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State Painters Revealed The Forest And The Trees

July 16, 2006
Commentary By DAVID K. LEFF

Although a small state with modest topographical features, Connecticut has exerted much influence on how the nation views its landscape. The most cursory peek at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's "American Splendor" exhibition of 19th-century Hudson River School paintings leaves no doubt.

The works of Connecticut natives Frederic Church, John Trumbull, John F. Kensett and John Denison Crocker are well represented. Just as significant, the enlightened support of these and many other painters by Connecticut art patrons Daniel Wadsworth and Elizabeth Jarvis Colt sustained them during their lifetimes and left a fabulous legacy for today.

The works range from dramatic, sheer cliffs and jagged peaks in Albert Bierstadt's "In Yosemite Valley" to the tranquility of two people strolling on a seaside beach in Kensett's "Coast Scene with Figures." Many paintings illustrate westward expansion.

Sometimes the image is allegorical, as in Church's divine light-suffused depiction of Hartford's founding in "Hooker and Company Journeying Through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636." Other scenes are more domestic, such as Crocker's "Home in the Wilderness," which depicts a family beside their streamside log cabin. Natural features are pristine and massive. Humans are small by comparison, their activities seemingly in harmony with and dwarfed by nature.

The exhibition is rife with magnificent paintings and intriguing information. But if we leave the museum having only better familiarity with the works and techniques of these great artists, and their role in reflecting and shaping the nation's sense of itself, we will not fully grasp their teaching.

These paintings do not just illustrate scenery, they offer us a way of looking at the world. It is not merely a matter of unflattering comparisons between today's domestic and sometimes abused landscapes, and images of untrammeled nature on canvas. Rather, the paintings tutor us to simultaneously see sweeping horizons and a rich collection of carefully observed details.

To an amateur art lover and inveterate landscape observer like me, this mode of seeing seems the greatest lesson these works offer, and suggests that many of these artists were driven not just by a love of craft, but by affection for the countryside itself.

The artist's dedicated love of landscape is best observed in Hartford's own Frederic Church, America's most popular painter by the mid-19th century. Fortunately, his passion can be directly experienced by visiting Olana, his hilltop home overlooking the Hudson River in Hudson, N.Y. Here Church used his painter's eye to frame a river and mountain view by means of architecture and landscaping. It was his largest work, took the last 30 years of his life, and was, like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, completed only by his death.

So passionate was he about landscapes, Frederic Church found that it was not enough to paint, he had to create one. Beginning in the 1860s, Church transformed an agricultural hillside into a large ornamental garden. He planted thousands of trees, built miles of winding carriage roads and dug a lake.

Near the top of the hill, he built a startling mansion of brownstone and brick that looks like a Middle Eastern castle replete with towers and turrets, recessed spaces and projections, shifting rooflines, ogee arches, decorative tiles and painted bricks. He designed the rooms down to the color and furniture. It is a fancy, fussy but magical house.

As his popularity waned with changes in artistic fashion, and arthritis made it increasingly difficult to paint, he threw himself even more into the creation of Olana. "I can," he said in the mid-1880s, "make more and better landscapes this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio."

Visiting Olana enables one not only to see landscapes painted by Church, but to briefly inhabit a landscape he created. I arrived on a warm autumn day brimming with the clear and pure light emanating from many of Church's canvases.

The pond sparkled with wind-driven fish-scale riffles. Beyond was a forested prospect interrupted only occasionally by a smokestack or building. To the west rose the rugged Catskills, and far below, the Hudson threaded through steep hills like a silver ribbon. Momentarily, I felt as if I had stepped inside one of the great man's paintings.

With Hudson River School paintings commanding princely sums and exhibitions big at the box office, it is hard to believe that by his death in 1900, Church was relatively obscure. In the early 1960s, Olana was faced with demolition. But by the middle of that decade, fresh scholarship renewed interest in Church, and dedicated citizens joined with New York state to save the mansion.

But more than academic reassessment and architectural preservation were at work. The time had come when Americans again needed Church's vision. In a catalog created for a posthumous 1900 exhibition, Charles Dudley Warner, once editor of The Courant, observed that Church's greatest achievement was inspiring average citizens with "an enthusiasm for landscape art ... as an expression of the majesty and beauty of the divine manifestation of nature." After a century of exploitation and despoliation, Church reminded people of a once boundless, expansive and optimistic view of nature.

It seems no coincidence that his 1960s revival came only a few years after Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" detailed the horrors of unbridled pesticide use and kicked off the environmental movement. As environmental awareness gained ground, Church's reputation grew. It was not for nostalgia, but as a wellspring of inspiration as to what our landscape was and could be.

Today we need Church and his Hudson River School colleagues as much as ever.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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