The Artist's Early Life
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, some of the nation’s premier architects began plans to rebuild the city. In the process they devised a way to build the world’s first skyscrapers. Within 20 years the Chicago population grew to more than a million people, and in 1893 the city hosted the historic World’s Columbian Exposition.
Morris Henry Hobbs was born just before that Exposition - on January 1, 1892, in Rockford, Illinois. The great city he came to know during his childhood, when his family moved to Chicago, was sparkling new, and the grand architecture he observed there made a profound impression on him.
Little is known of Hobbs’s early family life. His mother was Helen Jaycox Hobbs. His English-born father, John George Hobbs, owned a jewelry shop where young Morris worked as a teenager. When the boy expressed an interest in attending the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, however, the father disapproved. So Morris took perhaps only one class there before leaving home at age 17 to make his living as an draftsman at architectural firms.
He may have lacked a college education, but Hobbs emerged from his youth a sophisticated and worldly man. He read widely all his life, traveled where he could, and learned his craft by studying with other painters and etchers. He became an excellent writer and an accomplished artist.
Off to the War in France
The artist’s extensive record of his own life begins almost a decade later, in early September 1918, with the pocket-sized notebook he used to record his daily experiences as an army engineer during World War I. He began writing as he rode on a troop train from Camp Wheeler, Georgia, to New York. On September 16, his unit boarded the Balmoral Castle for the Atlantic crossing to Glasgow, Scotland.
In the diary he describes his sense that their convoy might comprise as many as 30 ships stretching out beyond the horizon. He also details the extremely crowded shipboard conditions and a major outbreak of sickness among the troops. The illness was in fact the “Spanish flu,” a pandemic that ultimately killed tens of millions around the world.
Hobbs himself fell ill, but since the ship’s hospital was full, he received little medical attention. Instead, he was among those who were allowed to sleep on the open deck to relieve the crowding below. He suffered a permanent hearing loss from the flu, although he always believed that he would have died if he had been admitted to the hospital ward.
When his unit arrived in the harbor at Brest, on the northwest coast of France, Hobbs recovered from his illness (except for his hearing loss). He was assigned to remain at the port to work on the construction of a hospital and hundreds of barracks for the arriving waves of American troops who were being sent on to the battlefront.
In what free time he had, Hobbs explored the old town of Brest. Intrigued by its ancient architecture, he took a guided tour of the massive old chateau overlooking the harbor. As for many American soldiers, this time in France was his first exposure to a culture far older than his own. His view of the world expanded overnight.
After the November 1918 Armistice, Hobbs received orders to stay in Brest as war-weary American troops moved back through the port and onto ships for the voyage home. Before being sent home himself the next year, he managed to visit England, where he met some of his father’s relatives and made a few pencil sketches. His diary ends with his arrival in the U.S. But he must have known even then that he would return to Europe one day.
Marriage, Work ~ and Art
Hobbs went home to Chicago and was honorably discharged from the Army. He married Julia (“Jewel”) Clark and the couple moved to Toledo, Ohio. There Hobbs worked at the architectural firm Mills Rhines Bellman & Nordhoff, and later at Gerow Conklin & Hobbs Architects. The Hobbses soon welcomed daughters Bette (b.1922) and Dorothy (b.1923).
In Toledo, Hobbs met illustrator J. Ernest Dean (1879-1972), who taught him how to make an etching. In 1926 he submitted his first print, Entrance to Jail, Leicester, England, for an exhibition presented by the Brooklyn Society of Etchers (later known as the American Society of Etchers and Engravers).
When the Hobbses moved back to Chicago in 1927, Morris took a position at Craven & Mager Architects. In his spare time, he studied printmaking under illustrator Ralph Fletcher Seymour. But Hobbs’s job abruptly ended when both his employers drowned in a 1928 boating accident and the business closed. The Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression made architectural commissions scarce.
And so, he turned to art to make a living.
In the early 20th century, in Britain and America, etchings sold well because they enabled people to own affordable original art. Many American etchers joined associations of printmakers, to sell their work more widely. There were frequent opportunities to exhibit prints publicly, and newspaper reviews were plentiful. Several books of prints were published, showcasing work by emerging as well as established artists.
The etcher John Taylor Arms (1887-1953) was an active promoter of American printmakers, as was Chicago etcher Bertha Jaques (1863-1941). Artists like James McNeill Whistler and Joseph Pennell were much admired by etchers of the era, and Hobbs thought highly of Scottish etcher W. Russell Flint as well.
He began submitting prints to exhibitions far and wide, to critical praise. His scenes of France and the Midwest were exhibited and published along with works by Thomas Hart Benton, Alfred Hutty, Rockwell Kent, James Swann, and many others. His etchings were published in Fine Prints of the Year 1930 (Malcolm C. Salaman, ed., New York: Minton, Balch & Co.).
He also began making etchings of nudes around 1929, and he continued making these well into the 1940s as he also focused on other themes. His finely drawn nudes are distinctive in that he rendered his models’ faces in detail to give their images highly individual character. He had an appreciation for the beauty of the feminine form, and for the spirit within each model.
American artists had long considered it important to study in Europe, so Hobbs decided to do the same. In 1930 he spent the summer in France, traveling around the country making sketches and studying briefly with American artist Chester C. Hayes at Etaples.
At home once more in Chicago, he began making a series of etchings based on his pencil studies of French scenes from that summer. Three of the etchings appeared in Fine Prints of the Year 1931 and another was in Contemporary American Prints 1931 (published by the American Art Dealers Association).
In the 1930s, Hobbs joined and became a director of the Chicago Society of Etchers (CSE), founded by Bertha Jaques. Among the CSE artists of his time were John Taylor Arms, Samuel Chamberlain, Gustav Dalstrom, Reinhold H. Palenske, Leon Pescheret, and Roi Partridge.
Hobbs became a member of the Illinois Society of Fine Arts, the Miniature Print Society, and similar organizations. He often traded prints with other etchers through these alliances. His work was published in many books, exhibition brochures, newspaper reviews, and printed matter disseminated by art dealers. He was a diligent promoter of his own work, taking every opportunity to submit prints in competitions.
One day Hobbs visited a smithy to have some blank copper plates cut down for his etchings. As the smithy cut the plates to the desired sizes, Hobbs realized that he could use the leftover scraps to make miniature drypoints.
He later invented a tiny “Permo Press” for making what he called “Postage Stamp” etchings – most of them 1x1½ inches in dimension (i.e., about the size of a large U.S. postage stamp). Some depicted Midwestern landscapes, some were scenes of Paris, and some were exquisite little nudes. During the Depression, copper was hard to find, so miniature works were a clever solution to the shortage.
In 1933-34 Chicago held another world’s fair, A Century of Progress, to celebrate its civic history. In 1934 Hobbs and Henry D. Rosenthal established a printing partnership in the historic Tree Studios building, at 4 East Ohio Street. An early project was the production of etchings of the international villages at the Fair.
Hobbs's work was published in Fine Prints of the Year 1935, and the Smithsonian honored him with a solo exhibition in 1936. The Smithsonian and Library of Congress acquired etchings from the show.
Morris and Jewel had separated by this time and were later divorced.
New Orleans Renaissance
Morris Henry Hobbs was by now an established American artist, and the year 1938 proved to be a major turning point in his life.
In January, soon after his 46th birthday, he packed his pencils and paint box in his La Salle convertible (“Sally”) and drove from Chicago to New Orleans, where he planned to spend a few weeks sketching. No doubt he knew that there was a vibrant art scene in the old French Quarter.
Arriving in New Orleans on January 20, he quickly found lodgings at 740 Royal Street and set to work drawing. In the courtyard of this house he found a scene that he depicted in several media – pencil, etching, lithography, watercolor, and oil.
In the Quarter he found subjects everywhere. He had a small folding stool that he could carry from site to site as he drew scenes of back alleys, old tenements with laundry on the line, houses with “iron lace” trim, and patios graced by huge pots of tropical bromeliads. He made drawings almost daily in January and February and later rendered them as etchings that have become an enduring part of New Orleans culture.
In May he wrote to a friend:
My trip to New Orleans opened my eyes to many real possibilities, and while I did not make a pile of money there, I wouldn’t sell the trunk full of my pencil sketches for five grand. The old French Quarter is probably the most unique spot in these United States, and is visited and loved by people from all over the country. … My years of training in the architectural profession stood me in good stead, for the very charm of the old city of New Orleans lies in the lovely detail of doors, windows, fanlights, archways, dormers, etc. . . .
Hobbs had a second solo exhibition at the Smithsonian in 1939, and moved to New Orleans, this time for good. He rented a room at 629 St. Ann Street to use as a studio and he asked his assistant, Judy Parker, to close his Tree Studios space in Chicago.
A very active group of citizens had already been working to preserve the French Quarter’s architecture and essential character, and to protect the area from builders who tended to tear down old structures and replace them with ugly modern ones. Hobbs eagerly joined the preservation movement.
Many artists have portrayed the French Quarter, but Hobbs’s images of the old city have a spirit all their own. He depicted the architecture just as he found it – anyone visiting the same streets today can see that he faithfully recorded even the distinctive designs of wrought-iron railings on each balcony. There is a timeless quality in his work, an evocation of human life as it has endured in those buildings and along those streets over hundreds of years. He also captured moments in time that make each image spring to life – children spinning tops on a sidewalk, a street vendor hawking coal, a lady in a Spanish shawl crossing a courtyard, birds arcing across the dramatic clouds of the Gulf Coast sky.
The move to New Orleans gave new life to Hobbs’s work. That city has always been a place where people feel free to be themselves and to live in whatever way they wish. The atmosphere appealed to him, and he soon met other artists with whom he had much in common.
He rented a very small house that had once been a slave quarter, probably one facing the courtyard of Maison de Ville (729 Toulouse Street) and behind the Court of the Two Sisters restaurant. He found small treasures in nearby antique shops to decorate his home, and he made some of his own furniture - he was a skilled wood carver. For the summer, he rented studio space at historic “Madame John’s Legacy,” 632 Dumaine Street.
He soon moved his studio to the New Orleans Art League at 628 Toulouse Street, where he kept two adjoining rooms on the second floor for the rest of his life. Painters Clarence Millet and Charles Reinike also had studios there, and Reinike had an art gallery and an academy of art in the building. Hobbs taught classes at the academy as well. He and a group of printmakers formed the Louisiana Society of Etchers in 1939, and Hobbs served as its first president.
Although he sold his work directly from his studio, he also sold his prints at J.S.W. Harmanson’s bookstore at 333 Royal Street in the Quarter. Harmanson’s spotted dog, Dockey Boy, appears in several of Hobbs’s etchings and in a canine portrait.
Hobbs was one of 200 artists invited by John Taylor Arms of the Society of American Etchers to submit work for the prestigious 1940 Venice Biennale. But when Italy declared war on England and France, Arms withdrew the group's work from the show.
With Chicago friends, Hobbs spent several weeks that summer aboard a yacht called Adventure, exploring the far reaches of Lake Michigan and finding uninhabited islands in areas once prowled by pirates. For those who remembered the First World War and the long Depression that followed, there had been only two decades of world peace. Carefree days of sailing the Great Lakes must have seemed precious indeed.
The War Years at Home
Hobbs registered with the U.S. Army Air Corps wartime ground service in 1942, but he was never called to active duty. During the War his art occasionally reflected the darkness of the times, with contemplative nudes or a haunting nighttime image of the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral.
With fuel rationing everywhere, trains offered a practical way to travel long distances. Hobbs’s etching Village Depot, Palatine, Illinois evokes the atmosphere of a typical railway station on a snowy winter day in the 1940s. He had made the preliminary pencil sketch on an envelope he found in his pocket as he waited for a train. The etching appeared in American Prize Prints of the 20th Century (Albert Reese, pub., American Artists Group, NY) in 1949 and was acquired by several museums.
Taxco, Mexico, had long been a magnet for New Orleans writers and artists. Hobbs traveled there in 1942 with Judy Parker, his former Chicago-based assistant, who had spent years keeping his papers in order and negotiating with dealers on his behalf. Here Hobbs painted several watercolors, and he later made five etchings of the town.
On July 18, 1942, Judy (a.k.a. Alice Seddon Hobbs, b.1898) and Morris Henry Hobbs were married in New Orleans. It was to be a long and happy union. Judy was stately and prematurely silver-haired. She had worked her way through the University of Illinois at a time when women had few opportunities to attend college. After an early marriage ended, she had been raising a son, William (b. 1936), in Chicago.
Morris and Judy were soon invited to spend two summers as Fellows at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where they occupied the Adams Studio (1944) and the Alexander Studio (1945). Hobbs painted many watercolors and oils of the New Hampshire landscape and the MacDowell Colony studio buildings, and he made carvings on the Alexander Studio’s oak doors that survive to this day.
Peace, A Country Retreat ~ and a Garden
Financially, life became easier in 1948 when Hobbs became chief designer at the prominent New Orleans architectural firm Favrot Reed (later Favrot Reed Mathes & Bergman). He was to work there for some 20 years.
The Hobbses soon bought a country house in Mandeville, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. They set to renovating the house and establishing a Japanese-style garden with a moon-viewing lantern designed by Morris, who loved bonsai and Japanese woodblock prints. Five great live oaks graced the property and a bayou ran along one side. The lakefront was close enough for sunset walks. This was to be their tranquil weekend retreat.
Hobbs then designed and built three small greenhouses and a pond. He had long been intrigued by tropical bromeliads(bromeliaceae), which he planned to collect and cultivate. He formed the Louisiana Bromeliad Society and was its first president, and for several years he made drawings for the covers of the National Bromeliad Society Bulletin.
The family settled into a new pattern of living. In New Orleans during the week, Judy worked at a commercial firm and William boarded at school. Morris went to his architectural office during the day and spent many evenings at his studio on Toulouse Street.
By now he had finished most of his French Quarter etchings, although he made additional prints for several years and occasionally accepted Mardi Gras art commissions. He also kept up an active correspondence with friends in the fields of art and horticulture.
On weeknights Morris and Judy enjoyed the city’s fine restaurants and various social activities, and on Friday evenings the family made the long drive around Lake Pontchartrain to their country house. (The Causeway made the trip shorter when it opened in 1956.)
In 1953 the Hobbses moved from their French Quarter "weekday house" to a third-floor apartment at 516 St. Peter Street, part of the historic Upper Pontalba Building on Jackson Square.
In 1958 Hobbs donated a large set of his French Quarter etchings to Tulane just as young William Hobbs graduated from the University and joined the U.S. Air Force.
Hobbs was elected to the board of directors of the National Bromeliad Society (based in Los Angeles) in 1958. Two years later, he began painting a series of watercolors depicting bromeliads and tropical birds. He eventually sold some 100 of these watercolors to bromeliad society members and most of the works remained in private hands long afterwards.
In December 1959 the Hobbses began sending a “Christmas Letter from Old Louisiana” to friends and family. Judy wrote the letter on her classic Underwood typewriter, describing the abundant wildlife in their Mandeville garden. Morris, who decreed that the letter must always be cheerful, added sketches of live oaks, flowers, and small animals and birds.
The couple began a series of trips to Latin America in the 1960s. Hobbs spent a week in Costa Rica in 1961, collecting a great variety of bromeliads that he had permission to import. And both Hobbses visited Costa Rica the next year.
The Gallery of Fine Arts at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette presented a solo exhibition of Hobbs’s bromeliad watercolors in March 1963. That year and again in 1965, the couple spent several weeks in Guatemala, where Hobbs made a series of landscape watercolors.
In 1966 Hobbs had a solo show of his bromeliad watercolors at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Around the same time, he donated a large collection of his French Quarter etchings to Gen. L. Kemper Williams, who was establishing a museum to be called The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Morris and Judy spent time in Trinidad that year but in December, Hobbs, a long-time chain-smoker, fell ill and was hospitalized with lung cancer.
On January 24, 1967, he died in New Orleans. He was 75.
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In addition to many drawings and paintings, the artist had left behind a full set of his etchings and their copper plates, as well as his printing notes, a large press, and his professional papers. In his garden he left hundreds of rare bromeliads.
In his greenhouses one day Judy found small scraps of paper tucked away here and there, on which Morris had composed Japanese-style haiku. Some of the poems formed his posthumous contribution to her “Christmas Letter from Old Louisiana” that year:
Hungry green lizard
Twitching his tail … watch out, bug …
One quick snap … goodbye!
Black snake slithering
Along twig, stalking lizard …
Jump … you sleepyhead!
Little blue beetle
Crawls out finger for take-off …
Changed his mind … sat down.
Judy wrote of him a few years later:
Sometimes, he would come in from the greenhouse and beckon to me, “I have a visitor.” It might be a possum, a snake, or the prothonotary mother on her nest in a can on an upper shelf, or the Carolina wren in a well-outfitted nest in the bowl of a staghorn fern. When he sat there quietly painting in the middle greenhouse where “the light is fine,” creatures came who paid no attention to him. He had a serenity that made wild things accept him without fear. And whatever joy, or pleasure, or beauty he found, he shared it.
The Reinike Gallery, in the building where Hobbs had kept his studio for three decades, presented a retrospective exhibition of his work a few months later.
Judy moved to an apartment on the first floor of the Pontalba. In 1970 the City of New Orleans, which owned the building, forced several tenants to vacate their apartments to make way for street-level shops. Judy reluctantly made Mandeville her full-time home but continued to commute to her office in the city until she was in her eighties.
The Historic New Orleans Collection presented a solo exhibition of work by Morris Henry Hobbs in 1976. The St. Tammany Art Association held an exhibition of works from the Hobbs family collection in 1983. And in 1986 the Louisiana State Museum and the World Bromeliad Conference held a major retrospective of Hobbs’s French Quarter etchings and his watercolors of bromeliads and tropical birds, at the Presbytere.
The bromeliad hybrid cultivar Aechmea Morris Henry Hobbs (a.k.a. Aechmea Bill Hobbs) was named for him during his lifetime and an annual bromeliad prize is still awarded in his name.
Judy Hobbs died in 1993 at age 95.
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Several books addressing the work of Morris Henry Hobbs have been published since then, including Printmaking in New Orleans (Jessie J. Poesch, ed.); A Unique Slant of Light: The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana (Michael Sartisky, et al.,eds.); and Imprinting the South: Southern Printmakers and Their Images of the Region, 1920s to 1940s, by Lynn Barstis Williams.
His work has been exhibited at the New Orleans Museum of Art (2007); Historic New Orleans Collection (2012 and 2017); Louisiana State University Museum of Art (2015); and Davidson Galleries, Seattle (2020).
His art is in many collections, including:
The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco (Achenbach Collection)
Georgetown University Library
The Hilliard Museum, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
The Historic New Orleans Collection
The Latin American Library, Tulane University
The Newcomb Art Museum, Tulane University
The Library of Congress
The Louisiana State Museum
The MacDowell Colony
The Mills College Art Museum
The National Gallery of Art
The National Museum of American History
The Smith College Museum of Art, and
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others.
The Morris Henry Hobbs Papers are in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
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