An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection
by Donelson Hoopes
About the time Cole was coming into prominence, Alvan Fisher established a studio in Boston, and made occasional painting trips to Maine. Although he had studied in Europe, his work often retains the same sort of ingenuous picturesque appeal usually associated with self-taught painters. This trait is exemplified in Camden Harbor, with problems of composition resolved by the expedient of bracketing the view in the embrace of monolithic rock formations.
In Fisher's time, Maine was beginning to produce its own small circle of artists, such as Charles Codman. Portland-born and bred, he was one of an increasing number of Mainers whose careers were beginning to demonstrate that native artists could also become successful professionals. Toward the end of the century, Portland could boast a number of proficient local talents such as John Bradley Hudson and Harrison Bird Brown. Both practiced landscape in conservative mainstream Hudson River School styles, and both found themes for their art almost exclusively in the region of southern Maine. Brown frequently sketched long the Saco River, which is probably the locale for the scene depicted in Natural Pool. He was never a brilliant painter, but his landscapes are honest works, and are convincing in their faithfulness to the natural world of Maine he so admired.
Fisher and Codman both adhered to a romantic and picturesque interpretation of nature which gradually was being replaced in the 1850s by an emerging style of painting now termed "luminism." Comparing Fitz Hugh Lane's Camden Mountains from the South Entrance to the Harbor with Fisher's earlier rendition of the same subject reveals the essential distinction between the two styles. Characterized by attention to meticulous realism and precise rendering of atmospheric effects, luminism seeks to unify the total image in an envelope light. More than any other artist of his time, Fitz Hugh Lane is identified with this style of painting. Established at Gloucester, Massachusetts, Lane was at the height of his career in the 1850s when he began making annual cruises to the Penobscot Bay region. As in Castine Harbor, his paintings almost always depict the effects of twilight on scenes often crowded with sailing vessels becalmed in the stillness of late summer afternoons.
Some of that generation of Hudson River School painters who came after Cole, such as Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford and John Kensett, allied themselves stylistically with the luminist aesthetic, demonstrating their devotion more to Lane's pioneering example than to Cole's. Born a decade or more later than this group, Alfred T. Bricher represents the final development of the School's cult of nature. His mature work is almost entirely concentrated on coastal seascape subjects of New England, from Grand Manan Island and Mount Desert to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Probably dating from the 1880s, Ships Along the Shore is essentially a luminist painting. But it also intimates European influences which were then beginning to alter the course of American art -- particularly toward impressionism.
Eastman Johnson was the first painter born in Maine to achieve national prominence. A native of Lovell, Johnson spent some four years studying in Europe where he gained proficiency as a painter of portraits and genre scenes. Each winter during the Civil War years found him sketching in the maple sugar camps near Fryeburg, Maine. Boy in the Maine Woods is typical of the kind of honest and direct observation of country life that earned Johnson his fame as a genre painter.
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