Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal
abstract painter
Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal
Elaine Hamilton-O'Neal, professionally known as Elaine Hamilton, was an internationally known American abstract painter and muralist born near Catonsville, Maryland. She was professionally admired by the influential French critic Michel Tapié de Céleyran and exhibited internationally in solo and multiple-artist exhibits in the United States, Mexico, South Asia, Japan, and throughout Europe.
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    LATE_ADULTHOOD
  • 2010
    Age 89
    On Monday, March 15, 2010, Elaine Hamilton O'Neal died in Woodstock, Maryland due to unknown causes.
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  • 2009
    Age 88
    She was a regular supporter of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, where her brother Douglas serves as Vice-President of the 2009–2010 Board of Trustees.
    More Details Hide Details The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland is one of the finest small, privately formed art collections open to the public in the United States.
    In 2009, Hamilton got by with just one guest room, decorated in shades of green: painted twin beds with tasseled silk spreads she had made in France, with olive green Tibetan rugs on the hardwood floors.
    More Details Hide Details The walls carefully held relief rubbings from tombs in Pakistan. Her travels are in the past. But evidence of a remarkable life is all around. At the end of her life, Hamilton was content living in Granite, near her childhood home. To Hamilton, her eight-room home felt like a piece of France, scooped up and replanted in the Emerald Hill countryside. The home had a brick façade, with Palladian windows, and a gravel drive leading up to the front door. It was expansive with noble proportions and high, stepped tray ceilings that she designed herself in the wide, one-story "Chartreuse" style, common in southern France. A tour of her three-year-old home is a testament to a lifetime of adventure. "It's filled with souvenirs," she said. "It's a vagabond's house." She emitted a hearty bit of laughter from her small frame, her eyes sparkled behind thick glasses. Her Louis XV sofas dated back to the 18th century and were adorned with hand-embroidered pillows from Pakistan. The Regency fireplace mantel—heavy marble carved in scrolls, which Hamilton shipped from France—displayed a bronze cat by the sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye, antique toys from India, and a pair of cloisonné vases (exported from Tibet on the back of a yak). Her dining room furniture dates to the Renaissance, the table embellished with a pair of sturdy brass candlesticks from the same period, which she bought for $200 as an art student in Florence. "They are the real thing," she notes. "A lot of people have sat in front of those."
    In a November 2009 article written by Martha Thomas of the Baltimore Magazine, Hamilton shared her life stories and generously offered a tour of her home, personal collection of artwork, artifacts and souvenirs of a life well lived.
    More Details Hide Details Throughout her life, Hamilton called a variety of places "home." At one time while in France, she owned a 42-room chateau, filled with fine art and antiques. She eventually downsized to the warmth of a quaint French chateau with just 18 rooms. Hamilton lived in apartments in Florence and New York, in a tent at the Mount Everest base camp, and when she was in Mexico City, she was housed by the Rotary Club of Houston, Texas. After returning to America, Hamilton and her husband lived together in an historic, converted grist mill in Mountain Brook, southwest of Birmingham, Alabama. In 2002, the couple decided to sell the Old Mill and move to Maryland, where they would live together after so many years. On the day after their 60th wedding anniversary, as the couple prepared to move, Bill went to the doctor to have his ears checked. Upon further examination, he was transferred to the hospital emergency room. He died of heart failure that day.
    Touring her home in 2009, Martha Thomas, writer with the Baltimore Magazine, was able to view Hamilton's many works within the artist's private collection.
    More Details Hide Details Rather than hanging on the walls, Hamilton's earlier paintings were found resting safely stacked against them. Most of the paintings on display in Hamilton's lower level gallery were her later works: bright and energetic splashes of color with swirls, drips, and slashes of paint on canvases measuring six feet long and four or five feet high. A few of the canvases were round. Hamilton stated that she wanted to challenge herself and "get out of the square thing." In some, color bursts from the center like a supernova against a dark background. In others, the fury of colorful strokes completely covers the canvas. Her work has been described as abstract expressionism and "action painting," but Hamilton says the Buddhist monks she knew in Tibet described it best: "It's meditation in action," she says. "That's not a contradiction. When you meditate, it doesn't mean empty. It's making space for things to come in."
  • 2006
    Age 85
    The 2006, Benezit Dictionary of Artists is emphatic in its praise, stating the following of Hamilton. "A globetrotter who has scaled the heights of the Himalayas, Hamilton makes profoundly serious work.
    More Details Hide Details Clearly part of the movement known as 'lyrical gestural abstraction', her painting is full of verve and invention and manifests an extraordinary gift for colour and substance."
  • THIRTIES
  • 1960
    Age 39
    In late 1960, full of inspiration after her most recent Himalayan adventure, upon her return to France, she quickly created many more of these huge "action" canvases in preparation for solo and group exhibitions in Japan.
    More Details Hide Details About this time, Hamilton caught the attention of Tapié and became the benefactor of his generosity when he exhibited her paintings at the Fujikawa Gallery in Osaka, Japan. The exhibit took place from April 12–18, 1961 and was presented in collaboration with the Gutai Group, which was an association of avant-garde artists representative of Japan's post-war art world. A second showing curated by Tapié was presented at the International Center of Aesthetic Research in Turin, Italy.
    In 1960, Hamilton created her first purely oil on canvas abstract painting, entitled Burst Beyond the Image, after an expedition to K2 in Pakistan.
    More Details Hide Details This painting was Hamilton's foray into the abstract world of action painting, which dramatically records the gestural action of painting itself. Today, the painting remains in Hamilton's personal collection.
    Partha Mitter wrote of Hamilton's influence in her book, Indian Art, published by the Oxford University Press. "Impressed by the visiting American painter Elaine Hamilton, Guljee enthusiastically plunged into action painting " Jane Turner also wrote of Hamilton's influence on Gulgee in The Dictionary of Art. "In 1960, Ismail Gulgee, known for his portraiture, began experimenting with non-objective painting (in the manner of Jackson Pollock) after working with visiting American artist, Elaine Hamilton."
    More Details Hide Details According to David L. Craven, Distinguished Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico, Hamilton became something of an ambassador in South Asia: "Abstract expressionism was promoted as a universal style in Pakistan during the 1950s by a U.S. artist named Elaine Hamilton." While Hamilton was living in France, she gained the professional admiration and support of Michel Tapié de Céleyran, who was a highly influential French critic and respected painter. Tapié was an early advocate of European Abstraction Lyrique, also known as tachisme, which is generally regarded as the European equivalent of abstract expressionism. He was descended from an old, aristocratic French family; notably, he was the second cousin of the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tapié was a generous critic, championing the works of young and upcoming artists. He organized and curated scores of exhibitions of new and modern art in major cities all over the world. In 1952, Tapié was the curator of Jackson Pollock's solo exhibition in Paris, which took place at the Studio Paul Facchetti.
    Around 1960, she took up a personal approach to action painting and it is for her paintings in this later, abstract expressionist manner that she is probably best known.
    More Details Hide Details She is sometimes classed as a lyrical abstractionist. In 1968, she won first prize in the Biennale de Menton in France. As Hamilton's presence in the art world continued to grow, visual art students looked to her for inspiration. Her influence extends across Europe and around the world. One individual in particular was a young Pakistani artist, named Ismail Gulgee (or Guljee, as it is sometimes spelled).
  • 1956
    Age 35
    In 1956 and again in 1958, Hamilton was an invited exhibitor at the Venice Biennale.
    More Details Hide Details During her extensive travels in the 1950s, she remained prominent in the Baltimore contemporary art scene, winning the Popular Prize in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Maryland Artists Exhibition in 1952 and again in 1959. Hamilton had solo exhibitions of her work in major galleries and museums all over the world. The various cities that exhibited her work includes Rome; Milan; Turin, Italy; Florence, Italy; Mexico City; Osaka; Tokyo; and Karachi, Pakistan. She was featured in numerous multi-artist exhibitions in these cities as well as in Paris, the Whitney Museum in New York City, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC.
  • 1953
    Age 32
    In 1953, when the Fulbright grant was extended for another year, she chose to remain in Italy for seven more years.
    More Details Hide Details After exhibiting in Rome, Milan, and at the Venice Bienniale, she found herself drawn to the Himalayas. The Himalayas are a mountain range in Asia, separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. By extension, it is also the name of a massive mountain system that includes the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and smaller ranges that extend out from the Pamir Knot. Together, the Himalayan mountain system is home to the world's highest peaks, which include Mount Everest and K2, which is part of the Karakoram Range. The mountains have profoundly shaped the cultures of South Asia; many Himalayan peaks are sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. K2 is known as the Savage Mountain due to the difficulty of ascent, with the second highest fatality rate among those who attempt to climb it. For every four people who have reached the summit, one has died trying. Unlike Annapurna, the mountain with the highest fatality rate, K2 has never been climbed in winter. Hamilton explained her draw to the high mountain country in Pakistan in no uncertain terms. "I wanted to see where the earth and the sky touched," she said. Over the years, she made nine different trips to different mountains of the Himalayas. She also visited the former kingdom of Sikkim as a guest of Tashi Namgyal, the ruling Chogyal (King) of Sikkim and the royal family.
  • 1952
    Age 31
    In 1952, she traveled to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy.
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  • 1951
    Age 30
    In 1951, Hamilton returned to Baltimore, to present a solo exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
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  • TWENTIES
  • 1949
    Age 28
    By the time Hamilton went to Mexico in 1949, she'd been married for seven years.
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    In 1949, Hamilton continued her education at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.
    More Details Hide Details She studied under the mentorship the muralist Diego Rivera. While there, she received a commission of her own and began working on a 47-foot mural she painted for the privately owned Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende. Hamilton dismisses any comparisons to her contemporaries or artists who worked in the first half of the 1900s. She was not interested in Picasso, she says, and while she admired the work of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, she mainly wanted to learn the techniques required for outdoor murals.
  • 1945
    Age 24
    In 1945, Hamilton graduated from Maryland Institute (now MICA) and went on to study for two years with Robert Brackman in New York as a member of the Art Students League.
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  • 1942
    Age 21
    In 1942, Hamilton met William "Bill" O'Neal.
    More Details Hide Details They were married, soon after being introduced at a black-tie dinner at the Baltimore Country Club. O'Neal was not present for most of his wife's exploits, instead supporting her "morally and physically," from afar, she says, while he worked in the aerospace industry in Alabama. Throughout their marriage, the O'Neals mostly lived apart, and they had no children. "We discussed these things before we were married," says Hamilton. "We laid out our lives. We understood each other. Neither one of us wanted to be 50 percent in our work and 50 percent parents. We wanted to be 100 percent of whatever we were." In 1952, Hamilton and her husband, Bill O'Neal, purchased the Old Shades Creek Mill in Mountain Brook, Alabama. However, international exhibits continued to take Hamilton from one city to the next. Hamilton described her relationship with O'Neal in her last interview in the Baltimore Magazine. While Hamilton was on world tours, O'Neal "was working to put the first man on the moon," says Hamilton. He was initially based in Baltimore, employed by the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin), though he traveled frequently and finally ended up in Birmingham.
  • CHILDHOOD
  • 1920
    Born
    Elaine Hamilton was born on October 13, 1920, to a middle-class family in Paradise, near Catonsville, Maryland.
    More Details Hide Details She was the daughter of Robert Bruce and Lee (née Wood) Hamilton. Paradise was home to her maternal grandparents, William and Caroline Wood. Hamilton was raised at Emerald Hill, the family estate in Daniels, along the Patapsco River, just north of Ellicott City. Hamilton spent a portion of her childhood growing up near Orange Grove in the Patapsco Valley State Park. Orange Grove is a mill town that supported the flour mill on the Baltimore County side of the river. It is known as one of the most scenic areas of Patapsco. During the 1920s, for four or five months during the summer, the Hamilton family would set up camp in the area, which was a fashionable vacation spot for wealthy families at the time. The state park service encouraged middle class and working families to camp there for extended periods, "roughing it pleasantly" for their spiritual and physical refreshment.
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