George Hughes, Portrait Painter

29 Washington Ave
29 Washington Avenue

When I first saw this image of a house formerly standing at the northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Hawk Street, my eye was immediately drawn to the large window on the second floor. I thought, ‘How nice that would be for an artist’s studio.’  And after a search through some city directories, I discovered that it was indeed both a residence and a studio for one George Hughes, who listed his occupation as ‘artist.’  After a little research, I’d say Hughes, all but forgotten today, deserves a little more recognition.

George Hughes was born in in 1863, in Paris, according to one source, although the circumstances of his birth there were not explained. But he was raised in Albany, attending St. Joseph’s Academy.  He later studied with John-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian, and attended the famous École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There, he studied with the French realist painter Léon Bonnat, who had been appointed to the faculty in 1882, and who was quite popular among American students, in part because he could speak English well.

Académie Julian,Paris, by W-A Bouguereau. Ca. 1880

Hughes’ first appearance in an Albany city directory is in 1886, when he is described as an artist living at 39 Van Woert Street, over the railroad tracks and just across from a brickyard. This might have been his ‘struggling artist’ phase!  But just three years later, he had a studio at 20 North Pearl Street, and was boarding at 34 Jay Street.  Hughes moved his studio several times.  In 1890, he was at 25 North Pearl; in 1896, he was at 55 North Pearl.  And in 1900 and 1901, Hughes lived and worked at 29 Washington Avenue, just across the street from the Capitol.  By 1903, Hughes is shown living and painting at 2 Columbia Place.

The 1905 city directory lists George Hughes as a ‘portrait painter,’ with the notation that he had ‘moved to Paris, France.’ There are no further listings for Hughes until 1911, when his studio was at 78 Maiden Lane, directly across from Albany City Hall.  This remained his studio and home for the rest of his life – in fact, he died in his studio on March 7, 1932.

George Hughes, with Walter Launt Palmer, David Lithgow and other local artists, was a founding member of the Albany Artists’ League, which thrived from about 1900 to 1908. He was also a long-standing member of the Albany Institute’s ‘Artists Committee.’

Mrs. George Hughes, as she is always identified in the newspapers (but whose maiden name may have been Lavery), was active in Republican politics, which may have been her way of helping her husband’s career, since many of his subjects were judges and politicians. The papers also reported that the Hughes’ frequently travelled to France, ‘wintering’ there in 1897 and 1899.  In 1913, at least, they spent the summer at Thompson’s Lake in East Berne.

Gov. Frank Black. 1901

A number of George Hughes’ portraits can be found around Albany – the official portraits of Frank Black and Levi Morton in the Hall of Governors in the Capitol; a portrait of Judge William Cuddeback at the Court of Appeals; a portrait of Simon Rosendale, New York State Attorney General, and the first Jew elected to state-wide office, belongs to the Albany Institute (although they seem to attribute it to the wrong George Hughes, giving his dates as 1900-1990).

Hughes is reported in the newspapers to have done many other portraits: of George Douglas Miller; of Albany actress Carrie A. Turner; Rev. Paul Birdsall of Grace Episcopal Church; Mrs. Charles M. Brown; Miss Anna Battershall; as well as paintings entitled ‘Mrs. H.,’ ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ and ‘Woman with a Cat.’

Woman with a Cat

Hughes painted portraits of Mayors James McEwan and William S. Hackett. The Hackett portrait was life-sized, and in 1927, was hung in the foyer of the ‘William S. Hackett Apartments,’ which are today the Robinson Square Apartments.  I wonder if it’s still there?

A detail about his portrait of Governor Levi Morton. It is actually signed ‘L. Bonnat’ and dated 1883.  This was one of a pair of portraits done of Morton and his wife Anna, while Morton was Minister to France from 1881 to 1885.  Hughes signed his name above Bonnat’s (but in much smaller letters) with the word ‘after’ – which could mean Hughes finished Bonnat’s work in 1883, while he was working with him at the École, or that he touched it up before it became Morton’s official portrait as Governor.  The matching portrait of Anna Morton does not bear Hughes’ added signature.

Gov. Levi P. Morton. 1883

George Hughes was also commissioned to paint a series of nineteen paintings for the new D&H railroad station in Cooperstown, completed in 1916, according to plans by Albany architect Marcus Reynolds. Fifteen of them dealt with scenes from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales; four of them were portraits – of Judge William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper, Abner Doubleday, and Erastus Beadle.  The station was closed in 1935, but the four portraits were given in 1956 by the D&H to the First National Bank of Cooperstown, for ‘permanent’ display.  One wonders where they might be now.

An exhibition of George Hughes’ work would be not only a tribute to an exceptionally talented and prolific Albany artist, but an interesting record of some of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical movers-and-shakers of turn-of-the-century New York State and Albany.

Thanks to Al Quaglieri at the ‘Albany … the Way it Was Facebook Group’ for posting the first photo, which got this whole train of thought started.

N.B. There are a lot of artists named ‘George Hughes,’ and it can be a problem keeping them straight.  One is an Englishman and rough contemporary of the Albany artist; another is an artist whose work adorned the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, and who lived from 1907 to 1990.


5 thoughts on “George Hughes, Portrait Painter

  1. I just read this with my sons, George Hughes’s great-great-great nephews. They are so excited to see their ancestor recognized in this article. Thank you!


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