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Umberto Romano (1906-1982)

Katharine (Portrait of Katharine       Bigelow Higgins)


Oil on canvas, 34 x 40 inches. Signed and dated middle right: "Umberto Romano 1939"


Umberto Romano (solo exhibition), Associated American Artists Galleries, 711 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, March, 1942 (as “Mrs. Higgins”); Umberto Romano (solo exhibition), Grace Horne Galleries, Boston, MA, October, 1942 (as “Mrs. Carter Higgins”; a companion portrait of Carter Chapin Higgins was also exhibited at both 1942 venues); Revolutions In Form & Color: Regionalist & Modernist Works (1915 – 1950), Pennsylvania Art Conservatory, Philadelphia, PA, October 13 - November 30, 2007 (featured work, erroneously titled “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”); Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, Northern Arizona University Art Museum, April 7 - May 29, 2015.


Hittner, Arthur D.,"A Regionalist Masterpiece Deconstructed: Unraveling the Mysteries behind a 1939 Society Portrait," Fine Art Connoisseur, November/ December, 2008, p. 75; Enduring America (catalogue); Speer, George V. and Arthur D. Hittner, "Enduring America: The Collection of Art & Peggy Hittner," American Art Review, June, 2015, p. 84.


Hittner, Arthur D.,"A Regionalist Masterpiece Deconstructed: Unraveling the Mysteries behind a 1939 Society Portrait," Fine Art Connoisseur, November/ December, 2008, p. 74-76; Sarni, Elena, "Man Sings of Man: Umberto Romano 1906-1982" (essay in brochure accompanying retrospective exhibition at Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts, October 7, 2006 - January 31, 2007); Pagano, Grace, Contemporary American Painting: The Encyclopaedia Britannica Collection (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1945). 


Katharine B. Higgins and Carter Chapin Higgins, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1939-1949; Katharine B. Higgins (later Doman), New York City, 1949-1991; probably owned by Nicholas Doman, the subject’s second husband, through the early 1990s; with a Chester County, Pennsylvania collector/ dealer by the early 2000s until sold in 2006 to Pennsylvania Art Conservatory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from whom acquired October 19, 2007. 


Very fine original 3 1/2-inch antiqued gold frame with cross-hatched panels, white linen liner; relined on original stretcher. 

carterhigginsprtrt,diningroom (2).jpg

Fig. 1 - Umberto Romano, Portrait of Carter Chapin Higgins, c. 1939 (reportedly destroyed). Photo courtesy Elisabeth Null.

     Umberto Romano was a talented and prolific artist whose work gradually evolved from the classically-influenced and Regionalist-inspired canvasses which he painted in the Twenties and Thirties to the more modernist and expressionist paintings (including many with strongly social realist or religious overtones) which dominated his output during the latter decades of his career. 

     Born in Bracigliano, Italy (near Naples), Romano and his family emigrated to the United States in 1914, eventually settling in western Massachusetts. He was a precocious artist, painting by age nine and gaining admission to the National Academy of Design in New York City by age seventeen. His receipt of a Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship in 1926 allowed him the opportunity to travel to Italy for a year where he studied the work of the Italian Primitives and Renaissance masters while based at the American Academy in Rome. He received his first solo exhibition in 1928, at the age of only twenty-three, at the prestigious Rehn Galleries in New York City.

     Romano moved to Massachusetts in 1933. During the Depression, he participated in the WPA program as a muralist (having been commissioned in 1935 by the Treasury Department to produce a six-panel mural for the Springfield, Massachusetts post office on the history of that city) while pursuing a teaching career at the Worcester Museum of Art (where he directed its art instruction program from 1934-40) and in Gloucester (where he began operating the Romano School of Art in 1937). Although sufficiently versatile to produce work in virtually every medium, he was best known for his figure and portrait painting.

     Painted in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1939, Katharine is a portrait of twenty-two-year-old Katharine Bigelow Higgins (1917-1991), at the time the wife of Carter Chapin Higgins, son of a Worcester, Massachusetts industrialist, whom she married in 1937 and divorced in 1949.* Katharine is portrayed with great sensitivity, at ease in an elegant white dress whose folds echo the freshly plowed furrows of the rural landscape visible in the background. According to the artist’s son, Katharine is holding a book of her own poetry; the landscape is believed to be a view of Dorset, Vermont, a summer retreat during her childhood and later adult years.** In this unusually large composition, Romano invokes the motifs of Italian Renaissance portraiture to create a strikingly contemporary Regionalist statement.*** 

     Romano exhibited widely and received numerous honors throughout his long artistic career. Examples of his work are found in many major public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, National Museum of American Art and Worcester Museum of Art.

     For a fascinating account of the background of this painting and the life of Katharine Bigelow Higgins, see Hittner, Arthur D., "A Regionalist Masterpiece Deconstructed: Unraveling the Mysteries behind a 1939 Society Portrait," in the November/December, 2008 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur.


* Katharine Bigelow Higgins, nee Katharine Huntington Bigelow, was the daughter of Mrs. and Mrs. Mason Bigelow of New York City. She graduated from Milton (Mass.) Academy in 1935 and subsequently attended Barnard for two years, majoring in English, before marrying Carter Chapin Higgins (son of John Woodman Higgins, founder of both the Worcester Pressed Steel Company and the Higgins Armory Museum). Katharine probably first became acquainted with Romano while a student of the artist at the art school operated by Romano at the Worcester Museum of Art. The Higginses summered near the Romanos in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the late 1940s, Katharine briefly ran an art gallery in Boston after which she spent a tumultuous six months in Paris, where she befriended such notables as Albert Camus. In 1951, Katharine married Nicholas Doman (1913-2004), a prominent New York City lawyer and writer. According to Katharine’s son, Daniel B. Doman, the artist and his wife were his mother’s dearest friends. Email correspondence with Daniel B. Doman, November 12, 2007 and Elisabeth Null (Katharine’s daughter), November 13, 2007.

** Email correspondence with U. Roberto (Robin) Romano, son of the artist, November 12, 2007. The striking similarity of the landscape features in the painting to those appearing in comparable photographs of Dorset provides strong support for this conclusion.

*** Romano also executed a portrait of Katharine's husband, Carter Chapin Higgins (see Fig. 1). According to the subject’s daughter, that painting had “the same patina and lush coloring though more in shades of gold and brown.” Higgins sported “a dark blue sweater and he was smoking a cigarette, holding it in his hand with a slight smile on his face as the smoke curled up and around him.” After Higgins premature death of a massive cardiac arrest at age 64, that painting passed to the subject’s son, the avant garde artist, composer and writer Dick Higgins, who, attributing the romantically portrayed smoking of his father as a likely cause of his early demise, reportedly destroyed it. Email correspondence with Elisabeth Null, November 14, 2007.

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