Hemingway in action: a Dos Passos painting from the 1924 Pamplona Fiesta.
KEY WORDS: Fiesta, Pamplona, Watercolors, Dos Passos
Ernest Hemingway's experience of the Pamplona festival of San Fermin from 1923 to 1925, leading up to its portrayal toward the conclusion of The Sun Also Rises, is one of the most widely known events in modern American literature. Indeed, it has taken on a life of its own in contemporary American popular culture in that many Americans today associate Hemingway principally with the San Fermin ritual of running the bulls. In discussing Hemingway and Pamplona, almost all commentators on the 1924 fiesta note both the presence of John Dos Passos at the event and the injury suffered by Hemingway's friend, the American writer Donald Ogden Stewart, during the amateur bullfighting preceeding each day's professional bullfight. (1) What has hitherto not been known is that Dos Passos, a watercolorist his entire life, commemorated the incident involving Stewart's injury in a painting.
By the summer of 1924, Dos Passos was already a presence on the American literary scene, having published five books over the preceding four years, including his controversial but extremely popular World War I novel Three Soldiers (1921). He had also begun sketching in his late teens and had adopted watercolors as his principal medium in 1919 when in Spain working on Three Soldiers. (2) By 1923, he had accumulated enough serious work in this medium to exhibit over fifty paintings at the Whitney Studio Club, the precursor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His preference for watercolors was in large part the product of his lifelong predilection for travel. A watercolor case, a few brushes, and a paper pad could fit easily into a suitcase. Except perhaps for nudes, still lifes, and some landscapes, he seldom painted from life but rather made preliminary sketches of whatever interested him and later developed them into a painting.
Dos Passos and Hemingway had cemented their friendship in Paris during the spring of 1924 when Hemingway had introduced Dos Passos to the pleasures of viewing six-day bike events and horse racing. (3) It was thus not surprising that Hemingway included Dos Passos in the group of largely Paris-based American friends who, under his leadership, were to attend the fiesta that July, and that Dos Passos readily agreed to the plan. (Others in the group that year, in addition to Hemingway, Stewart, and Dos Passos, were Hadley Hemingway, Dos Passos's fiancee Crystal Ross, the newspaperman and publisher Bill Bird and his wife Sally, the American poet and publisher Robert McAlmon, Hemingway's Irish friend Eric "Chink" Dorman-Smith, and George O'Neill, the young son of one of Hadley's St. Louis friends.)
The Hemingway-centered group that attended the fiesta in 1925 was riddled with tensions of one kind or another, as is reflected in The Sun Also Rises, and this was also true to some degree of the 1924 event. Hemingway and Dos Passos got off to a bad start when Hemingway, who had made all the arrangements for the trip, booked Dos Passos and Ross into a single room. Ross was a young American graduate student from Texas, and whatever the state of her relationship to Dos Passos, it had not reached the point of their sharing a room. An alternative arrangement had to be made, in which she took Stewart's room and Stewart moved in with Dos Passos. In addition, as Dos Passos recalled in his memoir The Best Times, "I could enjoy an occasional bullfight as a spectacle, but every day for a week was too much" (155). He further recalled that he found especially distasteful the amateur bullfight that takes place in the bullfight arena on each day a bullfight is held. (In 1924, there were five such days, beginning on 7 July.) "Showing off my ignorance of taurine punctilio to a bullring full of prancing Navarrese," he wrote, "wasn't my idea of an agreeable afternoon" (155). And though he himself was at this stage of his career much taken with French culture and life, he distinguished between that kind of engagement and the superficial bohemianism of the many Americans then resident in Paris. He wrote to his friend John Howard Lawson, in August 1924, that he had recently been in Pamplona at "a ferocious fiesta with a lot of fake bohemians" (Ludington 358). The publication of The Sun Also Rises in 1926 only confirmed to Dos Passos the occasion's lack of substance. In his review of the novel, Dos Passos noted that its Biblical title and Gertrude Stein epigraph about a lost generation appeared to promise a major work, but that though the novel was well written, it was in fact "a cock and bull story about a lot of summer tourists getting drunk and making fools of themselves at a picturesque Iberian folk-festival" ("A Lost Generation" 26). As he also noted in The Best Times (with an intended parodic echo of Hemingway's style), "ft was fun and we ate well and drank well but there were too many exhibitionistic personalities in the group for me. The sight of a crowd of young men trying to prove how hombre they were just got on my nerves" (155).
Dos Passoss comment about "exhibitionistic personalities" trying to prove their manhood refers directly to the amateur bullfights Hemingway participated in during the 1924 fiesta. It was during one of these amateur bullfights that Stewart was injured. Although no one writing about this occasion notes Dos Passoss presence at this specific morning event, he did attend at least one of them, since both and he Stewart later recalled an incident in which he found himself inadvertently encountering a bull behind a barrier (Dos Passos, Best Times 155; Stewart 132). But whether he did or did not view the incident involving Stewart's injury, he would have received a full account of it from its participants and observers.
Dos Passos seldom titled or dated his paintings, as is true of his rendering of Stewarts cogida (the term for a bull tossing a matador or a member of his entourage), so it cannot be determined when he completed this work. But since it is difficult to conceive of him painting a watercolor while attending a bullfight, it was probably not painted at the event but was rather a later rendering based either on sketches or (more likely) his general sense of the nature of the incident and how he wished to depict it. The painting has three principal figures--the bull, the man on the ground in front of the bull, and the man slightly behind and to the left of the bull. (4) It clearly depicts a moment during an amateur bullfight since the bull's horn tips are padded and since none of the human participants are clothed in the traditional costumes of the matador and his aides. Both the crowded arena sketched in at rear left and the presence of five figures in the arena immediately fronting the bull were typical of the amateur bullfight, which was one of the most popular events of the fiesta. Three of the figures directly fronting the bull--the man fully prone, the one in the air, and the one fleeing--probably represent Dos Passos's rendering of the danger to its participants of this particular fiesta event. One man is apparently severely injured, one is being thrown by the bull, and one is frantically attempting to escape.
Of particular interest is the depiction of the two figures in the painting's foreground. The man on the left is given heroic stature by his pose in relation to the scene as a whole. In the face of the danger represented by the bull, he is the only figure who is seeking to deflect its attention--much as a bullfighter might in response to an injured banderillero. Those in the arena ring itself during the event who seriously wished to engage a bull (as distinguished from the many who merely wished to observe the action more closely) often came with a matadors cape or used their jackets as a substitute. The man on the left is so prepared, though the exact nature of the garment is not evident. And he has adopted the matadors pose of stalwartly seeking to confront the bull, cape forward and feet firmly planted. Given what we know about the event, it can be confidently assumed that Dos Passos meant this figure to be identified with Hemingway. The facial characteristics, though not rendered in detail, confirm this association. The figure has a moustache, as Hemingway did during this phase of his life, and is also somewhat square-headed, as was Hemingway.
The face of the figure on the ground in the right foreground does not resemble Stewart's. Rather, the viewer is startled to note, the figure is expressionistically portrayed with what appears to be a death-head--that is, it has the skull shape and rictus smile associated with someone recently deceased. This last characteristic suggests that the tone of the painting as a whole is that of the mock-heroic. Almost all its elements are characteristic of a moment of heroic action, but because these elements are exaggerated in expression they contribute to the painting's satiric character. It is significant in relation to Dos Passos's intent that neither Stewart nor Hemingway, in their accounts of Stewart's injury, has Hemingway coming to the aid of Stewart. Stewart himself, in his detailed recollection of the event in his autobiography, notes that Hemingway was in the ring when he was injured, but he does not have him play any role in the event itself. In his painting, however, Dos Passos's revised the cast and action of the incident to give Hemingway a central role in its depiction of the seemingly heroic rescue of an injured comrade.
Thus, in his reconceived mock-heroic version of the incident, Dos Passos has depicted the bull as too enraged, Hemingway as in too heroic a pose, the three figures escaping the bull as over-exemplary, and Stewart as suffering not a minor but a mortal wound. Dos Passos seldom painted cartoon-style paintings, that is, works portraying with a satiric intent actual figures engaged in specific actions of public interest. But, it seems, he was sufficiently irritated by the entire moment of the Pamplona festival to indulge himself on this occasion and to make his painting of the scene of Stewart's injury less an accurate recording of a specific incident than a freshly conceived indictment of an entire occasion. Although it may not be among his best paintings, Dos Passos's depiction of Hemingway in action is nevertheless of considerable interest both as a commentary on Hemingway and Pamplona and as a significant anticipation of what was to emerge later as his principal criticism of the Hemingway persona.
(1.) First-hand accounts of the 1924 fiesta can be found in Dos Passos, The Best Times 154-56, in Stewart 131-33, and in Hemingway's letters in Spanier 128-34. The fullest scholarly account is by Reynolds 211-19.
(2.) For Dos Passos's career as a watercolorist, see Pizer, "The Paintings of John Dos Passos," in Pizer, Toward a Modernist Style, 122-35.
(3.) For an account of the Hemingway-Dos Passos relationship, see Pizer, "The Hemingway-Dos Passos Relationship," in Pizer, Toward a Modernist Style, 105-21.
(4.) I wish to thank Lucy Dos Passos Coggin for permission to print this painting, which is in her private collection. Any further reprinting of this painting requires her permission.
Dos Passos, John. The Best Times. New York: New American Library, 1966. Print.
--. "A Lost Generation." New Masses 2 (December 1926): 26. Print.
Ludington, Townsend, ed. The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos. Boston: Gambit, 1973. Print.
Pizer, Donald. "The Hemingway-Dos Passos Relationship." Toward a Modernist Style, 105-121. Print
--. "The Paintings of John Dos Passos." Toward a Modernist Stylex 122-35. Print.
--. Toward a Modernist Style: John Dos Passos. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989. Print.
Spanier, Sandra, Albert J. DeFazio III, and Robert W. Trogdon, eds. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1923-1925. Vol 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.
Stewart, Donald Ogden. By a Stroke of Luck: An Autobiography. New York: Paddington, 1975. Print.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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