Heritage Plantation of Sandwich

Sandwich, MA

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"Seeking the Realization of a Dream": The Paintings of Alvan Fisher

May 13 through October 21, 2001

 

Heritage Plantation of Sandwich has organized a special loan exhibition of the work of Alvan Fisher (1792-1863). The show, which will run through October 21, 2001, is the first major exhibition of Fisher's work in 40 years.

The exhibit at Heritage Plantation will explore all areas of Fisher's work and will include approximately forty paintings from museums and private collections. An interactive area for children will also be included.

The exhibit is being cosponsored by Heritage Plantation and Vose Galleries of Boston as a memorial to Robert C. Vose, Jr. (1911-1998), the foremost authority on Alvan Fisher in the country.

Following is an essay published in connection with the exhibition. The Introduction essay is reprinted here with permission of Heritage Plantation of Sandwich and Dr. Fred B. Adelson.

 

Alvan Fisher

by Fred B. Adelson, Professor of Art History, Rowan University

 

Mr. Fisher is well known to the Boston public. Subjects from his pencil may be found in the drawing-rooms and parlors of nearly all our wealthy and discriminating patrons of genius; and the fact of his having, through a long series of years, continued so uniformly a favorite among connoisseurs in the fine arts in perhaps the most severely critical city in the country, is a sufficient evidence of his merit as an artist.
 
Boston Daily Evening Transcript, October 19, 1852
 

Alvan Fisher celebrated America. From the days of James Madison to Abraham Lincoln, he painted its people and places, producing an extensive body of work that included portraits, genre scenes, landscapes, and coastal views. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Fisher did not specialize in one type of subject matter but rather introduced to the nation a diverse range of romantic images that enlarged the repertoire of early nineteenth century American art. He was a pioneer of both genre and landscape painting, "a species of pictures which had not been practised [sic] much, if any, in this country."[1] These novel subjects contributed to his critical and financial success.

Fisher's career was based in the greater Boston area, and he was actively involved in the cultural life of the city. The painter was a regular participant in the Boston Athenaeum annuals, one of the principal organizers of the 1834 alternative exhibition at Harding's Gallery, and a board member of the New England Art Union. As early as 1817, Fisher demonstrated his ambition to receive recognition beyond New England, submitting works to the American Academy of Fine Arts in New York and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He later sent paintings to the prestigious National Academy of Design in New York, and his art was also offered for sale in such southern cities as Richmond, Charleston, and Natchez. In addition, Fisher's images appeared as engraved illustrations in many of the leading American gift books, which were widely circulated and very popular from the late 1820s through the 1840s; these pictures certainly helped to bring his name to the attention of an even larger audience.

Born in Needham in 1792, Fisher was raised in nearby Dedham "where my connections have resided, . . . therefore, I have always hailed from Dedham."[2] Nonetheless, he spent many years in Boston where he received his early training and established his career. In 1840, the artist returned to Dedham, maintaining both a home and studio there. Still working at his easel, Fisher died on February 13, 1863 and was buried in the Fisher family plot at Dedham's Village Cemetery, a short distance from his house on School Street. By the time of his death at age seventy, Fisher's work was receiving less attention, yet he is now rightly recognized for his important contributions to nineteenth century American art.

From 1811 to 1814, Fisher studied painting with John Ritto Penniman (c.1782-1841), who maintained an active studio in Boston. The Young Hunter is Fisher's earliest extant work and was executed at the beginning of his apprenticeship. Even though it is a student piece, the painting does demonstrate his competent handling of the oil medium. The narrative scene with a duck hunter on the foreground embankment combines elements of genre and landscape to reveal the aspiring artist's fascination for what was then uncommon subject matter. The anecdotal pair of a man with his dog will frequently appear in many of Fisher's later paintings.

Around the age of twenty-two, Fisher began his professional career as a full-time painter. His winter pieces, rural subjects, and barnyard scenes proved to be a lucrative source of income. In his first account book, which is located at the back of an early sketchbook and dates from "Previous to August 1815" through July 1817, Fisher listed fifty-four paintings, realizing sales that totaled more than $2600.[3] These pictures were well received by such prominent Boston area collectors as Thomas Handasyd Perkins, the Honorable Josiah Quincy and Henry Pickering. Typical of the initial group is Winter in Milton, 1815, a picturesque scene of a man riding a horse-drawn sleigh through the snow-covered landscape. The storm has ended, and Fisher effectively uses heavily applied paint to suggest snow and ice. He seems more interested in the general effect than any specific identification of the site. These early images bring immediately to mind seventeenth century Dutch genre painting.

Fisher's first pure landscape is The Watering Place, 1816, a work that is directly related to the style of Claude Lorrain, a seventeenth century French landscape painter. With framing trees, a serpentine river receding toward distant hills, and soft lighting, the painting anticipates the major compositional components that define the Hudson River School. Though the foliage may be based on direct observation, the barren branches do look more conceptually conceived. In the same year, a critic in the North American Review wrote:

Mr. Fisher continues to gratify the publick [sic] with the productions of his pencil. Connoisseurs say, that every successive landscape of this promising artist, displays some improvement in the design, the colouring, or the management of light and shade. He has a fair title to his rising reputation by his genius and by the industry and enthusiasm with which he devotes himself to his profession.[4]

The picture's poetic mood seems to echo the sentiment expressed by William Cullen Bryant only five years earlier in "Thanatopsis," "Go forth, under the open sky, and list To Nature's teachings, while from all around - Earth and her waters, and the depths of air - Comes a still voice."[5] The Watering Place established Fisher as a seminal figure in nineteenth century American landscape painting. [6]

Between 1817 and 1826, Fisher did an extensive amount of traveling from Vermont to South Carolina, culminating in a sixteen-month European study tour. These trips provided the artist with considerable pictorial material to expand his scenic subject matter. During this period, canvas rather than wood panel became the major support material for his paintings. The artist also changed the spelling of his Christian name from "Alvin" to "Alvan." No documentation has been found to explain why he decided to do this. By 1820, Fisher regularly used the more affected spelling, which he retained for the remaining years of his career.

Unlike The Watering Place, Providence from Across the Cove, 1818, is a topographical view that emphasizes urban development. An artist sketching in the foreground provides an apparently autobiographic detail to reinforce the authenticity of this panoramic scene, which is one of the earliest landscapes of Rhode Island. Fisher carefully delineates the major architectural landmarks of the cityscape. Since he had been drawing clouds as early as 1816, Fisher uses the lowered horizon as a means to accentuate the light-filled sky, giving his subject a more romantic sensibility than just a mere transcription of the man-made world.

It is hardly surprising to find that Fisher went to Niagara Falls, which was the country's most celebrated natural wonder. Dated sketches indicate that Fisher visited the site in the summer of 1820; these drawings served as the basis for several canvases that the artist completed in the early 1820s. In Niagara Falls, Fisher admirably suggests the monumentality of the scene as he depicts a general view taken from Bender's Ladder. The dark foreground frames the American and Canadian Falls, which are set in the distance. The small-scale gentlemen in top hats and tailcoats add anecdotal interest, as they observe the majestic attraction that possessed such magnetic appeal for romantic painters and tourists.

Fisher's interest in depicting topographical subjects was fully realized in an ambitious commercial enterprise. This project to depict views of Harvard College was certainly a plum commission that gave the artist considerable publicity and an opportunity to execute a design for publication. In August 1821 it was first advertised in the newspaper:

Cummings & Hillard [sic] propose publishing by subscription, two views of the College in Cambridge; to be engraved in the manner, and in a very superior style, from fine original pictures (executed expressly for the purpose) by Mr. Fisher.[7]

As the artist began to work on the canvases, he wrote to Reverend Samuel Gilman, a former New Englander and alumnus of Harvard, who was then serving as pastor of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina to solicit orders for replicas:

I cannot but hope, to derive some encouragement from Gentn In Charleston, particularly from those who have received their education there... The painting will represent the most ancient as well as the best Literary Institution in this country . . . It will recal[l] times long since past, and friends long since forgotten . . . The pencil will portray the Picturesque effects which time has produced on the buildings, and mark their different ages. [8]

The two images of the College Yard are a companion set, representing a northeast view as seen from a spot between the Charlestown and Craigie Roads and a south view as seen from the President's house. In both pictures, the buildings are located in the middle distance. The primary objective was the issuance of engravings. The plates for the prints were completed by May 1, 1823, the date on which a copyright was granted to Cummings, Hilliard and Company. The prestige of Harvard College undoubtedly contributed to the project's appeal. Both views were reproduced on Staffordshire transfer-printed earthenware plates, which were made by several English companies for the American market. The success of the Harvard prints must have motivated Fisher to initiate a few years later the publication of four lithographic views of La Grange, the Marquis de Lafayette's country estate. This set of architectural images was based on his now-lost oil paintings of the Revolutionary War hero's residence in France.

In April 1825 at the age of thirty-two, Fisher journeyed abroad, "visiting all that an artist usually visits."[9] His European study tour to England, France, Switzerland and Italy was the most important and formative experience to establish his professional career.[10] The trip provided Fisher with ample opportunity to visit public and private collections where he could see works by both the Old Masters and leading contemporary painters. As early as 1816, a writer in the North American Review admonished aspiring American artists to become familiar with how the Europeans interpreted nature, "The genuine lover of nature, and of delineations of nature, must be one who has observed for himself, or studied the observations of others."[11]

In London, Fisher had the opportunity to observe the significant British landscape painters of the day. The artist kept a rather detailed diary of his London experiences and noted, "On the whole I am impressed with an exalted opinion of the talents of the English Artists - so far as regards effects produced at a distance."[12] At the Royal Academy, Fisher studied Harbor of Dieppe (The Frick Collection, New York), by Joseph M. W. Turner (1775-1851), whom he recognized as a preeminent contemporary painter:

This picture is a wonderful production, and in many respects exquisite, but not in all. More is attempted than accomplished . . . It is a glorious - splendid fiction - or like the Waverly novels made up of truths and poetical untruths. Yet pleasing, exhilarating [sic], fa[s]cinating. At a distance the spectator sees (or thinks he sees) everything; but near it is an enigma.[13]

Fisher purchased many engravings as reference materials for use in his studio, but he was worried that some of the prints sold on the London streets might be stolen property. Therefore, he reminded himself, "shall purchase no more prints unless it be some prints from Turner's Paintings as Studies for Style of Landscape painting-he being considered the best in that line in England or perhaps in the World."[14]

Fisher stayed in London for only two weeks and then headed to Paris, where he remained for ten months, an unprecedented amount of time for an American artist. Fisher later recalled, "I studied drawing at a private life academy, and made copies from the old masters in the gallery of the Louvre."[15] It is regretful that not long after arriving in the French capitol, Fisher stopped writing in his diary.

In the spring of 1826, Fisher left France for Italy, where he traveled to Naples, Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice, and Milan. By the end of May, the artist began his tour of the Swiss countryside, recalling "My journey in Switzerland was made on foot, the only way a traveler can see that picturesque country."[16] As he hiked through the countryside, the artist sketched the scenery. On his return, he painted several landscapes based on the drawings made during his travels through Switzerland.

By September 1826, Fisher was again settled back in Boston, becoming one of the city's leading artistic personalities.[17] He did not work in isolation but had a circle of art friends that included Chester Harding (1792-1866), Francis Alexander (1800-1880), and Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), who relocated from Philadelphia to spend several years in Boston. Fisher demonstrated his energetic ability to paint simultaneously a variety of subjects without exhausting one category before moving on to another. Though portraits enabled Fisher to paint full-time, nature was unquestionably his preferred subject matter.[18] The years following his return from Europe are the most productive, financially rewarding, and critically successful of his career.[19]

Bostonians were very accustomed to portraiture, and Fisher was only too willing to capitalize on middle-class vanity. Portrait commissions were the staple of his income. Moreover, he took advantage of the emergent popularity of domestic thoroughbred racing. Fisher was the first American artist to paint portraits of celebrated champion racehorses, like Duroc and American Eclipse. At the same time, he also depicted prized cattle and other livestock specimens, such as Henry Clay's bull Ozimbo. While contemplating a move to New York in 1831, Fisher rather begrudgingly stated:

But when I set myself down in New York I shall only be a Portrait Painter and no other kind of painting of my execution shall appear in my painting rooms-for by that branch I have lived and must live, for after all my industry, study, and I believe some skill in Landscape, animals, compositions - I have never been able to make a living without the aid of portrait painting . . . [20]

For the most part, his portraits are competently rendered but conventional images. On occasion, the fame of a sitter may enhance a picture's special appeal. Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, the celebrated phrenologist, was one of Fisher's most renown subjects. In 1832 the "Great Man of Skulls" came from Germany to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard Medical College; while in Boston, Spurzheim died. In the portrait, the doctor holds a phrenological head to emphasize his professional role. Fisher's account book lists sales of five canvases, memorializing the famous doctor in either the profile view or a three-quarter turn.[21]

From the mid-1830s, Fisher continued to travel around New England seeking out romantic sites that were new to art. The picturesque images that resulted from his sketching tours helped to expand the scenic vocabulary of the Hudson River School. A writer in the Boston Courier later acknowledged, "He not only paints well, but has had an excellent taste in the selection of subjects."[22] Although Fisher did not write philosophic essays about nature, his consummate involvement with painting certain places, like the North Conway region or the environs of Mount Desert Island, demonstrates a genuine and eloquent appreciation for native scenery.

Fisher's later landscapes are lyrical and less documentary. The images, which are based on sites that he had visited, often include anecdotal figures, like the group of Native Americans in Indians Crossing a Frozen Lake or the seated man and the passenger-filled coach in Waiting for the Stage Coach. With such details, the narrative quality appears to dominate. Nonetheless, Fisher's cloud-filled skies and framing landscape elements do reveal his continued use of the Claudian mode to present picturesque scenes that are most likely set in the White Mountains, a preferred destination of his mature years.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Fisher made repeated visits to New Hampshire, traveling from Mount Lafayette to Mount Monadnock. However, the area around North Conway was definitely his favorite. The artist felt that "this place is incomparably superior to all others."[22] It was not uncommon for the artist to paint variations of the same place. One of his more popular White Mountain subjects was Crawford Notch, a spectacular site that he first painted and publicly exhibited in 1834. He later became increasingly fond of Mount. Chocorua with its "jagged shoulders" and "talon-like crest uplifted."[24] In 1843, a writer in the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette declared, "When you contemplate one of his paintings there arise the same feelings, as when in real life the scene were before you. You look not at the hand-work but at the spirit that breathes from it."[25]

In addition to the interior landscapes of New Hampshire, Fisher was attracted to the Maine coast, especially the scenery around Mount Desert Island. He first visited there in 1835, possibly traveling with Thomas Doughty. As one of the earliest art tourists, he helped to introduce its shoreline, islands, and lighthouses as imagery. Fisher's appreciation of the area is evidenced by the many paintings that he executed during the late 1840s, frequently representing sites around Bear and Sutton Islands. In a view looking toward Somes Sound, Fisher presents an unusually dramatic image with waves breaking against the shore and stormy clouds that hang over the scene. However, the presence of framing trees on the left is a traditional Claudian motif that harks back to his earlier landscapes. Most of his coastal scenes are decidedly more tranquil and peaceful images that celebrate "the fine air, scenery with which you are surrounded . . . romantic Landscape views, and fishing in your vicinity." [26]

As an artist-entrepreneur, Fisher was quite inventive with ways to market his paintings. He sometimes went on business trips, like the 1838 visit to the nation's capitol where he sold by lottery several canvases, including The Freshet, which was acquired by Lewis H. Machen, the Principal Clerk of the Senate. Fisher worked with agents in Natchez to sell on consignment several dozen paintings, bringing his art to a new audience of potential buyers. Above all, Fisher used his business acumen to plan four solo auction sales that took place in Boston between 1843 and 1857. Each offered for sale a substantial number of canvases and realized several thousand dollars of income.

By the late 1850s, a new generation of artists was exhibiting paintings of magnificently grand landscape subjects. These heroically scaled, mural-size images of remote places made Fisher's smaller New England scenes seem charmingly old-fashioned. In addition, New York took center stage, overshadowing Boston and dominating the national art scene. Fisher was increasingly less involved with the painters from the Empire City; he seems to have removed himself to the sidelines at Dedham. Although he had enjoyed considerable popularity for most of his life, Fisher was fast becoming a forgotten artist soon after his death.[27] Today, no discussion of early genre and landscape painting in America would be complete without acknowledging the significant and innovative contributions of Alvan Fisher.

 

Notes

1. William Dunlap, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States (1834; rpt. ed. Alexander Wyckoff, New York: Blom, 1965), vol. 3, pp. 32-3. Fisher wrote a rather lengthy response to Dunlap's request for information. Dunlap quoted Fisher's entire letter "rather than give its content in my own words."

2. Ibid. Fisher's statement remains the most complete but brief source of information on his early years.

3. Alvan Fisher, "Catalogue of Paintings and Their Subjects-and to whom they were sold," in Sketchbook I (1816), n.p. Bequest of Maxim Karolik. Department of Prints and Drawings, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

4. "Fine Arts," North American Review, vol. 3 (September 1816), p. 431.

5. "Thanatopsis" in Louis Untermeyer, ed. The Poems of William Cullen Bryant (New York: The Heritage Press, 1947), p. 10.

6. See Clara Endicott Sears, Highlights Among the Hudson River Artists (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947), pp. 26-31. The Watering Place was one of the works illustrated in her chapter on Fisher. This was then the longest published account to emphasize Fisher's role as a landscape painter.

7. Quoted in Hamilton V. Bail, Views of Harvard: A Pictorial Record to 1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), p. 149.

8. Letter from Fisher to Reverend Samuel Gilman, February 19, 1821. Miscellaneous Papers-Alvan Fisher, The New York Public Library.

9. Dunlap, p. 33.

10. His itinerary would eventually become a standard for such later American landscape artists as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand.

11. Quoted in William H. Gerdts, "American Landscape Painting: Critical Judgments, 1730-1845," The American Art Journal, vol. XVII, no. 3 (Winter 1985), p. 41.

12. Fisher MS "Diary," unpublished manuscript, 1825, n.p. Private collection of the artist's great-great-great grandson. The entry was dated Thursday, May 5.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid. The entry is dated Saturday, May 14. Fisher did purchase numerous prints based on Turner's work. His appreciation of Turner predates John Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843). Fisher owned a copy of the first American edition of Modern Painters, which was published in 1847. For further information on the importance of English prints on nineteenth century American artists, see Rhoma Phillips, "The Role of English Engravings in the Development of Nineteenth-century American Landscape Painting and Printmaking," (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2001). I am grateful to Ms. Phillips for sharing her research with me.

15. Dunlap, p. 33. Fisher shared accommodations with his younger brother, John Dix Fisher, who went to Paris to study medicine. No information is available about the painter's enrollment in this unidentified private art academy.

16. Ibid.

17. A writer in the New England Galaxy, May 23, 1828, proclaimed: "Fisher returned from Europe with the acknowledged rank of a superior artist. The opportunity he had gained for study was well improved, but his advance since that time has been exceedingly rapid in the development of extraordinary power." No major art event in Boston from the late 1820s through the 1830s would take place without Fisher's participation.

18. See Eliza Susan Quincy, "List of Pictures & Furniture &c. in the house built 1770 in 1879," unpublished manuscript, 1879, p. 28. The Joseph Downs Manuscript and Microfilm Collection, Henry Francis duPont Winterthur Museum, Delaware. In her household inventory, she wrote: "Fisher went to Europe made good copies of some celebrated portraits - and told us that he of course preferred landscape painting, but that he could always support himself by painting portraits at some price or other."

19. In Alvan Fisher, "A Catalogue of Paintings executed after my return from Europe in 1826," unpublished manuscript, 1826-1860, n.pag. Private collection of the artist's great-great-great grandson. His entries list sales of more than 800 paintings.

20. Letter from Fisher to Charles W. Wright, March 8, 1831. Miscellaneous Papers - Alvan Fisher, The New York Public Library. Fisher never moved to New York or concentrated exclusively on portraiture.

21. The earliest entries that describe this subject are recorded in January 1833; each lists a "profile portrait of Dr. Spurzheim," which was sold for $75. Fisher's image served as the source for a lithograph by John Bufford, which was published in Boston.

22. Boston Courier, May 5, 1843.

23. Alvan Fisher, "Letter to the Editor," Crayon, vol. 3 (November 1856), pp. 348-49.

24. Ibid., p. 349.

25. Boston Saturday Evening Gazette, April 29, 1843.

26. Letter from Alvan Fisher to J. G. Bowen, dated Boston, August 28, 1849, Washburn Papers, box 22, p. 157, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.

27. In James Jackson Jarves, The Art-Idea (1864; rpt. Ed. Benjamin Rowland, Jr., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1960), p. 177, he wrote: "These were Doughty, Fisher, and their contemporaries - names fast fading from memory though of repute in their time. They were sincere and earnest artists, materialistic in expression, and deserving of kindly remembrance as the pioneers of what has since been developed into a distinct school of American landscape." Yet, three years later, Henry Tuckerman, in The Book of the Artists (1867; rpt. New York: James F. Carr, 1966), p. 67, emphasized Fisher's involvement with portraiture: "He produced many satisfactory and graceful likenesses; that of the lamented Spurzheim, taken partly from recollection immediately after his death in Boston, was highly valued."


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