The daughter of the once up-and-coming Maine realist plans to revive his legacy — if she can find his scattered works.
By Virginia M. Wright
Jamie Hanna has spent the past two years getting reacquainted with her father. It all started with painting classes, which she found challenging. “It made me look at my father’s artworks in a different way, because he was largely self-taught,” she says. “I thought, how did he do that?”
David Hanna has been dead now 40 years, one year longer than he lived. Born in poverty in Pittsburgh and living on his own by age 14, he went on to spend most of his short career on the Pemaquid Peninsula, making realistic landscapes and portraits that once earned him a place alongside Howard Pyle and three generations of Wyeths in a five-city exhibition of artists working in the Brandywine tradition. “I was 16 when he died,” says Jamie, the fourth of seven Hanna children. “I didn’t have an appreciation for his talents.”
Hanna sold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of paintings in the ’60s and ’70s, but after his death, his name and works faded into obscurity in the hands of private collectors. Jamie, who lives in California and has a summer home in Pemaquid, is determined to see her father’s work regain its reputation, aiming to find and photograph every one of his pieces for an online catalogue raisonné. To date, she’s documented about 100 paintings, drawings, and sculptures by “following the breadcrumbs.” She started with the few collectors she knew, who shared names of other collectors, who shared more names, and so on. They’ve welcomed her into their homes and shared memories of her father. “People not only bought his art, they bought him,” Jamie has discovered. “He was the guy you wanted to be with if he were in the room. He never used an agent. His collectors were his salespeople.”
Among arts patrons and journalists, Hanna’s paintings often drew comparisons to Andrew Wyeth.
As one of 11 children in a family that struggled to get by, Hanna had loved to draw but received no encouragement. In the early ’60s, he was deployed to Laos with the Special Forces. “My values changed — got turned around — and somewhere from the hidden recesses came a desire to be an artist,” he once told a reporter. Back home, in a Pittsburgh housing project with his wife, Carolyn, and their growing brood, he got into his first show with help from a building manager who admired a landscape hanging in the Hannas’ living room and knew people mounting an exhibition at a local playhouse. Hanna scrambled to make paintings for the show, getting up in the wee hours before going to work selling insurance. All but two of his 17 works sold. Within a year, his drybrush paintings were fetching $2,000, his large temperas $5,000.
Among arts patrons and journalists, Hanna’s paintings often drew comparisons to Andrew Wyeth, and his darkly handsome looks and against-all-odds success lent something of a mystique. “In his 24 years, he’s been a dishwasher, a pump jockey, an actor, a vagabond, a Green Beret, an insurance salesman, and only Mr. Hanna knows what else,” the Pittsburgh Press reported in 1966. “Well-groomed and well-dressed in a neat blue suit with vest, he handles the moneyed clientele, the sponsors, and the curious equally well.” That coverage was occasioned by the packed opening of Hanna’s second show, organized by Constance Prosser Mellon, of Pittsburgh’s influential Mellon family (she instructed the artist on the proper way to shake hands). “Right now, I’m a craftsman,” Hanna told the Latrobe Bulletin. “I’m working on my technique.”
The Hannas spent a year in Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley, home of the Wyeth family. Then, in 1967, they headed to Maine, settling in Bristol, where they lived in the Pemaquid Point Light keeper’s house. A few years later, they moved to a waterfront home in Round Pond that Hanna largely built himself. “I see a turning point in my dad’s art after he moved to Maine,” Jamie Hanna says. “That’s when he got his own voice.” A Pemaquid neighbor, retired sea captain and marine artist Alex Breede, became a favorite subject. “He was old and had all these nooks and crannies and huge hands,” Jamie remembers. “He was often in my dad’s studio, and I had the sense that they were always brainstorming.”
Hanna’s following, meanwhile, remained largely in the mid-Atlantic. In 1969, 2,400 people came to the opening of his show at Pittsburgh’s venerable University Club. Two years later, his paintings were selected for a traveling exhibition called Brandywine Tradition Artists. “In David Hanna,” organizer Frederick Kramer wrote, “one feels the genesis of an artist innovating and attempting to supersede with contemporary ideas an already established tradition.” The show drew streams of visitors, but some critics didn’t care for it. “It is a kind of regional loyalty — the Brandywine Valley represents a terra firma safe from erosion by that monster, Modern Art,” one wrote. Another lamented young artists making “Wyeths” for “patrons who can’t afford the real thing” but praised Hanna, who “frankly admits his indebtedness.”
A deft technique and “conscious abstract approach” caught the eye of Paul Chew, the founding director and curator of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, in Pennsylvania. In 1977, Chew organized a solo show with 78 of Hanna’s works. In the catalog, he wrote, “It is gratifying to see David Hanna developing a personal stylistic interpretation of the American tradition of realist painting that has been established by some of our greatest artists — Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins and Edward Hopper.” A second Westmoreland show was in the works when Hanna died, from a heart attack, in January 1981.
During the pandemic, Jamie Hanna has located more works and plans to visit them once travel is feasible. She also found, in her father’s papers, snapshots of studies of a Black man and a young Black girl, the Hannas’ Pittsburgh neighbors in the ’60s. Titles scrawled on the back are “Who’s Looking Out for Me?” and “Why?” The hint of social commentary, unusual for her father, intrigues Jamie, who doesn’t know what became of the drawings. “I’ll find them,” she says. “I’m very patient.”