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Charles Codman: The Landscape of Art and Culture in 19th-Century Maine

 

The Portland Museum of Art is presenting the first retrospective of Charles Codman's (1800-1842) work. The exhibition will trace the evolution of this important 19th-century American artist, from his early training as an ornamental painter, to his first efforts as a portraitist, to his mature work as a landscape painter. In the process it will document the emergence of a distinctive American painting tradition in the first half of the 19th century. Featuring many newly-conserved paintings never before on public display, Charles Codman: The Landscape of Art and Culture in 19th-Century Maine will be on view through January 5, 2003. (left: Charles Codman, United States, 1800-1842, Canoeing by the Rapids at Twilight, circa 1830-35, oil on mattress ticking, 18 1/4 x 24 inches, Private Collection, Photo by Melville McLean, © Namdoc, 2002)

Codman's first efforts at landscape painting drew the support of art critic John Neal (1793-1876), who later claimed to have "discovered" Codman in 1828. Based in Portland, Neal was known internationally for his literary and artistic expertise, and he took the young artist under his wing, encouraging Codman to capitalize on the new vogue -- and his remarkable skill -- for landscape painting. Codman's work rapidly became more sophisticated in technique and palette, and as a result Neal consistently praised Codman in his writings and encouraged him to produce paintings for exhibition at prestigious national venues, such as the Boston Athenaeum. There, Codman's work was exhibited alongside paintings not only by his American contemporary Thomas Cole, but also by Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, and other European masters of landscape. Codman's work garnered fame of its own at the Athenaeum, his Pirate's Retreat (circa 1830) inspiring poetry from the young author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Like Pirate's Retreat, many of Codman's landscapes were composite depictions of specific and imagined landscape forms, drawing upon a number of sources in adapting for America the grand European traditions of art-making and art-collecting. Thanks to inscriptions uncovered on his paintings during conservation, and thanks to the scrupulous documentation of John Neal, Codman is known to have looked to numerous reproductive prints and literary sources, including Thomas Sully's famous painting, The Passage of the Delaware (used by Codman in his banner for the Calais Frontier Guard, circa 1838); an engraving after Sir Thomas Lawrence (copied for Youth on a Rocky Ledge, circa 1825-1835); the work of Dutch master Philips Wouwerman (Landscape, 1828); and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott (The Lady of the Lake, circa 1830). This practice, however, went hand-in-hand with Codman's dedication to the "real" scenes of Maine and New England, including both landscapes (The Willey House and Notch Looking South, circa 1830-33, depicting a scene in New Hampshire, and numerous views of Portland's Diamond Cove), and scenes of vital action or local interest (Shipwreck at Pond Cove, circa 1830, and The Entertainment of the Boston Rifle Rangers at the Portland Observatory, 1830). Both Diamond Cove and The Boston Rifle Rangers were reproduced in print form, helping to spread Codman's fame and inspiring legions of imitations. (left: Charles Codman, United States, 1800-1842, Diamond Cove (small), 1830-1835, oil on panel, 8 1/2 x 12 1/4 inches, Private Collection, Photo by Melville McLean, © Namdoc, 2002)

This exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue featuring color reproductions of many paintings never before on public display. Essays will be contributed by Jessica Nicoll, Chief Curator and William E. and Helen E. Thon Curator of American Art at the Portland Museum of Art; Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and a longtime scholar of Codman's work; and Jessica Skwire Routhier, Assistant Curator at the Portland Museum of Art. The catalogue is available in the Museum Shop.

 

Following is text from the wall labels for two paintings in the exhibition accompanied by images of the artworks.

Charles Codman, United States, 1800-1842, Still Life of Ducks, post 1825, oil on panel, 13 15/16 x 9 3/4 inches, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Museum Purchase, 1976.120. Photo by Williamstown Conservation

Codman's only known still life, this painting on a panel from the original First Parish Church belonged to Captain Lemuel Weeks, an importer and retailer in Portland in the early 19th century. Although it seems a strange subject for Codman, paintings of this type were not uncommon in decorations for taverns, gentlemen's clubs, or offices.

 

 

 

 

 

Charles Codman, United States, 1800-1842, Landscape with Indians, circa 1830, oil on mattress ticking, 26 3/4 x 33 5/8 inches, Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Annie H. Trowbridge Ward, 1916.20

Indians or native Americans were not uncommon motifs in early 19th-century landscape paintings. Their distinctive presence identified a landscape as specifically American and helped to give it a sense of history unique to the new nation. Despite this, the landscape depicted in this painting, with its ice-blue mountain crags and almost tropical foliage like the one next to it, is not characteristic of North America. It corresponds more closely with contemporary depictions of the garden of Eden, suggesting an unspoiled world waiting to be discovered.

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rev. 9/19/06

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