Editor's note: The following 1981 essay was written by William H. Gerdts, Professor of Art History, The City University of New York, for the illustrated catalogue William H. Singer, Jr. (1868-1943), Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 81-51329. The essay is reprinted with permission of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and without illustrations. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the catalogue, please contact Washington County Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Some Thoughts on the Painting of William H. Singer, Jr.
by William H. Gerdts
Rather than retell the life story of William H. Singer, Jr., which is fully outlined in the accompanying essays, I would prefer to offer a few thoughts on his art and its place in the general scheme of Western artistic development. The most immediate and obvious observation from a review of Singer's known work is his complete dedication to the theme of landscape. He may well occasionally have painted other subjects but, if so, the literature concerning his painting, and the available reproductions of his work, do not reveal it. Most artists tend to specialize in certain themes or subjects, but most are not so devoted to one theme to the exclusion of all others as was Singer. Claude Monet, too, was a landscape painter, but he also did many figure paintings and still lifes. The American painter, George Inness, was almost exclusively a landscapist, yet there was a period in the mid-1880's when even he was seriously concerned with the figure. It is likely that a study of Singer's earliest work will reveal experimentation with a variety of subjects, but certainly in his maturity, the landscape was his sole concern. Indeed, given his early activity on Monhegan Island in Maine before he went to Paris, it is safe to conclude that landscape painting was his primary interest from the beginning.
This is pertinent to what we know of Singer's rejection of the training provided by the Academie Julian in Paris and Jean-Paul Laurens, with whom he studied for a few months. Recent scholarship has begun to broaden our understanding of the crucial role played by the Parisian ecoles, academies, and ateliers in the late nineteenth century American artistic development. Literally thousands of American art students of the period joined French men and women and aspiring artists of all nations for training. What has been overlooked so far, however, is the problem of landscape study. Parisian academic training did not provide instruction in this area, and an aspiring landscape painter had few sources for formal study other than turning to the examples of past and current art available in the Louvre or galleries in Paris. Laurens and the teachers at the Academie were all proponents and practitioners of figure painting and, although they perhaps fortified Singer's security in the basic precepts of art technique, they would have offered him little in his determined pursuit of landscape painting.
This may well account for Singer's move to the Netherlands. At present we remain ignorant of the reasons for Singer's choice of relocation since France also offered several seemingly attractive artists' colonies where landscape study thrived. Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and painted, might have been an ideal spot since so many Americans had painted there. Some, such as Theodore Robinson, Theodore Butler and, later, Frederick Frieseke, had settled there for substantial periods. Singer may have had personal reasons for settling in the Netherlands as opposed to France, but his choice may offer some clue to his primary aesthetic intentions. Laren was thought of as the "Dutch Barbizon" of the day, and was associated with the art of the Maris brothers and, particularly, Anton Mauve. By choosing Laren, one senses Singer's wish to ally himself with an intimate, more personal, approach to landscape painting rather than the more objective and impersonal, though joyously radiant, trends predominant in French art. There is no indication that Singer was concerned with, or even aware of, the more avant-garde developments of Post-Impressionism such as the art of Van Gogh, Gauguin, or Cézanne, and certainly not the budding expressionism of the Fauves.
An affinity for the personal approach and quiet intimacy of Dutch painting may have initially drawn Singer to Holland, but he must have found that the terrain itself could not retain his interest. Instead, Singer discovered his true self and chosen subject matter among the majestic mountains and fjords of Norway. It is worth some time spent considering this choice and its singularity among painters of his time. During the nineteenth century, and even in the early years of the twentieth, Norway had the aura of an "exotic" land. Few artists of other European nations, and fewer Americans, found their way there. Norwegian art, until the time of Christian Krohg and Edvard Munch, was little known abroad. The exception to this statement lies principally in those Norwegians who worked in Düsseldorf, Germany, at mid-century. There the paintings of Hans Gude and Adolph Tidemand found receptive audiences precisely because of their picturesque strangeness -- Gude for his mountain landscapes, and Tidemand for his peasant scenes. Before them, only Johann Christian Dahl, a follower of the German Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century, had an international reputation, like Gude, on the basis of his rugged Norwegian landscapes. Among earlier foreigners, the principal artists to explore and exploit the Norwegian landscape were the Dutchmen of the seventeenth century, Allart van Everdingen and Jacob van Ruysdael.
The national art of Norway itself was born only in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. The earliest professional painters were landscape specialists, but by the late nineteenth century, the most original and vigorous artists were figure painters. In a 1912 exhibition of contemporary Scandinavian art shown in the United States, the Norwegian artists Krohg and Edvard Munch drew a hostile reaction in contrast to the positive reception given to the bright and cheerful Swedish and Danish paintings exhibited. There were, of course, able landscape specialists of the period, but the only one to loom significantly on the international scene was Fritz Thaulow, who practiced his modified Impressionism almost exclusively in France. His work, though, seems to have had no national impact, and his abandonment of both his native land and his early commitment to Norwegian Naturalism was regretted and resented in Norway.
What drew Singer to Norway is not certain, though his early travels from America to Europe with his Norwegian-born colleague, Borgord, most probably guided his thoughts and, ultimately, his person to that relatively remote land. It is unlikely that Singer was familiar with Norwegian art or even views of the Norwegian landscape. If by chance he had seen the paintings by Claude Monet as a result of his trip to Norway in 1895, Singer probably would have been uninspired by their lack of structure and monumentality, these being some of Monet's least successful works. Whatever provided the source of his motivation to travel there, Singer most certainly was 'taken' by Norway. Nor was it the artistic tradition of Norwegian painting which interested him, but the landscape itself which captured his attention.
Settled as he was in a remote mountain village, Singer seems to have made little impact on twentieth century Norwegian art. Like Singer, most of Norway's own native landscape painters of the same generation tended to be isolated figures, such as Harold Sohlberg, Thorvald Erichsen, and Nikolai Astrup. The Norwegian writer, Phil RogIer, has pointed out that the valley off the Nordfjord where Olden is situated, held an affinity shared by both Singer and Astrup. For the most part, however, each of the different artists worked in their own very individual manner. Strangely enough, of them all, Singer the non-Norwegian, was apparently most devoted to celebrating the grandeur of Norway's natural majesty.
In critical discussions, Singer's art has often been allied with that of the Impressionist, Monet, and surely there is an Impressionist overlay which infuses Singer's landscapes with bright, glowing color and a sense of luminist radiance. But while the Impressionist aesthetic is obviously a component of Singer's art, it is only one element, and perhaps not the primary one. One clue to Singer's underlying motivation is his choice of theme. While his subject was the landscape, it was not the intimate landscape of Holland, or the valleys and villages of France. His choice instead was the mountainous landscape of Norway, which is all-important to our consideration, both stylistically and thematically. Fritz Novotny has defined the course of nineteenth century landscape painting as a progressive move away from the depiction of the solid and enduring, such as the mountains and forests, toward the changing and ephemeral, as represented by light and air. The end of the century, however, witnessed a reaction to this course, in a return to an emphasis upon form and solid mass. The rejection of a concentration upon the transient is basic to the art of Cézanne, Renoir at the end of the century, and even Monet.
Singer's art reflects this return to a concern for solidity, majesty, and timelessness. He concentrates upon the enduring elements of nature: the great mountain peaks which rise up in glory, sometimes almost spectral images in the background, sometimes in full clarity, but always harmonious elements of the whole landscape. They might be thought of as paternal overseers, never threatening or ominous. Often a lone tree in the foreground on the edge of a precipice, silhouetted against a vastly distant mountain rise, stands staunchly defiant in its isolation, ruggedly clinging not only to its precarious root-hold but also to the natural life itself. Endurance and solidity are the basic characteristics of Singer's paintings. Color and light, for all the homage to Monet or even Turner, seen in Singer's paintings, are secondary overlays.
Another clue to Singer's preoccupations can be found in the titles of some of his pictures. Consider these: The Mysterious North, The Valley of Mystery, Solitude, Majesty, Over and Beyond, Rock of Ages, God's Promise, Enchanted Dream, Silence, Birth of a Cloud, The Sentinel and Peace Divine. Someone unfamiliar with Singer's works might not guess that these refer to landscapes though, indeed, each of them refers to a Norwegian scene. In each of these examples, and in all of Singer's paintings, spiritual overtones are omnipresent, and the landscape becomes setting and symbol for the mysteries and expositions of the power, the blessing, of the Deity. Singer's awareness of artistic currents began in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and his art is infused with late symbolist echos, transmuted into nature-based iconography, rather than human personification. RogIer, in fact, affirmed Singer's identification with a Symbolist art tradition which had informed the work of earlier, Norwegian landscape painters of the nineteenth century.
In a critical consideration of Singer's work, an artist whose name, like Monet's, comes up in frequent association with Singer, is that of the Italo-Swiss painter, Giovanni Segantini. Although Segantini died in 1899, a year before Singer first began to make his own critical mark, the art and the careers of the two artists show many similarities. Both painters eschewed the urban centers and artistic colonies for an isolated mountain retreat. Instead of Norway, Segantini settled in the Swiss Alps. Both artists concentrated on mountain landscape painting in their mature art, and both utilized the prismatic color of Impressionism. They also divested it of the seemingly casual, spontaneous touch, and of the ideological concern for transience, replacing these with a controlled patterning more conducive to their thematic concerns. In fact, Segantini's own technical adaptation of Impressionism, the so-called "Segantini stitch," (a thread-like stroke creating webs of color) is not unlike Singer's own approach to Impressionist color and technique. Still more significantly, both painters approached Nature neither as a Naturalist nor as an Impressionist concerned with transcriptual recording or perceptual documentation, but rather as a source from which to divine symbolic and pantheistic meaning. Eternal verities and harmonic unities affecting. man and nature were primary concerns for both artists.
The question of Segantini's influence upon Singer, therefore, quite naturally arises. Segantini's influence has been recognized in the work of such diverse American artists as Marsden Hartley and N.C. Wyeth. Critical evaluations of his work appeared in American magazines like Scribners, Artist, International Studio, and Critic, prior to, and immediately following, Segantini's death in 1899. Therefore his work could have been seen by Singer in reproduction.
Perhaps a more personal, though indirect, source of his influence upon Singer may have come through the American landscape painter, Walter Griffin. While in Maine at Monhegan, Singer met Griffin, who had studied in Paris under Laurens, and quite possibly recommended the same course of action to Singer. Later Griffin is known to have visited Singer in Norway and painted landscapes there, and his painting displayed a marked technical affinity to that of Segantini. Singer may have already been aware of Segantini's work, though, since they both had works chosen for exhibit in the 1900 and 1901 Carnegie International Exhibitions held annually in Pittsburgh.
In the long run, however, Singer's art is much more than an accumulation of borrowed parts. His major achievement was an interpretation of the majestic scenery of Norway, not the Alps of Switzerland. His symbolism was steeped in a celebration of God in Nature, not in literary or figurative mysteries. If he was an artist without strict national ties -- not really Norwegian in either citizenship or artistic affinity, not truly American in his pictorial heritage -- he was a painter very much of his own time, an artist who was individual, yet in harmony with a world which he himself created.
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