Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 10, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Frye Art Museum. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition The Paintings of Pieter J. L. van Veen, held in 1998. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Frye Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Paintings of Pieter J. L. van Veen
by Allan J. Kollar
When Pieter van Veen (1875-1961) emigrated to America in 1915, he was an accomplished W landscape painter. Born in The Hague, Netherlands, he trained for two years (1888-89) at the Royal Academy of the Arts in his native city before taking up residence in Barbizon, south of Paris. There, he studied with Henri Harpignies, an artist he later referred to as his mentor. During the next decade in France, the young van Veen met, and on occasion painted with, the leading landscape artists of Europe. Exhibitions sponsored by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in Paris offered many young artists a chance to examine the works of artists who were soon to be the contemporary masters of their day.
In 1898, van Veen spent time with Auguste Renoir at Saint Cloud. In Renoir, he observed an artist content with a life dedicated to painting, an affirmation of the choice van Veen had made at an early age. However, it would be Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet's work that van Veen emulated in his own painting. In the 1920s, van Veen created a small group of fruit, vegetable and found-object still lifes. Noticeably influenced by Cézanne, these still lifes are nevertheless independently competent (FIGURE I). Van Veen also compiled a sketchbook of drawings in homage to Cézanne.
Among van Veen's more notable achievements was his series of French cathedrals, painted during the 1920S. The subject matter was similar to Monet's famed Rouen cathedral series of 1894, but van Veen's purpose and direction were quite different. Painted in a post-impressionist manner, the cathedral series was exhibited in 1928 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The same year, the French government made him a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in recognition of his achievement.
The architectural renderings of churches and cathedrals, as well as the composition of fruit and floral still lifes of the 1930s, were important facets of van Veen's work, but it was landscapes that he intuitively loved and continued to paint throughout his career. Existing landscapes before 1915 are scarce. Van Veen brought fewer than twenty Dutch and French landscapes with him to America when he first arrived, intending to mix them with his new American canvases in exhibitions. Unfortunately, a flood in the basement of his Paris studio shortly after his arrival in America destroyed much of his earlier work.
One of the earliest van Veen paintings sold in America, First Snow, is now in the permanent collection of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington (PLATE I). In 1916, the Washington State Art Association sponsored his first recorded exhibition at the White Building in Seattle. The Spokane Review of October 6, 1916 reported that Charles Frye and H.C. Henry, both important Seattle collectors, purchased works from the exhibition. Of the two works sold, one was a Dutch scene, the other French. This Dutch painting (circa 1913) isolates a figure in a classic open-space landscape. The figure allows the viewer to examine the expanse of the land, a cool flat plane taking us to the horizon, a balance between serenity and loneliness.
Other Dutch landscapes completed within the next year also suggest isolation (PLATE 2). Though void of figures, Windmill Near Antwerp (circa 1914) contrasts the stark shape of a windmill against a dramatic, Barbizon-influenced sky. Painted shortly after the outbreak of World War I, the peaceful landscape is marred by ominous gray clouds, actually the smoke from the bombardment twenty miles from Antwerp. The windmill has ground to a halt; the small adjacent shed appears to sink in the bog as if it has been abandoned. The invasion of Belgium occurred at the time this painting and another, titled Peaceful Morning, were created.
Woodlands, streams, mountain glens and the grand scale of forests have created for artists a psychological balance for emotional and physical conflict. After witnessing the invasion of the Low Countries, it is not surprising that Pieter van Veen would be drawn to the Connecticut landscape, Glacier National Park, and majestic peaks of Washington State.
Pieter van Veen's trip to America was encouraged by Roland Knoedler, president of the Knoedler Gallery of New York, and Bob Sands, brother of Louisine Havermeyer. Sands and van Veen had met in Paris, where van Veen had been exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne and the Galerie Luxembourg. Sands and van Veen were on the same ship that arrived in the United Sates in the early spring of 1915 (FIGURE 2).
On first arriving in the new country, van Veen rented space in New York City. He traveled by train to Connecticut to paint his first American landscapes. He had heard about the artist colonies in Cos Cob, Mystic, Greenwich and Old Lyme. In the inland country, not far from Kent and Lyme, van Veen found himself very much at home.
He painted on location directly from nature. The term plein air ("in the open air") describes the most direct kind landscape painting. Pieter van Veen strove to record the best that nature offered. He would often examine a location for an hour or more, sketch the landscape, making lines upon the canvas with soft vine charcoal. Then he returned to the location the following dawn to record the land during the finest light of day. Once the paint was on the palette, he worked rapidly, starting at the top of the canvas, capturing the subtleties before him.
In plein air painting, the conscious and subconscious work simultaneously. Using photographs and grids is implicitly against the rules. Consequently, the ability to work rapidly is critical to success; some days are decidedly more successful than others. Van Veen's paintings were no exception. He knew that the technicalities of paint and compositional theory had to occur intuitively as he transferred nature to canvas. Such was the challenge that inspired van Veen.
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