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Andy Vanover stood before the mirror and stared at his reflection. He was not a handsome man. Even he could see that. Yet, the man with the paint brushes had called him perfect for the job. Andy had to admit. It was the easiest job he had ever had, sitting around doing nothing while the man with the brushes stared at him and spread layers of colored paint onto a square of white canvas. This time the man had told him to wear a blue shirt instead of the red and black checked one he normally wore. A blue shirt would be better, he had been told. Andy was more than happy to oblige, but the fly in that glass of buttermilk was that he had only one blue shirt, the one he wore when he stood before his brothers and sisters in northern McCreary County and preached the Gospel. With a revival coming up, he couldn’t afford to get that shirt dirty. On the other hand, he couldn’t turn down another good paying job over such a simple thing as a shirt. So, he would do as the man had requested and try to avoid getting the shirt stained and wrinkled. Who knew? Perhaps this time, the man would let him sit in the shade of one of Mr. Brunson’s sycamores.
Roy Hopkins and his wife, Edna, sat in the wicker chairs on the front porch of the Brunson Inn and sipped their morning coffee, convinced that Henry Brunson brewed the best Arbuckles east of the Mississippi, or, at least, his help did. They tried to talk, but conversation was rendered difficult by the roar of the millions of gallons of water plunging over the sixty-eight foot precipice almost directly below their feet. So, they sat quietly and listened to the natural music of the water and the birds and marveled at the plumes of mist that rose above the great cataract of the Cumberland River. It was their favorite time of the day in one of their favorite places on earth and they dreaded the thought of leaving it and returning to their home in Ohio. Return they must, however, but, before they did, Roy had one last project to finish. He had found his subject and was determined to share with the world the image of a true mountain man.
James Roy Hopkins was born in Irwin, Ohio on May 17, 1877. Most of his early life was spent on his father’s farm and he graduated from Mechanicsburg High School in 1895. Two years later, he enrolled as a student at the Cincinnati Academy of Art. There, he excelled and, in 1899, his work was exhibited in the Sixth Annual Cincinnati Art Museum show.
Following graduation from the Cincinnati Academy of Art, Hopkins found employment in New York City as an illustrator and began perfecting his study of human anatomy. Although, as an illustrator, Hopkins had a good income, the bohemian lifestyle of Europe beckoned and he quit his job and moved to Paris. There, he became friends with many of the great impressionists of the day, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Oscar-Claude Monet.
In 1904, Hopkins married a fellow artist named Edna Boies and the couple set up housekeeping in Paris. There, they established stellar reputations and began earning prizes for their works. In addition to the many art museums in Europe, Hopkins’ work was exhibited each year at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Chicago Art Institute, the Carnegie Art Institute, and the International Art Exposition in Washington, D.C. In 1908, he was awarded the Walter Lippencott Prize of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and, in 1910, he was awarded a Bronze Medal at the Buenos Aires (Argentina) Exposition.
In 1914, Hopkins was offered a professorship at the Cincinnati Academy of Arts. He accepted and, with the dark clouds of war hanging over Europe, the couple returned to the United States, happy to be free of the turmoil building up around them. It was while teaching at the Academy, that Hopkins met a man who had become one of his fondest admirers.
Robert L. “Bob” Stearns was the son of the founder of the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company, the largest employer in southern Kentucky. He was gentle man and well-liked by all who knew him, even his political enemies. He was also an accomplished artist in his own right. When Roy and Edna Hopkins arrived back in Cincinnati, Bob Stearns lost no time in contacting them. Through his close connection to Henry C. Brunson, he offered to pay for a suite of rooms at the Brunson Inn, at Cumberland Falls, to serve as an artist studio for the Hopkins. There, they could use their prodigious talents to capture on canvas and woodblock a culture that had long intrigued Stearns, that of those strange people living along the upper Cumberland River in northern McCreary County.
For three summers, 1915 to 1917, Roy and Edna Hopkins worked from their studio at the Brunson Inn, seeking to preserve, at least artistically, a way of life that, even then, was fading away rapidly. Unfortunately, they were not well received by most members of the local populace. Only the family of Andy Vanover agreed to serve as models for them. But, it was enough. For three summers, Andy and other members of his family stood quietly, and for hours at a time, while the mysterious man from “up north” placed them in positions not always comfortable and told them not to move until he said they could. Sometimes, he insisted that they wear certain articles of clothing, including floppy-brimmed hats that made them look like comic characters.
Though certainly not intended, Hopkins became part of a fraternity that included local color writers like John Fox, Jr., James Lane Allen, and Horace Kephart and that perpetuated an image of Southern Appalachian people that has not been of benefit to them. However, his images of Andy Vanover and his family did result in his becoming recognized as one of America’s greatest portrait painters of the twentieth century, if not all time.
Hopkins left Cumberland Falls in time to enlist in the Army when the United States declared war on Germany. He was put in charge of teaching the art of camouflage. His subsequent art career was spent at Ohio State University where he served as chairman of the Art Department. He retired in 1947 and passed away in 1969 at the age of ninety-one. After leaving the Brunson Inn, he never saw Andy Vanover again. The man who had put him in the proverbial artist’s hall of fame faded from his life, like the mist that fades away in the heat of the summer sun.
On that summer day in 1915, as Andy Vanover pulled a comb through his shock of black hair, tucked his treasured blue shirt into his trousers, and got ready to ride his mule down to the Brunson Inn, he had no idea that one day his portrait, blue shirt and all, would be sold for thousands of dollars and hang on display for all the world to see at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, it would be labeled “The Kentucky Mountaineer,” and men, women, and children who would never set foot in McCreary County, Kentucky would stand in awe at the image of a true mountain man.