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Hop Picking

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Hop Picking

Artist: Tompkins H. Matteson (American, 1813 - 1884)

Date: 1862
Medium: Oil on canvas, with an original frame
Framed: 47 x 59 x 3 1/2in. (119.4 x 149.9 x 8.9cm)
Overall: 38 1/2 x 50 3/4in. (97.8 x 128.9cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'T. H. Matteson / 1862'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 49.11
Text Entries

In his discussion of Tompkins H. Matteson’s art, Henry Tuckerman wrote that the “national and rustic subjects, drawn by this pioneer genre painter, indicate the average taste of the people.” One of the pictures by this central New York State artist that presumably reflects this taste is a work Tuckerman called the “Hop Yard.”(1) A recently discovered reference in the Waterville Times provides information regarding the circumstances surrounding its creation. “Mr. T.H. Matteson, artist, of Sherburne, is at present occupying the rooms of A. Taylor in the Putnam Block, where he has on exhibition a splendid painting representing a scene in Hop Picking, which . . . was painted for Mortimer Conger, from sketches made in Conger & Sons Hopyard by Mr. Matteson.”(2)

During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the cultivation of hops was one of central New York State’s most important agricultural activities; this fact would not have been lost on Matteson insofar as his home in Sherburne, New York, was strategically located in the center of the state’s hop farming region. As shown in the Utica painting, hops grow on vines that are supported by poles buried in the ground. After the hop flowers matured in the fall, farmers hired numerous men, women, and children to quickly cut the vines, pick the blossoms, and dry them in specially constructed kilns.

Set against a background that exaggerates the height of the hills of the region around Waterville, New York, the scene has more than thirty figures. Despite shortcomings in drawing and scale, his figures depict the various tasks and social merriments associated with the annual hop harvest.(3) At least two of the figure groups in the painting derive from a sketchbook that Matteson may have used in Wortimer Conger’s hop yard.(4) Hop Picking is somewhat larger in size than most of his paintings, and Matteson has adopted a technique that enabled him to quickly paint the  dense middleground of poled vines by laying down broad areas of green pigment on top of which the leaves of the hop vines were painted with fluid tints and shades of the same color. The vines and foliage in the foreground also appear to have been painted quite rapidly, with the result that there is very little botanical accuracy in this part of the painting, suggesting Matteson’s almost deliberate rejection of the esthetics of the American Pre-Raphaelites, which were then on the ascendancy in American taste.(5)

Although painted during the dark days of the Civil War, Matteson’s harvest scene embodies none of the sinister connotations that inform Winslow Homer’s 1867 painting, The Veteran in a New Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art).(6) The audience that saw a smaller variant of Matteson’s painting called Hop-Pickers (Arkansas Art Center), when it was exhibited at the Utica Art Association’s 1867 exhibition, would have found comfort in its powerful affirmation of nature’s bounty, its idealization of the relationship between the laborer and the property owner, as well as its espousal of the value and usefulness of cooperative effort and hard work.(7)



1. Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (New York: 1867; repr., New York: James F. Carr, Publisher, 1967), p. 434.

2. “A Fine Painting,” Waterville Times, February 20, 1863 [p. 3]. A notice in the same newspaper eleven months earlier (“Portrait Painter in Town,” March 7, 1862 [p. 3]) announced Matteson‘s arrival in Waterville. I am grateful to Philippa S. Brown of the Waterville Historical Society for bringing these references to my attention. A photograph that shows the Utica painting hanging in the parlor of Frog Park, the Conger home in Waterville, N.Y. is in the collection of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art.

3. “Hops: Harvesting the Pernicious Weed,” Heritage (New York State Historical Association), vol. 2 (September-October, 1985), unpaged.

4. A sketchbook owned by Matteson is in the collection of the New York Historical Association, Cooperstown, N.Y. On page 40 is a preliminary sketch for the figures standing around a hop box at the right of the Utica painting. On the following page is a sketch for the horse and buggy in the middleground at the extreme right. I am grateful to Harriet Groeschel for bringing this sketchbook to my attention.

5. Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalog (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1985).

6. Christopher K. Wilson, “Winslow Homer's The Veteran in a New Field: A Study of the Harvest Metaphor and Popular Culture,” American Art Journal, vol. 17 (Autumn 1985), pp. 3-27.

7. The Arkansas painting (221/4X33‘/4"), is briefly mentioned in Harriet H. Groeschel, “A Study of the Life and Work of the Nineteenth-Century Genre Artist Tompkins Harrison Matteson," M.A. thesis, Syracuse University, 1985, p. 80, n. 37. It is cited in James L. Yarnall and William H. Gerdts, comps., Index to American Art Exhibition Catalogues (Boston: G.K. Hall St Co., 1986), vol. 4. p. 2330. The cluster of barns at the left of the Arkansas painting appears at the right of the Utica painting, but is shown from a slightly different vantage point.


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