Stewart H. Holbrook Mr. Otis paintings collection, 1947-1962  PDF

Overview of the Collection

Collector
Holbrook, Stewart H., 1893-1964
Title
Stewart H. Holbrook Mr. Otis paintings collection
Dates
1947-1962 (inclusive)
Quantity
27 paintings, 2 reproduction prints (5 boxes) : oil on canvas
Collection Number
PH0425
Summary
Oil paintings by Mr. Otis, a Northwest artist active from the 1930s to the early 1960s
Repository
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections
Special Collections
University of Washington Libraries
Box 352900
Seattle, WA
98195-2900
Telephone: 206-543-1929
Fax: 206-543-1931
speccoll@uw.edu
Access Restrictions

Entire collection can be viewed on the Libraries’ Digital Collections website. Permission of Visual Materials Curator required to view originals. Contact Special Collections for more information.

Languages
English


Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Stewart Hall Holbrook emerged from logging camps to become, in the words of Lewis Gannett, “the only ex-lumberjack who has lectured at Harvard University on American history.” Holbrook, the “Lumberjack Boswell,” was born in Vermont on August 12, 1893. His father bounced around North America, taking the young Stewart with him, until dying suddenly in Manitoba. Now a teenager, Stewart found himself deposited alone on the Canadian plains. He survived with various jobs, including reporting for a Winnipeg newspaper and performing in a traveling dramatic stock company, before serving in France as an artillery sergeant during the First World War. After the war, he bought a round-trip ticket to British Columbia, curious to see the big trees he had heard about. He took employment in a logging camp, and was so enamored with the work and the region that he cashed in his return ticket. He spent the next three years as a clerk in isolated logging camps, while writing articles and drawing popular cartoons for the British Columbia Lumberman at night. His desire to pursue his writing career propelled him to Portland in 1923, lured by “the finest public library in the West.”

He spent the rest of the decade dividing his time between writing stories and freelance articles and the editing work that provided a semblance of a steady income. This precarious career crashed with the Great Depression. “The mss market,” he lamented, “is as bad off as the so-called stock market.” Despite the lean years, he persevered, and was enjoying renewed success by the mid-1930s. He completed his first book during this time, but at least the first three publishers he solicited thought the manuscript warranted only a rejection slip. Finally, the Macmillian Company decided to publish it in 1938. Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack spent five months on national best-seller lists. Fortified by the prospect of additional successes, he moved to Boston and began cranking out a steady and swift stream of additional books on a wide variety of historical subjects, establishing himself as one of the country’s most popular historians. He returned to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1940s to head the newly-created Keep Washington Green organization. The nonprofit corporation, grounded in the private forest industry and actively endorsed by the U.S. Forest Service and state government, popularized the problem of forest fire much as Smokey Bear would begin to do a few years later. Out of his work for the Keep Washington Green movement, Holbrook wrote Burning an Empire, the first, and for decades the only, history of wildlands fire.

Holbrook purposely set himself apart from academic history and the “timidity and woodenness usual to professors.” He disliked the use of footnotes and presented his work as an alternative to what he saw as the arid and colorless output of “stuffed-shirt historians.” He also wanted to resurrect important individuals neglected by academic history, a goal most explicitly followed in his 1946 Lost Men of American History. If his deliberate attempt to write “low-brow” history sprang from his inclinations, it also had a very practical dimension. Unlike most academic historians, Holbrook enjoyed neither a college paycheck nor fellowships; his income depended upon writing books that would sell in sufficient quantities. Yet, despite his zeal to write popular history, he never abandoned the desire to infuse his work with high literary quality. He never did resolve the tension between the often competing demands of the market and the muse.

He moved back to Portland in the mid-1940s, this time permanently, and continued his prolific production. He also undertook a second career, as the popular oil painter “Mr. Otis.” Through Mr. Otis, Holbrook poked fun at the pretensions of modern art, while individual pieces such as “Someone has been here before us Meriwether” and “I was with Custer said the old man” allowed him to deflate myths surrounding the Little Big Horn and the “overly sentimental cult of the pioneer.” In keeping with his mischievous personality, he never publicly admitted being Mr. Otis, whom he heralded as the founder of the “Primitive-Moderne School” of art. (The final "e" in moderne was indispensable, according to Holbrook. “It makes the word foreign hence fashionable.”)

In the early 1960s, Holbrook suffered a series of incapacitating strokes which essentially curtailed his literary and artistic production. He died from complications of a heart attack in September 1964.

Holbrook published some of his crime stories under pseudonyms. These include: Marcus M. Clark, Chris K. Stanton, Stanley Underwood, Ethan O. Allen and Lee Howard. He also used the pseudonyms, Stewart Hall or Dutch in theater work.

Historical BackgroundReturn to Top

In 1949, a bright artistic talent in the form of the mysterious Mr. Otis appeared on the Portland, Oregon art scene. Northwest author Stewart H. Holbrook, Mr. Otis' "discoverer," had become acquainted with the artist (a man of "shabby gentility" who "wore neither a beret nor a beard") when they shared quarters at the Press Club's Portland mansion in the 1930s. Rejected for employment by the WPA, Mr. Otis spent the lean years of the Depression bartering paintings for food. The artist and the author continued their acquaintance throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and Holbrook offered Mr. Otis studio space in his own workshop.

In 1949, Mr. Otis was thrilled to see one of his paintings, Fido Can Set Up!, in the Portland Oregonian. He had submitted it to the paper's Salon Arts Independent. As Holbrook put it, "the dam had broken, the Otis cup ranneth over." Before long, Mr. Otis' works were displayed in the homes and offices of prominent personalities such as Bennett Cerf and Bernard De Voto. Although the Portland Art Museum refused Mr. Otis a one-man show, exhibits of his work sprang up all over town, and eventually, all over the country, much to the delight of eager art aficionados and collectors.

Stewart Holbrook provided further details of his friendship with the artist in the 1958 book, Mr. Otis, which displayed several of Mr. Otis' works and included an introduction by Holbrook. The introduction hailed Mr. Otis as the founding member of the Primitive-Moderne school of painting (Holbrook insisted that the "e" at the end of "Moderne" was "imperative," as "it makes the word foreign, hence fashionable"). Holbrook frequently made appearances on behalf of the somewhat reserved Mr. Otis, who was often busy with work.

Most of Mr. Otis' works were oil paintings, but he also employed techniques of collage and mixed media. Historical figures such as Jesse James, James G. Blaine, and Lydia Pinkham appear in Mr. Otis' paintings, while other scenes reference historical, literary, or even Biblical subjects. Genre scenes -- often whimsical, humorous, or even satirical -- also appear. While Mr. Otis' style often defied classification, the artist once stated that "I always paint as I see things."

Forty of Mr. Otis' works were displayed in an exhibition entitled "The World of Mr. Otis" at the University of Oregon Museum of Art in 1994, and, in 2005, the University of Washington's Special Collections Division exhibited several of Mr. Otis' paintings in a show entitled "Pure Poppycock: The Paintings of Mr. Otis."

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The collection contains twenty-six paintings by Mr. Otis, two reproduction prints, and one painting by Karen Quinn. All but one of the paintings are oil on canvas. While many paintings are untitled, others have typed or penciled titles and notes on the verso. The inventory notes where images have been illustrated in the 1958 book Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook. It also contains color transparencies of paintings not held in this collection.

Several of Mr. Otis' more well-known paintings, including Fido Can Set Up #2, appear in the collection. Some paintings are untitled, and several are unfinished.

All works are by Mr. Otis unless otherwise indicated; all paintings are oil on canvas unless otherwise indicated.

Other Descriptive InformationReturn to Top

Beloved Northwest author Stewart H. Holbrook, a Vermont native and former logger, came to Portland, Oregon, in 1923. His works of popular history covered a variety of topics, including logging, famous figures of the Old West, and interesting events and people of the Pacific Northwest. A columnist for the Oregonian, Holbrook had articles published in newspapers and magazines all over the country, and he published many books. Holbrook described these writings as "lowbrow or non-stuffed shirt history." The much-celebrated author was known to consort with a wide variety of people, from the literary elite to loggers and labor organizers.

Given Holbrook's reputation as a colorful character in the literary and social worlds, it was only a matter of time before he turned the art world upside down. Although the author never admitted it publicly, it was Holbrook, encouraged by his wife Sibyl, who had taken up his brush in the 1940s, signing the resulting works with the name Mr. Otis. True to form, Holbrook used Mr. Otis' brightly-colored paintings to poke fun at society, history, and modern art.

Stewart Holbrook died in 1964.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

Restrictions may exist on reproduction, quotation, or publication. Contact the repository for details.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top


Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top

 

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Mr. Otis PaintingsReturn to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
Box/Folder item
2/1 1 1956
3/1 2
 "Fido Can Set Up!" #2
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.
1953
case
ND 2a
Fido Can Set Up color transparency
Color transparency number: UW29166Color transparency missing as of 2013.
1953
Box/Folder
5/1 3 1959
4/1 4
 Frank Merriwell and the Harvard Cads
Caption on verso: "Yale's incomparable hero; ask Dad, he knows"
1959
3/2 5 1954
4/2 6
I Was With Custer the Old Man Said
Reproduction print from collection of Tom Booth.Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.
1954
case
ND 6a
I Was with Custer the Old Man Said color transparency
Color transparency number: UW29167
1954
Box/Folder
3/3 7
 James G. Blaine is Nominated
Signed: Calvin Otis.
1948
5/2 8 1959
3/4 9
 Jesse James Was Always Kind to His Horse
Caption on verso: "An interesting moment in the great man's parlor"
1960
3/5 10 1959
4/3 11
 The Ladder of Success and the Buzzard
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook. Title in book is The Ladder of Success; or, Horatio Alger, Jr., & the Buzzard.
1956
case
ND 11a
The Ladder of Sucess or Horatio Alger, Jr., & The Buzzard color transparency
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW29162
1956
Box/Folder
4/4 12 1961
2/2 13
 Nostalgia of an Aged Roué
Reproduction print.Includes publicity review and information about recent gallery showing.Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.
undated
case
ND 13a
Nostalgia of an Aged Roué color transparency
Color transparency number: UW29163
undated
Box/Folder
3/6 14
 A Portrait of Joaquin Miller
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook. Title in book is Call Me Ishmael He Cried.
1953
case
ND 14a
Call me Ishmael he cried [A Portrait of Joaquin Miller] color transparency
Color transparency number: UW29164
1953
Box/Folder
3/7 15
 Skid Road Queen #1
Signed: Hols.
1947
4/5 16
 "There Goes Steve Brodie Now!"
Caption on verso: "Only sophisticates will appreciate this scene at Brooklyn Bridge"
1959
4/6 17
 "Where is Shorty This Morning?"
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.
undated
case
ND 17a
Where is Shorty this Morning color transparency
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW29165
undated
Box/Folder
4/7 18 undated
4/8 19
 Circus strongman watched by woman in green dress
Title taken from item list in catalogue for University of Oregon exhibit.
undated
3/8 20
 Girl with broom; bogeyman in window
: Oil on masonite
Title taken from item list in catalogue for University of Oregon exhibit.
1952
1/1 21
 Speaker at I.W.W. rally
Title taken from item list in catalogue for University of Oregon exhibit.
undated
3/9 22 undated
3/10 23 undated
3/11 24 undated
2/3 25 undated
2/4 26 undated
1/2 27 undated
3/12 28 undated
2/5 29
 Untitled (Japanese woman)
Quinn, Karen (artist)
An envelope containing notes written between Karen Quinn and Stewart H. Holbrook is taped to the verso of the painting.
1962

Color Transparencies of Mr. Otis Paintings not owned by the University of WashingtonReturn to Top

Container(s) Description Dates
case item
ND C-1
The Dilema of Piet Mondrian
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Painting in the collection of Brian and Gwyneth Booth.Color transparency number: UW34493
1958
ND C-2
A Gathering of Pioneers at the Skidmore Fountain
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34494
1953
ND C-3
Great Ideas of Western Man
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34495
undated
ND C-4
It Talks Good Daddy
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34496
1955
ND C-5
John the Messenger
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34497
1953
ND C-6
The Jolly Capitalist Retired
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34498
1952
ND C-7
A Legend of Fall River (Massachusetts)
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW34499
undated
ND C-8
Listen my Children said Mr. Longfellow

Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.

Color transparency number: UW35500

1957
ND C-9
Low Tide at Megler
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35501
1951
ND C-10
Lydia E. Pinkham Enters Heaven No. 1
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.In the collection of Brian and Gwyneth Booth.Color transparency number: UW35502, UW35503
1951
ND C-11
The Man is Here about the Wallpaper
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35504
1949
ND C-12
Mr. Audubon finds the Lesser Bustard (Nesting)
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35505
1957
ND C-13
The New Galluses
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35506
1954
ND C-14
Night Life in Portland
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35507
1950
ND C-15
Ode to the Great Speckled Bird
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.In the collection of Don and Roberta Jean Fox.Color transparency number: UW35508
1956
ND C-16
The Pioneer Mother with Child and Late Husband
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35509
1954
ND C-17
Return of the Farmer's Daughter
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35510
1956
ND C-18
The Rise of Populism
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35511
circa 1955
ND C-19
A Room with a View
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35512
1951
ND C-20
Self-portrait of the artist
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35513From catalogue for University of Oregon exhibit: Adding collage to his usual medium, Mr. Otis struck a surprisingly carefree note for this snug scene in his atelier.
undated
ND C-21
Truth Crushed to Earth at Third and Burnside
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35514
undated
ND C-22
Welcome to the New Poltergeist
Illustrated in Mr. Otis by Stewart H. Holbrook.Color transparency number: UW35515
1957
ND C-23
Unidentified (Abstract figures in a group)
Color transparency number: UW35516
1954
ND C-24
Unidentified (Group of figures with a signs)
Color transparency number: UW35517
1957
ND C-25
Unidentified (Man with a cane)
Color transparency number: UW35518
1951

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • American wit and humor, Pictorial--Specimens
  • Artists--Oregon
  • Painting, American--20th century
  • Painting, Modern--20th century--Humor
  • Parody in art--Specimens
  • Visual Materials Collections (University of Washington)
  • Personal Names :
  • Holbrook, Stewart H., 1893-1964--Pictorial works
  • Form or Genre Terms :
  • Oil paintings