Painter Marie Atkinson Hull was born on 28 May 1890 in Summit, Mississippi, to Ernest and Mary Katherine Atkinson. She graduated from Belhaven College in Jackson in 1909 with a degree in music. After two years of private lessons in art she continued her education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1911–12) and studied for two summers at the Colorado Springs Art Center and in 1922 at the Art Students League in New York. She taught art in 1913–14 at Hillman College (which later merged with Mississippi College) and gave private lessons at her home in Jackson for more than fifty years.
One of the founding members of the Mississippi Art Association in 1911, Atkinson was elected president in 1916. Her 1917 marriage to architect Emmett J. Hull, who designed their home on Belhaven Street, led to some collaborative work. She began making drawings for his architectural designs but soon turned away from commercial art as being too “mechanical and rigid.” Many of her paintings represent people and scenes she observed in Mississippi, but she also traveled extensively. She recorded her impressions of trips to France, Spain, and Morocco as well as the western United States, Canada, and Mexico in more than sixty sketchbooks now owned by the Mississippi Museum of Art.
Hull exhibited widely, most notably at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929, the Spring Salon in Paris in 1931, the New York American Annual Exhibition in 1937, the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and the Golden Gate Exhibition in San Francisco in 1939, as well as in museums and galleries in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, and throughout the southern states. She received many prizes for her work, starting with a gold medal from the Mississippi Art Association in 1920 and a first place from the Southern States Art League in 1926. A painting of yucca won her second prize in the 1929 Texas Wild Flower Painting Competition. Hull used the twenty-five-hundred-dollar award to study landscape and figure painting in Europe for several months with a group of professional artists.
Hull worked in a variety of media, primarily oil and watercolor, and her stylistic approach varied considerably throughout her career. She noted, “One must keep experimenting, seeking and finding new ways of working in art. . . . When art ceases to become vital and moving forward, expanding, then the artist begins to copy himself.” Hull was influenced by numerous movements throughout her career, including the sober naturalism of American regionalism; the vibrant colors and looser brushwork of impressionism, postimpressionism, and fauvism; and finally, in some of her later work, the intensity of abstract expressionism. Refusing to settle on a single defining personal style, Hull searched for the approach that best suited the subject. She preferred a more direct realism of constructed form in her commissioned portraits, such as the seven paintings made for the Mississippi Hall of Fame from 1938 to 1968. The noncommissioned portraits in the Sharecropper series from the late 1930s are close in style to such regionalists as Grant Wood. Hull focused on the effect of the Great Depression on these men, whom she hired as models, but gave them a quiet dignity. Her portraits of black servants, such as Annie Smith (1928), show freer, more lively brushwork and bold colors that create a vibrant foil for the serious expressions and upright poses.
Hull’s landscapes are often more experimental, revealing her interest in the underlying geometry of trees, rocks, and buildings enlivened by rich colors and rapid touches of the brush. The watercolor sketches made during her travels, such as Granada (ca. 1929), evoke a sense of light and atmosphere reminiscent of Monet and Cezanne, and she applied what she learned from the work of the impressionists and post-impressionists to her paintings of local scenes in Jackson in the mid-1930s for the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration. Even Sedge Field (ca. 1965), Mississippi Red Clay (1972), and other later nonobjective paintings, which she described as “lyrical abstraction,” were often inspired by the landscape of her native state. The energy created by the broken brushwork and vivid colors is controlled by her overriding sense of order and discipline: as she observed, “Art is a balance between the emotional, imaginative and original, plus the discipline of art.”
Hull’s importance to the cultural history of Mississippi results not only from her lively experimentation with portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and abstract paintings but also from her impact on the many young artists to whom she gave private lessons. She painted until shortly before her death on 21 November 1980.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Bruce Levingston, Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull (2015)
- Malcolm M. Norwood, Virginia McGehee Elias, and William S. Haynie, The Art of Marie Hull (1975)
- Estill Curtis Pennington and J. Richard Gruber, Celebrating Southern Art (1997)
- Elise Brevard Smith and Liliclaire C. McKinnon, Marie Hull and Her Contemporaries Theora Hamblett and Kate Freeman Clark (1988)