A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings in the Boston School Tradition

by Christopher Volpe



The 'Sentiment of the Intangible'

As landscapists the Boston School painters were quite diverse. John Joseph Enneking (1841-1916) didn't study in Paris, but he fell under Hunt's early French-inspired plein-air spell. Enneking's fresh and frankly Impressionistic The Neponset (1877) contrasts greatly with Benson's somber Tonalist meditation, Marblehead, Aug. 24, '82. Boston landscapist Charles H. Turner (1848-1908) studied at the Museum School before turning to canvases in the Hudson River style. The tree stump in his landscape's foreground recalls Thomas Cole's (1801-1848) symbolic allusions to civilization's encroachment upon the natural landscape.

Tarbell student R.H. Ives Gammell thought that his fellow student Aldro Hibbard (1886-1972), one of the last Boston School painters to achieve national fame, was probably the finest landscapist of the School's second generation. Hibbard graduated in 1913 as a member of the last class in advanced painting conducted under Tarbell's supervision. [14]

Contemporary Boston painter Mary Minifie's gracefully executed Chinese Cloth is very much in the vein of the classic Boston School still life. Similarly, Dennis Perrin's lush Roses with Nautilus Teapot palpably references the School's floral still life and interior modes. Similarly, artist Dana Levin's Portrait of a Young Man immediately recalls the portraiture of Boston's favorite "modern old master," John Singer Sargent. Sargent is usually considered separately from the Boston School, members of which he certainly influenced, if only through the teaching of his friend Dennis Bunker. Levin, whose studies with Daniel Graves (b. 1949) link her to Benson, Tarbell, Gammell, Paxton, and Gerome, opened her own atelier in 1995, The New School of Classical Art, to carry on their teachings. In Levin's portrait, the ambiguity of the figure's expression as the young man gazes over a shoulder makes for a remarkable psychological study in gray and black that recalls Sargent's palette as well as his depth. Also in the psychological vein, only more subtly so, is Paxton's portrait of his father, James Paxton, in which Paxton achieves a quiet yet potent stasis between the congenial and the austere hauntingly a propos of a son's perception of his father.

What Homer Saint-Gaudens wrote of Tarbell in 1906 is still true in varying degrees of the twenty-first century's inheritors of the legacy of Tarbell and the other painters connected with the Boston School. The artist, wrote Saint-Gaudens, "creates in his paintings a nucleus of objects and thoughts so fused that through the aspect of the visible the spectator comes to feel the sentiment of the intangible." By means of "warm, modified lights," "semi-opaque shadows," and "reflected color," the painter attempts to fuse the seen with the felt and to elevate the every-day to the poetic.[15]

Gammell lamented later in life the "singular chain of circumstances" in Boston art circles from about 1930 on that he felt "brought the centuries old, gloriously fecund teaching tradition of western painting to a whimpering close at Boston" in the mid-twentieth century. The many artists of our own time working in the Boston School tradition argue against such pessimism. For these artists, painting is still an exacting discipline, demanding the highest standards of observation, craftsmanship, drawing and composition, and beauty is still an abiding quality of the artistic vocabulary.

The lineage of the Boston School and the French masters who taught them was never broken but endures, remarkably against the odds, at once a legacy and challenge to the generation of Boston painters working today.

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