Paintbox Leaves: Autumnal Inspiration from Cole to Wyeth

September 25, 2010 - January 16, 2011


The Paintbox Leaf would be worth the while to get a specimen leaf from each changing tree...outline it, and copy its color exactly, with paint, in a book.... Or if I could preserve the leaves themselves, unfaded, it would be better still.
Leaves, on canvas and in real life, have been admired for their colors, studied by natural scientists, lauded and lamented by poets, compared (in their life cycle) to the human condition, and collected by leaf peepers for albums and crafts. In the mid-nineteenth century, painters, writers, their patrons, and other nature lovers romanticized the connections between picturesque scenery and art. They admired outdoor views that reminded them of paintings and paintings that reminded them of being outdoors. Either reverie could conjure interrelated associations trees and their leaves with aesthetics, science, literature, spirituality, popular culture and tourism.
Just as Jasper Cropsey (often called America's Painter of Autumn) collected and displayed leaves to authenticate their vivid palettes, many artists show us the intimacy and physicality of shifting depicting of landscape vistas to relating with the leaf itself. We move closer and pay attention to the leaves; and, like the figures in these paintings, may be inspired to seek them along wooded lanes as colorful raw material for art and science projects, or home decoration.

Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966)
Jack Frost, 1936
Oil on board
The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California Art
The legend of Jack Frost painting the leaves persisted despite the fact that even in the 19th century many people pointed out that leaves change before the first freeze. Parrish's last magazine cover for Collier's, featuring himself as the elf, is a visual reference to the correlation between leaves in nature looking painted and being depicted in paintings. The notion that the colors of fall leaves come from a paintbox dates back, in print, to the early years of the Hudson River School, appearing in a poem by William Cullen Bryant the year before Thomas Cole's 1825 trip to the Catskills:
In these bright walks; the sweet southwest, at play,
Flies, rustling, when the painted leaves are strown
Along the winding way.
Lloyd Mifflin (1846-1921)
Untitled (Branch of Leaves and Berries), 1873
Oil on panel
Collection of William and Abigail Gerdts
Mifflin studied with Thomas Moran and toured Europe, returning in 1873 just before he painted this fall branch, probably a sprig of tupelo entwined with ivy. His care in rendering botanical details reveals his training and concern for accuracy. Mifflin did not need to support himself painting and in the 1890s turned his major efforts to poetry.
...through the haunted silence, sounds
The feathery falling of the withered leaf,
Faint as the patter of a phantom step,,,
Ellen Robbins (1828-1905)
Autumn Leaves, n.d.
Watercolor on paper
Collection of William and Abigail Gerdts
Robbins' attention to detail suggests more than passing botanical interest, emphasizes the individuality of each leaf and implies symbolic overtones that had largely disappeared from landscape painting after the Civil War. The insect holes she carefully delineated are as much about accurate rendering as about the imperfection of the physical world. Fall leaves could still convey poetic associations of the life cycles of nature and humanity.
Successful for a woman artist of her time, Robbins supported herself selling paintings of autumn leaves and flowers and teaching watercolor. She displayed in museums and World's Fairs; and Louis Prang reproduced her work as chromolithograph cards at a time when only paintings and prints could capture the colors of autumn.

Ellen Bowditch Thayer Fisher (1847-1911)
Fall Leaves and Acorns, 1885
Watercolor on board
Courtesy of Beverly Sacks Fine Art, Inc.
Ellen Fisher and her artist brother Abbott Thayer spent much of their childhood near Keene, New Hampshire, surrounded by beautiful leaves, trees, and mountains. By 1867, they had moved to Brooklyn, close to the New York City art scene. Fisher specialized in floral watercolors that showed enough skill to land her a contract with Louis Prang in the mid-1880s. By that time, his company was printing huge numbers of colorful greeting cards, a new product Prang almost single-handedly developed, in addition to the educational cards, decorative plaques and large prints he had been making since the 1860s. The polished feel of Fisher's decorative oak leaf composition, with a touch of green from a pine branch, marks it as the type of image she would have sold to Prang for a fancy greeting card.

Alan Gussow (1931-1997)
Beech Leaves -- Flat Brookville,1974
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Babcock Galleries
Gussow had an almost religious devotion to the act of looking. His subject matter, though abstract, was deeply connected to his Hudson Valley surroundings and environmental activism. In the 1960s he protested against the proposed Storm King Mountain power plant. Bringing monumentality to the genre of leaf study, he wrote,
Landscape paintings can serve an important function, directing us earthward, reminding us of seasons, of times of day.
Gussow's love of his material and preservation concerns ally him with Thomas Cole, who expressed fears about the disappearing wilderness in the same region 150 years before. Each in his own way, both artists were consummate observers of nature -- Gussow almost nose to leaf.

Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837-1908)
Early Autumn on Long Island, c. 1886-90
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Godel & Co., Inc., New York
Bricher is one of several artists in Paintbox Leaves who became famous for their autumn scenes. In Bricher's case, his name recognition was aided by a number of chromolithograph reproductions by Louis Prang, such as Early Autumn on Esopus Creek, N.Y. and Late Autumn in the White Mountains (both available in 1866). Titles like these reveal sensitivity to nuances of the autumn season that were also significant to his audience. In "early autumn," the grass is still green, and the woman has been collecting flowers. Her pensive gaze across the Long Island Sound seems a clear reflection on the close of summer.

John F. Folinsbee (1892-1972)
In the Leaves (Beth and Joan), c. 1922-23
Oil on board
Collection of John F. Folinsbee Art Trust
Folinsbee's Impressionist study of his daughters raking and playing in a pile of leaves is a perfect example of the intimacy of shifting from the depiction of landscape vistas to a relationship with the leaf itself. Before the "lawn" re-emerged as an ideal in the late 19th century, people raked leaves because they wanted to use them, not tidy the yard. Increasingly, as suburban leaves peak and fall, grass cultivating homeowners want them to disappear. Folinsbee's daughters are helping with the chore and having fun at the same time. In many parts of the United States, this is a familiar scene of childhood. The artist, who studied with the Art Students League at Woodstock, was one of Pennsylvania's New Hope Impressionists.
Brad Stroman (b. 1949)
Beauty Contestant, 2005
Acrylic on panel
Collection of Kathy and Jim Taylor
Courtesy of Lynden Gallery, Elizabeth, Pennsylvania
Like Ellen Robbins in the 19th century, Stroman has made autumn leaves a primary subject, celebrating the fragile beauty of their imperfections, isolating and framing them in a dynamic balance with deliberately artificial compositions. His paintings are shrines-an encouragement to meditate on our commonality as living things. His art is influenced by Japanese aesthetic and the philosophy of wabi-sabi, the philosophical acceptance of universal transience; and he sees the life cycle as a positive force despite our ephemeral nature, analogous to leaves.

Andrew Stevovich (b. 1948)
Autumn Leaves , 1987
Oil on linen
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. David Friedman
Stevovich is fascinated by early Renaissance art, and two of its stylistic qualities he finds so compelling, luminous pigments and abstracted linearity, also make the leaf form an ideal subject for this artist. In Autumn Leaves, the female figure pauses in the act of comparing her most recently collected leaf specimens (apparently oak) with an earlier example she pressed in an album or journal. That leaf is green but now all she finds are autumnal versions, a clear reference to the passage of time. In the album and in the past, she and the leaf were young. Recognition of this significance contributes to the tension of the man's averted gaze.

William Trost Richards (1833-1905)
Autumn Scene , 1876
Oil on canvas
Hope Davis Fine Art
Richards is best remembered for coastal watercolors painted with a Pre-Raphaelite precision for detail but during the 1870s he produced a series of works, many of the White Mountains, that showed his Hudson River School roots. Here, the tiny figures holding bouquets of leaves and strolling under tall, half-bare trees are integral to the subject. Autumn Scene is one of two paintings by Richards showing a woman and a child collecting fall leaves. He may intend their contrasting ages to be an autumnal reference to time passing.
Brad Stroman (b. 1949)
October, 2009
Acrylic on panel
Courtesy of Brad Stroman, Lynden Gallery, Elizabethtown, PA
Stroman sees the sycamore leaf portrayed here as "still very powerful despite its Autumn folds and creases.... a metaphor for Man's search for understanding of our own experience..." Developing an artistic style in harmony with this philosophy that all things are "incomplete, impermanent, and imperfect," he creates compositions in which lush painted surfaces become artificial stages for arrangements of natural objects isolated from their environments.
Clive Smith (b. 1967)
natural and artificial markings #8, 2008
Watercolor and graphite on paper
Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York
Smith painted live models in his New York City studio before buying a house in Dutchess County, where, he says, "spending time living, gardening and walking in the spectacular nature of the Hudson Valley started to make me question and work with the infinite colors and shapes of nature, especially in the fall." In this piece, the intense colors of the setting heighten the contrast between watercolor and graphite, orange and gold leaves and monochrome model. Forewarned by the artist, we see in the title's reference to markings and the woman's fur hat another rite of autumn-hunting season. Her "markers" include the hat and a jacket with its own leaf pattern, a static, pale reflection of the "real" ones. Initially seduced by the beauty of the image, we start to wonder what her role is, what Smith is saying about human interaction with nature -- a nature that he has rendered artificial.

Debra Bermingham (b. 1953)
October, 1997
Oil on panel
Oddo-Parks Collection, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NY
Bermingham's painting is a perfect example of how Luminism has persisted from late Hudson River School to contemporary American art and why it is perfectly suited to the reverie associated with autumn. Upstairs, John Kensett (Woodland Waterfall, c. 1885) and Jervis McEntee (An Adirondack Lake, c. 1860) straddle the concept of "bleak autumn," with their subdued skies contrasted with a few brilliant splashes of orange paint to represent foliage. In this tree portrait Bermingham reverses the traditional late autumn mood: peak foliage has clearly passed, but the painting is not fully somber. She highlights the remaining yellow leaves clinging to the branches with a brilliant blue sky, which speaks to Indian Summer. The crisp, clear look of the painting conjures the most beautiful of summer days.
Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870)
Autumn Landscape, 1859
Oil on canvas mounted on panel
Collection of Erik Davies
Mignot, a South Carolinian who painted Dutch-influenced snowscapes, found it difficult to feel at home in the New York art world on the eve of the Civil War. He began a series of more typical autumn subjects, some set in upstate New York. In this painting, the stilt roots, curving trunk, and dainty branches of his yellow birch, certainly not the most glamorous fall tree to paint, are so individualized that we sense the interest and affection in his observation.

William Hart (1823-1894)
Autumn in the Catskills, c. 1865
Oil on canvas
Private Collection
Known for peaceful scenes in which mountains and forests were tamed by grazing cows, Hart also painted loving portraits of autumn trees, sometimes so close the leaves look painted one by one, as in this Catskill view. The fall landscape in the Hudson River Valley and adjacent Catskill Mountains was famous enough to attract international travelers. In 1881 a tour guide for British travelers advised, "In the autumn when its well timbered banks are clothed with those rich and glorious tintsthen is the time to see the Hudson."
William Hart (1823-1894)
Autumn Scenery, 1872
Oil on panel
Private Collection
Like many Hudson River School painters, Hart kept a studio in New York City and took the train to the Catskills, Lake George, or the White Mountains in summer and early fall. The popular appreciation of autumn leaves suggests that artists' preference for scenes like this was practical as well as personal. Hart's attention to light, reflections and the cool tones in the sky make the orange and red of his trees seem even brighter.
Lois Dodd (b. 1927)
Red Woods, 1977
Oil on masonite
Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
Like William Hart 100 years before, contemporary artist Lois Dodd drenches her paintings in light. Both artists incorporate specific natural observations-leaning tree trunks, bright orange and gold foliage. Dodd also takes obvious relish in her flattened and abstracted compositions, which, in their asymmetry and compressed point of view, reflect the longstanding influence of Japanese design and aesthetics on the development of modern taste.
Dodd created these two paintings nearly a decade apart. She has said, "There is something about knowing a place. Over time you keep changing, you see things differently. And the various places I love to paint change as well."
Lois Dodd (b. 1927)
Japanese Red Maple in October, 1986
Oil on masonite
Courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
Dodd says she is constantly on the lookout for subjects that appeal to her. This maple branch is part of a series of window paintings. Here the mullions form a grid, a foil for the bright exuberance of the branches outside. Experiencing nature through windows is an apt metaphor for modern culture, but in Dodd's case, the windows are part of a rural landscape she has gazed upon and painted for decades. The specificity of Dodd's title makes it clear the subject interests her and recalls a John Burroughs' quote, well-known in the early 20th-century:
A Maple before your window in October, when the sun shines upon it will make up for a good deal of the light it has excluded; it fills the room with a soft golden glow.
Janet Fish (b. 1938)
Autumn Dusk, 1990
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York Art
Fish has frequently painted in Vermont, surrounded by that state's mountains and valleys. Here, she arranges some pears and nuts in the shadow of a huge spray of maple leaves on a blanket or tablecloth, with distant hills glimpsed behind. It may be part of a picnic, or more likely just an artistic arrangement in her studio window -- either way, she focuses on lush depiction of the surfaces and colors before her. The mood is content and the composition luxurious with visual delights. Though the leaves are starting to dry out and curl -- a situation deplored by Victorian leaf collectors but captured in loving detail by Fish-the artist is not making metaphorical statements about the season with a motif that could very easily serve as a memento mori, a reminder of death.
John B. Duffey (1828/9-1876)
October, c. 1861
Oil on canvas
Collection of William and Abigail Gerdts
Still life paintings of autumn leaves feature specimens that have fallen or been plucked from the tree, as opposed to landscapes of trees in fine foliage. This distinction suggests the passage of time -- early versus late fall -- which makes the still lifes more somber. Combining both genres, Duffey set his painting outdoors, as if he just discovered the leaves and flowers lying on the ground. He depicts at least two kinds of leaves, including maple, intertwined with a stem of bottle gentian, an early fall flower. Despite the fact that the botanical subjects lie fading on the ground, the gentian raises its head beyond the horizon and is silhouetted against the sky. "To a Fringed Gentian" was one of William Cullen Bryant 's most famous poems, so it is tempting to think Duffey depicted this related flower, not merely because it blooms in October, but for its association with the great American poet of nature.
Mark Innerst (b. 1957)
Bird Sanctuary, 2010
Acrylic on panel
Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York
Innerst's swirling branches, a riot of thick autumnal color, suggest the height of the season, before leaves have fallen, when trees remain a haven for birds. His golden tones evoke the Luminist painters but the leaves' whirling patterns of color and shadow suggest a kind of Thomas Cole-like romanticism. In marked contrast to the low horizons of his early landscapes, this perspective is not entirely clear -- perhaps a cropped view of trees obscuring the sky or a look upward through the dense thicket of leaves.
Robert Reid (1829-1901)
The Last Leaves of the Season, c. 1915
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York
In the long history of allegorical autumn paintings, figures often set up the contrast between youth and old age. Reid shows a woman actively collecting leaves from branches, rather than ones already fallen, heightening the mood of inevitability, of time passing too quickly. But the fall light that dapples her white dress lightens this mood, even as it lightens the Impressionist palette with its rays. Riotous brushstrokes completely surround her, so much so that she actually seems to be floating in a frame of the leaves she is gathering -- one hand outstretched, the other arm holding her bounty. Like picking flowers, collecting leaves was a way to interact with nature's painted beauty, to bring the outdoors inside. Women's magazines like Godey's Ladies' Book and Arthur's Home Magazine seasonally reminded women it was time to gather leaves.

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