the tragedy that Othello felt, once he had realized what he had done.”
Houston teaches Painting Process: Figure as a Visual Communication and Illustrating the Written Word. His works have been exhibited at galleries nationwide. He has collaborated with artist Jeff Koons, has been a book illustrator and artist at Marvel Comics.
“The portrait of Paul Robeson as Othello by eminent artist James Hoston is a truly memorable expression of the exceptional accomplishments of an iconic performing artist and activist. It is about legacy. A portrait has to be memorable but believable, and that’s what makes this a portrait powerful. It’s what he did that’s being passed down to us. He was moving people. He had the stage.”– Ed Soyka, Chair, Illustration
Hoston spoke to his students about competition and showed them the trajectory of sketches. “I won a slot before the fall semester ended and had to complete the twice-as-large painting in less than three weeks,” he said. “The deadline was in the middle of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I didn’t sleep for a week trying to get my painting done!”
The Paul Robeson commemorative exhibit of portraits at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers-New Brunswick will be on display from through April 14.