American Works from the Paine Art Center

by Paul A. Manoguerra



Over the past fifty years, several exhibitions at the Paine Art Center & Arboretum have focused on the relationship between the Barbizon School and American landscape painting. Early practitioners of the American Barbizon style chose landscape subjects that expressed heightened sentiment. The Barbizon style and the Tonalism of Homer Dodge Martin, George Inness, J. Francis Murphy, Alexander Wyant, Dwight Tryon and others flourished in America from about 1880 to around 1920. Their poetic evocations of the natural landscape, accomplished through a veiled use of a unifying single color and soft accents, form a central core of the Paine collection.

By 1945, Paine's financial crisis had eased, and he purchased Homer Dodge Martin's The Old Birch from Vose Galleries in Boston. Except for a few weeks of instruction in the studio of James MacDougal Hart in Albany, Martin was a self-taught painter. He was, however, greatly influenced by his contemporaries, including John LaFarge, James McNeill Whistler and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Martin first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1857 and was elected an associate in 1868 and an academician in 1875.

Martin made several trips to Europe, where he met Whistler, and the two began a long friendship. In the hope that rest and clean air might improve his health and his rapidly failing eyesight, Martin moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1893. Usually employing only pencil sketches for on-the-spot observations, Martin relied on memory and his drawings for feeling and mood in his works. Painted about 1890, as his blindness was setting in, The Old Birch shows the deep, rich colors and the poetic interpretation of nature similar to the forest scenes of Virgile Narcisse Diaz de la Peña and the Barbizon School.

The misty landscapes of Wyant, Tryon and Murphy were all influenced by trips to Europe and by exposure to the work of J. M. W. Turner and the paintings of the Barbizon School. Associated with the second generation of Hudson River School artists, Alexander Helwig Wyant moved to Arkville, New York, in the Catskill Mountains where there was a small artist's colony. The orange-brown dominated Autumn Near Arkville was painted just a year before Wyant's death and is an excellent example of his low-keyed, intimate landscapes.

Another Tonalist, Dwight William Tryon, traveled in 1876 to France where he was influenced by Whistler and studied briefly with Daubigny and Henry Harpignies. Patronized by collector Charles L. Freer and winner of many prizes during his career, Tryon's subtle and lyrical paintings reveal his deep love of nature.

A six month holiday trip to Europe in 1886 also influenced another artist, J. Francis Murphy, and his post-1886 paintings tend to be more formalized and poetic. He would often begin with an overall tone on a canvas which he might allow to dry for as long as a year. He also used transparent glazes to produce delicate, translucent effects. As in Sunset, the paint was sometimes flattened with a palette knife and the surface pumiced and hardened with lacquer and then finished with free brushstrokes.

Utilizing the philosophical heritage of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, artists such as Tryon, Murphy and Inness were inspired by the calm mystery and quiet spirituality of Nature. Although this late nineteenth-century loosely-knit group of artists looked backward to the transcendentalists in their philosophical orientation toward nature and art, the Tonalists expressed their experience of nature in entirely new terms. Instead of vast, sweeping, powerful landscapes of mountains and rivers, they sought to express a more intimate and personal nature. In place of a strong, often moral light source illuminating God's landscape, the Tonalists used the half-lights of autumn shadows, dawns, clearing fogs or moonlight in their compositions. Tonalism is a style of idealistic expressiveness, of poetic vision, of Emersonian intuitive truth, and of what William H. Gerdts calls "soul."[4]

George Inness is the prime example of "soul" in landscape painting. His Tonalism also grew out of the American tradition of romanticizing nature. Though he inherited the traditions of the Hudson River School of painting, Inness created a style of his own that foreshadows American modernism. He traveled to Europe while still in his twenties and was exposed to the old masters, the French Barbizon School and the light of Italy. In the 1860s and 1870s, when the work of the Hudson River School dominated New York art spaces, Inness' work showed the informal composition, free brushwork and earthy colors of the Barbizon artists.

Inness made a sojourn to England in 1887. The evidence for this trip is found primarily in several paintings he completed of Cornwall. Anderson Art Galleries of Chicago, in a 1926 letter to Paine, described the transaction for the purchase of Inness' Coast of Cornwall:

Confirming my telephone message of this morning that I had been able to secure the Inness Coast of Cornwall for $10,000 and that I was turning it over to you at that figure plus the 5% which you kindly allowed me in connection with my expenses etc [sic] in the transaction. I am most pleased to think that, through my agency, you have been able to secure the best one of Inness's eight marines as well as one of the very best canvases that this great Master painted at a price so much below its intrinsic work. [5]

During the final decade of his life, Inness lyrically harmonized color, space, and light to create landscapes that expressed the depth of his spiritual response to nature. A Spring Morning Near Montclair demonstrates the maturity of Inness' creative and intellectual powers. He remarked that it was the impressions of nature that he was trying to create rather than the visual details of natural objects.

The Paines' interest in the spiritual relationship between the artist and the landscape as subject is also evident in their purchase of three works by Ralph Albert Blakelock. In the early twentieth century, Blakelock was arguably the most famous American artist. Among the most important landscape artists of the late 1880s, his visionary style is most frequently compared with that of his contemporary, Albert Pinkham Ryder.

In contrast to the idealized and highly-detailed Hudson River School landscapes still popular in the 1870s, Blakelock's works have an inward, dreamlike stillness. Blakelock's moonlit scenes, such as Moonlight, extend beyond romanticism or sentimentality. His moon is a powerful image, clothing everything in a blue-green light. A dramatic contrast between light and dark, tree and sky, is further embellished by a mysterious body of water at the horizon.

Blakelock was also fascinated by Native Americans, and as much as one-fifth of his work utilizes the Native American as subject. For Blakelock, the Native American was the natural and ancient inhabitant of America, existing in harmony with great Nature. Indian Camp, acquired by the museum in 1981, is typical of the Barbizon-influenced scenes of the American West that Blakelock painted early in his career.

A prime example of Blakelock's innate romanticism, Seal Rocks, purchased by the Paines in 1926, is one of the most unusual, largest and important pieces in his oeuvre: one of only three ocean scenes known to have been painted by the artist. Layers of pigment help create a glowing source of light as the sun recedes behind a San Francisco-inspired group of seals. Blakelock had the interesting technique of scratching the surfaces of his paintings with either his fingernails or a razor blade to create an extra sense of depth and texture. The powerful setting sun illuminates God's landscape with a spiritual light.

The Tonalists' concern with the relationship between artist and nature, and time of day and time of year, carried over into the Impressionism of the late 1800s and the turn of the century. By the first decades of this century, Impressionism had become the prevailing aesthetic throughout America. The French Impressionist movement attracted the interest, if not the allegiance, of a young American expatriate, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. In 1855, he went to Paris as an art student and became familiar with Henri Fantan-Latour and Gustave Courbet. Whistler admired Courbet but never really joined the Impressionist group. He developed his own style -- strongly influenced by Japanese prints -- of sensitive gradations and tonal adjustments. His prolific and delightfully sensitive etchings found an appreciative public.


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