Contemporary Romanticism: Landscapes in Pastel
April 4 - May 30, 1999
Introduction to the exhibition catalogue by Michael A. Tomor, Ph.D., Chief Curator
Arny Karl, Sierra Autumn, n.d., Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (98-051)
Contemporary Romanticism: Landscapes in Pastel offers a new artistic vision of spiritualism and mysticism in the representation of the American landscape. As did their 19th century counterparts, a small group of nationally recognized contemporary artists are also seeking to capture the grandeur of the land in the medium of pastel.
Inspired by Luminism, a visualization of nature as poetry through spiritual light and color, the brilliant vistas of Peter Adams, Charles Basham, Gil Dellinger, Arny Karl, George Atkinson, Theodore Lukits, Donna Levinstone, Sherry Camhy, Rick Olson, Albert Handell, Doug Dawson, and Richard Segalman in this exhibition stylistically recall the art of the Hudson River School and European Romanticism.
A unique medium, pastel combines the line of drawing with the color of painting and has a vibrancy not readily found in other mediums. Using pastels offers artists the freedom to work quickly and to rapidly transcribe emotions or ideas. Requiring no mixing or elaborate set-up and easy to transport, pastels are ideal for capturing mood and atmosphere and for working outdoors (en plein air). A foundation for all fine art paints, this most permanent of all media consists of almost pure pigment with very little binder or filler. Sixteenth century drawings in pastel are as fresh today as when they were created. Often used by Impressionist landscape painters for rapid notation of momentary sensations and the fluctuating effects of light, pastels gained great popularity as a medium with the advent of landscape painting and Romanticism in the 19th century. (above left: George Atkinson, Everglades, Mudflats, 1994, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (99.038), Margery Wolf Kuhn Fund)
The Romantic Movement developed from a redefinition of the role of art and aesthetics in the early 19th century. It was a reaction to the rational ideas and the skepticism of the Enlightenment that had permeated European politics and thought, and it resulted in philosophical and artistic revivals of the classical canons of ancient Greece and Rome. With new attention to nationalism and the advent of landscape painting, artists from France, Germany, and England sought unique styles that corresponded to literary origins of the romance languages. Although differing responses to the new Romantic depiction of Europe's national landscapes created a variety of visual vocabularies, there were also many underlying similarities, An international movement in art was the result.
For the first time, artists perceived nature as a living entity and as a fit subject for monumental works. Abandoning academic formulas, artists left their studios to observe nature directly. They replaced ancient and classic mathematical formulas and equations used to create one point perspective and symmetrical compositions with a personal, emotional response to nature's wonders. En plein air watercolor and oil sketches were used instead of graphite and charcoal preparatory studies to obtain truthful renderings of color and accuracy of detail and lighting. Even large scale oil paintings were created on site to capture the spirituality of nature in the wild and primitive landscape. In France, the Barbizon painters worked an plain air in the forests of Fontainebleau, and Theodore Rousseau studied, sketched, and painted his visions of nature out of doors. The Nazarene, a self-proclaimed order of monastic artists in Germany led by Friedrick Overbeck and Franz Pfoff, inspired a revival of Gothic art. As a result the prominent Dusseldorf School promoted presentations of untainted nature to reflect religious and moral aspects of the medieval church. In England, Paul Huet and Georges Michel were inspired by Romantic precepts in the works of Rembrandt, Ruisdael, and other great 17th century Dutch painters, and William Turner turned to color theory in painting the untamed sea.
Imported to the United States, the Romantic landscape became the most successful 19th century art form to reach America. A group of artists from New York City active from 1820 to 1850 first established a national style of American landscape painting by traveling to the banks of the Hudson River to sketch and paint the countryside. Thomas Cole, John Trumbull, William Dunlap, and Asher B. Durand celebrated the American scenery as visual poetry. Their work inspired Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and others to travel into remote regions of the Northeast, Southwest Canada and South America to document the untamed wilderness from 1840 to 1880. Their particular interest in the spiritual effects of light and the translucent colors of sky and land led to a characterization of this group as the Luminists.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, artists and collectors turned to the work of the European Impressionists, and it was not until the 1960s that interest in 19th century American artists revived. Today, exhibitions, collections, and literature on the Romanticists and the Hudson River School inspire others to paint the spiritual quality of light and the magical translucence of color in the natural untouched environment through the medium of pastel. Contemporary Romanticists, artists from across the country, have reinvented the 19th century national style of landscape painting to record the grandeur and beauty of the American landscape still evident today.
Theodore Lukits is considered to be singularly responsible for the revival of plein air landscape painting in California in the second half of the 20th century. Working on site in the High Sierras and teaching at his Academy, Lukits communicated his sensitive and faithful representations of nature and the techniques associated with realistic landscape painting to young artists. Despite the overwhelming popularity of Abstraction and Expressionism, many of Lukits' students found a new artistic direction in plein air landscapes during the revival of Romanticism among academics in the 1960s and 70s.
Inspired by the brilliant colors, atmospheric perspective, and scenic grandeur of the great 19th century Romanticists, Peter Adams, a student of Lukits in the 1970s, conveys the magical shimmer of light in ephemeral sunsets and the tranquility of the sea.
Represented in this exhibition by Sunset Over Carmel Rocks (1995), Adams' pastels of the San Gabriel Mountains and the Grand Canyon were also created on site and inspired by the Luminism of the Hudson River School. (left: Peter Adams, Evening Light from Hermit Trail, Grand Canyon, 1995, Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (96-007); right: Peter Adams, Sunrise Over the San Gabriel Mountains, 1995, Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (96-007))
After immigrating to the United States in 1961 from Italy, Arny Karl also studied at Lukits' Academy. Jeffrey Morseburg, Lukits' biographer, believes Karl to be inspired by Lukits' pastels as well as those of the German and British Romanticists Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1841). His Blue Moments and Pink Moments, plein air pastels of the Sierra Mountains, convey the sublime and awe inspiring aspects of nature. (left: Arny Karl: Blue Moment, Sierras, 1995, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (97-049), Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund; right: Pink Moments, Sierras, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (96-183)
California artist Gil Dellinger, inspired by Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, Vermeer's translucent washes, and the moodiness of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors, is also influenced by the magnificent vistas painted by Albert Bierstadt and the immediacy and transcendence of William Keith's San Francisco landscapes. Nationally lauded for his scenes of the Pacific Coast (left: Surf Near Little Sur, n..d., Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (96-162), Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund;) the artist begins by building transparent layers of pastel on black paper that "interacts beautifully with soft, opaque pastel and imparts warmth as I build up color."
Working in Colorado and New Mexico, respectively, Doug Dawson and Albert Handell are also well known for their plein air Romantic landscapes. A professional artist for over 30 years, Dawson captures the diffuse glow of light in the winter landscape of the Alpines and the running streams of the Rocky Mountains (Last Snow and Jason's Creek). Handell's subject is the high desert country of New Mexico (Tonto Mountain and Desert Geometrics). A native New Yorker, he studied at the Art Students League and the Ecole de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris before moving to Santa Fe.
The timeless beauty of the Everglades and the imposing grandeur of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico also attract artists inspired by the Florida landscape. George Atkinson portrays the brilliant light of dusk and dawn breaking through the overcast skies of Florida's southwestern coast (North of Ponce Inlet and Everglades Mudflats). Rick Olson is best known for scenes of the Midwest and Florida, but has been inspired most recently to create soft focus images of Canyon De Chelly and Monument Valley. Charles Basham's rural vistas are inspired by the flat planes of Northeastern Ohio. Recalling the bucolic pastorals of George Inness, Basham draws the changing light, color, and moods of nature in America's Heartland.
Donna Levinstone, Richard Segalman, and Sherry Camhy portray the spiritual light and color of Northeastern vistas. Levinstone, best known for evening landscapes, captures the ethereal quality of moonlight breaking through cloud-covered skies. She uses a limited, almost monochromatic, palette to convey her personal interpretation of 19th century Romantic ideals. Born in Brooklyn, Segalman studied at the New York School, the Art Students League, and the Parsons School of Design. His intimate pastels, with broad strokes of deep blues and golden yellows, convey the subtle changing moods and atmosphere of landscapes bathed in light and air. In contrast, Camhy's pastels are scenes of industry and city life along the Hudson River that make visible a beauty evident only through reflections of nature.
The resurgence of Romanticism is a reaction in part to the Abstraction, Conceptual, and Post Modern art evoked by America's dramatic industrialization and economic growth during the 20th century. The increasing complexity of American society, the growth of regionalism, and the rapid and bewildering change in popular perceptions of public morality have created the desire for a return to beauty and spirituality in both art and life. The grandeur and breathtaking visions offered by these artists celebrate a renewed national interest in the spiritual qualities inherent in our natural and unspoiled landscape.
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