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The Road Less Traveled: Thomas Nason's Rural New England

January 17 - April 12, 2009


The Road Less Traveled: Thomas Nason's Rural New England, on view at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut from January 17 through April 12, 2009, examines the visual poetry of printmaker Thomas W. Nason (1889-1971). The exhibition draws parallels between the carefully carved, deliberate lines of Nason's wood engravings and the thoughtfully chosen, measured language of poet laureate Robert Frost, with whom he collaborated.  Several of Frost's and Nason's rare chapbooks and other limited editions are also on view along with a choice selection of items from Nason's studio, such as the artist's tools, blocks, and personal library, to help to illuminate the technique and career of one of New England's most revered printmakers. (right: photo of Thomas W. Nason (1889-1971). Image courtesy of Florence Griswold Museum)

Nason's romanticized versions of New England farms and his views of the region's undisturbed countryside earned him the name "poet engraver of New England." Nason's illustrations proved appropriate for several American poets.  Publishers commissioned him for comprehensive volumes on William Cullen Bryant and Henry David Thoreau.  However, "Nason's engravings were never more closely aligned with poetry than when he illustrated the verse of Robert Frost," states Amanda Burdan, the Museum's first Catherine Fehrer Curatorial Fellow and curator of the exhibition. The title of the exhibition, The Road Less Traveled, is a nod to Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken." "Frost's poems, like Nason's prints, pay tribute to rural life in colloquial terms," says Burdan. Frost's status as the quintessential rural New Englander, writing in simple, direct, and yet forceful terms about American life makes a ready comparison to Nason's life and work.   

Raised on a farm in Billerica, Massachusetts, by what he called "a practical lot of Yankees," Thomas Nason's first career was in business. It wasn't until 1921 that he began to teach himself the art of printmaking. Nason tutored himself in the workings of various presses and a variety of print techniques through books and observation. In 1931 Nason and his wife Margaret bought an abandoned farm in Lyme, Connecticut. There he continued to study and work at his craft until his death at 82 in 1971.

The Road Less Traveled also explores, for the first time, the modern qualities of Nason's works. Driven throughout his career by a devotion to craftsmanship, technical mastery and realism, the printmaker built a lasting reputation as an artist working in a timeless style.  But his tendency to produce sharp, precise, and stylized images also reflected the changing aesthetics of the modern era, an aspect of his work that has been overlooked until now. The prints featured in the exhibition emphasize the abstract elements evident in his smooth lines, simplified forms, and silhouetted compositions-traits that lend his works a surprisingly modern quality comparable to that of noted American Regionalists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.  

Several images, like The Leaning Silo, 1932 or Milkweed Pod, 1954 owe their impressive depth to the multi-color process called chiaroscuro wood engraving. Summer Storm, 1940, represents the most complicated print in Nason's oeuvre and is often considered his greatest achievement.  "Chiaroscuros, the way I made them," Nason wrote, "were the most difficult of anything I've done."  Made up of three separate blocks, and inked with four different colors, Nason calculated that he pulled the lever of his press at least 700 times in the creation of an edition of 90 prints. He created only 25 different chiaroscuro engravings over the course of his career. In all of his work, craftsmanship mattered to Nason above all else as he echoed in a 1966 essay: "It is better to be exquisite than to be ample." 

Along with prints from the Florence Griswold Museum's own collection, which is the largest body of Nason prints and archival material, the exhibition features loans from a variety of institutions and private collections. (left: Thomas Nason, Burnt Cove, 1947, wood engraving, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Mrs. Thomas W. Nason)


Special Programming

Join Amanda C. Burdan, curator of The Road Less Traveled: Thomas Nason's Rural New England, for a gallery discussion entitled "Nothing Gold Can Stay: Conjuring the Past in Thomas Nason's Prints of New England" on Sunday, January 18, at 2 PM.  Burdan discusses her selections and explores the "modern" elements in prints seemingly filled with nostalgia for an idealized rural New England. The event is free with Museum admission. For additional information and a list of special programming, contact the Museum at 860/434-5542 or visit the Museum's web site at http://www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org


Wall panels from the exhibition


Introductory wall panel
Selection of books from Thomas Nason's studio gallery wall panel

The Poet Engraver of New England

Even as the heyday of Florence Griswold's boarding house for artists was passing, artists continued to come to Lyme. Thomas Nason and his wife Margaret fell in love with an abandoned Lyme homestead on top of Shippee Hill along Joshuatown Road. They purchased the property in 1931 and slowly rebuilt the house as their Depression-era finances allowed. It had only been a few years since Nason ventured into the art world with no formal training, after a variety of jobs in the business world and serving in World War I. He carved his first woodblock in 1921, while living in Boston, and his successive works met with increasing critical favor. Over the course of his career every print club in the United States commissioned a work from Nason.
In Lyme, and the surrounding New England countryside, Nason found his quintessential subject matter and mood: colonial homes and vernacular architecture, decrepit farms nestled into rolling landscapes, and other symbols of austere rural life. Though his contemporaries, like Luigi Lucioni, imaged nearly identical subjects, Nason took great pride in his independent style. Perhaps this explains why his work has rarely been placed in the broader context of American art. At many points in his career he chose the road less traveled, going against advice, for example, to make his work larger. Craftsmanship mattered to him above all else as he echoed in a 1965 essay: "It is better to be exquisite than to be ample."


A poetic interpretation of Thomas Nason's prints must begin with an appreciation of his sweeping pastoral landscapes. These works are most readily related to painting, whether the 17th century cloudscapes of Ruysdael, the bucolic 18th century landscapes of Claude or the Barbizon school of the 19th century. In these turbulent skies, rolling hills, and picturesque forests, Nason's line work suggests a broad range of tonal qualities. Several of these images, like Haying in Vermont or Farmyard Evening, owe their dramatic depth to Nason's multi-color process called chiaroscuro wood engraving. The definitive air of melancholy is achieved not with layers of haze and gloom, but through Nason's clear vision and sharp rendering.
It is not surprising that Nason has often been called "a pastoral poet on wood." Examining these somber celebrations of rural life is a preparation for seeing modern elements in Nason's other prints. These are the romanticized versions of real New England farms and the undisturbed, yet never wild, views of the region's countryside. Nason's pastorals reference the landscape styles of the past, equating American scenes with those of the Old World. After the closing of the American frontier, the end of the triumphant phase of American landscape painting, the colonial revival refocused American identity in New England. The onset of the Great Depression and the agricultural setbacks accompanying it put American identity to the test. Although Nason's technique and style appears traditional, his subject matter was open to contemporary reinterpretation.

Frost and Nason

Never were Nason's engravings more closely aligned with poetry than when he illustrated the verse of Robert Frost. Frost's status as the quintessential rural New Englander, writing in simple, direct, and yet forceful terms about American life makes a ready comparison to Nason's life and work. His poems, like Nason's prints, pay tribute to rural life in colloquial terms. While Nason was known as the "poet engraver of New England," Frost was revered as "the poet farmer of New England." The carefully carved, deliberate lines in Nason's wood engravings are akin to Frost's carefully chosen, measured language. Frost chose Nason to illustrate several of his best-known poems, including "The Road Not Taken," the poem from which this exhibition draws its title. Nason's and Frost's work parallels each other in their straightforwardness of presentation but also in their traces of underlying despair.
Nason's illustrations proved equally appropriate for other American poets as well. Publishers commissioned him for comprehensive volumes on William Cullen Bryant and Henry David Thoreau. By the end of their lives Frost's and Nason's reputations were forever intertwined. Nason's iconic image of an abandoned fence post appeared at the opening of several volumes of Frost poetry as well as being prominently featured in the memorial booklets published on the occasion of each man's death.

The Illustrated Poem

Like the nineteenth century wood engravers before him, Nason accepted commissions for a variety of commercial projects. He frequently worked for the Spiral Press, one of the most respected artistic publishers of the twentieth century, run by Joseph Blumenthal from 1926 through 1971. The press was known for unparalleled attention to the details of design and printing. In addition to publishing for Robert Frost, the Spiral Press also worked with W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Franklin Roosevelt and created special volumes for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Pierpont Morgan Library, among others. Blumenthal recommended Nason to Frost when the poet and his publishers were looking for a new illustrator for Frost's poetry. The former illustrator, J.J. Lankes, was an early influence on Nason.
Blumenthal's influence and exacting standards are evident in the correspondence with Nason on the smallest of details for Frost's Christmas greeting poems. Published as unassuming chapbooks, each booklet contains a poem by Frost, graphics by Nason, and a holiday greeting. Nason's technique impressed Blumenthal and the craftsmen who worked for him. In trying to reproduce Nason's chiaroscuro print of a milkweed pod for the cover of a Frost chapbook, Blumenthal wrote: "It has met with universal enthusiasm from Frost to all who received the booklet. . . . The cover confounded the experts. No one has guessed the procedure."


In addition to the more complete compositions seen in this exhibition, Nason was also frequently commissioned to do incidental imagery for publication. In most instances these small decorative elements depict a closely observed bit of nature, a butterfly, acorn, of wildflower. His steady, patient work ethic was given to careful observation and thorough study of the natural world. Trees were one of Nason's favorite subjects for these meditations on nature. They figure prominently in many of his prints, like On the Island, where a monumental bare tree ominously looms over a colonial home. In other works, such as Windswept, the tree is the central motif that communicates the emotion of the print.
It is unusual to find unfinished projects in Nason's body of work, whether drawings, paintings, or prints. His methodical habits, unsurprisingly, drove him to complete most tasks he undertook. However, several of Nason's tree studies appear unfinished or fragmented. In the copper engraving Dead Tree, as well as its study, Nason uncharacteristically lets a decimated ruin of a tree float in the center of the page with almost no clues as to the tree's surroundings. Often these incomplete trees take on an abstract design quality as studies of line or form.

On the History and Technique of Wood Engraving

Wood engraving is a form of relief printing not unlike the older technique of woodcut. The primary difference is in the block of wood employed. In woodcut, the block is essentially a plank, with wood grain running parallel to the printing surface. Wood engravers, however, carve into the surface of blocks cut perpendicular to the grain, a cross-section of the tree. Without the interference of the wood's grain, engravers can easily use a burin to cut in any direction. Hardwoods such as boxwood and maple are excellent for wood engraving. The artist cuts away from the block, often with very fine incisions, and the remaining wood is rolled with a thin layer of ink. In his treatise on wood engraving, Nason describes how his tool cuts into the block and "plows out a clean furrow of wood."
Wood engraving emerged in the late 18th century, often attributed to Thomas Bewick, as a way of combining the detail seen in copper plate engraving with the durability of a wood block. The process became the preferred means of reproducing images for publication, as seen in the work of Alexander Anderson. Nason marveled at Timothy Cole's "astonishing minuteness." The mid-19th century highpoint of the medium came with magazines like Harper's Weekly, which employed artists like Winslow Homer to visually communicate the news. With the onset of photographic processes the demand for wood engravings subsided until an artistic revival in the 1920s.

Technical Mastery

Thomas Nason taught himself the art of printmaking through books, observation, and the laborious process of trial and error. He collected prints and voraciously read histories of printmaking and practical manuals leading to an expertise in the field. The books on display in this gallery, from Nason's own library, show the wear of frequent reading and reference. He was exacting in his standards, known to have pulled hundreds of prints from a block before he was satisfied. Many of his contemporaries, including John Taylor Arms, Clare Leighton, and Asa Cheffetz, sought his technical advice while the virtuosity of his process perplexed others. Nason wrote his own treatise on wood engraving, published posthumously, as a way of extending his knowledge of wood engraving to future generations.
Although well known for his wood engravings, Nason experimented in a variety of techniques. His woodcuts, such at The Cove, are typical of the expressionist feeling in twentieth century printmaking. In the early 1930s, Nason took up engraving on copper plates. Despite the similar sounding name and tools, engraving on wood and copper is quite different. Once a copper plate is engraved and inked, it is wiped clean so that only the incised lines hold ink and transfer it to the page. Unlike the lines cut on a wood block, which appear as the negative space in the print, the copper engraving produces a positive image. Mastering this technique not only broadened Nason's skill but also his market, allowing him to join engraving societies and enter their competitions.

Chiaroscuro Engravings

Nason began to experiment with the technique of chiaroscuro wood engraving in 1927. In this technique the artist cuts two or three nearly identical blocks, each inked with a different color and printed successively on the paper. Usually the colors selected are dark tones of green, brown, and gray that enrich the traditional black ink rather than act as fields of color in the design. The varied states of The Gambrel-Roofed Barn demonstrate the technical process while illustrating the subtle improvement made by the addition of colored blocks. This example is particularly unique in the incorporation of both wood blocks and a copper plate to create the final image.
Summer Storm, a chiaroscuro wood engraving, represents the most complicated print in Nason's oeuvre and is often considered his greatest achievement. "Chiaroscuros, the way I made them," Nason wrote, "were the most difficult of anything I've done." Made up of three separate blocks, and inked with four different colors, Nason calculated that he pulled the lever of his press at least 700 times in the creation of an edition of 90 prints. At the hand of a perfectionist craftsman like Nason, the painstaking nature of chiaroscuro wood engraving was often frustrating. He created only 25 chiaroscuro engravings over the course of his career.

Modern Elements

Nason's prints demonstrate some of the most basic tenets of Modernism: strong geometric renderings and expressive abstraction from reality. Despite a lack of formal training, Nason's habit of self-study kept him attuned to developments in art. He praised the French modernist Paul Gauguin, including him in his history of wood engraving, calling Gauguin's work "highly original and boldly conceived."
John Taylor Arms, a colleague of Nason's, emphasizes the geometric components of the Brooklyn Bridge as it fragments the image in Gates of the City and turns Wasps into a work of graphic design. Arms and Nason shared a mutual respect for one another, evident in Arms' insistence that Nason's small prints made a big impact, writing, " the monumental quality of Nason's work depends on largeness of conception [and] power to design." The deliberate arrangement of precision-drafted architecture is especially evident in On the Maine Coast, where the patterned surfaces of the buildings meet at sharply outlined edges. The black and white striations in the sky are a clear design choice and not a weakness of Nason's technique.
In A New England Scene, Nason expressionistically renders the structure of a colonial home as a stripped down, quavering block. The heavy architectural masses appear surreally eroded like the surrounding hills. The limbs of the dead tree in Back Country flow in a streamlined manner also present in November Twilight where branches appear snake-like as they stretch across the composition.

Realism into Regionalism

In the face of increasingly abstract works of art produced in Europe early in the twentieth century, American taste ran resolutely toward realism. The leading realists of Nason's time were the American Regionalists, all of whom were printmakers as well as painters. Although devoted to depicting American life, and particularly fond of rural scenes, the most well known Regionalists represented the culture and history of the Midwest. Nason and a small group of New England Regionalists exactly parallel the Depression-era agrarian themes favored by the canonical Regionalists John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Never modern in subject matter, the Regionalists can be observed drifting from strict realism toward a stylization of forms and figures. The exaggerated slope of a barn or the hyperbolic undulations of the soil imbue Regionalist work with an expressive quality often found in Modernism. They go beyond pure visual description, amplifying the mood of their scenes without straying too far from recognizable subjects. In the same vein, the oblique slant Nason gives to the architecture in Leaning Silo heightens the desolation of the scene and the sense that the building, like the farmland it looms over, has been pushed to its breaking point.


(above: Thomas Nason, Maine Islands, 1954, copper engraving, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Janet Eltinge)



(above: Thomas Nason, Farm Buildings, 1930, wood engraving, Florence Griswold Museum)


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