The Paintings of Pieter J. L. van Veen

by Allan J. Kollar



The first American paintings executed by van Veen were completed from late spring through early fall in Connecticut, 1915. His new acquaintances were William Chadwick, Frank Dumond and Wilson Irvine, all plein air landscape painters. Pieter van Veen's paintings captured this new land with remarkable sensitivity, combining his European heritage with fresh insight. Woodland Interior, Connecticut (PLATE 4) captures the structure of a strong central tree within a woodland setting. The dappled paint application blends the warmth from above with the cool forest interior, paralleling his earlier Barbizon work in the Forest of Fontainbleau. Connecticut Valley Vista (PLATE 5) places the viewer on a hillside overlooking the countryside. The distant town radiates in light, creating some ambiguity: is the light coming from the sky or from within the town? Prominent in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch paintings is a theme of the struggle between nature, culture, and commerce. The artist may search for inspiration in nature, but the artist's survival depends upon education and commerce associated with the city. The town, as in this landscape, was the center of human energy.

In 1916, the railroad magnate Louis W Hill hired van Veen to go west to record the territory along the expanded Great Northern Railroad (FIGURE 3). The following year, one of the paintings created on this excursion, Mt. Rockwell in Glacier National Park, was selected by the Department of Interior for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. Its selection provided van Veen with national recognition, and his work became associated with American painters such as Dean Babcock, Eliott Dangerfield, Carl Rungius, William Leigh, and Edward Potthast. Works loaned from institutions to this exhibition included paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, John Twachtman and Thomas Moran.

Nineteen seventeen was a pivotal year for Pieter van Veen. He received his American citizenship, opened his New York studio at 58 West 57th Street, and entered two paintings in America's first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. The following two years were even more encouraging. Using his studio as his base, he went on week long excursions to paint. We know from his 1918 painting The Hackensack River (PLATE 8) that he visited New Jersey. He also produced several paintings in Chicago and returned many times to Connecticut. In 1919 he exhibited at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, the Ralston Galleries, and the Salmagundi Club in New York City. An interview with Pieter van Veen's companion of several years, Doris Holmes Schneider, revealed that he won the premier prize at the Salmagundi Club between 1919 and 1921. Unfortunately, records from the Salmagundi Club that would have substantiated the award have been lost. Early Morning Connecticut of 1919 (PLATE 9) brought him recognition. It is likely that this painting was either the Griswold Museum's entry or the Salmagundi Club's award winner. It was the earliest work that he chose to have photographed for his permanent records.

Early Morning Connecticut has a delicate, luminous atmosphere using predominately a monochromatic palette. For van Veen, this was a modern presentation, as were several other canvases completed during the next two years. He discarded excessive detail in pursuit of simplicity. Melting Snow (PLATE 10) and Early Moon (PLATE II) reveal a similar approach. Early Moon focuses on the light at day's end. The foreground consists of energetic brushwork. The soft paint application in the sky is subtle. If it were not for the title, the barely visible moon might be overlooked. The painting was van Veen's entry in the National Academy of Design's 1922 Annual Exhibition.

The nineteen twenties were van Veen's heyday. His Connecticut landscapes were well received, and in 1922 and 1923, he traveled to California. There, he painted the cliffs of Laguna Beach, Hills of Palo Alto (PLATE 12), the Arroyo Seco region of Pasadena, and the mission of San Juan Capistrano. Stendahl Galleries of Los Angeles exhibited this body of work in 1923.

An exhibition was scheduled in 1924 at the Knoedler Galleries in New York City. Roland Knoedler, who had previously met van Veen in France, encouraged new French landscapes for the proposed exhibition. That encouragement led to van Veen's opening a second studio in Paris. His American landscapes were eventually joined by rural images of France (FIGURE 4) in Limoges, Oise, Loing, Auvers, Cahors, Caen, Grez, and in numerous settings along the banks of the Briance, Sarthe, and Seine rivers (PLATE 15).

On February 2, 1924, Knoedler Galleries opened the van Veen exhibition. By then, van Veen had set up his studio in Paris but had little time to paint French images. The New York Sun (March 1, 1924) reviewed the show, mentioning five titled works: four were California subjects. The fifth image is uncertain. After this exhibition, Van Veen returned to France. His November 1924 show at the Howard Young Gallery in New York City included several French landscapes and the first of his cathedrals, The Cathedral of Chartres.

At this point in Pieter van Veen's career, one cannot determine differences in his landscapes by technique. What affirms his capabilities is his ability to capture the setting. His early Dutch landscapes, which reveal his European training, are a bit tighter than his American works. They capture what he saw and how he wanted the imagery conveyed in an historical, established country. His American landscapes are more surprising, a discovery at every new location. There is seldom any doubt about the region he chose to paint. Each canvas captures the inspiration of its location. Frequently, we find an isolated tree within the landscape. It is a compositional device to abstract the space and set up the focal points of perspective. One wonders, however, if the loneliness van Veen experienced as an immigrant in America expressed itself in an off-center isolated object.

Doris Holmes Schneider recalls that van Veen occasionally felt rejected as a foreigner by his American peers. The French landscapes, on the other hand, have a subtle optimistic atmosphere in the countryside images. Many of these same regions were ones he recorded before his country's engagement in World War I.

During the last five years of the 1920s, van Veen's oeuvre was quite admirable. The quality was consistent and the quantity prolific. His accomplishments were somewhat remarkable considering his travels between France and the United States, as well as the pressure to meet exhibition demands. He exhibited in two to four galleries each year. Nineteen twenty-six was a stellar year for show business. Pieter van Veen had five major gallery showings, and he sent one painting by invitation to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The Milch Galleries exhibition that opened March 22, 1926 was widely covered by the press. The cathedrals were shown in the main gallery; Childe Hassam's watercolors were in the side gallery. Hassam wrote the catalogue introduction for van Veen. Newspapers covering the exhibition included The New York Times, The New York Sun, The New York Post, The New York Evening News, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Chicago Post Magazine, and the March issue of Art News magazine.

Because Monet was already recognized for a series of cathedral facades, van Veen's intention in creating his own canvases is often misunderstood. Like Monet, he recorded the effect that light played upon each architectural surface and angle, but he approached this segment of his painting as he would the light in a landscape. It was a means to record artistically the grand scale of the structure. He often included a figure or smaller adjacent building to emphasize the architectural feat of constructing these grand cathedrals. The juxtaposition of humanity and structure recurs also in van Veen's series of cathedral interiors. In the tradition of his seventeenth century forbearers, van Veen wished to highlight the elegance of stained glass and buttresses looming like protective wings above the citizenry. The Cathedrals of France, like the Great Pyramids of Egypt are considered among the world's most magnificent architectural achievements. Having seen the destruction wrought by World War I on cities and their buildings, he did not think the cathedrals would survive another world war. Remarkably, they did; however several of the town and village churches he painted did not. He anticipated that this body of his work would stand long after his lifetime. It would solidify his place in history. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his being honored with the Legion of Honor for the cathedral series in 1928-29, he wanted to sell them only as a complete series, thereby passing up financial opportunity from collectors who sought individual images.


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